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Casino floors could change forever, thanks to social distancing

Updated October 15, 2020 - 8:34 am

A top executive of an Ohio casino that experienced one of the most profitable and successful reopenings from the coronavirus pandemic says he’s rethinking casino floor layouts in light of lessons learned from social distancing.

Justin Carter, vice president and general manager of Hollywood Casino Toledo, said Wednesday that the era of cramming as many slot machines as possible onto a casino floor may be over, one of the lessons learned from forced social distancing in light of the pandemic.

Carter was among three casino executives brought together in the American Gaming Association’s online Global Gaming Expo to discuss the successes their casinos have had after reopening from forced government closures.

G2E, one of Las Vegas’ most anticipated trade shows every October, went exclusively online this year because of pandemic restrictions imposed by most states, including Nevada. The association kicked off G2E 2020 with a free panel on casino resilience success stories and later Wednesday opened a two-week virtual platform experience that runs through Oct. 26. Several panels and speakers are planned for G2E Oct. 27-28.

Two tribal casino operators joined Carter on the panel.

“One thing the pandemic has taught me is that some of the conventional wisdom about how you design a slot floor, how many machines you put in close proximity,” isn’t as effective, he said.

“I really do believe that has been forever changed,” said Carter, whose Ohio property is operated by Penn National Gaming.

“I think you cannot have a floor that is comfortable enough. Whether it be tripods or triangle shapes (slot machine layouts), things that allow people to naturally distance themselves and be comfortable, that has forever changed our business. Even if you have to give up a few machines here to make the floor more comfortable, I think that is going to be the future that we slowly start to move into. It used to be cram them in. I don’t think that’s the future of our industry,” he said.

Carter also said he believes casino customers have developed an aversion to touching things, thanks to the virus, and that should speed the delivery of cashless casinos.

“We can’t move to a cashless environment quickly enough,” he said. “The thought of touching things has slowly started to become like the dodo.”

Kathy George, CEO of the tribal Firekeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, Michigan, said one of the big changes for her property was going smoke-free. It’s one of an estimated 125 casino properties nationwide that banned smoking as part of its health and safety protocols.

Park MGM in Las Vegas also is among properties that made that decision.

Laura Stensgar, CEO of the Coeur d’Alene tribal casino in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, said her company owes part of its success to Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts Ltd. Stensgar said in addition to reviewing health and safety policies in Idaho and Washington state, the company reviewed Wynn’s published health and safety plan before making its own plan.

Stensgar said Coeur d’Alene owed some of its success to being able to open in April after its initial shutdown in March. It suffered not having some of its traditional Canadian visitors but stepped up its marketing to local customers, gaining traction as one of the first casinos to reopen.

The three casino executives say they are continuing to suffer through policies that prohibit the gathering of large groups and the lack of live entertainment — a problem vexing Nevada casinos as well.

But Carter said that because Ohio movie theaters also have been closed, his casino is getting a larger number of patrons ages 21 to 30 seeking a new form of entertainment.

George said most convention groups and entertainment acts that had been scheduled through 2020 are rebooking their events and appearances in 2021.

The executives said they also expect that patrons will be required to wear masks well into 2021, even after a vaccine to protect against the virus is introduced.

They also expect gaming regulators to open up online gaming in the future to boost revenues lost by casino visitation slowdowns.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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