SPECIAL REPORT: The state of Gulf Coast gaming is good

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Dearest Mississippi Gulf Coast,
I know we’ve grown apart since I’ve moved from Pensacola, but you must know that the absence has made the heart grow fonder. Visiting you again last month left no doubt to that.
No matter how many hurricanes howl off your coast, no matter how much oil gushes in your gulf, nicer people will never be found, your tasty food will forever be hard to top and your gaming will always be grand.
  XOXO,
Scott

After Chris Cosenza and I returned from visiting every poker room from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, it was easy to remember why I had been so smitten with the Gulf Coast.

My first tournament cash came at the Grand Casino, a poker room that stands no more. (“Gosh, that was a great room,” we heard time and time again on our travels last month, as many of the room’s staff and players have moved on to other rooms.) I bought a mailbox with that money, and it’s a trophy of sorts that still stands in what today passes for my yard.

While that great Grand room is gone, seven worthy poker rooms — and everything else in the resilient region — still offer plenty to pine over. Please spend some time reading our Road Trip on Pages 40-44 and plan a trip there yourself soon. You’ll love it, too.

But this trip was about more than poker, as the annual Southern Gaming Summit brought movers and shakers together to assess the state of the gaming market in Mississippi and beyond.

To no one’s surprise, the lingering effects of the recession that erode a little more each day were still fresh in everyone’s minds.

“We’re seeing our deepest declines here in The South,” said R. Scott Barber, regional president of Mid-South operations for gaming giant Harrah’s Entertainment.

Pressure from expanded gaming in Alabama and Florida, coupled with increased competition within the Mississippi market, led Virginia McDowell, president of Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., to reason that the market has been transformed.

“This market has really become very similar to Atlantic City, in that it is pretty much a pure gaming play at this point,” McDowell said. Without additional unique amenities to woe out-of-towners, McDowell continued, all of the region’s properties are left to market to the same customer.

So what does this gloom and doom mean for poker? Well, in a direct sense, it means the region has one less room today than it did a month ago. Island View Resort in Gulfport closed its poker room on May 2, trading poker tables for tournament slot machines.

It’s a move all too common to poker players. When times are tough, casinos look for every opportunity to squeeze a dollar out of their properties. And that means it’s always tempting to cast away player-vs.-player gaming like poker so you can usher in games where players play against the house in a game stacked against them.

And in less certain terms, there’s no doubt that marketing budgets have shrunk, though an entire Southern Gaming Summit panel was unanimous in saying that properties should spend more, not less, to promote themselves in downtimes. That means fewer incentives to get poker players to come play cards rather than go to the movies.

Taken together, these concerns are a reminder of the struggles that casino poker room managers have day in and day out: How do you convince casino executives and marketers that poker, while not a huge direct money-maker, is the straw that stirs the drink for bringing in the more desirable slots and table-games players? No poker room in your casino? Or a poker room in your casino that no one knows about? Then chances are those slot-playing spouses and friends of poker players will be losing their money in the poker-friendly casino down the street, not in yours.

But hope does spring eternal, especially in this market. Barber reminded summit attendees that the state’s pro-active regulators mean that Mississippi is an “outstanding state to do business in.” And McDowell said, “the light at the end of the tunnel right now is actually a light, not an oncoming train.”

In the 2009 Mississippi State of the State Annual Report, the Mississippi Casino Operators Association acknowledged that many challenges remain in 2010, but that the state has proved its strength in the past and will do so again.

“Other recessions have occurred, and even the worst natural disaster in U.S. history did not hold the market down for long. As the nation climbs out of the recession, Mississippi’s gaming industry will come back strong.”

I’m still smitten, after all these years.

— Email Scott Long at scott@anteupmagazine.com.