East Coast Gaming Congress: Execs discuss pandemic lessons as Atlantic City casino workers protest indoor smoking

East Coast Gaming Congress: Execs discuss pandemic lessons as Atlantic City casino workers protest indoor smoking

Major gambling companies’ executives gathered to discuss how the industry adapted to Covid-19 and the lessons learned from the pandemic at the latest edition of the East Coast Gaming Congress, which took place September 21-23 at Hard Rock Atlantic City, New Jersey. The event was held against a backdrop of Atlantic City casino workers protesting outside of Hard Rock, demanding a bill banning indoor casino smoking to be passed in the state.

While Covid forced most US casinos to close for months, leading to payrolls, revenue and earnings to tumble, casino executives at a panel Thursday discussed how they learned useful lessons from those dark times, some even set to endure even after the pandemic is fully over. “We learned lessons that can’t be unlearned,” said Thomas Reeg, CEO of Caesars Entertainment.

“It forced us and gave us the ability to say to our guests that things that used to be viewed as an entitlement, maybe they don’t need them as much as they thought they did,” added Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, as reported by Associated Press. “Do you need a buffet? Should you have a buffet?” While Hard Rock Atlantic City still operates a buffet, some Hard Rock-branded casinos in other states no longer have them.

Hard Rock’s Jim Allen

According to David Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Companies, which operates casinos in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maryland, the pandemic offered his firm an opportunity “to tighten the ship.” The company has not gone back to buffets, and while being closed for months was “horrendous” for employees, Cordish says there were “a lot of lessons learned,” among them the need to introduce new health and safety measures at land-based casinos.

While incorporating safety measures such as hand sanitizers and barriers between player positions at table games implied an extra cost, Cordish said expenses paid off once the casinos were allowed to reopen in mid-2020. “People were fed up with being cooped up and came pouring back to the casinos, particularly when we did these things,” he noted, according to AP. “Since we reopened, business has been terrific.”

The pandemic also provided CEOs the opportunity to figure out what amenities were no longer needed. Eric Hausler, CEO of Greenwood Racing, owner of Pennsylvania’s Parx Casino, provided an example of a restaurant that was open every day for lunch and “never made any money,” which was closed for good once the gambling venue resumed operations.

However, the pandemic has also brought its fair share of negative consequences, as expected, among them smaller payrolls. This is credited both to workers who were let go during or shortly after the closures and have not been rehired, and continuing difficulty in attracting new workers across the gambling industry, execs pointed out at the congress.

While some companies utilized the pandemic to restructure their business model from top to bottom, with the goal of rebuilding margins and achieving a tighter structure, many top casino bosses shared a common concern that not all properties have returned to pre-pandemic levels. This is the case of the congress’ host destination: Atlantic City casinos collectively have yet to return to 2019 revenue, in particular for in-person gambling, the segment that took the biggest hit.

Casino smoking still a controversial issue

Although a fair share of pressing industry issues were covered at the congress, one was notably absent from the keynote lineup: indoor smoking at casinos. Workers at Atlantic City’s gaming venues have long pushed for the introduction of a ban on smoking in gambling halls, and while the issue was initially set to be discussed at the meeting, a panel on the matter was canceled mere days ahead of the reunion after Mark Giannantonio, head of the Casino Association of New Jersey, pulled out last week.

Irate that the session to discuss the proposed smoking ban was snuffed out, casino workers and patrons opposed to smoking in gaming halls held a protest outside the meeting Thursday. About 100 people rallied in the rain underneath a walkway outside Hard Rock AC, demanding the state Legislature act on a bill that has the support of more than half of state lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy, but which has been stalled without a hearing in a Senate or Assembly committee.

Thursday afternoon’s panel discussion on casino smoking was canceled amid the Atlantic City casinos’ trade association’s long-standing opposition to a ban. Giannantonio had previously stated the CANJ has been “very transparent” in its position that an immediate smoking ban would have “a significant adverse effect” on Atlantic City, seemingly the reason why the association decided to not participate in the panel session.

The move did not sit well with casino workers. “The CANJ is running and hiding right now,” said Thursday Peter Naccarelli, a dealer at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and a leader of a push by casino workers to ban smoking in their workplaces. “They have no logical arguments,” he added, according to Associated Press.

While Murphy, the state’s Democratic governor, has promised to sign the bill should it pass, he did not mention the proposal when he addressed Thursday’s conference. The only mention of the issue came from Greenwood Racing’s Eric Hausler, who during an afternoon session said the introduction of a smoke-free policy at Pennsylvania’s Parx casino has been successful. 

“So far, so good,” he said. Parx decided to remain smoke-free since reopening in 2020, after the initial wave of the pandemic. “If you look at our market share numbers, they’re holding up just fine,” the executive noted, as per AP. “We intend to stay that way. Our customers have gotten used to it.”