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Casinos emerge from the Covid-19 storm

Insight | Analysis

Nevada’s casinos are preparing to increase capacity to 80% from 1 May, and may soon be welcoming pre-pandemic numbers of patrons by the start of June. A year on from an unprecedented shut-down of the US brick-and-mortar industry, Cole Rush examines how the Las Vegas experience has evolved. 

A lot can change in a year. Especially when a global pandemic requires sweeping shifts in how we work, play, and live on a day-to-day basis. 

Last summer, iGB North America explored Las Vegas casino re-openings as regulations allowed properties to open with limited capacity. Let’s get back to work identified a few key trends that would reshape the gambling industry over the course of 2020 and into 2021. 

We’re so far removed now from the naive assumption that the pandemic would set us back a few weeks. At the time of our last deep dive into land-based safety measures, Las Vegas casinos were reopening after a three-month hiatus. 

There’s still heaps of work to do, but vaccination rollout gives many properties a glimmer of hope that land-based gaming can once again achieve some semblance of normality. But what does “normal” mean now, compared to one year ago? Stakeholders across the industry can’t ignore the evolution sparked by the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis. 

Now, casinos have to be on the ball more than they ever have to keep up with the changes spurred by a pandemic that’s lasted a year and counting. 

Health and safety measures: then and now

Thankfully, the increasing availability of vaccines makes casino reopenings safer and more viable than they have been over the past year. 

But properties seem to recognize that it’s not a “one shot fixes all” approach. Health and safety measures are still in place throughout land-based casinos in Las Vegas and across the US. 

One anonymous source, working with properties in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the US, identified some of the health and safety changes that emerged amidst the Covid-19 crisis. 

“Guest health screenings are being conducted on arrival. All guests are required to wear facial coverings.”

This, of course, isn’t any different than the policies we saw a year ago. There are plenty of other measures in place that have become standard not just in casinos, but in various retail destinations: hand sanitizer stations, regular cleanings, air filter replacements, and employee health screenings, PPE, and Covid-specific training. 

The source continues to list other measures that keep Vegas-goers safe during their stay: “Slots, table games, and restaurant/bar seating is configured and limited to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Room service was halted.”

These and other hospitality changes made for a helpful uptick in casino attendance early in the pandemic. Many of the practices are still standard as properties understand what it takes to keep customers safe while they enjoy their casino experience. 

With regard to health and safety measures, not much has changed since the early stages of reopening back in 2020. New measures have been introduced to keep up with changing CDC and local guidelines, of course. But the transformation really comes to light when you take a look at the larger industry and how players interact with gambling products. 

The game changes

As the impacts of Covid-19 ripple through the industry, operators and platform providers are adapting to ever-changing customer needs. Practices that were once standard now become addled by health risks. Take the casino cage, for example. 

Christopher Justice, President of Global Payments Gaming Solutions (GPGS), says: “After the initial lockdowns, our partners reopened in an environment that challenges the traditional method of gaming. 

“To ensure the safety of patrons, many of our partners implemented processes to maintain social distancing and foster safe gaming environments. However, areas such as the cage remained high touch.”

This has forced operators to shift from chips and notes to cash-free options, in order to limit visits to the cage and interactions with staff. 

“In turn, this enables operators to better maintain social distancing requirements and adhere to capacity restrictions.”

The move to contact-free payment solutions is well underway in society as a whole. Cashless options are increasingly available at grocery stores or other retailers already. 

Cashless has long been an innovation that requires intense focus and planning in the gambling arena, thanks to strict laws and regulations. GPGS is bringing it to casinos to keep on-property transactions safe. 

Cashless payments have always been a growth opportunity for gambling operators and platform providers. Covid-19 just gave the vertical’s ongoing expansion a boost. 

And that stems from new player expectations, says Justice: “The global pandemic only fueled the need for safer, mobile-driven options to meet the expectations of patrons as they returned to the casino floor. 

“Patrons have grown accustomed to cashless, contactless methods and we fully expect this new way of gaming to grow across all age segments young and old,” he explains. “Moving forward, land-based operators should strive to provide contactless and cashless solutions to meet the evolving needs of patrons.”

This has been further accelerated by the growing availability of online gambling options across multiple states.

Player tastes, needs, and expectations have fundamentally changed. But does that change come from the existing patrons, or are new demographics enjoying the entertainment options land-based casinos provide? Perhaps a bit of both. 

New game, new players

“The Covid-19 pandemic illustrated just how quickly the industry and its stakeholders must be able to adapt to evolving gaming environments to meet consumer demands,” says Justice. 

Because those gaming environments have changed, so too have the players. “[Our] focus has been geared to our VIP guests and ensuring their [expectations] have been met or exceeded,” our anonymous source says. 

“Guest demographics, depending on the property, have shifted. With lockdowns limiting attendance at bars and night clubs, casinos were [and are] one of the only entertainment venues still open.”

This seems to hint that a younger demographic is testing the proverbial casino waters.

The source continues: “The demographic shift seemed a little odd. But understandable given the traditional nature of the other crowd who was likely to have health conditions or be predisposed to health issues.”

In other words, the older crowd that casinos typically draw were reticent to gamble in person due to health risks. Meanwhile, younger patrons flocked to properties because large casinos have been able to offer entertainment with limited capacity. 

And with a change in player populations comes another crucial shift: evolving player tastes. 

It’d be presumptuous to assume to know how every player demographic feels about a specific casino vertical. But general trends point to a conclusion that some may deem obvious: iGaming is the future. 

Justice believes igaming is “just one” of the ways the gambling experience is being extended online. To create that link to the on-property experience, the likes of MGM Resorts, via its BetMGM joint venture with Entain, has looked to link its M Life Rewards program to its igaming options.

This, in Justice’s eyes “further enhances” that omnichannel experience. 

He continues: “We are encouraged by how operators are understating the need to have hybrid approaches to gaming in a post-pandemic world.”

The digital elephant in the room

Surprise: iGaming is a keystone to any land-based casino’s strategy. The past year created a perfect storm for online gaming growth, with casinos shut down for months on end and states legalizing online gambling faster than ever. 

Full-fledged online solutions are the talk of the town, but hybrid solutions, such as those from GPGS, represent an essential shift that could bring casinos into a new era.

As cashless payments and contactless transactions proliferate, so too will on-site mobile apps and casino games. Retail and online sports betting will undoubtedly make a splash, too. 

iGaming enjoyed a period of unprecedented growth in 2020, and that trend seems set to continue. But as we approach a still undefined point in time when social distancing is a thing of the past, land-based gaming appears staged for gargantuan change. 

Christopher Justice says: “Similar to cashless gaming on the casino floor, the pandemic increased the demand for online and mobile gaming methods. 

“Operators can leverage this demand to their advantage by implementing igaming solutions that utilize a multi-channel approach to connect online and brick-and-mortar experiences,” he explains. “The blending of digital and physical elements enhances the gaming experience for patrons, making it a viable area for operators to explore in states where it is legal.”

As casinos emerge from a tumultuous period replete with struggle, the industry can take the lessons learned in 2020 and 2021 to spark a new age of growth and evolution.