Wednesday, June 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Small casinos keep it simple, friendly (8-22-2008)
- Small casinos team up to play like the big boys, stay in loop (4-13-2007)
- Minicasinos are just right size for some (2-2-2006)
- New locals casino offers Vegas theme (11-1-1999)
Beyond the Sun
Club Fortune doesn’t have a movie theater, a nightclub or even a hotel.
But it does have loyal customers such as Jeanine Harris, who is among a number of locals who in the downturn have converted to the locals joint from bigger, suburban casinos.
“The food’s good and I like the slots and video poker,” Harris, 48, said. “It’s more laid-back here and everybody knows you.”
While many suburban casinos struggle to keep their regulars coming back as they cut back on gambling promotions and staff, Club Fortune, a nondescript casino near Boulder Highway, is moving in the opposite direction and winning new customers.
At this small casino, hidden behind a strip mall and a housing development, customers can pick up a bottle of booze or a box of cigarettes from nearby displays or reach into a freezer for an ice cream treat in a recently opened store for gamblers.
Like a high-end convenience store, the player rewards center features items from a brochure that reads like an American Express catalogue before the recession, with XBoxes, Armani watches, Cuisinart wine chillers, TaylorMade golf clubs and Sony computers the size of clutch purses.
Over the past few months, the 25,000-square-foot property at 725 S. Racetrack Road in Henderson removed administrative space to create a poker room with flat-screen televisions, an entertainment lounge for bands and live music-backed karaoke, and a sleek, rectangular bar area with seating for 100 people and offering creative concoctions such as jalapeno-infused martinis and vodka drinks that taste like apple pie.
Club Fortune Casino
But that may all be window dressing. Customers say their wants and needs are more basic than plush bar seating or the prospect of winning a Margaritaville frozen drink mixer. Customers say they are defecting from bigger casino chains because they like being greeted by name by casino management and thanked for their business. They also like being asked for their recommendations to improve the casino.
The ice cream freezer showed up after a customer suggested it, along with mini-baccarat and a quieter, more low-key selection of piped-in music during the day.
The casino also will add live keno — a dying game in some casinos — at the request of some regulars and has promised to keep its $1.49 breakfast special — a price that has survived more than four years of inflation.
Comment boxes are placed throughout the property and casino managers say they respond to all comments.
Big casinos accept customer feedback, but Club Fortune is more aggressive in asking customers what promotions they would like and how they could be improved. Defectors from other casinos get a few spins at the slots on the casino’s dime.
“You just need to listen to your customers and give them what they want and they will come back, again and again,” said Jay Fennel, partner and chief operating officer.
That’s an obvious yet difficult task at many Las Vegas casinos, which have been forced to cut the backbone of their business — the bartenders, cocktail servers and slot attendants whom customers interact with most frequently. Some casinos have thinned their promotions by offering cheaper and fewer freebies and making it more difficult for gamblers to win them.
Club Fortune’s staff of 175 has increased by about 12 percent from a year ago, and the property is hiring up to 10 more workers to keep up with increased business. The property offers a 401(k) plan and is still matching contributions, unlike most of the giants.
The property’s casino revenue, owners say, has held steady in recent months compared with state figures showing gambling revenue declines for locals casinos.
Because they generate less revenue than big properties, smaller casinos generally can’t afford fancy attractions and therefore must use their smaller scale to their advantage. Some gamblers prefer the folksy atmosphere and the personalized touch that comes with a small staff of career employees serving a stable of regulars.
Casino giants are dependent on revenue growth, year after year, to support millions and even billions worth of loans to fuel that growth. Freed from that cycle, small casinos can operate on slim profit margins.
Owner Carl Giudici, who bought the former bingo hall 10 years ago and has since sold other casinos in Reno, has bigger plans for Club Fortune. About three years ago, when some locals casinos were beginning to see a slowdown in business, the property — located in one of the most competitive Las Vegas suburbs for casinos — gained market share.
With very little debt on the casino, Giudici is reinvesting profits at a time when his competition can’t afford to, spending $4 million in recent months on upgrades to thank regulars and lure new customers. The lounge, bar and poker room wouldn’t look out of place in a more upscale casino — though they aren’t so fancy as to alienate the seniors who make up about half of Club Fortune’s customers.
But the real work is happening on the compact casino floor, where database marketing manager Jason Babler, a former Station Casinos employee, swaps stories with customers.
“We’re always trying new things” to keep gamblers interested, he said.
“At other places you feel like a number; here you feel like you’re a guest,” said Debbie, 57, who used to gamble at Station’s Fiesta Henderson. “They smile here. They’re personable.”
Debbie, who declined to give her last name, said she likes the greater variety of promotions at Club Fortune, which has rules that are easier to understand. She also appreciates the chance to win high-end items. Locals are burned out on the typical T-shirts, hats and other logo wear offered by many casinos, she said.
Debbie Porto is another player who no longer gambles at Fiesta Henderson. As a former Fiesta Henderson employee, Porto says she has seen several of her former customers at Club Fortune.
Bigger casinos don’t have the time or staff to attend to each player’s needs in a timely way or come up with a big variety of promotions the way smaller places can, she said.
“That’s what people want — variety,” said Porto, 53. “And they like the friendly people who work here.”
While Club Fortune doesn’t boast many high rollers and its regulars might spend less than those at other casinos, many of its customers visit the casino several times a week, Fennel said.
A former director of slot operations for Station Casinos and a former slot director at the Hard Rock Hotel, Fennel is also a defector from big casinos.
But Club Fortune won’t be competing with the likes of the Hard Rock. At the entrance is a giant metal barrel filled with tickets for a monthly prize drawing. There’s also a bar with cheap eats near the door. Like many neighborhood joints, the ceilings are low and the carpet is unremarkable and dark — all the better to hide dirt. (Other upgrades, including new carpet, are yet to come.)
Giudici’s success at Club Fortune has spurred an investment partnership that is seeking to buy up distressed casinos — including small casinos owned by giants that are swimming in debt.
“This isn’t rocket science,” Fennel said. “You have to make the guest happy and your service needs to be consistent. And you can’t always be moving the goalposts for players.”