Monday, Oct. 11, 2010 | 2 a.m.
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Map of Arizona Charlie's Decatur
740 S. Decatur Blvd., Las Vegas
Arizona Charlie’s executives make a point of listening to their customers. But when a large number of players at the locals casino near Decatur and Charleston boulevards suggested they wanted a smoke-free slot room, General Manager Ron Lurie had to think it over.
Nevada casinos are exempt from the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act. And evidence suggests that when smoking bans are enacted, business goes down. Nevada’s first smoke-free casino, the Silver City on the Strip, eventually closed, although it is unclear if that was a direct result of the smoking ban.
“We actually received quite a few comments from people, so I decided to take it to our CEO, Frank Riolo,” Lurie said. “He said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.’ So we put together a plan.”
Many casinos use high-tech ventilation systems, “smoke-eaters” and deodorizers to keep smoke at bay. But Arizona Charlie’s decided to seal off an entire room and prohibit smoking inside.
“When we said we were going to do it right, that also meant tearing all the existing carpet, wallpaper and ceiling tiles out of the area,” Lurie said. The company also cleaned every slot machine that was going into the smoke-free environment because the tobacco smell tends to attach itself to the components.
By the time all the remodeling, cleaning and refurbishing was completed, the company had spent around $80,000.
“This was kind of a risk because no one has ever done this in Nevada,” Lurie said.
Once the 3,500-square-foot room was completed, Lurie had to make sure the area had a good mix of games.
The company used customer-tracking technology to make some of the slot machine decisions. The casino’s loyalty card tracks which cardholders are smokers — they’re given free cigarettes as part of their rewards. The company was able to see what games nonsmokers preferred and made sure the most popular games were among the 117 in the smoke-free room.
The new room opened in April, and Lurie has been watching the results. He says there has been “no decrease in revenue” — which he’ll take as a positive in today’s economy.
The other positive is that a number of customers who hadn’t darkened Arizona Charlie’s doors in a while have returned.
The smoke-free room has a nice pedestrian flow and isn’t as dense with slot machines as the smoke-filled side. The room also has two television sets, a keno board and its own ticket-redemption machine so players don’t have to wander into the main casino.
But the biggest difference between the smoke-filled environment and the smoke-free zone is the air.
“There’s a very definitive smell of smoke in the rest of the casino,” said Marilyn Ilardo, a regular player at Arizona Charlie’s. “But not in here.”
In the afternoons, Arizona Charlie’s food and beverage staff pass out free cookies to players in the smoke-free area. In ads, Lurie calls it “a place of your own” — and he knows part of the secret of its success will be to keep it in front of the public. The company is doing that on the marquee and on a billboard.
Allison Newlon Moser, executive director of the American Lung Association in Nevada, is a big fan of Arizona Charlie’s taking such a huge voluntary step toward clearing the casino air.
She said 80 percent of casino customers are nonsmokers, so it makes sense to her that a property would cater to that market.
Lurie said rival casino companies have visited Arizona Charlie’s to check out the smoke-free room. Although no one has announced plans to replicate the concept, Lurie said he wouldn’t be surprised if another property did.
“If they listen to their customers, like we do, they’d at least give it a try,” he said.
A version of this story appears in this week’s In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Sun.