We're back with another piece from guest author Matthew Farley. He was nice enough to write a piece previously on video table games.
This time the topic is old school service offerings and their place in today's Las Vegas, specifically as it relates to Binion's. An interesting piece and I thank him for sharing this with us. What do you guys think? Let's get a discussion going in the comments.
As for any other guest authors out there, feel free to contact me: editor AT ratevegas DOT com. We can give you some great exposure and writing is a lot of fun!
Of all the properties in Las Vegas, there are a few stand-out names in the public's mind. Bellagio has gained a reputation as one of the nicest 'joints' in town. Broad awareness of Wynn Las Vegas is a reality in the high-end market as well. Many know of the MGM Grand for its size as well as its movie-industry name, and interestingly enough Circus Circus has a substantial degree of brand awareness (the age of the property and the highly unique nature of the name helps). However, in the course of my informal poll of a number of mostly Midwestern potential visitors to Las Vegas, there is one brand that stands out above all. It doesn't take a marketing genius to know what it is, either - because of the long-term nature of the brand, the mystique surrounding the place, and the recent awareness generated by the World Series of Poker (WSOP), Binion's is a brand that everyone I spoke with was aware of, and one that nearly all respondents had positive connotations with.
Overall, I think that there is no property anywhere else in Las Vegas as well positioned for a stellar improvement both in the facility and the bottom line (after a while) as Binion's. Many forces are at work to make it an ideal beneficiary of change, from the revitalization of downtown to the growing interest in a vintage Vegas experience, to the dwindling availability of really good games in the other establishments both on the Strip and to a lesser degree downtown. While some of the ideas put forth here may be far-fetched, and some potentially financially infeasible, I am eagerly awaiting whatever changes may be coming as a result of the new (Terry Caudill of the Four Queens) ownership.
Why does a discussion of the future of the Binion's property even matter, one might ask? My answer to this query would be that while Binion's has weaknesses, the property already has the one thing that is critical to the success of any business in a highly competitive marketplace, that being nationwide brand recognition. With this particular larger-than-life factor existing as an asset to Binion's, the other considerations seem much more manageable. Complete hotel renovation can be done for the right price, and make quite a difference (pay the El Cortez a visit if you haven't recently for a taste of what renovation can do). An overhaul of the games on the floor can be instituted in a matter of hours if an operator so wished. These and other (land lease) considerations are certainly something to contend with, but pale in comparison to what building a brand with nationwide name recognition would entail. The kind of national advertising that would be necessary to bring a new or unknown name into the minds of the public at large, and to make it an ongoing thing, would be insurmountably expensive. Sure, the gaming business can be profitable, but a single property could not possibly generate the kind of money that would be necessary to propel a new brand into the national eye. Advertising campaigns of that magnitude are undertaken by much larger businesses (auto manufacturers, soft-drink companies, etc), but are far beyond the means of a downtown casino/hotel, not to mention that broad media exposure would have to go on for years to really cement the name in the minds of the public. Binion's ace in the hole, so to speak, is that this brand awareness already exists. The brand has been tarnished to some degree from the decline of the property in recent years, but it just needs positive spin to turn that awareness into a more powerful marketing tool than money could buy.
To make a success of the Binion's name before it passes into obscurity, I believe that a return to the original formula that made it a success could be very effective. Benny Binion built his brand on great odds, high limits, free drinks, and good food. He brought droves of visitors in by offering odds and limits that the other operators wouldn't touch, and triggered a wide-spread trend to loosen odds and raise limits at many competing properties. Interestingly enough, the opportunity to do this again is coming to pass in Las Vegas today, as the best games are slowly but surely eliminated from the casinos. Today, Main Street Station enjoys a reputation as one of the best places to play downtown, with 20x odds on craps and a good selection of video poker. The Golden Nugget enjoys a reputation as one of the nicest places to stay downtown, but is also known for having a rather tight casino floor. El Cortez enjoys a reputation for low limits and good games, but it's off-canopy location, reputation as a low-end joint, and lack of national familiarity with the name limits it in other ways. The Binion's property is in a great position to match if not beat the strengths of its neighbors, as it has the brand and the location already set up. Major renovation of the rooms could put it close if not on par with the Nugget, and adjustment of the gaming offerings would easily make it attractive to those seeking, as Mr. Binion put it, a "good gamble".
What if, I ask, one were to take the Binion's property, and approach the business with a decidedly old-school mindset. Today's casino operators are in many cases corporate folk, with the bottom line in mind to an overwhelming degree. If one goes back many years to the days before casino operation was a respectable form of corporate business, the owners and operators were known as gamblers themselves, and had a very different approach to things. They were no dummies, however, as in many cases they did make money. Leveraging a brand like Binion's could be achieved by a return to this mindset, especially in the modern environment where other casinos are gradually tightening things on the floor and becoming focused on resort operations rather than operating a pure hotel/casino. As the focus of many other properties shift, opportunity is created by that which they leave behind. This trend should benefit downtown in general, and no property more than Binion's has the name to draw customers in.
There are a number of things that would have to happen for a successful revitalization of Binion's to occur. Nearly every article I have read on the topic of the current Binion's property makes mention of the poor condition of the hotel tower, and to some degree the reportedly newer and nicer Mint tower. I have personally stayed in one of the older rooms, and can testify as to the need for a complete remodel of the one I was in. Issues with the accommodations would have to be fixed. Though a tremendous amount of money would have to be spent on a floor-to-ceiling remodel of the entire hotel facility, I would consider a turn-around like what the El Cortez recently went through (and the Golden Nugget in the more distant past) to be a vital step in the revitalization of Binion's. Once nice rooms are available, it would be time to shake things up a bit by making the casino one of the most inviting casino floors in town. Turning the casino floor into something resembling the floor at Wynn Las Vegas would be not only a physical impossibility but would be unwise given the kind of vibe that a Binion's type establishment should carry and the astronomical costs involved (most of the revitalization money would need to be spent on the hotel at Binion's, its weakest asset). The casino floor should be nice, but not high-ceilinged, not overly ornate, not huge. The space should be reminiscent of days bygone, but with good ventilation for the comfort of the growing component of non-smokers in the crowd, and feature clean old-looking decor. This would put it on par with the nicer joints downtown, a necessary prerequisite for drawing in and insuring the return of large numbers of visitors.
After the remodeling phase, it would be time to turn back the clock in terms of game offerings. Many casinos have almost if not entirely eliminated positive expectation video poker (VP). Why not bring it back? Sure, this will generate lower revenues for those machines, but if offered at the $0.25 level, the potential for actual loss is very, very limited, and a small price to pay for building a reputation as a player-loving casino. Not only that, actual achievement of profitability on positive expectation VP requires a perfect execution of complex rules of play, and pretty much any level of human error from the computer-perfect play that generates a profit for the player will result in a sub-100% game anyway. Just like the sizable blackjack profits that casinos stand to make from those that aren't really very good at counting cards but try to do it anyway, less-than-perfect players at VP machines can cause them to return quite a bit more than the basic odds of the game dictate. Offerings such as full-pay VP should not be seen as an unwise offering on the gaming floor, but rather as a marketing tool. Such offerings should also be readily available if they are offered, as it is too common for a casino to have full-pay offerings that are much like the pork in a can of pork and beans. Sure, the can says "Pork" on it, just like the signs outside a number of casinos say "Full-Pay Video Poker", but when you crack open the can and look for said pork, you end up discovering a tiny chunk among several hundred beans. Full-pay VP is much the same way, often offered on a very few, difficult to find machines, with the rest of the VP representing much more ordinary offerings. In addition to attractive VP offerings, the slot machines should be set to a high-enough payout rate to at least compete with, if not top, anywhere else downtown.
With this sort of aggressive player-friendly marketing of games, the eye-opening changes shouldn't stop with the machines. Binion's used to be widely known for offering 100x odds on craps, now a nearly unheard of offering. An attractive aspect to offering very large odds on craps is that the odds bet is a true 50/50 bet, and the casino doesn't stand to make a long-term profit or take a long-term loss on the offering of odds at any level. So why not offer these huge odds, primarily to (at no cost) reinforce the idea that Binion's is once again offering the best games in town. Craps can be a low house-edge game, and there would be some question as to whether a $5 minimum table with 100x odds would take the bigger players away from larger pass/don't bets, making the labor-intensive operation of the craps table a potentially losing proposition for the house. This would be easy to counter by offering something attractive like 10x odds on any bet up to $25, and 100x at $25 minimum tables and higher. The number of players who could regularly take full advantage of these high odds would be few, but the benefit of becoming known once again as the place to get the best odds on craps in town would be well worth the somewhat diminished returns. Unless, of course, the casino might be legally required to offer the same odds at all betting levels, an aspect to this particular idea that I am unsure of.
Blackjack as well would need to be made attractive. Total elimination of any 6:5 games would be a great place to start, along with a marketing campaign featuring a denouncement of such games. Offering almost all tables as either single or double-deck pitch games would be good, and the usual precautions against card-counting would of course be necessary with such a desirable offering. A blackjack offering similar to that currently offered by the El Cortez would be ideal, perhaps with much higher limits on the high end to preserve the high-rolling Binion's reputation.
Poker has been a saving grace of Binion's reputation for quite some time, and should by no means be overlooked. A number of people I know relish the idea of playing poker there just because of the reputation, the exact nature of the limits and rake and such are a non-issue to them because of the power of the brand. Sure, the WSOP won't be coming back, at least not anytime soon, but the fame that resulted from it is something to be capitalized on now, and to build a new reputation on, before the Binion's name becomes a bit of poker-history trivia instead of an easily marketable national brand.
All of these proposed changes would have a negative effect on the per-play revenue generated by the casino, and this is of course the reason that every joint in town is not already run this way. However, the larger amount of traffic and more numerous high-level bets that could be produced by such offerings may well offset the lower casino edge. It is my belief that the power of the Binion's brand name would make the effects of these changes much more rapidly beneficial than they might at other properties.
As a final touch, it would be nice for a new old-style Binion's to give whomever the on-duty casino manager might be the authority to book any bet up to $1,000,000 that he/she might deem appropriate. This, of course, should only be done if the casino itself were sufficiently bankrolled to survive a substantial winning streak by a player, but due to the nature of the games, a nice profit would be shown in the long term from these whale-sized bets (not to mention the press that would result from offering the higher limits than any other local casino). This particular promotion would be nice to couple with a re-posting of the $1,000,000 cash display that helped to earn Binion's a place in the minds of the public. A willingness to take very large bets might also have the side-effect of bringing very high toke rates from the winners, potentially making Binion's one of the most attractive joints to deal in downtown. I was unable to find any figures for Binion's itself currently, but The Dealer's News reported in February 2007 that dealers at nearby Fitzgerald's averaged slightly more than $80 in daily tokes last year. This isn't particularly high, but a substantial increase in action could easily generate a difference in tokes that would make Binion's a very attractive employer, at least for dealers.
Giving a face to the place would be another marketing ploy I see as potentially very beneficial to Binion's shot at once again becoming a casino of choice. The casino's reputation was built on the easily-recognizable and rather unique public figure of Benny Binion, but since those days there hasn't been that kind of cult of personality associated with the management of the place. It would be a mistake to try and emulate a person as unique as he was, but a modern version of that kind of super-involved owner/manager (whether the person in question was really an owner would be a somewhat moot point) with a unique, easily identifiable style would be a great way to advertise and promote the slew of changes I propose here.
Associating a single person with the casino would take quite a bit of advertising budget, but if done in a lower-key yet rather Wynn LV-ish sort of way could be quite effective, basically by having the spokesperson invite visitors to experience what 'I' have done with 'my casino' through mass-media advertising. It would also be important for this person to be often in the casino itself, and be good at customer-relations. There are very few places where one can spot a person directly associated with the making of the establishment on the floor in a casino. Associating such a person with the establishment and making him or her accessible or at least visible to guests and players would really help to reinforce the old-school personal-service I-met-the-owner sort of experience that could help to make a resounding success out of a rebirth of an establishment such as Binion's.
Another of Benny Binion's trend-setting changes to the casino was the idea that he could and would make everyone feel like a high-roller. Not only did this sort of approach build customer loyalty, but I suspect that if one makes a guest feel like a high roller, the likelihood of he or she betting more often and/or betting larger amounts would go up accordingly. Though expensive, a fleet of limousines to ferry people who play at the middle levels and up to and from the airport would be a very nice touch, and making the service available to real low-rollers for a reasonable fee would be nice as well. This would be beneficial in a number of ways. First, it would give guests that trademark 'high-roller' feel, as many visitors to Las Vegas have come to realize that the people being picked up from the airport by a hotel-operated limo are the big players or are otherwise considered a VIP for some reason. Also, the operation of cars to/from the airport would relieve Binion's guests of many of the headaches currently associated with getting from the airport to a hotel unless one is quite familiar with what one is doing. Offering this service to first-time guests and low-rollers at a cost at or near what the hotel would need to pay an existing limousine service to ferry the guests would make it a low-to-no-cost offering (hopefully a discounted rate could be had for volume of reservations), and a cost that could be rolled into vacation packages to make it seem free to the guests, if such a marketing slant was desired.
Beyond the casino floor and the hotel remodeling, restoring the Steakhouse to its former glory would be a key element to a successful revitalization of the property at Binion's. Being a top-story steakhouse, the food there doesn't need to be cheap, but it, the service, and the room need to be top-notch. As places like the Great Moments Room fade out of the fine-dining scene, the competition for fine steakhouses downtown is easing up. The location of the steakhouse is already prime for downtown, and like much of the rest of the facility, a major upgrade in terms of remodeling and offerings would serve to put it on the top of the list for downtown offerings. The environment, like the rest of the reborn facility, would need to be decidedly old-school. Rather than going for super-gourmet environments like Delmonico, Craftsteak, and the like, it would do well with an excellent but not necessarily world-class food offering, and service/decor to give patrons the impression that they have taken a step back in time to the dining experience of the high-rollers of days bygone.
From the interview with Mr. Caudill that ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal when the ownership change was announced, it sounds like he plans to implement at least the remodeling aspect of what I suggest in this article, and provide the locally-present-owner aspect himself. I certainly wish I had the kind of money it would take to invest in the Binion's facility - I would have been happy to bid for it when MTR Gaming sold it. I certainly think, or at least hope, that Mr. Caudill will make a success of his Binion's venture, particularly since his Four Queens property already exhibits several aspects of what I consider to be a formula for success at Binion's, particularly in the form of attractive gaming offerings (single-deck 3:2 blackjack and more) as well as some of the best dining downtown at Hugo's Cellar.
I will be visiting Las Vegas again in April, and plan to make a point of visiting Binion's, to play, dine, and perhaps even to stay if the remodeling has been done. I'm eager to see how things may be shaping up by then, and will provide an update at that time.
Related Links (in order of appearance):
MGM Grand Hotel/Casino:
Circus Circus Hotel/Casino:
World Series of Poker:
Four Queens Hotel/Casino:
El Cortez Hotel/Casino:
Las Vegas Review-Journal Top 100 - Benny Binion:
Golden Nugget Hotel/Casino:
Pork and beans (Wikipedia):
The Dealer's News
Owners of Las Vegas Casinos:
Las Vegas Review-Journal - Downtown Dealing: Binion's gets new boss
Ed: Thanks again Matthew for the article - interesting insights.