BUSINESS

Southern California casinos are going all in to attract millennials

The Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens was always a loud, brash kind of place where the card tables ruled, but once the betting was done, players had little reason to stick around beyond a bar and deli-style eatery.

Now, after a $50-million overhaul unveiled last month, the club features a glitzy 99-room hotel, including a fitness center, an outdoor pool deck, a spa and sauna, plus a sit-down restaurant with 28 types of beer on tap.

"With the hotel here, you are not just coming to gamble but to eat and hang out," said Nichoel Jurgens, a professional poker player who has frequented the casino for about 11 years.

Gamblers are finally shaking off the effects of the Great Recession, and Southern California casinos are doubling down on expansion and remodeling projects to give guests more reason to stay longer. Casinos also are targeting new patrons — especially millennials.

The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians started work last month on a $285-million project that will add a 568-room hotel wing, a two-story spa and salon, a fitness center and two restaurants to its Temecula-based casino and resort.

The Pala Casino Spa & Resort in North San Diego County recently completed a $5.7-million renovation that included a new underground wine cave and an outdoor patio lounge to host more concerts and performances.

"I think we are all trying to expand our offerings to reach out to a new audience," said Mike Crenshaw, vice president of casino operations at Pala.

Although casino revenues have gradually increased since the recession, casino executives are worried that their most loyal customers — baby boomers — may soon be placing their last bets; the younger millennials aren't as interested in gambling as older generations.

"In general, the gaming industry is trying to engage millennials," said Alan P. Meister, a gaming industry expert and principal economist at Nathan Associates. "It's a different demographic to engage. There are different types of games and entertainment or amenities needed to get millennials."

The casino overhauls in Southern California also reflect a broad push around the nation to take advantage of the renewed interest in gaming since the recession, industry experts said.

Several states have introduced new forms of gambling such as race tracks and sports and video game wagering.

Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have legalized poker and other table games at their casinos and race track operations.

In Southern California, casino executives say their total patron numbers didn't decline during the recession but that the size of their bets did. Over the last five or six years, the wagers gradually increased, they say.

"After the recession, the bottom lines were historical lows," said Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro. "We started to see an uptick in 2011. Every month things improved."

Spending by gamblers nationwide grew by 0.6% in fiscal 2014 over the previous year, with much of the growth coming from an increase in the number of gambling operations across the country, according to a 2015 study by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York.

In California, tax revenue from Indian casinos rose 3.5% in fiscal year 2015 compared with the previous year, according to Lucy Dadayan, a senior policy analyst for the Rockefeller Institute.

Dadayan said casinos should be careful when investing in expansion projects because spikes in gambling revenue are often short lived.

She said casinos may have a hard time attracting millennials because members of that generation are more likely to spend their extra money on travel and food than on gambling.

"They may try to attract them, but I have not seen much increase in millennials visiting casinos," Dadayan said.

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A new online survey of 2,800 American adults by the travel marketing company MMGY Global concluded that millennials expect to travel more in 2016 than in 2015, but only 38% of those questioned said casino gambling is an important attribute for their vacation. By comparison, 70% of millennials said trying new cuisine was a very important part of their vacation plans, the report said.

Such survey results are not stopping Southern California casino executives from trying to draw new gamblers with remodeled casino floors, added spa treatments and new sports bars, among other extras.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians invested nearly $50 million to upgrade the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino in Highland with a new, larger high-limit room, an Asian-inspired gaming room and several new eateries and bars.

"The second you step into San Manuel, you will know we take gaming seriously," said Loren Gill, general manager of the casino.

In Cabazon, the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa opened a new high-limit gaming room in October with new Asian-style decor that includes Chinese statues that symbolize luck and wealth. Guests are also offered a new premium tea service.

Morongo Chief Operating Officer John James said the resort is already discussing plans for a future expansion to take advantage of the improved economy and to draw in new guests.

He declined to discuss details of the next expansion but added: "We want to offer an array of things for our guests. We want to keep the newness here."

The Bicycle Club is also not done investing.

Only a month after opening its new 99-room hotel, the casino is planning to overhaul the casino floor. The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by February.

At the hotel's restaurant, dubbed the Bike Brewery, Alan Velasquez, 27, from Huntington Park, was having lunch and watching soccer on a large flat-screen television set above the bar. He is the kind of millennial that the Bicycle Casino hopes will stay longer — and spend more.

Velasquez said young people like himself have been honing their gambling skills with online gaming and are now visiting casinos to test their skills against real-life gamblers. "It's more exciting to be here in person," he said.

Asked if the casino's hotel and restaurant prompted him to stay longer, Velasquez held up his glass of beer.

"The draft beer helps," he said.

hugo.martin.@latimes.com

Twitter: @hugomartin

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "GOING ALL IN - Southland casinos double down on remodeling and expansion to give guests more reasons to stay longer" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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