Who needs whales if you’ve got dolphins?

Jan 4, 2005 4:21 AM

In 2004, some Las Vegas casino executives were bemoaning the migration of whales to other gambling venues.

Others have stated the highest of the high-end gamblers are still around and, even if they weren’t, casinos were doing fine with the middle-end "dolphins" that took their place.

The concerns arose when Nevada regulators questioned casino operators about the success of three international gaming salons — private casinos — that were opened about a year ago.

When the casinos couldn’t cite a quid pro quo increase of new business against the cost to build the salons, regulators demanded to know why.

An official with one casino, Mandalay Bay, told regulators that her company’s marketing department had not attempted to draw whales from their overseas domains. Terri Porcaro, Mandalay’s vice president and general manager, added that her resort focuses more on convention business than on high rollers.

Another official at Mandalay Bay, John Marz, said he thinks the whales are still gambling here. Marz, the senior vice president of marketing, said, "Plenty of high-end players are coming to town," and that could be verified by the amount of credit play the high-end resorts are reporting.

Gaming Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander said the salon legislation was enacted because "high-end play had tapered off." The economy was soft he said, especially in Asia, and the salons were created, in part, to attract Asian play.

"The intent of the law was to attract (players) who would not have come to Las Vegas without that amenity." However, he said the timing of the legislation "could not have been worse" because the bill was enacted around the time of the 9/11 attack and the SARS outbreak, both of which impacted international travel.

Fellow board member Scott Sherer said he thinks the number of whales that come to Las Vegas dropped off after 9/11, but "the numbers are coming back up." He said he thinks the salons are being used more than tallies suggest, but that they may be in operation with their doors open, which would make them part of the public area of the casinos and not private salons.

Indeed, several casino hosts around town have said many high rollers like "being on stage" in a public casino so they can flaunt their high-end play. Others say the private salon requirement of a closed-circuit feed directly into the Gaming Control Board has driven away players who didn’t want "big brother" peeking over their shoulder.

The MGM Grand is another company with a private salon. MGM’s president and chief financial officer, Jim Murren, says that "since the sucker punch of 9/11, we’ve had to crawl back" in terms of attracting whales.

"The salon doesn’t generate as much business in and of itself but the fact that it’s there is helping" the MGM’s bottom line, Murren said. "We need to have it as an option."

The whales are still out there but Las Vegas may not be as interested in corralling them as in the past, according to Richard Wilk, a host whose job it is to lure the wealthy and very wealthy to the gaming tables at the Golden Nugget.

"It’s all about player development (and) a lot of properties don’t believe in player development any more," Wilk said. "Some properties are concentrating on non-gaming revenue. The whale that used to come in five times a year now comes in three and goes to Macau."

Another official, who asked not to be named, agrees that casinos are no longer rabid about attracting the highest of the high rollers.

"First, they don’t want to be exposed to potential huge losses," the official said. "These players can just as easily win $4-$5 million as lose it.

"Secondly, some casinos are making more money on rooms, dining, entertainment and shopping than they are on gambling," he continued, "and this revenue is lost to high rollers because virtually all of those components of casino revenue are given away to the player."

The casino executive, who works at a locals resort on the west side of Las Vegas, said most casinos prefer the mid-range "dolphin" because he’s gambling $50,000 to $100,000 a trip and might also be spending money in other areas of the casino.

"The bottom line is most casinos would rather have half a dozen dolphins than a single whale," he said.$100,000 a trip and might also be spending money in other areas of the casino.

"The bottom line is most casinos would rather have half a dozen dolphins that a single whale," he said.