Casinos revving up junket jets

Nov 6, 2001 7:46 AM

Is it back to the future for Las Vegas? Casino executives are quietly pursuing plans to revive a surefire staple of yesteryear ”” the junket jets.

With today’s commercial air travel mired in hassles and congestion, Nevada gamers are increasingly looking to charter flights to boost player traffic.

“This clearly should be explored and it is being explored,’’ said Dan Reichartz, former president and CEO of Caesars Palace and now an industry consultant.

GamingToday has learned that executives from several top Strip resorts are actively eyeing new charter and tour alliances in an effort to increase domestic and foreign play.

With Chinese New Year approaching, several resorts are lining up junket flights across the Pacific. Executives, however, would not comment, for fear of losing a competitive advantage.

“Player-to-visitor volume is lower than it’s ever been,’’ complained one anxious insider. And the aftermath of Terror Tuesday hasn’t helped that ratio. JAL’s decision last month to cancel Vegas flights was yet another blow to the city’s pipeline to the Pacific Rim and Asia’s high-limit gamblers.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, before commercial air traffic really took off at McCarran, casino-run junket flights were crucial to the Strip. Now, with commercial carriers struggling, charters may be rebounding.

Virgin Airways reportedly is talking with casinos about making its amenity-oriented planes available for special Vegas runs. “It’s a configuration that could work. Comfort is the key,’’ said one industry source, noting that in-flight manicures and massages would have wide appeal to high-rollers.

Even smaller hotels catering to blue-collar players are high on junkets. “The time is right to investigate all options,’’ said Mike Villamor of the Castaways.

Charter companies say they are very receptive to the casinos’ initiative. “They need the business and want to deal,’’ noted one gaming insider.

But Bill Weidner, president of Las Vegas Sands, owner of the Venetian, cautioned that the junket may not be good for everyone. “There are lots of air seats available and if we have a player we want to bring in, we just buy him a ticket,’’ he said.

Ken Kukuda, an industry consultant, added that there are simpler ways to draw a crowd without getting involved in the transportation business. “Why not do what they used to do at the Dunes? Just tell everyone to bring in their airline tickets (for validation) and give them a bunch of free chips,” he said.

Reichartz acknowledges that junkets have their drawbacks. High-rolling whales expect exclusive treatment and there are only so many first-class seats on a standard jet. Pampered players also aren’t likely to accept a rigid itinerary. As John Marz, vice president of marketing at Mandalay Resorts, puts it: “They won’t be herded.’’ But Reichartz said the broader player market ”” including those willing to bet $100,000 and up ”” may be attracted to the modest perks that come with charters.

In any event, gaming execs say they’re determined to bolster sagging table play. Though rising room rates and retail sales fueled revenues throughout the 1990s, those profit centers have slumped since Sept. 11. Going back to basics, these execs are refocusing on their core casino business. And some are betting that junkets will turn the trick.