Small casinos find ways to beat the odds

Apr 30, 2002 10:23 AM

For the past decade or so, the independent, stand-alone casino appeared to be on the fast track to endangered species land. Elaborate "themed" mega-resorts became the norm, and Survival of the Biggest emerged as the casino species version of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

Moreover, consolidation became the corporate buzzword as casino companies merged to create bigger and (hopefully, for stockholders) more profitable operating companies. Starting in the past decade, the genesis of gaming giants such as Park Place Entertainment, MGM Mirage and Harrah’s Entertainment began to take place, mostly through mergers and acquisitions, but also through expanded growth.

The fallout was inevitable. Small casinos took a beating. Cozy little gambling halls began to disappear from the jumbled cityscape.

Many of the lost casinos were an essential part of Las Vegas’ colorful history. The Pioneer Club on Fremont Street, for instance, was famous for its landmark Vegas Vic neon cowboy and served as the backdrop for dozens of Vegas-themed movies. And the Silver Slipper on the Strip was famous for its funky Western-style fun, and Little Caesars was legendary for accepting high-stakes bets, especially on sporting events.

Toss in the demise of less conspicuous though mildly popular casinos such as the Trolley Stop downtown and Tom’s Sunset Casino in Henderson, and the population of local casinos was experiencing a weeding out process.

Helping to perpetuate the trend, the powerful Nevada Resort Association in 1989 pushed through legislation that would require all new casinos to have a hotel with at least 200 rooms attached.

But over the past few years, there has been resurgence in the popularity of small casinos. Wildfire Casino on North Rancho Road last December rose from the ashes of the old Ernie’s bar and appears to be thriving. (The new casino was built without a hotel because of a grandfather clause).

Wildfire has managed to attract a mostly local crowd with bargain-priced food specials, personal service, easy access to the casino (parking makes a difference!), sports book contests and promotions, and an intimate environment in which to gamble.

"We wanted to build a nice place, small and friendly, with a ”˜neighborhood’ kind of atmosphere people could feel comfortable with," said Wildfire owner John Bauchman. "In the restaurants we’ve tried to offer excellent quality while keeping costs down, and in the casino we’ve tried to offer more ”˜bang for your buck,’ such as posting a slightly better betting line on baseball."

The result, in its first few months, has been the development of a loyal and enthusiastic following, even to the point of expanding the casino’s parking lot, Bauchman said.

That kind of popularity seems to be swirling all over town. And it’s not restricted to new casinos. Many of the two-dozen or so independent casinos in town serve up a glimpse of the old-style Las Vegas gambling hall that has faded from the popular tourist centers.

RELIC? ”” Nevada Palace GM Pete Maksymec with classic IGT poker machine.

The Nevada Palace on Boulder Highway, for instance, has been around since its neighbor, Sam’s Town, was built, and continues to draw in a loyal, mostly local crowd.

The key, according to general manager Pete Maksymec, is plying customers with friendly service, bargain priced dining, popular casino games and machines, and a bushel-basket full of bonuses, giveaways and special promotions that go beyond the "regular" casino offerings.

"We only have about 500 machines, but every week we give away between $20,000 and $25,000 in bonus payouts," Maksymec said. "We recognize that most of our customers are local players and strive to ensure there are plenty of good reasons for them to keep coming back."

Maksymec said the range of bonuses include extra payoffs on reversible royals, selected four-of-a-kind and suit of the day, to name a few, plus birthday and paycheck cashing promotions.

He added that the casino also has a single zero roulette wheel (a rarity in Las Vegas), as well as dozens of "old fashioned" slot and video poker machines such as the coin-in, coin-out IGT Fortune draw poker machines.

"Some of the players swear by those old machines," he said. "If we move them around, we here about it."

Another popular eastside casino that has withstood the test of time is the Skyline. Evidenced by the elbow-to-elbow crowds, the Skyline remains one of the most popular in the competition-rich East Valley.

"We have a dedicated clientele," said floor supervisor Judy Moss. "They keep coming back for the hearty, full-course dining in the restaurant, as well as the mix of video poker and keno games in the casino."

Moss added that the three blackjack tables and poker game are usually busy, but that the name of the game at the Skyline is probably video poker.

Closer to the Strip, the Ellis Island Casino & Brewery has thrived with a mix of local as well as tourist customers.

"Our primary goal is to keep our food offerings consistent ”” quality ingredients, home-style cooking, reasonable prices and healthy portions ”” and feature casino promotions that keep the customers’ interest," said Karen Dorsey, vice president of operations.

Among the popular casino promotions, Dorsey said, are the slot club points ("We pay up to six times ”” that’s more than any other casino"), frequent barbecues, fish fries and other parties and nightly karaoke. Ellis Island also has a brewery for fresh beer (as well as an award-winning root beer!).

"We listen to our customers, and try to respond their comments and wishes," Dorsey added.

For instance, she said, customers asked for ticket in and ticket out machines, and they were added "at considerable expense."

"We also added some Mexican dishes to the menu, and extended the karaoke hours ”” all in response to our customers," she said.

Throughout the valley there are other independent casinos that may not make one forget the huge mega-resorts, but provide a nice weave to the fabric of Las Vegas gaming. Here are a few worth noting:

”¡ Opera House: Despite the high-brow name, you won’t need to dress formally. This pink stucco saloon offers overtures of bargain priced food, nothing fancy, but satisfying. The casino has plenty of keno and poker machines.

”¡ Roadrunner Casino: There are lots of Western artifacts to make the country-western crowd feel at home. Sawdust would have been a nice touch on the floor. The steaks and barbecue are first rate, and there’s a nice crop of video poker machines.

”¡ El Dorado Casino: Retaining the architecture of a 1960s movie theater, this popular Henderson hangout has plenty of table games and hundreds of machines to keep players happy. You actually have a choice of dining rooms, and the lounge is a great place to "knock down" several cold ones.