Casinos scrape out small gain

Atlantic City – Casinos reported USD 468.3 million in casino wins in August, a 0.7 percent increase over the same month a year ago, according to figures released Wednesday by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

This marked the second time this year revenues eked out a small gain. Credit the extra Saturday in August. Credit a favorable Labor Day weekend. Credit some good luck at the tables.

Slot revenue was virtually unchanged while table game revenues increased by 2.3 percent. Five casinos beat last August, with Harrah’s and Borgata up by double figures, a testament to new hotel towers.

„The weather was perfect. We had a better table game hold and the volume of play was better,“ said Mark Juliano, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts, where Trump Plaza won more than last August, and Trump Taj Mahal almost broke even. Still, summer is traditionally the best quarter for the casinos in Atlantic City. But June and July produced dismal results. If not for the extra Saturday, the figures would have declined in August, said Cory Morowitz, chairman of Morowitz Gaming Advisors LLC in Galloway Township.

„It’s a function of the calendar not growth in the market,“ said Carlos Tolosa, president of the Eastern Division of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., where three of the four Atlantic City casinos topped last August. „September will show another decline.“ And October brings in another roadblock to recovery. „I’m more worried about the impact or the 100 percent smoking ban,“ Tolosa said.

The Atlantic City Hilton and Resorts led the decliners, followed by Trump Marina. Both Hilton and Resorts underwent changes in management in recent months.

The blame for less than stellar production lay in a sagging economy, high gas prices, a partial smoking ban, but most of all, competition from Pennsylvania and New York that is luring the convenience gambler — the one just interested in playing slots — out of the Atlantic City market. Despite Atlantic City’s fall in win, revenues elsewhere on the East Coast are up, Morowitz said.

„Most of the gains are from people who stay closer to home. That’s why Pennsylvania and Yonkers are up big. There’s more gambling money out there, but less of it coming to Atlantic City,“ he said.

But the results also point out that casino hotels that invest in new amenities and more rooms reap the benefits. „Any casino that gives customers a reason to come other than to gamble is rewarded for that investment,“ said Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of the Linwood-based Spectrum Gaming Group. You can see that in Borgata’s, Harrah’s and even Caesars numbers, he said.

„For the month of August alone, if you exclude table games, the three top performers were Harrah’s, up 13.3 percent, Borgata, up 12.7 percent and Caesars, up 5.1 percent,“ said Dennis M. Farrell Jr. and analyst with Wachovia Capital Markets, LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The additional rooms also push the pendulum away from the boardwalk to the marina, he said.

Said Tolosa, „More amenities mean more people. We have a new customer base at Harrah’s. That’s reassuring.“

And what about the long delayed tower proposed atop the parking garage at Bally’s?

Too premature, Tolosa said. „We have to see what happens to the Taj tower and go through a winter with ours,“ he said.

Indeed, the debt burden from the buyout of Harrah’s makes it difficult to add new facilities in areas where the company already has a significant presence like Atlantic City, Farrell said.

For the first eight months of the year, casinos won USD 3.2 billion, down 5.2 percent from the same period in 2007. Revenue from slot machines is down 6.8 percent and revenue from table games is down 1.3 percent.

Win, or casino revenue, is the net amount of money won by casinos. It is not profit. Harrah’s and Borgata remain the only casinos ahead of last year to date, with Trump Plaza just about on par. Year to date, Hilton and Resorts have suffered the worst.

Outsiders looking in wonder why companies line up to invest billions in Atlantic City, Weinert said. „Because they recognize if you build a better product to attract people who want a fun, entertainment experience where gambling is one activity, you achieve a good return on investment.“