Casinos look to a post-Covid gaming experience
The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely changed the casino gambling industry in many ways. Until March of 2020 it was very common to see people cram into casinos and stand shoulder to shoulder, shove a chair into a small opening at a table to fill an empty spot, and play at slot machines where the next person is only inches away. It was also common to see lineups for popular slot machines. Capacity was never a real concern (unless it exceeded fire safety guidelines) and promotions to attract customers were endless. As well, some of the biggest entertainment acts booked themselves at casinos with the venues filled to capacity and often dining was available during the performances. And every casino had a great number of dining options, including at least one all you can eat buffet.
Crushing Covid Changes
But after COVID-19 things changed dramatically. Casinos that started up again were just a semblance of themselves. Capacity limits were mandated by states and provinces resulting in casinos with as little as 10% of the usual clientele and in the province of Ontario casinos were restricted to 50 patrons, which resulted in vey few casinos even bothering to reopen since the economics made no sense. Those that did open saw patrons and staff required to wear masks at all times with security staff ensuring that people were indeed wearing them while inside and having them on properly covering their nose and mouth. As well, temperature checks were usually taken at the door to ensure that no one with a fever was admitted, and social distancing measures were put in place on the gambling floor to guarantee everyone playing were situated at least 6 feet apart.
To ensure this, most casinos either spaced out slot machines or closed every 2nd and 3rd machine to allow for distancing, and tables that would often have 6-8 players likely only had two or three players with a plexiglass shields separating players from the dealers. In many cases people had to call the casino and set up “appointment times” so that lines outside the casino were avoided and everybody had an equal chance of playing. For the most part craps tables and poker rooms never reopened, and chips and cards were cleaned endlessly. Every casino also had hand sanitizing stations situated throughout the facility and patrons were encouraged to sanitize there or in a restroom whenever they touched a machine, chips or cards. The days of someone sitting at a slot machine wearing adult diapers so they could play for hours on end without having to leave the machine were gone as playing time was often reduced to few hours at most. While the experience has been deemed necessary, most casual players have avoided the casinos with one player saying to me that he went to a casino once but never went back because "the fun just isn’t there anymore."
As for entertainment, very few acts have returned and those that have booked dates generally played outdoors or to far smaller crowds spread out in the facility, but people standing elbow to elbow on an entertainment floor hoping to rush the stage were gone. And in the area of dining, the experience has been dramatically different. Patrons have been well spread out in the restaurants with only families allowed to sit together and most casinos ask diners to always wear masks except when eating. And, the buffets have completely disappeared. In fact, many states have even passed laws making buffet dining illegal during the pandemic.
I spoke with a couple of casino operators, one in Canada and one in the United States, along with a health official, to ask if they believed these measures at casinos would continue once the pandemic was over and the responses were mixed. All three believed things would more or less go back to how they were pre-Covid, but they also believed that some of the measures would continue indefinitely for fear of a new pandemic and because many of these measures simply provide for a better gaming experience.
"One of the biggest complaints our customer service department has always received prior to the pandemic was about the lack of space to move around," a casino manager at an Ontario, Canada casino told me. “So, while we have been closed for a year, we have taken the opportunity to put in measures that will spread people out a bit more and provide some elbow room. Our concern with limited attendance is economies of scale, but it's incredible how much difference adding a couple of feet between machines will accomplish in making the customer feel more relaxed. As for tables, I think it's safe to say that the days of 8 people jammed together at a blackjack table are gone, but we have other options. One of the main ones we are looking at is more stadium type card playing. We started introducing that pre-covid and it was beginning to catch on, but I think now customers will be more willing to give it a shot. With stadium style betting there is someone dealing cards on a stage and players wager at machines. The cards are live and are open for everyone to see but you avoid the big table crowds, and the nature of stadium betting allows for more people to play the same live game, thus reducing staffing requirements. Games where the player handles the cards are more complicated, but even that can be solved, and we have been working with partners do develop software and machines that can handle it. For example, if someone is playing high card flush, they can see the actual cards being dealt to them live, but they would control the play on a touchscreen. In essence it's no different than video poker except players can see live what is being dealt to them and they can be assured that there is no funny business going on or no set payout percentages as there is with standard slot machines. We are also looking at live craps tables played on machines, but I believe that will be more of a challenge."
Asked whether he believed there would be a time where machines would accept cryptocurrency as payment which was mentioned in a previous article, the casino manager said probably not in Canada.
"Cryptocurrency in Canada has never really been sanctioned as it has in other countries and I don't believe there are any Canadian banks that allow the purchase of cryptocurrency directly with debit or credit cards. But we are working with banks and our partners to develop new methods to deposit money for casino play without the actual use of cash. The method we are most excited about is the ability for people to make an e-transfer from their bank accounts to their player cards seamlessly, by simply opening their banking app on a cell phone, sending the transfer to a pre-authorized account held by the casino and the money will be on their card in seconds. Unquestionably we are becoming a cashless society and I don't envision people will be using physical cash at casinos anywhere by the year 2030. It also helps us on an administrative level since it avoids the concerns that Canada has been experiencing with counterfeiting and money laundering."
A Las Vegas casino manager echoed many of the same comments, but has said that the major changes in Las Vegas will not be related to gambling itself.
"People love the hand sanitizing stations, so there is no reason not to continue using them when this nightmare is over. When people cash in the chips we usually offered them a wet napkin to clean their fingers after handling chips and pushing so many buttons so there’s no reason we shouldn’t still promote hygiene. I don’t foresee how we can continue to shut off machines for social distancing or limiting patrons at tables, but I know that a couple of machine developers are looking at the feasibility of making the machines a bit more compact which will allow casinos to have the same number of machines but not jammed together so closely. But where you will see the biggest change in gaming is the use of cashless gambling. IGT is developing machines where people can log into their crypto wallet and transfer funds from there to a machine directly which will be a benefit to all, and we are always looking at methods to transfer funds without the need for physical cash. I know Nevada is also re-examining the use of credit betting, but in a way with less risk to the industry than before. It’s also safe to say that payouts will not be with cash in the near future but rather debits to bank accounts or credits to player cards. And if someone uses crypto, they will just be sent crypto back to their wallets minus any tax holdings on large wins."
The manager said he doubted traditional games that require the handling of cards, chips or dice will disappear, since he believes one of the big benefits of land-based gaming over online gambling is the ability to physically hold the cards and chips, which enhances the gaming experience.
Asked about the changes to buffets, the manager said that customers love the buffet experience and are doing something but since the days of 99 cent buffets are gone in Las Vegas, the worries about how much they will lose on food isn’t as concerning. The manager said they can still offer a buffet experience without the risk and the one they have moved to is all you can eat table dining. In better words, the buffet is laid out as usual, but the customer doesn’t enter the area or retrieve the food themselves. In this new reality, the customer reviews the buffet and then tells the server what they want. Some places will have a server with a tablet take an order, some will do it on smartphones, and some will simply jot in down on paper. But a customer will say something like “I want a salad with corn, egg, cucumbers, hot peppers and Italian dressing. I would also like a fried chicken breast, a medium rare slice of roast beef, a few seasoned potatoes and a white roll.” And it will be brought to them by the server. If the diner wants more, including dessert, they will then ask the server to get a second or even third serving. The key is to avoid customers touching any of the surfaces and as an added benefit you avoid people sneezing on the food. Another added benefit is less food would be wasted. Other casinos in different cities are also looking at endless dining, but rather than buffets they would send a request to the kitchen who would cook the food as orders come in and there is no limit to how many fresh cooked meals they can have. One negative to that approach is that it takes longer to make fresh meals than pre-cooked buffets and, in a casino, management doesn’t want customers dining longer than they have to. after all, the money is made on the gaming floor.
One thing that both managers and even the health official agreed on is that masks will not be a norm.
"Masks are uncomfortable and staff, let alone casino patrons, won’t wear them if they don’t have to,” the health official said. “And realistically if there’s no contagious virus circulating there’s no need for them. That said, I expect all casinos and for that matter every business in the hospitality industry will take the opportunity to improve their ventilation and hopefully put in HEPA filters to make the air cleaner and more comfortable. If Covid has shown us anything, it’s that clean air and hygiene are imperative to good health regardless of the times. With proper measures even diseases like the flu or the common cold can be reduced."
So, it's safe to say that land-based casinos as we once knew them will never be exactly the same, but that may be a good thing. Most bettors will agree that if casinos are redesigned to allow for extra elbow room at the slot machines and tables, if new cashless payment options are implemented as the norm, and if sanitizing stations and constant cleaning are a regular part of the casino experience then everyone benefits. COVID-19 has indeed been a nightmare for the casino industry financially, but in a few years the enhancements that are enacted as a result of it may be deemed as one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic.