While the economy drains Connecticut’s casinos of valuable revenue, their investments in Asian gamers hedge those losses.
“There’s no question it has held up better,” said Anthony Patrone, senior vice president of marketing at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville. “We are happy about that, but we are not taking it for granted.”
Since their openings in the 1990s, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket offered games such as baccarat, sic bo and pai gow that attract Asian gamers. As the heavy Asian populations in New York and Boston responded in strong numbers, the casinos rolled out more tables and eventually separate gaming areas for the Asian market.
Those investments, along with Asian-specific entertainment and marketing, paid dividends from the beginning, but they are especially vital now as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun report overall drops in gaming revenue.
The latest figures for slot machine revenue — released for May — show Mohegan down 7 percent and Foxwoods down 9 percent for the year. Both casinos have lost more than 15 percent of their slot revenue over the past five years. The month was the slowest May for slot machine revenue since 1997 for Foxwoods and since 2002 for Mohegan Sun.
Although not reporting specific figures on patrons, Foxwoods and Mohegan both say that Asian gamers constitute 20-25 percent of the casino visitors. The vast majority are Chinese with Korean and Vietnamese players also coming in significant numbers. Japanese and Cambodian patrons also frequent locations.
After Mohegan Sun opened in 1996, the casino saw an 8-10 percent increase in Asian gamblers every year, Patrone said. That culminated in 2007 with the opening of Sunrise Square, a specific gaming area including popular Asian table games like baccarat. The popularity increased until 2009 when the recession slowed business throughout the casino.
Sunrise Square boasts 50 table games with room for 368 players. Throughout Mohegan Sun, there are 75 tables for baccarat, pai gow and sic bo totaling 536 seats, the most of any location in the United States, Patrone said.
Foxwoods boasts 51 Asian table games with the 34 baccarat tables being the most popular on the property, said Steve Ma, Foxwoods vice president of Asian marketing. The games all are located in one area, so the patrons that frequent them don’t have to travel far.
Baccarat was small part of Foxwoods offering when the casino opened in 1992, but more Asian tables and games are added each year.
“After we increased the tables, we just have to make sure we fill them; and we’ve never had to take tables away,” Ma said. “The Asian customers like to gamble.”
Gambling has strong traditions in the Chinese culture, and that has permeated to the surrounding counties, although to a lesser degree, said Vera Schwarcz, director of the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University.
“It hasn’t been frowned upon like in Christian cultures,” Schwarcz said. “Finding shortcuts in the dream of realizing wealth is something that’s more acceptable.”
Chinese men go out to drink and gamble, and Chinese women stay home to gamble with friends, sometimes in large groups, she explained. The Chinese people believe strongly in luck, which coincides with their feelings toward fate and fortune.
“It’s not like if you go out and gamble that you are a bad family man,” Schwarcz said. “If you gamble and win, it goes toward your social status of having more money.”
Asia, especially China, has become the new hotspot for American casinos to drum up new business. For a long time Las Vegas casinos have sought out high rollers in Asia to fly into Nevada, Patrone said. Now casino companies build properties in the Far East, particularly Macau.
The Connecticut casinos count on the regional market and don’t devote much time to enticing millionaire high rollers from Asian countries, the way Las Vegas casinos do, Patrone said. The competition for those whales is too much to overcome unless they are in the Northeast for business in New York or visiting a student in Boston.
While Connecticut’s Asian population is below the national average of 4.4 percent, New York and Massachusetts are above average, particularly in the New York City and Boston areas where 1 in 12 people — or 1 in 5 in some areas — are Asian, according to the U.S. Census.
To make sure they have a steady supply of gamers, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods run buses from these heavy Asian population centers where patrons receive complimentary food or casino credit to offset the bus ticket cost. Foxwoods runs 48 buses per day while Mohegan Sun claims to have more. Most Asian gamblers arrive in the morning and afternoon, Ma said.
As said Patrick Cooke, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing of China Elite Focus, the Seattle-based marketing agency specialized on affluent Chinese tourists “For wealthy Chinese inbound tourists in the US, gambling is an important part of the global travel experience. It’s as important as a luxury shopping session at a Louis Vuitton store”
To compete with Atlantic City casinos for the New York City customers and with each other for the Boston customers, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun aggressively market to those populations.
Foxwoods has a variety of Asian promotions, such as Chinese concerts, shows, baccarat tournaments, and different summer offerings for the buses, Ma said.
Mohegan Sun sends out Chinese-language and Vietnamese-language mailings; features four Chinese TV stations in its hotel; hosts the Miss NY Chinese beauty pageant; and showcases 10 or more concerts every year featuring Chinese stars, each garnering 7,000-8,000 attendees, Patrone said.
In August, Mohegan Sun will roll out a series of e-mmercials on its Chinese language Web site featuring Chinese celebrities chatting up customers.
As competition stiffens for Asian gamblers — the Empire City Casino in Yonkers offers a closer alternative for New York’s slots players — Connecticut’s casinos work to ensure this increasingly important portion of their business feels like a priority, Patrone said.
“We are one of the most visited sites on the East Coast for Asians, maybe in the whole country,” Patrone said. “This really is a discerning, discriminating market that will go away if you’re not careful.”