Visit the Las Vegas Strip and things may feel different.
“With the exception of closing for a few hours during 9/11, it has never closed before. Many of the hotels didn't even have locks on their front doors,” Robert Rippee said. He is the Director of the Hospitality Innovation Lab and the Director or the E-Sports Lab at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) International Gaming Institute. “So when March hit and everything shut down, it suddenly gave a moment where everyone took a step and went woah.“
Doors are reopening. You’ll still find the bright lights, restaurants and casinos Vegas is known for, but most businesses have now pivoted to a new focus -- safety.
That’s where people like James Swanson come in.
“We tried to make it as simple and inexpensive as possible,” Swanson said. He is the owner of Screaming Images. When COVID-19 hit the U.S., shutting down the economy, he and his company saw a need.
“It took us three or four weeks and two or three prototypes to perfect that,” he said. And it was done -- plastic dividers to help with social distancing in casinos and other spaces.
“It wasn't like we had to buy any new equipment or bring in any new material, we just had to come up with new ideas to use what we had,” he said.
Normally the design and print shop works with sports teams, festivals, casinos, and other clients. “Everything that got shut down was pretty much our core of business,” he said.
So they created the easy to install dividers, and the demand blew up.
“We got overwhelmingly positive responses from everyone we sent our table games to, just about how clean they were, how easy they were to set up,” Swanson explained.
Ideas like these were vital for casinos to reopen. In 2019, over one-third of Americans said they visited a casino within the previous year, contributing to an industry that generates billions of dollars annually in state and local tax revenue, according to the American Gaming Association. To get those visitors back, casinos had to do more than install plastic.
“We’ve put Plexiglas between the counters, we’ve spaced out the seats and couches in each of the race and sports books, and we make sure that our customers as well as our employees are always wearing masks, and socially distancing,” George Kliavkoff, President of Entertainment and Sports for MGM Resorts, said. “We’ve also introduced kiosks which allow people to sign up and place bets without having to go to a counter.“
Kliavkoff said even with the safety measures in place, fewer bets are being placed the old-fashioned way.
“When everything was shut down across the company and all of our hotels and casinos were shuttered, we were still making revenue with sports betting and iGaming. iGaming is online casino and poker and that actually surged as a business during the COVID shutdown,” he said. “Even if they’re in the sportsbook and enjoying watching the game in the sportsbook, we prefer them be placing their bets on the app, so that’s an embrace of the mobile technology.”
While online betting and gambling isn’t legal in all states, MGM has created a platform for it called BetMGM. MGM Resorts recently attracted a $1 billion investment from IAC. The company cited interest in MGM's online gaming and sports betting business.
“We think that in four or five years, 38 states including a vast majority of the U.S. population will have legalized sports gaming and most of that will be done on mobile,” Kliavkoff said.
“In those jurisdictions where online gambling is legal, there's this big surge of players. All of a sudden a lot of people were gambling online,” Rippee said. “Because it was legal and you could do it at home.” He sees online as a big opportunity for casinos as people’s priorities with travel change.
“There are going to be some lasting changes,” he said.
As tourists trickle back into casinos, the potential for online gambling is getting a lot of attention. But until it’s legal in more states, casinos are making a gamble on safety measures to bring customers back in.
“Vegas always comes back, but that excitement is tempered. We want to make sure we do it safely,” Kliavkoff said.