Big Read: Construction booms at US casino as competitor readies to open

By Luz Lazo

Maryland Live Casino general manager Rob Norton looks over construction of a 17-story hotel as the casino expands operations. Photo / The Washington Post
Maryland Live Casino general manager Rob Norton looks over construction of a 17-story hotel as the casino expands operations. Photo / The Washington Post

Maryland's largest casino is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion, an effort to reinvent itself and maintain its footing in one of the most concentrated casino markets in the country.

Faced with robust competition when MGM National Harbor opens in Prince George's County later this year, Maryland Live, just 35 miles north in Anne Arundel County, US, is investing $200 million in a 17-story hotel and conference center, its largest addition since opening four years ago.

The project will include a day spa, a 1,500-seat concert theater and new dining options - amenities that casino officials say are answers to growing customer demands, and also an acknowledgment of the imminent arrival of what is expected to be a fierce competitor.

"In business, if you don't adjust, you wither away," said Rob Norton, president and general manager of Maryland Live casino.

"We have no intention of going anywhere."

Norton: "Will our customers go down there and try the new casino? I absolutely expect them to go down and try it. I equally expect that they'll be back for the great service that we give them."

MGM is promising the glamour of Las Vegas-style entertainment when it opens its highly anticipated $1.3 billion casino and resort on the banks of the Potomac River.

Though it is branding itself as a destination resort, catering to Washington visitors, the new casinoon the Maryland-Virginia border threatens to lure away business from Maryland Live, more so than any of the state's five casinos.

Maryland Live is closest to Prince George's and attracts significant business from MGM's "prime feeder markets in Virginia," according to a December 2013 study by Cummings Associates, a consulting company commissioned by the state gaming agency.

As a result, Maryland Live is expected to lose 16 per cent of its profits in 2019, the report said. Meanwhile, Horseshoe, which opened in Baltimore two years ago, will experience a more modest impact - with a projected loss of 7 per cent.

But industry experts and casino officials caution against putting too much weight on the projections, citing what have been traditionally imprecise gambling forecasts.

"There's definitely a significant number of Maryland Live players who are coming from the Washington D.C, area, the Maryland suburbs and Northern Virginia who will probably find it more convenient to go play at National Harbor when it opens," said James Karmel, a casino analyst and professor at Harford Community College.

"It is very hard to quantify that. It might be 10 per cent, it might be 20 per cent. I'll be surprised if it's much higher."

Maryland Live did better than analysts predicted in meeting the challenge from Horseshoe and even exceeded revenue expectations. It has been averaging more than $50 million a month in gross gambling revenue this year - nearly double that of Horseshoe.

Terry Redd places his bet in a computer-assisted craps game at Maryland Live Casino in Hanover, United States. Photo / The Washington Post
Terry Redd places his bet in a computer-assisted craps game at Maryland Live Casino in Hanover, United States. Photo / The Washington Post

"They have taken advantage of the location and also some really savvy marketing to develop a strong, loyal customer base," Karmel said.

An example is the casino's courting of Asians, one of the region's fastest-growing and most affluent ethnic populations.

With gambling integrated in many Asian cultures, Maryland Live has invested in marketing to the group, cultural training for staff and creating dedicated spaces to accommodate those customers. For example, the casino held special Chinese New Year events and has expanded its International Player Development Department - a team of fluent speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean.

Still, Del. Pamela G. Beidle, D-Anne Arundel, worries that the proximity to MGM National Harbor will lead to the two casinos fighting for the same customers.

"Now we have competition opening, it's a concern," she said, noting that revenue from Maryland Live has funded community projects in her county, including computers and software at schools and cultural events, library services and programs for the homeless. "I am hoping when the new casino opens at National Harbor that they may be catering to a different market."

They have taken advantage of the location and also some really savvy marketing to develop a strong, loyal customer base.

Adding amenities and keeping up with property renovations could help Maryland Live maintain its position as a strong local and regional casino, officials and industry experts say.

Although some agree it would be more difficult to compete with MGM's international allure, they acknowledge its potential to increase the state's gambling revenue pool. While most of the state's gambling revenue comes from local and regional business, MGM is poised to attract visitors from up and down the East Coast, the continental United States and internationally.

But MGM doesn't plan to concede the Washington-area market. The gambling giant has been marketing National Harbor not only as a casino but also as an entertainment hub with something for everyone.

The facility under construction with distant views of monumental Washington will feature a 24-story hotel with luxury suites, a day spa, a 3,000-seat concert hall and restaurants featuring culinary headliners such as José Andrés, Marcus Samuelsson and brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio. The casino will have 3,600 slot machines and 140 gambling tables.

Projections prepared for the state in 2013 estimate that MGM National Harbor will generate between $713 million and $719 million in pretax gambling revenue in fiscal 2019 - roughly $60 million per month.

Construction is underway to add 350,000 square feet to the casino and an events center, additional dining choices and a day spa/salon. Photo / The Washington Post
Construction is underway to add 350,000 square feet to the casino and an events center, additional dining choices and a day spa/salon. Photo / The Washington Post

Maryland Live, adjacent to the Arundel Mills Mall just 12 miles south of Baltimore, offers nearly 4,000 slot machines and more than 200 gambling tables to its more than 10 million annual visitors.

Owned by Maryland-based Cordish Cos, the $500 million-plus property has a small live entertainment stage and eight restaurants, including the only casino buffet in the state. This summer, the casino will open an expanded option to its popular Asian restaurant and a taqueria that will offer "street-like" tacos, pupusas and other Latin American fare.

After four years in business, Maryland Live continues to be the leading gambling facility in the state, contributing to a statewide record of $104.4 million in gross gambling revenue last month, according to data from the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.

It generated $59.1 million from slots and tables - up more than $1 million over the previous month. The casino brought in $36.4 million from its 3,923 slot machines in May along with $22.7 million from table games - including $2 million from the 52-table poker room.

"We have the luxury of being open and talking to our customers and know what they want," said Maryland Live's Norton.

Competition makes everybody better, so we look forward to MGM coming... We think that we will have to operate even better than we have before.

"People in this area love our convenience," he said. "They love the warmth that they get from our team members and the variety that they get when they come to the Arundel Mills district, where they have 200 stores to shop at, 50 restaurants to pick from, the movie theaters, and the live entertainment venues. That is something that [the competitors] can't match."

In contrast, Horseshoe generated $28.8 million in May from its 2,202 slot machines and 178 tables. Revenue from the state's much smaller casinos in May was as follows: Hollywood Casino Perryville generated $6.9 million (850 slot machines/22 tables); Casino at Ocean Downs, $5.2 million (800 slot machines/no tables); and Rocky Gap Casino Resort, $4.4 million (634 slots and 18 tables).

While many of Maryland Live's players come from within a 25-mile radius, Norton said, casino officials hope the new onsite hotel accommodations will help attract customers from farther out and encourage locals to take a nearby getaway.

The new facilities, slated for completion in late 2017, will have 310 guest rooms, including 52 luxury suites, a concert venue with a built-in performance stage and banquet seating capabilities for up to 800 people.

It also includes a 24-hour casual dining cafe, a gelato shop, a retail store and about 1,000 additional parking spaces. It will create 500 construction jobs and 400 new permanent jobs, officials say.

Even while MGM promises glamour, celebrity-chef restaurants and a monument-like building just outside the nation's capital, Maryland Live will remain the state's largest casino. Still, it remains to be seen whether the 350,000-square-foot addition and other improvements on the property will help it maintain its stature among the local and regional gamblers.

"Our brand loves competition. We don't back down from it," Norton said.

"Competition makes everybody better, so we look forward to MGM coming. ... We think that we will have to operate even better than we have before."

- Washington Post

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