SCHENECTADY — Fourteen months after reopening, Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady has returned to full operations, open around the clock with events, entertainment, food and drink to go with the gambling.
And like the American casino industry as a whole — which reported its best quarter ever from July through September — money is flowing freely at Rivers.
September was the best gambling revenue month ever for Rivers Casino, which opened in early 2017. October 2021 was the second best, July was the third best and August was the fifth best.
“It’s nice to see people back in here, getting some bodies in the buildings,” General Manager Rick Richards said Tuesday. “From a revenue standpoint, things are going well and we’re trying to hire people.”
Per company policy, Richards does not discuss specifics on revenue and strategies to increase it. The numbers cited in this story come from a state Gaming Commission database.
But generally speaking, Richards said the casino has rebuilt itself and its balance sheet by bringing all of its revenue streams back on-line and resuming the events that bring new people to the site.
Management also has fine-tuned the layout of the casino floor, reducing the number of slots and electronic table games by 6% midsummer and going before the Gaming Commission this past week to request authorization for further reductions, to give it greater flexibility if needed.
Richards said the number, variety and layout of slots and games is determined through a mix of industry best practices and his own intuition, which has been shaped by his first five months on the job learning about the New York market. This is the first permanent job east of the Mississippi River for the casino industry veteran.
“It’s really giving that customer what they want,” he said. “I also think there’s a little pent-up demand from people who couldn’t get out.”
The American Gaming Association on Tuesday reported the U.S. casino industry raked in $13.89 billion in gaming revenue in the third quarter of 2021, breaking the record set in the second quarter of 2021. The association said the industry is on track to far exceed the full-year record set in 2019.
AGA President and CEO Bill Miller said the two record quarters suggest the industry’s recovery is real and sustained.
“With brick-and-mortar gaming setting records, the expansion into new verticals, and domestic and international tourism recovering, the industry is in a strong position for a full recovery,” Miller said in a news release. “I’m confident that the return of meetings, conventions and international travel will further accelerate gaming’s recovery in 2022.”
In the first 10 months of 2021, Rivers brought in $145 million in gross gaming revenue, which is the money gamblers lost.
Slot machines and electronic table games remain the major source of revenue.
So far in 2021, guests have played $1.21 billion on those machines and won $1.09 billion of it back, leaving $106 million in gross revenue for the casino. Add in gross revenue from table games, poker games and sports betting, and Rivers has grossed $145 million in gambling revenue in the first 10 months of the calendar year.
Saratoga Casino Hotel, meanwhile, also has bounced back from the COVID shutdown, though it hasn’t been breaking its own revenue records. In the past 12 months guests have played $1.54 billion on Saratoga’s video gaming machines and lost $107 million of it.
Record casino revenue, of course, means that gamblers lost a record amount of money. Some lost money they couldn’t afford to lose, and some suffer an addiction that makes it hard to stop trying to win it back.
Brandy Richards, team leader for the Northeast Problem Gambling Resource Center in Albany, said “We’re definitely seeing an uptick in that in calls to our resource center.”
The call volume decreased when casinos were shut down under state order and increased when they reopened, she said.
Her organization takes a neutral stance on legalized gambling and does not single out casinos as the cause of gambling addiction.
Problem gambling is any gambling that causes a problem for the gambler or those around the gambler, Richards said. It can involve activities as diverse as day trading stocks and speculating in cryptocurrency, not just slot machines and horse races.
The Northeast Problem Gambling Resource Center serves the Capital Region and eastern Mohawk Valley. Within those 15 counties it has an array of partners, including the Rivers and Saratoga casinos.
The resource center provides training to casino staff on how to recognize signs of problem gambling, and how to intervene.
Richards said the majority of the calls her colleagues now see involve casinos and sports betting, but online gaming is growing rapidly as a source of problem gambling — it’s easy to access and inconspicuous to partake in.
Mental health professionals are busy and appointments are hard to secure in the pandemic’s wake, Richards said. But before a problem gambler even seeks that kind of help, they’ve got to overcome the stigma and shame that surround the problem, and stop hiding their addiction, she said.
“Often we call gambling the hidden addiction,” Richards said. “By the time they reach out to us for help they’ve suffered significant financial loss.”
She urged people who need help to contact her organization at 518-801-1491 or via its website, nyproblemgamblinghelp.org. After-hours calls and emails are returned the next day.
BACK IN ACTION
Both Saratoga Casino Hotel and Rivers are optimistic for the future after the financial COVID crisis, which continues to manifest itself through extensive sanitary protocols.
It’s still necessary to let people know the facility is made as safe as it can be, Rick Richards said.
Saratoga General Manager Alex Tucker said via email: “The support and loyalty of our guests since we reopened in September 2020 has been wonderful. Over a year later we continue to see them come in and play, and they have adapted to the changes we had to make due to the pandemic. As we look ahead, we are working on creating new ways for our guests to play and dine and we anticipate having new offerings in 2022 that will keep our guests engaged, and also bring new employment opportunities to the area.”
Rivers said its revenue streams that don’t directly stem from gambling — food, drink, events, hotel nights — are all back in swing. Last weekend, Richards saw the event venue in action for the first time with a benefit dinner for 400 guests. Concerts have resumed there and more are on the calendar. The next installment of the Cage Wars mixed martial arts competition is already sold out.
Looking ahead, Richards expects continued growth for the Rivers Sportsbook, which took the state’s first legal sports bet in 2019 and took $41.6 million in wagers in the most recent six months.
Rush Street Interactive, which operates the Sportsbook, was approved by the Gaming Commission this past week to operate one of the state’s planned eight mobile sports gambling platforms.
Richards said that should increase in-person activity at the Rivers Sportsbook, if only because the advent of mobile options will raise awareness and appreciation of on-site options.
“I think our volume of people will increase. I think people want to watch it — if you make a bet on the game you want to watch it.”
Having like-minded people on site to watch the game is a draw as well, Richards said, adding, “Food and drink on site also helps.”