Outlook 2022: After weathering worst of pandemic, Rivers Casino sets sights on customer service, community engagement

The sports betting at Rivers Casino in Schenectady in November
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The sports betting at Rivers Casino in Schenectady in November

SCHENECTADY — Rivers Casino & Resort at Schenectady’s Mohawk Harbor celebrated its five-year anniversary on Feb. 8. The business weathered its forced closure due to COVID-19, and gross gaming revenues (GGR) — the money played by gamblers, minus their winnings — are back up to prepandemic numbers.

Once again guests are playing slot machines and table games, and enjoying the casino’s poker room. The casino’s sports wagering is back in operation. Businesses and private parties are holding events at Rivers and guests are staying in the Landing Hotel. People are coming to see live entertainment or enjoy a meal at one of the resort’s restaurants.

The casino is located on a former brownfield site that housed the long-closed ALCO factory. Rush Street Gaming, headquartered in Chicago, collaborated with Schenectady-based Galesi Group to develop the casino. It was built in 14 months with an investment of $330 million. The Landing Hotel opened to guests on July 19, 2017, just a few months after the casino’s opening.

Business took off. In its first year of operation, Rivers’ 1,100 employees earned $43 million. More than 11,000 guests hit the jackpot, pocketing in excess of $26 million. The venue hosted 350 events.

In May 2018, New York state approved Rivers to become the first casino in the state to offer on-site horse wagering via an OTB brand at the casino. Another first came when a gambler placed a legal sports bet at Rivers in July 2019 after New York state legalized sports betting.

“Our retail sports betting has been fantastic,” said Rick Richards, who became Rivers Casino & Resort’s fourth general manager in June of last year.

Rivers’ GGR continued to grow steadily in 2018, 2019 and early 2020 until Rivers was forced to close because of COVID-19. For five months it had no gaming revenue. After a month of suspending operations, all but a skeleton crew of 100 had to be furloughed, and Rivers’ executive team took a salary cut. The casino continued to pay employees’ health benefits while they were furloughed.

The few who remained at Rivers when it closed its doors on March 16, 2020, went to work preparing for the casino’s gradual reopening.

While guest safety had always been a priority, with security staff, cameras, a good relationship with local law enforcement and ID required upon entry, keeping guests safe took on a whole new meaning with the onset of COVID.

A major part of preparing to reopen came in the form of Rivers “Sure Bet Sanitized” cleaning program. Rivers’ environmental services team started overlapping shifts in order to clean and disinfect high-traffic and high-touch areas more often, and to sanitize games and gaming pieces. Rivers also partnered with the Albany-based firm Janitronics, which supplies the casino with NanoSeptic, the adhesive film that has been employed on high-touch fixtures in many public places. The film is self-cleaning by means of light, which activates mineral nanocrystals on its surface to create a continuously working oxidation that is stronger than bleach.

In addition, the casino installed new airPHX continuous air and surface disinfectant systems to help eliminate any mold, bacteria or viruses, including COVID-19, that might be in the air.

The casino set up 70 new hand sanitizer stations and 90 sanitizing wipe stations throughout the property. Plexiglass barriers went up on the casino floor to separate players, and players from dealers.

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The extra cleaning measures are designed to keep both guests and employees safe, and management wants people to be aware of the efforts it makes to create as safe an environment as possible.

The reopening came gradually, with limited capacity, hours and offerings, as casino staff navigated the ever-changing COVID environment. In September 2020, the casino opened from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., allowing extended time for cleaning. Slot machines and table games were available for play, and Rivers Sportsbook was open. The casino converted the poker room into a Young at Heart Lounge, with slots and table games for guests 55 and over.

Management enhanced the menu of Flipt, its restaurant that serves burgers and sandwiches, to include favorites from the fine dining restaurant Duke’s Chophouse that operated with a limited menu and hours, as well as pizza from the still-closed Johnny’s To-Go.

In June of last year, when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo relaxed COVID restrictions and Rivers was allowed to operate at full capacity, the Plexiglass barriers came down and Van Slyck’s bar near the Rivers Sportsbook reopened. Rivers reopened its poker room in September.

On Oct. 21, the casino was finally able to return to 24/7 operations with most of its offerings open, except for live entertainment, which returned in January.

In 2021, guests played $1.47 billion in the slot machines and at electronic table games at Rivers, the state Gaming Commission reported, and played $183 million on other table games. In the nine months of 2021 for which data was made public, Rivers’ guests wagered $67.2 million on sporting events.

One of the casino’s strategies for success, which was critical in navigating the worst of the pandemic, is making regular alterations to its offerings and procedures. “We are always looking at adjustments,” Richards said.

Management actively solicits input from guests in order to learn what they like in terms of games, entertainment and food. “We want to improve from the level of what our guests want,” Richards said. For example, the casino completely changed the menu of Mian, which offers fast, casual, Asian dining, in response to guest feedback.

Another success strategy is catering to a wide variety of tastes. “We want things to do here that are not just suited for one generation, but multiple generations,” Richards said.

At a time when many businesses are having difficulty finding staff, Rivers is holding its own, and currently employs 853 people. Richards attributes this to the positive work environment. Among other perks, the casino has an employee rewards program and the opportunity for training, such as the Dealer Academy, in which employees learn how to work the poker tables.

“We want to make it a place where people know they can come in and learn the business,” Richards said.

Another factor in attracting staff is Rivers’ pay. “I think because of the fact that we’re very competitive with our pay structure, we’ve been able to keep up with business levels,” he said. Currently, the casino would like to hire additional staff for table games and restaurants.

The casino also partners with other businesses in the region to host events such as the summer concert series Harbor Jam, which it plans to bring back this summer, taking advantage of the warm weather when people can be outdoors.

“People bring their lounge chairs and coolers, and enjoy some music,” Richards said. “And it’s safe to say that we’re looking at the Fourth of July this year for some fireworks. Before COVID, we had a live band, then fireworks. It was awesome.”

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Equally as important as bringing people into the casino is having Rivers out in the community, and that is one activity that continued even though the casino itself was forced to close. “We want to make sure we’re being the best community partner that we can be,” said team and community engagement manager Marissa Georgelas, who believes Rivers’ community involvement plays a large role in the success of the casino.

During the months the casino was closed in 2020, Rivers donated close to 2,000 meals. “We didn’t stop fighting hunger when our doors closed in 2020,” Georgelas said.

With the casino’s reopening, it sought to bring its giving back to prepandemic levels. “We’re excited that in 2021 we were able to donate over $235,000 in goods, services and financial contributions through partnerships with over 50 local charities,” she said.

Rivers also encourages employees to volunteer in the community.

“We want to be an excellent community partner, and the way to do that is to show up,” Georgelas said. Rivers employees volunteer more than 1,000 hours annually. The casino also encourages guests to join in community support through its Donations Make a Difference campaign, where patrons can donate chips, vouchers and cash, which are in turn donated to a local charity. In January, the campaign raised $13,390 for the American Diabetes Foundation.

“As a community, in order to succeed, we all need to come together to support each other. We’re extremely dedicated to supporting the community,” Georgelas said. “In addition to the millions of dollars in taxes Rivers pays, including property, state, municipal and county taxes, the casino has served as an economic catalyst for the area, attracting investments of $220 million in Mohawk Harbor, the largest waterfront development in upstate New York.

What’s next for Rivers? If plans go as scheduled and COVID permitting, the casino plans to host professional boxing matches beginning in mid-spring.

By the numbers
A look at some Rivers Casino & Resort facts and figures since its opening:
Money won
Slots: Over $204 million
Table games: Over $10 million
Largest table game
progressive jackpot: $497,152
Largest slot jackpot: $161,447
Total slot jackpots won (over $1,200): 15,505

Table games
Decks of cards used: 1,135,680
Hands played: 228,638,000
Dice used: 33,600

Poker room
Number of royal flushes: 674
Longest game: 52 hours

Rivers Sportsbook
(opened July of 2019)
Number of bets placed:
Over 2,380,000

Food & Beverage
Steaks served: Over 100,000
Slices of pizza: Over 200,000
Pints of beer: Over 500,000
Cups of coffee: Over 300,000

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Categories: Business, Outlook 2022, Schenectady

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