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October 1, 2014

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Primm Valley casinos betting on Hispanics

Although its competition focuses on Asians, casino group pursues own niche by engaging Spanish speakers of Southern California

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Steve Marcus

Maria Macedo, a Cuban-born table games supervisor, says the bilingual tables are among the most popular at Buffalo Bill’s in Primm.

Bilingual Blackjack at Primm

Maria Macedo, games supervisor, talks about the new bilingual (English and Spanish) blackjack tables at Buffalo Bills Casino in Primm Thursday, January 13. 2011. Customer volume is low during the week but the Primm casinos fill up during the weekend, especially if there is a Hispanic star performing at the concert hall, said Stuart Richey, right, vice president of marketing for the Primm Valley Casino Resorts. Launch slideshow »

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Last year, the head of marketing for Primm Valley resorts pitched his boss on an $85,000 entertainment act to fill the 6,500-seat arena at Buffalo Bill's, one of three budget hotels the company operates in Primm.

It seemed a princely sum to pay for a portly accordion player with Elvis-style sideburns and gaudy western wear who sings in Spanish — a man neither he nor his boss had ever heard of before.

Vice President of Marketing Stuart Richey was willing to wager that the accordionist, Ramon Ayala, would attract a sellout crowd of gamblers and help fill the company’s hotels on the California-Nevada border, 45 miles from Las Vegas.

Ayala, a star in his native Mexico, has made more than 100 albums over his nearly 50-year career playing a style of music called “norteño” for its origins in northern Mexico. Although still foreign to American ears, its polkalike beat has grown ubiquitous on U.S. radio stations and in cities large and small that are now home to the country’s swelling Mexican-American community.

The Oct. 16 Ayala concert, which drew 10,000 people to the three Primm casinos that weekend, was a landmark moment for Buffalo Bill’s — and a lesson for Nevada’s struggling casino industry.

“It was like New Year’s Eve, only busier,” said Richey, who previously ran the marketing department at Stratosphere before joining the Primm chain in 2009. “We realized there was pent-up demand for this kind of experience.”

Hispanics, the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority, are rapidly becoming a majority of the population in Southern California, Las Vegas’ largest feeder market. It’s also a relatively young population, with a median age of 27 versus 37 for the nation as a whole, according to recent census estimates. That bodes well for an industry with slowing growth prospects in the United States and an aging customer base.

Yet the Hispanic marketing efforts of Las Vegas casinos are largely confined to occasional “Latin night” events or musical acts, and plans for new casinos catering to Spanish speakers haven’t come to fruition — in part because of lingering doubts that Hispanics will have the money to spend.

Such perceptions are shortsighted, as Hispanics tend to come in large groups that can yield big dollars for casinos, said Jim Medick, president of Precision Opinion, a Las Vegas-based market research firm that has surveyed Spanish-speaking customers for California casinos that are increasingly marketing to Spanish speakers with entertainment, menu items and bilingual staff.

“They don’t spend as much per visit but they come more frequently, in large groups of friends and extended family,” Medick said. “They tend to be very loyal to the casinos where they feel comfortable. And they’re undemanding customers who are happy just drinking beer and playing slots.”

Las Vegas casinos expend more resources wooing a relatively small group of Asians with a higher propensity to gamble, however. A significant number of Las Vegas dealers are Asian, and casinos roll out the red carpet for holidays celebrated in Asian communities, such as Chinese New Year.

Instead, Buffalo Bill’s is welcoming Spanish speakers year round with its “Serie de Conciertos Latinos,” a schedule featuring such Mexican celebrities as Los Tigres del Norte and Jenni Rivera. It hosts boxing events featuring little-known fighters with a local following among California Hispanics who are already casino customers.

The Primm casinos can little afford to take risks. They have struggled financially in the recession, which has hurt business from California and forced more luxurious casinos to compete in Primm’s price range. They are mostly empty during the week. The lowest-rent of the three, Whiskey Pete’s, doesn’t take hotel guests then, and instead diverts them to rooms at Buffalo Bill’s and Primm Valley to trim labor costs. The properties exited Chapter 11 bankruptcy this year under new ownership, reducing the casinos’ crippling debt load by $750 million and clearing the slate for “optimistic” revenue growth this year, Richey said.

The Latin headliners are paying off with a mostly Hispanic audience from California descending on the three casinos those weekends, booking all of Primm’s 2,650 rooms, clogging parking lots and filling more than 50 charter buses. The business has been a lifesaver for properties that largely depend on people making a pit stop on their way to Las Vegas and are lucky to attract a few thousand customers for a special event, Richey said.

On the gambling floor, a surprise awaits: Two blackjack tables labeled “mesas bilingue” with felts bearing the universally known language for blackjack, “21,” as well as a Nevada first: “el dealer debe pedir carta con un 17 suave.” (In English: “dealer must hit soft 17.”)

At the tables, dealers speak Spanish and English with customers under the watchful eye of Maria Macedo, a Cuban-born table games supervisor with 26 years of casino experience.

The night of the Ayala concert, Macedo addresses curious onlookers in Spanish and encourages them to sit down and play — an unusual sight in an industry that discourages table games players from speaking languages besides English.

Would-be players wave others over to the table with an “Ella habla español!”

(Casino regulators generally recommend that casinos have bilingual supervisors who can understand the language their customers are speaking to avoid potential collusion between players and dealers in a language supervisors can’t understand. Many supervisors lack such skills, however, which is why casinos prefer that players speak English.)

Some gamblers no doubt played their first hand of blackjack that night, while others grew more comfortable with the game, chatting up other players and staff rather than gambling in silence — or guessing at their next move.

“One older lady from Mexico said she knew how to play but wasn’t comfortable speaking English in public, so she didn’t play,” Macedo said, shaking her head. “We should have had this a long time ago.”

Over the course of the night, Spanish speakers spill over to nearby blackjack and craps tables and the crowd grows festive, singing songs and laughing. Non-Spanish speakers sit down and take part in the carousing and joking, trading blackjack pointers that may or may not be completely understood.

Click to enlarge photo

A view of Buffalo Bill's Casino in Primm on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011.

There’s typically a line of people two or three deep waiting to play at the bilingual tables, which are available Friday through Sunday.

“People want to play at the Spanish tables because they can see them having fun. They didn’t want to sit with the serious people,” Macedo said.

With no English-language staff to navigate, nearly 80 percent of the casino’s slot machines are occupied on Latin concert nights, Richey said.

“Having worked on the Strip, to have even 40 percent of your slot machines occupied at any one time is a big deal,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Besides employing bilingual dealers, the casino has hired Spanish speakers to greet customers as they arrive in charter buses on Saturday mornings to explain the day’s offers and events and answer questions.

“This is a very, very big deal for my community,” said Los Angeles resident Sandra Rascon, who started a company that runs buses from East Los Angeles to Primm to capitalize on the casino’s Hispanic marketing effort. Her $100 package with Tex-Mex Tours includes a room for two, two meals and a show ticket. Rascon will easily fill six tour buses on a slow weekend for that price, and more on a Latin concert night.

Southern California’s tribal casinos offer charter bus packages midweek, when business is slower, but Buffalo Bill’s offers its bus packages on weekends, and will host at least 30 buses on a typical Saturday, said Jim Higgins, director of bus promotions.

Latin concerts will attract twice that, although the property is still down from its heyday of more than 100 buses on a busy weekend. The goal, he said, is to package more amenities that will get people to stay longer, or at least overnight.

Besides boosting traffic, the Hispanic audience creates a festive party atmosphere that people seek when they go to a casino, said Rascon, who is of Mexican heritage and grew up speaking Spanish.

“The price is right and they have all the comforts of home,” he said. “We pick them up at 6 a.m. ... by 9 a.m. they’re doing shots on the bus, singing songs and playing games.”

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  1. It's quite a smart business move in my eyes. It's probably a low budget kind of customers, but if you bring 10 bus loads od gamblers on the weekends to the casino, then even pidgens can make a whole bunch of business.

    I usually visit the outlet stores in combination with my legendary ride of the roller coaster. Must check the roller coaster operation hours though. It used to be on every day, but today they only run it several times a week, plus only when weather conditions are good.
    I remember this progressive double double bonus bank at the Primm Resort. 4 aces with the kicker paid almost 1000 dollars when I was there, and the royal was at 1500 or so, so I just had to give myself a shot at it. It turned out that I ended losing about 800 but at least they gave me a free dinner at the coffee shop. I had the most expensive steak that was on the menu. But even the most expensive one was not quite to my satisfaction. The chef must have had a bad day when I was there. I had a bad day, too.

    From Switzerland

  2. Speak English!Speak English!Speak English!

  3. i don't like this crazy "English only" at the poker tables when a tourist (me , for instance) gets a quick friend visiting by at the table and as it happens, the cards are in the air and the guy says something in our language to me, and within a split second you hear 5 native Americans yell at the very same time...."English Only !!!!!". This isn't really nice.

    Although it is true that by visiting any foreign language, it makes sense to communicate in an international language (english), but it's definetely never a mistake to be able to speak just one lingo. I speak 3 languages plus some broken French. And I can confirm that it hasn't been a big disadvantage to me in my life so far.

    From Switzerland

  4. I Aagree with Boris R. I play poker an average of two times a week, either in Las Vegas or n California, and I neither speak nor understand any language other then english. The tables are loaded with asians, hispanics, and foreigners who do not peak english and they are constantly chatting with friends. The English only rule is unfair, racist, and needs to be removed.

  5. Thanks for the report. It must really chap some folks' hides that their jobs -- and welfare -- depend on others being nice to people they love to hate. We are in business, and people in business cannot afford to be rude to their customers and potential customers because rudeness shrinks business, and reduces jobs, and does no one any good.

  6. This "English only!!!!" paranoid rule comes from some head that believes if everybody speaks sputnik language they will start exchanging hand information. Just like for instance...."hey dude, watch out, when I came here I saw that this guy flashed K of clubs and K of hearts...." and such stuff. But reality is that players with visiting tourists speak about shows, dinner times, how much the guy won playing slots or b-j, and such stuff. When the wife flocks by it's ridiculous to have them speak English while the hubbie is in the hand.

    If two non-English speaking players are in the middle of the hand, then of course it's only common sense that the English only rule should be enforced. Even if only 1 player is still in the hand and the other one has folded his cards. But a visiting friend or wife while the other person is playing at a table,hey folks, isn't it a little bit too much to have them speaking English only?

    From Switzerland

  7. homer, I was waiting for a comment such as yours. Without making any logical point-of-view clear to us readers, you are one of these guys that believe that America is the No 1 and the only and leading nation. I will remind you of that once again when your country will declare state bankruptcy. And you are not very far away from this to happen, my friend.
    And here's this: Next time you come to visit Europe (if you ever happen to have a chance to do so), I'll have you speak our language if you come to our business. For you the explicit Swiss Cheese lingo remains in effect at all times :D

    Greetings

  8. The English Only rule in the casino mainly applies to table games and poker, for very good reasons. The rule is not racist, a weak argument others are using. The rule is not in place for employees to be rude to customers; you should report any rudeness toward you or others to management and ask for results. However, many times an employee will jump the gun and lay down the law with a heavy hand.

    In a reasonable managed casino the English Only rule is enforced when there is a clear indication of collusion, or protential violations, between players or dealers using an unfair advantage against the casinos or other players; a violation of gaming rules or house rules.

    Many players and employee talk and communicate in languages other than english. When playing poker or table games you must abide by the rules of the casino. Period!

  9. I switched from this ultra tight "no-win" texas hold'em to videopoker. When I play live action poker, I make sure to have my ipod with me to make sure I don't have to listen to this meaningless bla bla of these pseudo-professionals.
    Fortunately when playing videopoker, there is no English Only Rule that applies. Which is another big plus :)
    Greetings from Switzerland

  10. LongtimeVegan
    If you come with the argument that the English-Only rule is there to protect employees and customers alike, then I am 100 per cent with you. As for the "collusion" part, i can only partially agree with you. On b-j, talking is not binding, players must declare their decisision by making a move with their hand. As for poker, collusion happens here, and now, and daily, and it's not done by words being used for communication. You should know that. Regular players have found ways to interact and exchange their information by using for example their chips to signalize to their partner(s) what they're holding. Come'on, we all know that. Shuffle 5 chips with your right hand means for example "I am drawing to the nut flush", and when I shuffle the 5 chips with my left hand, it^'s the straight draw. When I shuffle just 4 chips, it means, I have 2 pair, and 3 chips is a set, etc etc. And it can be done without speaking a word. And it will be performed in a way that nobody even realizes what's going on there. One single shuffle during the hand says more than 100 words in sputnik lingo.

    I play accoding this "English Only" rule when I sit at the table, but when my girlfriend comes by and we talk about anything but the game, it's just ridiculous to tell me I must wait till the hand is over before I can tell her in my language that we go to the buffet at 8 p.m. Do you understand what I am trying to tell you? Rules are good, but sometimes there should not be only black or white, my friend.

    From Switzerland

  11. I agree with you Edgar Vance, TOMD1228 and LVLAWDOUG(I guess my comment was too over the top). My mom had to give up her language because my grandparents wanted her to assimulate succesful in AMERICA. There is no Ukrainian town in the US.

  12. Good point Tom.

  13. Ok,we abandon the "English only" rule because some idiot thinks its racists!

    So now, at each table we will need to have a dealer and sup who speaks Chinese, Cantonese, Spanish, Mexican Spanish and of course, ebonics..

    Because if we leave any ethnic group out, the casino would be called racist and be sued... That should prove to be fun and profitable for all...

  14. Boris..correct as usual.

    The food out there does not cut it. Stick to Bacon and fried eggs and toast, they can not wreck that. (Don't get scrambled, they might us powdered eggs.) The Mad Greek restaurant is not bad if you like Giros of Falafels.

    The English only nuts will bankrupt the economy even more.

    This is a good concept. I notice a number of Germans out at the M, etc. A German Table or two would be nice somewhere.

    I also heard a local radio hate-talker on KXNT bashing the British. Saying they "don't brush their teeth," and other crass insults.

    Gee, we just begged for a direct flight from Britain and now know-nothings like this nut in a Hawaiian shirt starts trashing foreign visitors and their culture.

    It is time for the station to fire this guy. I'm contacting the State Department, the Human Relations Committee, and the British Consulate. We can not afford this type of hate as a tourist town.

  15. A couple of weeks ago I advised casino CEO's here to
    market more to hispanics. I'm hispanic and I know my
    community, we love parties, gambling and drinking and
    if you lure us with music we will come in bunches.
    Another advise: Mr. Richey pay attention, Mexicans love banda (band) music so if you bring bands like Banda el Rocodo, they will bring twice as much customers as Ramon Ayala.

  16. I think it's smart marketing for the Primm casinos.

    We went and saw Gabriel Iglesias's show at Primm about a year ago. (He's a "fluffy" hispanic comedian, if you don't know. Not fat, but "fluffly".) Full house, sold out. Surprised the casino and the comedian. (Was a great show, by the way.)

    Only trick for these casinos is to realize that their budgeting/planning models have to change a bit. For the comedy show, they had sold very few tickets as of the morning of the show. But by showtime, every ticket was sold.

    This is consistent with what I believe is a hispanic behavior, or at least the clientele they are marketing to. They're typically a cash-only group, so they don't tend to make hotel reservations in advance or pre-purchase tickets. (Go ahead and fill in your illegal immigrant/whatever jab here.)

    This is very different from how casinos budget in Las Vegas. Almost everything is based off of sold room nights...they project restaurant, entertainment, and gaming business from that measure. (I know this for a fact, I help implement these systems in the casinos.)

    So, smart business move on their part, they will have to continue to learn as they go on. Good luck to them!

  17. Three(hundred) cheers to Buffalo Bill's for listening to and catering to their clientele by adopting the suggestion of Primm Valley's marketing chief. A CHANGE was made to combat low customer attendance. It mattered less WHAT the change was... the willingness of Primm Valley resorts to MAKE a change is the key here. And even though the change was directed toward a specific group, it certainly did not exclude any other group. If I (a non-Latino) had an opportunity to be present at one of these shindigs, I would have joined in on the fun.

    Regarding the "language" debate, I certainly see nothing wrong with requiring a country's base/primary language be used where necessary or preferable. It would be nice if Americans were like the majority of Europeans who speak multiple languages; the proximity of the European countries dictate this. We (Canada, America, Mexico) could have done the same.

    Here is a quick look at a personal experience about language. In 1990, while spending 3 months in Germany on business, I was dining/drinking at the Ramada Hotel (loved the way the Germans pronounced 'Ramada') and joined a group of men watching a soccer game on TV. Based on the different languages that I heard, these men were from various countries. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that I, the lone American, could only speak English so my professional, courteous new-found friends all switched to English. I was (and am) extremely proud to be an American, but I felt a wee bit ignorant at that time.

    Language, color, heritage, ethnicity... it doesn't matter. We're ALL Americans (and lovers of Vegas).