The Gulfstream private jets arrive two or three times a month now at a small, luxury terminal hidden away from the crowds on the far side of Tampa International Airport.
The passengers: High-roller gamblers from all over the United States and Asia, met on the tarmac by private butlers in sleek black uniforms who lead the way to limousines to whisk them off to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
The butlers already know the passenger’s favorite drinks, what games they enjoy and if they’ll have dogs, kids, relatives and anyone else. And of course there will be free tickets to NFL games or PGA golf tournaments and complimentary luxury suites at the casino.
“These are people who expect to gamble $1 million or $2 million on a trip,” said John Fontana, president of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. “They might have $100,000 ridding on any hand of cards. They don’t fly commercial. They expect to fly private, so we provide that to them.”
The jets are just one small facet of a much broader strategy that’s unfolding at Tampa’s local casino. Rather than rely solely on attracting tens of thousands of gamblers who play penny slot machines, the casino is revamping huge parts of the property and its service to attract the ultra-high-roller gamblers, particularly from China, Malaysia, Singapore and other Southeast Asian markets. Not many U.S. casinos are in a position to do this, and some analysts liken the strategy to a high-roller personally: High-risk/High-reward.
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In this project, no luxury is too extravagant or detail too small. Last week, the casino flew a gambler non-stop from Malaysia to Tampa, family included.
The casino recently flew about 50 premium clients to Augusta to watch the Masters golf tournament, and of course, the casino rented a mansion next door as a complimentary relaxation suite. The casino did the same when flying several high-rollers to Brazil for the World Cup – all in the name of cultivating a relationship with the guest.
All the while, there are formally trained butlers to be at a guest’s beck-and-call.
“We recently had a guest who mentioned he liked a premium tequila from 1940,” said butler Jorge Ojeda. “So we sent someone all over town to find a bottle we could serve him.”
In a hotel that’s regularly booked solid, the casino took one room out of service and renovated it into a Butler’s Pantry. Inside, rows of shelves hold champagne glasses and bottles of exotic drinking water. Trays of elaborate desserts await one guest in a suite, just so it will be ready when they arrive. On the walls, there are charts showing the names and dates for different high-roller visits, and notes of their every taste in food, games and drinks. The goal: Anticipate their desires before a guest even thinks of it.
When one family from Asia came through, a butler discovered the wife liked coconut water, so whenever they went to a restaurant, a glass of coconut water magically appeared next to her the moment she sat down.
One high-roller guest had a habit of jumping up at a moment’s notice and wanting to explore the town, so a butler has a car and driver at the casino’s front door, ready 24-hours a day. Other butlers will walk a guest’s dog or personally show a guest’s family all around Busch Gardens.
The butlers are trained in cultural cues as well. Fresh flowers are welcome, but they never put out white flowers for a Malaysian guest. They are the symbol of death, much like lilies are in the United States.
Up in the Roxy suite, Ojeda shows a few of the luxury features, including the business card with his personal cell phone number.
“You’ll see there’s no mini-bar,” Ojeda said. “That’s because we are the mini bar. We will bring them anything they like. For anyone wanting to just rent these rooms for a night, don’t bother asking what they cost. There isn’t a price. They are complimentary for the high-roller guests only.
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The casino has already renovated major floor space to attract high-end Asian gamblers, and even tiny details are attuned to the Asian guest. The layout of one Asian-themed gaming room was designed by a Feng Shui consultant to enhance the room’s luck. While American gamblers tend to like stool-style seats at tables, the room here has the lower chairs that Asian guests tend to prefer.
The casino is tripling the size of its high-limit slot machine room, giving even more space to machines with a minimum $50 per game.
In one high-limit area, Shift Manager Bruce Harris gestures towards a dozen Asian family members, crowded around a Baccarat table. “There is a maximum of $5,000 per hand at any one time,” he says. “It’s basically a 50/50 game of heads or tails, but if people see there’s been a run of one or the other, you’ll really see people start betting. A few minutes ago, there was $30,000 in chips on the table.”
In other words, having several hundred gamblers packed in a giant penny slot machine hall is one thing, but these gamblers represent a far larger opportunity.
Some Asian guests are life-long players of Pai Gow tiles, a kind of Asian dominos. It’s an extraordinarily elaborate game, and training a dealer starts with a 12-week course. “There,” he said, pointing to one gambler who picks up a jet-black tile. “You’ll see he never turns the tile over to look at it. He just rubs the bottom with a finger and he can feel what tile it is by touch.”
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Recruiting staff for this kind of project isn’t easy or simple, Fontana said. The casino recruited former Atlantic City Borgata casino executive Larry Mullin 14 months ago to the Seminole gaming organization, and much of his work has focused on driving more upscale business.
It takes a special breed of card dealer to remain cool under pressure with a high-roller, Fontana said. A game might see $300,000 come and go in a few hands. It almost never happens, but if there’s a mistake and a dealer accidentally pushes a couple hundred thousand dollars in chips over to a player when they shouldn’t, Fontana said the staff needs to know how to handle it appropriately, without offending the gambler.
Few U.S. casinos can go to the expense of recruiting high rollers, or take the risk, said Stephen Karoul, president and CEO of the gaming consulting firm Euro-Asia Consulting.
“Other than in Las Vegas, the only other property I know of that’s done this was Foxwoods, and that’s the largest casino in North America,” Karoul said. “There are no guarantees. When I worked with an Asian operator a while back, we had five months when we got our clock cleaned. It can happen.”
That’s not because the casino did anything wrong, he said. Rather, that’s just an example of the volatility involved.
Slot machines and even table games are relatively predictable and have low volatility, revenue-wise, he said. When courting high-rollers, “you can get some groups come in and win $10 million, or lose $10 million. There aren’t that many companies that have the staying power to really get into that market and succeed.”
Luckily, Karoul said, “The Seminoles have a company that is very, very financially secure. So they can afford to take more risk than a casino in Atlantic City that’s on the verge of bankruptcy.”
A gambler flying from Malaysia to Tampa may seem unlikely, Karoul said, but the Chinese government is cracking down on corruption, which has some gamblers in Asia looking for quieter markets to play. And, he said, high-limit gamblers think globally. They may fly to Las Vegas, Tampa, Miami, New York and London on a single trip.
As for how many high-limit gamblers there are, that’s tough to quantify, Karoul said. By his calculations, there may be 12,000 across all of Asia from India to Japan. In the United States, he said, there might be “a few hundred.”
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Visitors to the Hard Rock may already notice some subtle changes, and more are on the way.
The floor is not as packed with people, which is not necessarily a bad thing, since the casino is putting more emphasis on higher-end gaming. There are 116 high-limit slots now. With the expansion of the high-limit room opening in October, there will be more than 220.
In one of the main casino rooms, there are new, low walls around mid-level slot machines to help segment them from the penny slots nearby.
The spa is being vastly upgraded to include high-end salons for massages, hair treatments, manicures and pedicures. (The casino is presently recruiting new staff just for the spa.)
The casino also has projects to enhance the speed of slot gaming overall. Floor staff now have special electronic wristbands that vibrate when a guest hits a jackpot, since casino staff need to come help with verification. That alone can cut the payout cycle from upwards of 20 minutes to less than 15 minutes, Fontana said.
At some point, Fontana said the real question comes to a head: When and how will the casino expand?
Much of that depends on how the Seminole Tribe makes a new arrangement with the State of Florida for gaming, and whether the state will allow a slew of new casinos to open in areas like South Florida – potentially draining traffic away from Tampa.
They’ll likely need to expand the luxury Council Oaks restaurant to handle more high-end guests. And if the casino succeeds in bringing in more affluent gamblers, executives may need to look at more options for luxury retail, as is common at casinos in Las Vegas, the Bahamas and other markets.
Right now, the Hard Rock hotel has just over 200 rooms, but that’s not enough, Fontana said. Merely doubling the hotel’s size wouldn’t be worth the effort or expense. “Just adding another 250 rooms would not be enough.”