|By Amanda Finnegan, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 22, 2011--In the old Las Vegas, casinos were generally unimaginative box-shaped rooms that could pass as warehouses, and gamblers were satisfied with a bucket of quarters and three-reel slots.
But today's customers are more sophisticated, have greater demands and higher expectations -- including gambling in a party environment. Free drinks are passe; these gamblers are on the hunt for an entire nightclub experience alongside the casino table.
And Las Vegas, of course, aims to please.
Enter the casino party pits -- miniature casinos within casinos with dealers in sexy uniforms, loud music and often scantily clad entertainers dancing on tables.
The goal: Keep the gamblers in the joint as long as possible.
And, as Jeff Voyles, a UNLV gaming professor and consultant whose company develops specialty casino games, points out: When the customers walk away, they feel like they've done more than just gamble. They've had fun.
"It's all going back to the reason Las Vegas became so popular," Voyles said. "People want to spend $1 to get a $1.50 back in entertainment value. The consumer's behavior has changed forever. Casinos are saying, 'We are going to give you some free entertainment while you play,' like the old lounge acts."
At the Flamingo, a minicasino will play out as a "Parrot Head's" paradise: In October, it will open Margaritaville Casino, a partnership between the gaming operator and Jimmy Buffett's national restaurant and bar chain.
The new area will reflect the relaxed, tropical vibe Buffett's brand is known for, Caesars Entertainment Regional President Rick Mazer said. Aside from table games and slots, the casino area will feature Buffett music and a "Five O'Clock Somewhere" bar in the center of the casino, named for the musician's 2003 song, serving up -- what else? -- margaritas.
Creating the relaxed state of mind will cost Caesars Palace about $10 million. It will build out the casino at the former site of Steakhouse 46, which will connect to the Margaritaville restaurant and bar at Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard.
"This is a great opportunity to create a Margaritaville Casino that is tied into the restaurant and retail area and help bridge those two pieces together. The restaurant sits on the corner and the Flamingo sits as a separate entity. The crossover wasn't as great as I would like. Bringing the two brands together just made sense," Mazer said.
He is counting on Margaritaville Casino to attract gamblers of all ages, from the Baby Boomer crowd, which is Buffett's core fan base, to 20-year-olds who are familiar with the artist's songs from the past decade.
Caesars Entertainment has tried similar party pits concepts with casino tables at Toby Keith's restaurant at Harrah's and the Pussycat Dolls casino area at Caesars Palace where young, female dealers wear sparkly blue outfits and dancers perform in go-go cages. But neither are as big of investments as the Margaritaville Casino.
"What seems to work for us is tying these party pits to other venues in the hotels. It allows us to cross promote with the restaurant or shows," Mazer said.
Caesars also has pits at its other properties that aren't tied to four-wall spaces, such as the celebrity impersonator dealers, called "dealertainers," at Imperial Palace and dancers at Planet Hollywood's Pleasure Pit.
Off the Strip, the specialty pit concept is a natural fit at Hard Rock where the music is loud and guests expect a round-the-clock party.
The casino's Hell's Belles pit features pole dancers in outfits resembling lingerie and female dealers in just about the same. At one point, Hard Rock was rumored to be partnering with adult film star Tera Patrick to brand the pit under her name. Still, there's just as much skin in the Hell's Belles pit.
Sal Semola, vice president of casino operations for Warner Gaming, which manages the Hard Rock, said the entertainment blitzes at the minicasinos don't distract from gambling, but add to the ambience that keeps the customers sated.
"You watch those pits when they are open, and it's amazing how many people are in the pits, and they're not necessarily paying attention to the dancers," Semola said.
Voyles sees how the party pits can be improved: Rather than counting on female dealers to also model and dance, casinos should outsource the pits to entertainment companies that specialize in hiring dealers, models and dancers.
"Unfortunately, casinos don't know how to entertain," Voyles said. "They are gambling establishments. The people who are running the games are not really great at entertainment. When you are asking them to manage dancers and models, forget it. It's the same reason casinos don't manage nightclubs."
Party pits and their skin-bearing dealers aren't on-market at every Strip property. Gamblers probably won't be seeing pole dancers next to the baccarat tables at Bellagio and Wynn, but Voyles says why not a Cirque du Soleil-themed pit? It's the Las Vegas casino 2.0.
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Copyright (c) 2011, Las Vegas Sun
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