Emerald Island: A casino that gets it

January 2, 2024 5:53 PM
  • Dennis Conrad
January 2, 2024 5:53 PM
  • Dennis Conrad

I always get excited when I discover a casino (and its owners) that gets it. Benny Binion and his downtown Horseshoe really got it in their day. Barona Resort and Casino has always gotten it. Downtown Grand in Las Vegas is starting to get it. Many other casinos have gotten some of it, maybe even most of it.

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I suppose I should define what “getting it” means, from my perspective, as I’m aware that many casino executives will disagree with me. And that’s okay. There are certainly many things “to get” in a casino operation and most operators “get them.” They “get” controlling expenses. They “get” having clean facilities. They “get” having slot machines that slot players will like to play.

But when I talk about an entire casino operation that “gets it,” I’m not referring to all that stuff, which really should be givens, secondary to what the real “getting it” is. And that is: A casino that gets it understands that for its core customers, it’s all about the gambling, how long they get to play on their budget, how often they win, and (maybe most importantly) how they’re made to feel whether they’re winning or losing.

Or as the late, great, casino researcher, Mike Meczka, said thousands of times, “It’s the gambling, stupid!”

Which leads me to Emerald Island Casino in downtown Henderson, Nevada (which is not a tourist destination), my latest greatest example of a casino that gets it. I mentioned it in my September 2023 CDC column and I said I’d be back with the real skinny on Emerald Island. Well, here it is.

Most of it comes from a delightful probing hour I spent with Tim Brooks, the general manager and co-owner of both Emerald Island and its sister casino next door, the Rainbow Club. The other co-owner is Tim’s twin brother, Mike, who is smart enough to let Tim run the show.

Between the interview and the posting date of this column, the Brookses sold Emerald Island and the Rainbow Club. The deal is expected to close sometime this month. But all the principles expressed by Tim in this column, including his work ethic, the company culture, and reverence for regulars, are relevant no matter who owns a casino. (We’ll have to see if the new owners follow through on their promise to maintain the status quo.)

Tim Brooks got his start in the casino business working for his cousin, Carl Giudici. Giudici owned as many as six (small) casinos in Nevada, the first ones in Reno and Sparks, followed by one in Henderson. Tim went to Henderson in 1999-2000 to help his cousin open and run Triple J Casino, which later became Club Fortune. Surveying the challenging Boulder Highway/downtown Henderson casino market, Tim knew there had to be a better way to run a casino and that he had to be the one to both discover and execute on that formula. So leaving his cousin Carl in 2001, Tim and his brother Mike bought a shuttered downtown Henderson casino named Pot O’ Gold and opened it in 2003 as Emerald Island. He was now in direct competition with his cousin, as well as with established operators Boyd, Peppermill, and Station. How in the heck could he overcome their established brands and much larger bankrolls?

“I knew from my early years in Henderson that players wanted loose penny slots. So we hung our hat on being ‘Nevada’s Only All Penny Casino.’”

This was a strategy designed to get the casino through both good times and bad. Indeed, in the severe recession of 2008-2010, Emerald Island experienced double-digit growth.

Tim Brooks let his players drive his operation, knowing intuitively that in the casino business (especially in a locals market), “taking people’s money fast won’t make you rich fast.” He asked his players if they’d prefer food or free play and 90% answered, “Food, if it’s good.” So he gave them great food in the Emerald Island Grille, usually free with club points, promotions, and specials. Which explains why Emerald Island never got on the free-play “treadmill” like other casinos, staying away from that huge financial albatross that quickly becomes an entitlement to players who never think they get enough of it. Remember “free play” equals tight slots.

Tim put his team through the “X’s and O’s of Success” service training, modeled after a sports formula, where the staff learns to play as a team and hold one another accountable.

“I knew our players didn’t come to Emerald Island because of me or even our food, our games, or our promotions. They come because of Rick and Phil in slots or Frank and Donna at the bar or Gosha and Sharon in the Grille. And I know they really don’t come expecting to win, but they sure come expecting to have fun. Our team and our many promotions provide that fun. And we build our business one customer at a time.”

Emerald Island has scores of promotions every month—drawings, giveaways, wheel spins, food specials, meet and greets, outdoor barbecues, daily free treats on the casino floor (Gameside Delights), sign-up bonuses, and more. I’ve never seen so many promotions in one casino.

I asked Tim if he ever thought he had too many promotions. “We don’t do enough,” he shot back. “The more people there are in the building, the more money is in the building.”

Tim Brooks estimates he spends 75% of his time on the casino floor with players and staff (“You don’t make money in the office, you make money down there”). He lives six minutes from the casino. He estimates he knows at least 1,000 of his regulars by name. He tastes the food of every new menu item and of every player event that features food. He personally interviews every new employee.

And the results of all this, some 20 years later? Tim’s cousin Carl exited the market because he couldn’t compete with Tim. Peppermill sold Tim and his brother Mike its Rainbow Club in downtown Henderson, right next to Emerald Island. Boyd Gaming is no longer there.

I asked Tim why no one has stolen his customer-worship formula. “Well, it takes a lot of work and I think most of the executives in our industry are inherently lazy and would rather just count money or pore over reports, rather than do the hard work of building relationships one at a time.”

Tim’s final words of advice: “Pay attention to detail and don’t be afraid to work. And if you like what you do, the money will follow.”

I suggest all of you stop by Emerald Island and the Rainbow Club on Water Street in the blue-collar but evolving Water Street District of downtown Henderson. Better yet, follow Tim Brooks’s lead of focusing more on what you can give your customers, rather than what you can take and how fast you can take it.

Somehow, I think it would be better for your business as well as our industry. Just ask Tim.

Earlier posts by Dennis

Thank you, Richard Schuetz, Again

The all-time top-10 types of casino promotions

Imagining a discussion today with John Romero

A holiday weekend in Las Vegas

It’s okay, they won’t know or care!

Crazy ideas I fell for

The Blonde Elvis

How to stop gambling from being banned

What about these Electronic Crap Games?

Some overdue recognition

My top 10 casino pet peeves

Service you can trust. Really.

I Need Help!

Top 10 things casino players hate

Making lemons out of lemonade

David Kranes: The most unappreciated man in gaming

Two Dinosaurs Walk into a Bar

The magic of Barona

My Top 10 big-picture casino-industry trends

I am your customer

The Rad Bar — If I owned a video poker bar

Stop eroding player value

What? You’re still alive?