There are a lot of casinos in the United States. Big casinos. Small casinos. Las Vegas-style casinos. All kinds of tribal casinos. Riverboat casinos. Racetrack casinos. When I started in the business more than 45 years ago, I never anticipated that “casinos” would become so widespread. Talk about catching the wave of an industry boom!
But it isn’t only casinos that dot the U.S. gambling landscape. Over the decades, I’ve played bingo (and bingo-style slots) in standalone facilities. I’ve scratched numerous pull tabs in bars in Minnesota and Washington. Visited truck stops in Louisiana that had video poker machines. Seen slots proliferate in Nevada at grocery stores, laundromats, airports, 7-Elevens, and anywhere else people might have a few extra bucks and a little extra time. Nevada isn’t real picky about where these gambling machines are, except for the places where people night get upset, like near churches, schools, and the like. But I always thought hospitals would make good locations for gaming machines.
Then there are the many gambling dens that are commonly called “video poker bars,” even though they don’t just have video poker and they’re usually not just bars. I understand that Illinois has many such facilities, each with a few gaming machines, but since I haven’t been to any, I’ll limit my comments to video poker bars in Nevada, scores of which my wife, Becky, and I have been to over the decades, even going back to the days when the machines spit out actual quarters and didn’t have credit meters, ticket redemption, or players clubs.
Nevada has several hundred video poker bars, most of them in Las Vegas. It’s a very competitive business, but many have the benefit of locations just a few miles from the bulk of their customers — true “neighborhood joints.” Most are single-owner venues, but now there are several video poker bar “chains” with multiple operations, like PT’s, Kopper Keg, Putter’s, and Magoo’s in Las Vegas and Bully’s and Flowing Tide in Reno. These chains need several franchises if they want to have any significant number of gaming machines, since each location is limited to a maximum of 15 devices.
The formula for video poker bars is as simple as it is similar for nearly all of them: food, drinks, and gambling. That includes gambling while you eat, a feature I believe most casinos have missed out on. The games are pretty similar from bar to bar, mostly multi-game machines, so players can typically choose to play not only video poker at a bar-top game, but also video keno, slots, and blackjack. Most have similar paytables from bar to bar and they’re typically not as liberal as casino machines. The player-tracking systems and bonusing mechanisms at most video poker bars now keep up with the “bells and shittles” of most casinos. Most bar operators partner with a slot route operator, one of a number of companies that, for a percentage of the machine revenue, provide the games, licensing, machine maintenance, jackpot-payout service, marketing, and database management. Most operators I’ve talked with seem to like this sort of arrangement, but I’ve always wondered if it’s worth the cost.
The “best of breed” in the Nevada video poker bar industry have a formula that includes most, if not all, of the following: great (not just good) food; super friendly bartenders and servers, who are skilled at building relationships with customers; bonus games, video add-on wheels, daily promotions … actually, anything that livens up the machine-playing experience; sports on multiple TVs at the bar; environments where women feel welcome and safe; fair drink prices with some popular and ever-present specials; a real focus on the real players and creating a strong impression that they’re valued for their patronage, not only with free food, free drinks, and free play, but especially with free tender loving care.
I know that the video poker bar business in Nevada is a tough one. I’ve seen many go out of business or change hands. Truth be told, many of the current ones would be out of business without the gaming machines, of which there are only 15. The slot route operators have a big hand in their pocket as a percentage of machine revenues. Food and beverage are low-margin items, especially in Nevada. Nearby casinos are hard to compete with, what with all their games, amenities, brands, and marketing budgets. Smoking vs. non-smoking is an issue. Rowdy drinkers can set the wrong atmosphere and tie up the games at the bar without playing. And it can be a challenge to create excitement at a small venue with only intermittent popular sports contests on TV and the typical soft periods for a bar (early mornings, graveyard shifts, etc.) when it’s tough to have much business at all. Yep, running a video poker bar is one tough racket.
Over the years, I’ve often thought about how I’d run my own video poker bar. I even considered doing so with a partner at one time. But since I’m nearing 70, am semi-retired and unlikely ever to be a video poker bar king, I can share my formula on how I’d run the best video poker operation in Nevada (hey, you don’t start by saying I’m going to have a “pretty good” one).
It would be a standalone operation rather than a chain, which would be a different beast, even if much of the formula for success is the same.
So here it is, free of charge, Dennis’s Formula for the Most Successful Video Poker Bar in Nevada, “The Rad Bar.”
At the Rad Bar:
- The bartenders and servers are the friendliest and most customer-focused in the state, not as a marketing slogan, but as a result of an incredible focus in hiring, training, and recognition processes.
- Signs in the bar say, “We encourage you to tip generously when receiving GREAT service.
- Every day, there is a signature food promotion that screams value and quality, like Taco Tuesdays at the Flowing Tide in Reno (Shawn Jones’ bar).
- The food is better than every other video poker bar in the state by every objective measurement and the food is what customers actually want.
- The machine players are known, recognized, and fawned over, getting the most quality and consistent attention possible. This is unlike most video poker bars, where the attention order is usually friends, good tippers, then attractive men and women.
- The complimentaries for real players are well known, generous, and consistent, not based on who’s behind the bar.
- All employees have business cards saying, “Come see me at the Rad Bar” (with a $5 free-play offer). These are tracked for effectiveness and business generation and the right employees are rewarded with the right recognition.
- The Rad Bar always has the best customers’ favorite drinks. There are also all the other popular favorites and many splashy new brands.
- The 15 machine games are the loosest among video poker bars by an objective method of analysis and that is promoted heavily in marketing and advertising, as well as with signature gambling promotions at soft times.
- The place always has a buzz and numerous tactics (music, sports, drawings, bonuses, etc.) go into producing it.
- The Rad Bar goes directly after locals casinos’ best customers with the message, “More Personal. More Fun. More Convenient.”
- Non-players are never allowed at a bar seat where there’s a machine to play. Hey, we only have 15 machines!
There’s more, but I think you get the picture. “Eat. Drink. Play. Come to the Rad Bar!”
Someone should do this.
Dennis Conrad is a long-time executive consultant who works exclusively with select gaming clients that truly care about being customer and employee focused. He can be reached at Dennis@conradworks.com.
Earlier posts by Dennis: