Happy Memorial Day and welcome Golden Nugget Danville to the gaming industry.
The Memorial Day weekend is the official start of the summer travel season. It was originally called Decoration Day, meant to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War, and decorating graves was the major activity. It was later expanded to all wars. But like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Presidents’ Day, it is has been converted into a commercial celebration, more of a time to spend money than decorate graves and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The weekend also ushers in summer vacation for school children, a time for Tom Sawyers to ditch their shoes and head for the river. Without school, families pack the kids into the car and head out on the great America highways. The AAA estimates that 42 million people will travel more than 50 miles to celebrate the holiday and the season; 37 million of those will go by car. Luckily, gasoline prices have declined nearly a dollar per gallon from last year, and according to NPR, drivers will save $1.6 billion on gas over Memorial Day 2022. Airline ticket prices are also down from an average $400 for a round-trip ticket to $328. But a hotel room costs more than last year, up to an average of $157 a night from $150.
AAA says the expected travel volume will be third on the all-time list, behind only 2005 and 2019. An interesting statistic, it indicates that the economy and travel were setting records until the Great Recession. Afterwards, travel and vacation spending recovered slowly, but steadily. After 14 years, the pandemic stopped everything dead in its tracks. This year marks the third year since the beginning of the pandemic and the third Memorial Day weekend with a recovering travel industry and economy. We are still behind 2005 and 2019, but gaining ground.
Although the weekend is the beginning of the summer season, it is not the best season for casinos. Casino gaming hits its peak in the fall and spring; in summer and winter, too many activities compete for the discretionary dollar. Zoos, local festivals, theme parks, family trips, and the ever-present shopping all divert the almighty dollar from gambling. Still, the weekend is very good for casinos, one of the peak spending holidays of the year and the last big hurrah before Labor Day.
Along with New Year’s Eve, Memorial Day is traditionally the best time of year to open a casino. In Atlantic City, it was the weekend that launched Resorts International, casino gambling on the Boardwalk, and the start of a national industry. This year, Kelsey Grammar was in Atlantic City for the annual beach ball drop and to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the opening of Resorts.
The Comstock Hotel and Casino opened in Reno that same weekend. Like Resorts, the Comstock was part of a dramatic expansion, albeit locally with no national implications. Six new casinos opened their doors in 1978 in Reno. Two were Las Vegas companies testing the northern Nevada waters. The city was filled with excitement and optimism. However, it has been a rocky road for those casinos and only the two from Las Vegas survive. Reno was swamped by a national wave of casino expansion. Indian gaming hit Reno particularly hard.
There will be no anniversary celebration for the Comstock, which closed in 2000. The gaming industry had changed too much in 20 years for a 1970s’ casino to be competitive. The Comstock was one of more than 25 casinos that threw in the towel between 1990 and 2000. The only celebration in 2023 for the shuttered Comstock was a celebration of the life of John Douglass, the casino’s first general manager, held on April 1. John had many friends and mourners, but few from the long-ago Comstock days.
This year another new casino, the Golden Nugget in Danville, Illinois, is opening on the first weekend of the summer season. This Golden Nugget is only a temporary facility; the permanent casino is expected to open in two years. It could be said that the Golden Nugget, like Resorts and the Comstock, represents a pivotal time for the state’s gaming industry. In 2019, Illinois enacted the Illinois Gambling Act. The Act legalized sports betting, authorized one additional video gaming terminal (VGT) in each location, and allowed for six additional casinos in the state. The most prominent is Bally’s in Chicago. Bally’s is currently working on a temporary casino; it will then begin on a permanent $1.6 billion casino resort. Temporary casinos are also operating in Rockford and Waukegan, Illinois.
At least symbolically, the Danville casino is ushering in a new era in gambling in Illinois. The increases authorized in 2019 are dramatic. The six new casinos in Illinois will be a 60 percent increase over the number operating in 2019. Also that year, 31,608 VGTs were operating in 6,918 locations and generated $1.6 billion in gross gaming revenue (GGR). In 2023, there are 45,950 VGTs and 8,289 retail sites, with a commensurate increase in revenue. When the permanent casinos are open and operating, the new casinos will add close to an estimated billion dollars a year in GGR. Combined, the casinos, sports revenue, and additional VGTs will double the total GGR of 2019.
The new era begun by casinos that opened in 1978 has faded. It is all but forgotten in the 21st century. However, Memorial Day 2023 is set to signal not just a new era, but a very different gaming industry than existed on that weekend 45 years ago. The casino industry in 1978 had legal casinos in just two states, Nevada and New Jersey. The only other wagering options were lotteries, horse races, and church and Indian bingo games. Today, only two states have no form of legal gambling. The 2023 gaming industry has casinos, lotteries, horse racing, charitable gaming and igaming, VGTs, and sports betting. As the famous car advertisement once said, it is not your grandfather’s gaming industry.