The first visit to a casino remains a rite of passage for a group of newly minted adults like Jared Vejtruba of St. Paul, who celebrated his 18th birthday on a recent Friday night with a stop at the blackjack tables at Mystic Lake before heading to his ultimate destination, a downtown Minneapolis nightclub.
The challenge emerging for casinos in Minnesota and across the country is to get Vejtruba and others like him to stay longer — and come back for more. That’s proving a tough sell to a generation looking for Instagram-worthy nights out and reared on interactive games on their phones that make some traditional but lucrative casino games seem boring.
“I’ll never do slots,” Vejtruba said. “It’s not fun for me to sit in front of a screen and press buttons.”
Minnesota’s 18 casinos, especially the most successful ones like Mystic Lake in Prior Lake and Grand Casino in Onamia and Hinckley, are at a generational crossroads. Like their counterparts across the country, they’re being forced to “rethink their casino floor” to lure the up-and-coming gambler, said Dave Palermo, an author who has studied tribal governments and casino gaming for more than two decades.
The Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut added a tattoo parlor last fall; Las Vegas is now operating the world’s tallest, LED-lit Ferris wheel. In Atlantic City, free-throw basketball shooting contests, pinball and games based on smartphone favorites like “Angry Birds” and “Words with Friends” are replacing the dated, cartoonish characters of early slot machines.
To lure younger crowds, Minnesota’s tribal casinos are banking on table games, such as blackjack and baccarat, which demand some degree of skill but are also more costly to operate. The casinos are also adding or more heavily promoting spas, fitness centers and other entertainment options. In Mystic Lake’s summer concert lineup, Kesha appeals to a different crowd than baby boomer standbys such as Styx and Hank Williams Jr.
“Kids are growing up today where practically everything they do is electronic, and they’re really well-versed with that,” said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. “They want more and more, and in Minnesota, there’s only so much we can offer, but I think we’re holding our share of the market in how we do off of that.”
Minnesota’s tribes are not required to disclose gaming revenue, but an estimate from an economist who studies the gaming industry, Alan Meister, put it at about $1.5 billion for 2014. Nationally, the Indian gaming industry drew $28.9 billion in revenue that year, Meister said. Nongaming amenities grew at nearly twice the rate as gaming.
Placing new bets
At Mystic Lake, crowds of young gamblers regularly cluster around party-style “cosmic blackjack” every Friday and Saturday. Behind half-moon-shaped tables, dealers amp up the players as ESPN games stream, disco lights flash and Nicki Minaj’s boom-boom bass blares from speakers.
A free shuttle carts revelers to Canterbury Park, 4 miles away, where horse racing is supplemented by a 24-hour Card Casino that offers blackjack, poker and baccarat. At Canterbury, the percentage of players younger than 30 has consistently risen since 2013, according to the company’s records, and 66 percent of that group’s activities are table games.
A group of teens at Canterbury on a Saturday night played baccarat, a game that Brett Ebhardt first learned online along with poker.
“We were just kinda bored, thinking of stuff to do, trying to make money,” said Ebhardt, 19, of Bloomington. Ebhardt, who starts at the University of Minnesota this fall, doesn’t visit Mystic Lake because of “the whole smoking thing” — cigarettes are allowed indoors there — and he also is “not into slots.”
Before embarking for Aqua, a nightclub in Minneapolis’ North Loop, Vejtruba’s celebratory crew at Mystic Lake stopped at the noodle bar — one dining option in addition to a steakhouse and all-you-can-eat buffet. That night, comedian Tracy Morgan’s jokes drew crowds to the casino’s 2,100-seat showroom; Kesha performs Thursday.
A 2013 American Gaming Association (AGA) survey found that slots are much less popular among visitors between the ages of 21 and 35. Young visitors are more likely to identify blackjack as their favorite casino game and more likely to participate in activities outside of gambling — shopping, going to a show or clubbing, the AGA survey found.
“We’re so high-tech that playing at a slot machine …” Danny Haslach, 18, of Maplewood, half-joked. “If you compare it to our modern technology, it’s not that stimulating.”
Teaming up in south metro
Mystic Lake and Canterbury Park, the south metro’s twin multimillion-dollar gambling hubs, make up half of “RiverSouth,” the south metro’s recently branded partnership with Wisconsin Dells-sized dreams.
RiverSouth is marked by green highway road signs on Hwy. 169, a short drive from other partner Valleyfair’s roller coasters and amusements on County Road 101. The 2012 partnership between Mystic Lake and Canterbury succeeded the latter venue’s long, futile attempt to become a “racino,” or add slot machines to augment racing purses. Both organizations say their gaming is complementary, as Mystic Lake’s state compacts restrict its gaming to blackjack and slot machines.
While tribal casinos in Minnesota don’t publish data, typically 80 to 90 percent of their revenue comes from slots, according to Palermo. Another consideration: Table games demand more labor and yield less profit.
Saying goodbye to the “old-fashioned three bells and cherries”of slot machines, McCarthy said vendors are increasingly offering electronic games that involve more “bells and whistles,” players and skill. Now “you can play like three games on one machine at one time,” he said.
Getting more social
“It remains to be seen whether millennials will gamble to the same extent as the older generation,” said Alex Bumazhny, a financial analyst at Fitch Ratings who studies gambling. But nationally, trends at commercial casinos have shown “less interest in slot gaming and more interest in amenities,” such as food and drink or entertainment, Bumazhny said.
At Mystic Lake, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is building a hotel and convention center to open next year. More gathering spaces are a priority, said Ed Stevenson, president and CEO of the tribe’s gaming enterprise, who will retire from his 21-year career this fall. Examples include the Drinx Lounge — the casino started offering alcohol in 2012 — the Lobby Lounge, other pop-up lounges, and an outdoor patio that hosts “Rock and Rockets” and “Rib Fest” events.
Mystic Lake and Little Six Casinos will also release their first mobile app this month. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Grand Casino announced a slate of new restaurants and bars.
At Canterbury Park, Michael Hochman, vice president of casino operations, is reminding all visitors: “Poker is fun.” While its primary business is horse racing, Canterbury’s Card Casino draws devout poker players and has recently hosted women-only seminars to share the game in a “nonthreatening atmosphere,” Hochman said. The venue is also expanding its outdoor parties and adding “Craft Spirits” events.
Poker players can now also charge devices at outlet-equipped tables, and many players multiply their entertainment with tablets or cellphones. What was once “you can’t have a cellphone at the table,” Hochman said, became “it would be unusual for you not to have it.”