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Travel and Tourism

Looking for Better Odds

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelley says MGM Springfield is ready and waiting for the state to give the green light to sports betting.

 

As he talked with BusinessWest for this issue’s focus on travel and tourism, Chris Kelley was lamenting a huge opportunity lost.

He was talking, of course, about March Madness, the college basketball tournaments that grab and hold the nation’s attention for two weeks. Even more specifically, Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, was referring to the gambling and related activity that goes with that madness — everything that can’t happen at his facility because Massachusetts has yet to legalize sports gambling while most all the states surround it have.

“It’s the largest sports event, bar none, around the country, and to be now literally surrounded by states that offer that experience — most poignantly, in the case of MGM Springfield, Connecticut — is just an extraordinary challenge for the city, for our workforce, for our guests, and for the property,” he explained, adding that, while he continues to have conversations with state legislators about passing a sports-betting bill, when it comes to March Madness, he can only wait until next year.

Fortunately, though, that is not the case with most other aspects of his multi-faceted business.

Indeed, there are plenty of positive developments at the casino complex on Main Street that are creating an optimistic outlook for 2022 as the tourism sector and the region in general look to put COVID in their collective rear view.

For starters, there was the Massachusetts Building Trades Council’s annual convention, staged a few weeks ago at MGM. This was the first large-scale gathering of its kind at the resort casino since before the COVID, said Kelley, adding that there are a number of other events on the calendar as businesses, trade groups and associations, and other entities return to in-person events.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life.”

Such events are a big step in the return to normalcy and, of course, comprise a huge revenue stream for the casino operation.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life,” he explained.

Meanwhile, on the entertainment side of the ledger, there are similar steps toward normalcy, or what was seen prior to the pandemic, said Kelley, noting there are a number of shows slated at the casino, the MassMutual Center, and Symphony Hall, featuring performers such as Jay Leno, Chelsea Handler, John Mulaney, Brit Floyd, and many others.

“Entertainment is coming back in a much bigger way in 2022 than we saw the past few years,” said Kelley, adding that, in addition to those events at the larger venues, MGM Springfield is bringing back its popular Free Music Friday in the casino’s plaza, something that was started last summer.

“It was an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to folks and give the community a reason to come back together, but it was such a success that we’re going to bring it back again. And, obviously, the price is right,” he said, adding that program provides an opportunity to showcase local talent.

Overall, the past two years have been a difficult, often frustrating time for all those in casino industry, which had to pivot and adjust to new ways of doing business during the pandemic, said Kelley, adding that it was also a learning experience, one that is yielding dividends and will continue to do so as MGM eases back to something approaching normal.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride in every sense of the word,” he said in summing up the past 24 months. “Our ability to adjust quickly and be agile in the way that we operate, as well as our ability to provide an environment for health and safety that our guests felt comfortable engaging with — those were all unique challenges relative to a business that is not accustomed to closing and had never really experienced the types of changes that COVID required, whether it was six-foot-high pieces of plexiglass or the inability to serve drinks on the floor, or a face-mask policy.

“But all of that being said, I think we’ve come out of this a stronger operation than we were when we went into it,” he went on. “Just look at technology … we’re now able to offer everything from digital menus to digital check-in, our guests’ ability to interact with us through technology has increased exponentially, and that’s just one example of what I mean by coming out of this stronger. We’ve become a much more agile team now, and that’s to the benefit of the guest experience.”

As for sports betting, Kelley said the conversations are ongoing, and he’s optimistic that something can get done — hopefully before March Madness 2023. In anticipation of such a measure, the casino has added new amenities, including a large viewing area, a sports lounge on the floor of the casino, and a VIP viewing area in TAP Sports Bar.

“We’re ready to move forward the minute we see a green light on this issue,” he said, adding that he’s hoping, and expecting, that the light will change soon.

 

— George O’Brien

Opinion

Opinion

‘How are they doing?’

That’s the question that seemingly everyone is asking these days, with the ‘they’ obviously being MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino complex in Springfield’s South End. Everyone wants to know how they’re doing because this is the biggest business development in this part of the state in who knows how long, the expectations were and are sky-high, and the stakes — for MGM, the state, the city, and the region — are equally high.

And people want to know because, well, it’s not clear just how well they’re doing so far. The revenue numbers, meaning GGR (gross gambling revenues), are not on pace to come close to what MGM told the state they would be for the first year of operation at this facility — just over $400 million. Indeed, over the first six months or so of operation, MGM Springfield was averaging just over $20 million per month. You can do the math.

But beyond the revenues, there are other signs that perhaps this casino is not performing as well as all or most us thought it would and hope it will.

Going all the way back to opening day, the traffic, the lines to get in, the crowds of people downtown just haven’t materialized. Yes, there have been some big days (usually Saturday nights) when it’s difficult to maneuver around downtown Springfield, but not as many as we were led to believe.

Thus the question, ‘how are they doing?’

It’s a difficult question to answer because there are many ways to answer it, and aside from those really qualified to answer that query, no one truly knows.

More to the point, and Mike Mathis said this to BusinessWest for a recent interview, it’s still early in the game when it comes to both gaming in Massachusetts and MGM Springfield, and perhaps much too early to be drawing conclusions about how MGM will fare even this year, let alone in the years to come.

He’s right. These early months can tell us something about how MGM Springfield is going to perform over the long term, but they’re not going to tell us everything. Several of these first months have come in late fall and winter, a typically slow period in this region for both business and tourism.

Meanwhile, MGM Springfield is still very much in the process of trying to figure out what works in this market and what doesn’t, and how to achieve maximum efficiency for this multi-faceted operation. Mathis and others at MGM call this period ‘ramping up,’ and they project it might take three years to get all the way up the ramp.

But there are many reasons for optimism, starting with a change of season and the likelihood that MGM will make far better use of its vast and unique outdoor facilities. There’s also the emerging ROAR! Comedy Club and a multi-year partnership agreement recently inked with the Boston Red Sox that will make MGM Springfield the team’s ‘official and exclusive resort casino’ (replacing Foxwoods in Connecticut) and home to its January Winter Weekend.

Finally, when it comes to the ‘how are they doing?’ question, the most important aspect of the answer relates not to revenues for the state‚ although those are important, but impact on the city of Springfield and the surrounding region.

In the years and then months leading up to the casino’s opening, area officials — and those of us at BusinessWest — said MGM was going to be big piece of the puzzle, not the entire picture. It was going to be a big contributor to the overall vibrancy in the region, but just one of many potential contributors.

Overall, we expected the casino to be a catalyst, not a cure-all, a force that would help put Springfield on the map and help bring people to that spot that on the map.

Maybe all the revenues are not as solid as we hoped they would be, but thus far, the casino is doing most everything we anticipated it might do.

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