MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — On a recent weekday morning, the parking lots at Foxwoods Resort Casino were crowded with cars registered in Massachusetts. They were parked there by patrons who drove an hour or more to play the games, but in a few years will have Las Vegas-style gambling much closer to home.
Foxwoods is fighting to keep those Bay State customers, or as many as possible. The tribal casino, now 20 years old, is expanding with a new outlet mall, remodeling parts of its existing $3 billion complex, and stepping up its marketing.
“Other properties may be able to offer convenience, but that’s just one box to check,” Scott Butera, Foxwoods president and chief executive, said in an interview in his office.
The coming competition from Massachusetts is also reverberating in Rhode Island, which will permit table games at the Twin River slot parlor in Lincoln to protect $300 million in tax money the state collects annually from casino gambling. In New Hampshire, the exit of Governor John Lynch, a casino skeptic, has revived a push to legalize Las Vegas-style games to beat Massachusetts to market.
Butera figures that Foxwoods, which is 100 miles from Boston, has until late 2016 to ready itself for a new wave of competition from Bay State gambling resorts. Massachusetts is planning to license as many as three casino resorts and one slot parlor, with the intent to intercept Foxwoods’ customers and keep them in-state.
To broaden its attractions, Foxwoods intends to break ground this spring on a “premium outlet retail mall” of about 75 stores, said Butera. The casino also plans to revamp its existing retail concourse with “very modern, hip new stores.”
Foxwoods, and its nearby tribal casino competitor Mohegan Sun, felt the bite of competition in recent years from New York, which began to open slot parlors in 2004, and Pennsylvania, which opened its first casino in 2007, according to the American Gaming Association.
“It is difficult to compete with assets that are more convenient,” said Butera. “You’ve got to accept the fact you will lose some part of your business.”
Foxwoods need only look to Atlantic City for a lesson on the perils of new gambling businesses popping up in emerging markets.
In 2006, Atlantic City casinos reported $5.2 billion in gambling revenue, said Greg Roselli, a casino analyst for UBS Securities. Since that 2006 peak, new competition has cut into Atlantic City’s business; the city’s gambling revenue the last 12 months was about $3.1 billion, he said.
“The two main hits to A.C. have been Pennsylvania and New York, and obviously the macro economy,” said Roselli, who said Hurricane Sandy may have depressed business at New Jersey casinos in 2012, though not by enough to dramatically affect the numbers.
Foxwoods is in “a decent amount” of danger from new competition from Massachusetts, Roselli said. “It’s hard to quantify what Foxwoods is going to lose and what the impact on their bottom is going to be, but they’re going to feel a hit.” He said Foxwoods appears more vulnerable than Mohegan Sun, which depends less on Massachusetts customers.
About 32 percent of Foxwoods’ patrons are from Massachusetts, according to estimates from Clyde Barrow, a casino specialist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; Mohegan Sun gets about 20 percent from the Bay State.
Saverio Scheri, chief executive of WhiteSand Gaming, a gambling industry consulting firm, said Foxwoods enjoys a tremendous headstart in developing loyalty among regional casino customers, and is in a solid position to market to its existing patrons.
“It’s important they keep the property up to date,” he said. “A customer will not drive past one casino to go to another without a compelling reason, when they all have the same slot machines.”
Some customers can be persuaded to drive further for more interesting restaurants and entertainment, a greater confidence that the facility is safe, and superior customer service, he said.
In Rhode Island this year, lawmakers moved to protect revenue at two state slot parlors by asking voters to approve table games, such as blackjack, as an additional attraction. Voters in November approved table games at one facility, Twin River, in Lincoln, which already offers about 4,700 slots.
Twin River expects to open 65 table games by next July, according to a spokeswoman.
In New Hampshire, the election of a new governor, Democrat Maggie Hassan, has revived an effort to legalize casino gaming. “There is certainly the potential for change,” said University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala.
Casino proponents in New Hampshire make the same argument proponents did in Massachusetts: Local casinos would keep gamblers from spending money across the state line.
“I don’t want to say it’s peer pressure,” said Scala, “but there is a bit of a sense that we should get into the action before people get set in their ways,” and develop loyalty to casinos in Massachusetts.