Stateline reinvents itself to stay competitive |

Stateline reinvents itself to stay competitive

Susan Wood, Tribune staff writer

Stateline casinos are bracing for the impact of the June 9 opening of the Thunder Valley Casino, the latest tribal gambling establishment near Lincoln.

Its Placer County location close to Interstate 80 — a major thoroughfare to Lake Tahoe and Reno — and experienced Las Vegas-based operator Station Casinos have challenged Tahoe-area casinos to reestablish and introduce their marketing strategies and programs.

Some Tahoe casino management sees the $215 million project on 49 acres owned by the United Auburn Indian Community as a threat, while others view it as an opportunity and catalyst.

“I think it will have a negative effect on Tahoe — how much is hard to project,” Lakeside Inn and Casino General Manager Mike Bradford said Thursday. “Already, the market is flat.”

In times of war and sputtering economic conditions in California and the nation, Stateline casinos have been holding their own with mostly break-even numbers — but nothing like the banner tourism years such as 2000 before the stock market nose-dived.

The opening of a 200,000-square-foot casino with 1,900 slot machines, 94 table games in more than a quarter of the space, along with a 500-seat buffet and parking for 3,000 vehicles, may prove to be poor timing for casinos trying to compete with those in other markets and each other.

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Harrah’s/Harveys Lake Tahoe Vice President of Marketing Skip Sayre is concerned with Thunder Valley’s revenue potential, calling it “a sobering thought.”

To fight the threat he believes Tahoe needs a promotional mix that touts the scenic beauty and outdoor recreation — part of the thinking behind the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority blue campaign.

The new casino may generate at least $200 million annually, Station Casino officials reported. The tribe’s spokesman, Doug Elmets, narrowed it down to 8,000 patrons a day. Elmets expects many of these people will be first-time gamblers, disputing the notion the casino’s marketing strategy intends to intercept the regular Northern Nevada gaming business.

“Our intent is to focus on the Sacramento Valley market. It was never the intent to build a casino to try to siphon business off Reno or the lake. Indian gaming is a niche business,” said Elmets, who represents the 255-member tribe. “People will still go to the lake because of other amenities like skiing, entertainment, conference capability, horseback riding, hiking and biking.”

That’s precisely what Stateline casino management has in mind.

Beyond Harrah’s return of an extensive summer concert series in Harveys parking lot and an $8.5 million Pacifica Seafood Buffet, Caesars Tahoe will rely on extra amenities to lure and keep its customers.

The Park Place Entertainment casino at Stateline has introduced a strong lineup of acts this summer and a new program that hooks its guests up with local outfitters such as Kayak Tahoe and Spooner Lake Cross Country Ski Area.

Casinos in Tahoe rely more than ever on the success of other activities in town to entertain visitors — especially according to a survey released at a tourism conference this week that ranks outdoor recreation first and gambling last as an area attribute.

Caesars General Manager Mark Rittorno said his casino will likely compete with Thunder Valley for the day-tripper.

But war, high gasoline prices and the economy require the business that caters to players to take a serious look at what is being offered a guest seeking a complete experience.

“March was soft. We feel it in the leisure business. Take your pick (of reasons). It’s probably a little bit of everything. So we’re doing a better job of targeting our business customer,” Rittorno said.

The Caesars chief is looking for base hits — not necessarily a home run — to keep his guests satisfied and returning.

“The thinking ‘don’t let them leave the building’ isn’t reality anymore,” he said.

Caesars buckled down and asked its employees why they live here. A resounding number supported the results of the survey by answering, “Outdoor recreation”.

Hence, Lake Tahoe Gateway was born. The quasi outdoor concierge service will be operated out of the casino’s ticket office. The program makes arrangements for hotel guests who want to go kayaking or mountain biking.

“Although we wouldn’t ignore the fact that it’s Station Casinos — they’re a reputable operator. We don’t see (the Roseville area) as a destination comparable to Tahoe. It will probably have a bigger impact on Reno than Tahoe,” Rittorno said.

Mainstream casinos have heard the drumbeat before.

Along with the Shingle Springs Indian casino planned off Highway 50, a 120,000-square-foot casino to be run by the Ione Band of Miwok Indians is proposed off Highway 49 in Amador County.

Horizon Casino management declined to comment on the issue.

“Casinos in Northern California will make an impact. I wouldn’t say things are difficult because of Thunder Valley. We’ve been in hard times. But I wouldn’t make light of the fact that it’s another casino,” Rittorno said.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at