The Casino Metro is betting the house on new slots, gaming tables and special events to continue bucking the negative trend hitting the industry, as it marks six years of operations at the convention center district in Miramar, casino General Manager Ismael Vega said.
In an exclusive interview with this media outlet, Vega said the growth strategy has included investing $1 million split equally over the past two years, with another $500,000 injection planned in 2016, to keep the casino on trend with other gaming facilities competing for the same gamblers.
“This casino opened in 2009, in the middle of the recession, which was a difficult year for the Metro and other Puerto Rico casinos,” he said. “Things were tough, and continue to be.”
However, tough times have called for “reinvention and thinking outside the box,” Vega said.
For example, the industry veteran said the Casino Metro is adding special events to the mix, such as airing boxing matches and other sports, and making the most of its central bar area.
“We have a beautiful bar located right in the center of the casino, which we’re using to host private events, live music and different types of activities,” he said. “We’re trying to think outside the box to attract new clients.”
“The casino is much more than just a gaming facility. It’s an entertainment center, where you can listen to music and enjoy food tastings, which we sometimes do,” Vega said. “Yes, times are tough, but we have to innovate. I’ve tried to focus on that.”
Vega took over the position of general manager at the Metro Casino about a year ago. But his experience in the tourism sector goes beyond overseeing slots and tables. Vega was past president of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, dedicating his tenure to addressing a number of industry issues, including the trade group’s efforts to establish a Destination Management Organization for Puerto Rico.
Now, he said, the casino industry must dare to aggressively fight to move forward, by — among other things — recruiting personnel and “believing in our own resources.”
That said, the Casino Metro is bumping up its payroll with the addition of about 25 new employees this year and 10 more in coming weeks and early 2016, as it moves to expand its operating hours. In total, the casino will have 145 employees after the new recruits are added, he said.
Longer hours at the gaming tables began two weeks ago, and the casino will continue to add days until most of the tables are on a 24-hour schedule, he said.
“If we can achieve that, we’re going to also expand our tables area, going from 11 to 15 with four new tables,” he said.
Black Jack, roulette and dice tables will be added while the poker area will be slightly scaled back, Vega said.Plans call for adding Black Jack, roulette and dice tables, while the poker area will be slightly scaled back.
Facing tough odds
Puerto Rico’s casino industry has been facing some rather tough odds in recent years, aside from operating during some 10 years in depressed economic conditions. The sector has also been competing against the arrival of videolottery machines, which have been proliferating rapidly across commercial establishments islandwide.
The effects of those challenges have been evident with the closing of several major casinos in the last couple of years, including the ones formerly run at the El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, the Condado Plaza Hilton in San Juan and the Sheraton Old San Juan.
At its peak, the casino industry generated some $315 million a year in revenue, which was split between the establishments and the government. In fiscal 2015, that number was reduced to $278 million, of which the 19 casinos remaining kept about $135 million. The rest was divided to fund the University of Puerto Rico, the Tourism Co. and the Treasury Department.
But the Metro, which enjoys a healthy mix of locals and tourists — particularly convention-goers staying at the Sheraton Convention Center hotel — has no plans to scale back.
“We have all of the attributes, albeit at a smaller scale, that you can aspire to have and see in other casinos, like in Las Vegas, for example,” Vega said. “We’re adding new machines, of all shapes and sizes, to stay on par with the industry.”
That growth in the type and number of slots, he said, is attributed to the flexibility recently granted by the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.’s gaming division, which in September amended the industry’s regulations “to respond to the times,” Vega said.
“In no way does it mean less oversight. There’s oversight and greater flexibility to be able to operate more efficiently and be able to add new and innovative products,” he said.
For the majority of Puerto Rico’s casinos, slot machines provide a consistent flow of traffic, mostly from local residents. Tables, on the other hand, show fluctuations that depend on the season and the size of the casino, Vega said.
“If it’s a large casino, such as the Casino Metro, El San Juan, the Ritz Carlton, the Marriott, and La Concha, when there are more tourists, we notice the positive fluctuation at the gaming tables. December and January are good months for tables,” he said.
The Casino Metro will be celebrating its 6th anniversary during the week of Nov. 15-22, with a full agenda of events and giveaways for visiting clients.