January 17, 2022 Casino, Land Based, Interview

High flyers


Gaming America examines the rising trend of charter airline services set up by operators in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. We speak with Joe Lupo, President of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, on their overall role in a company’s offering, how they can benefit the land-based industry and the environmental impact of aviation.

Brick-and-mortar properties, for so long the backbone and central pillar of the gaming industry, have faced innumerous challenges of late. Not least the closing of their own venues, but also the shutting of borders, preventing travel to some of the most esteemed and glamorous resorts that gaming has to offer. Land-based casinos and resorts have bounced back hugely since – but how can they keep it up? Well, some operators think they have an answer, one they hope could bring new swathes of visitors to the blackjack and roulette tables that have supported the gaming industry for so long.

Chartered air travel, flying to a resort, is not something that seems particularly unique. We fly regularly, with 50% of Americans taking one or more vacations a year, according to a recent study conducted by The Points Guy. It would seem gaming operators are tuned in to this want to travel following almost two years of lockdown. With that in mind, recent months have seen a number of the industry's most prominent operators agree to deals that will see their patrons flown to casinos in high-end and relatively exclusive charter services. From Hard Rock to MGM Resorts International and Ceasars Entertainment, this is a trend that is gaining traction throughout the US land-based market.

The adoption of these services raises a series of questions: is this an attempt to add convenience to the land-based casino in response to the ever-growing popularity of mobile gaming, or an attempt to brand the casino experience as an exclusive high-class vacation for travel-hungry Americans? What of the impact of regularly flying crowds of people large distances? Can operators commit to sustainability when they are willingly polluting the environment? To find out some answers we spoke to Joe Lupo, President of Hard Rock Casino & Hotel Atlantic City, about the operator's Hard Rock Air service, while also studying the other offerings made available to Americans. 

How important is Hard Rock Air to the Hard Rock brand?

Hard Rock Air facilitates and creates an accessible means of travel for customers who are at least a four-hour drive away. The program turns their trip into an easy, 45-minute luxury excursion to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, offering an unforgettable travel experience from departure to arrival.

Travel was halted for an extended period of time over the last 18 months. How do you think offerings such as Hard Rock Air can help boost the number of visitors to Hard Rock resorts post-pandemic?

While Hard Rock Atlantic City has seen tremendous market growth since opening three years ago, it’s important we speak to a wide range of customers in a market that overall has seen declines over the past year and a half. Hard Rock Air has and will continue to boost visitor frequency at our resort. The ease of travel utilizing fixed-base operator private jet terminals, combined with a shorter trip time, allows us to speak to a wider range of customers, which is critical to success in this market.

As mobile gaming continues to grow throughout the US, some might say the land-based segment is being forced to adapt. Is a tailored travel service that offers a sense of exclusivity the best way to sustain the land-based industry?

I respectfully disagree. Online gaming enables us to speak to more customers, providing the opportunity to offer them a premium and unique experience inclusive of live entertainment, fine dining, spa visits, and time on the beach; all of which are experiences that online gaming will simply never be able to provide or replicate.

Lastly, what would you say about the environmental impact of flying people across the country year-round?

Hard Rock Air holds a very exclusive amount of customers, only 30 per plane. This allows for a very intimate and customized experience that our customer base truly enjoys.

With that said, I’m proud of all the hard work and initiatives that Hard Rock International and its properties enact to save the planet, which has been a core motto long before environmental issues were widely supported. Hard Rock International’s ongoing support of various environmental organizations such as Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, National Arbor Day Foundation, Farm Aid, Concert for the Oceans Foundation, Surfrider Foundation USA and SurfAid International displays the company’s commitment toward a cleaner, eco-friendly world.

Hard Rock is by no means the only operator to introduce a chartered airline service in recent months, but Lupo’s comments reflect the wider tone of other chartered services. November saw Caesars Entertainment sign a five-year agreement with Sun Country Airlines to fly patrons to several Caesars-operated properties across the country, with both parties citing convenience and reliability as imperative. MGM Resorts International also announced the beginning of charter flights to its Borgata Atlantic City Casino in June, allowing residents of up to 75 cities to fly into the famed New Jersey property, offering travel via a 173-seat 737-800 airplane. In both cases, the operators’ most valued customers, Seven Star Caesars users and MGM M Life members, fly for free, once again emphasizing the notion that these services act to create a sense of exclusivity.

Exclusivity, in fact, is the word stamped over every charter announcement. Operators clearly want a trip to a land-based property to be seen as an event, not simply logging into a mobile app. Hard Rock Air is described by the company as an “unforgettable travel experience from departure to arrival.“ However, as reflected in Lupo’s comments, the service should not work to replace the convenience of mobile, perhaps because it never can. But, rather, it should work in tandem with an operator’s other offerings to create a sense of exclusivity and luxury forcompanies’ most valued customers.

This exclusivity comes at a cost, however, with the global aviation industry accounting for around 12% of all emissions produced by humans and having an undoubtedly large impact on climate change. Of course, the weight of responsibility does not fall solely on these operators: the emissions produced by these charter services will be negligible. Yet, if companies like Hard Rock want all the work they put into making their business sustainable to have an impact, perhaps there is a better way of creating this sense of luxury.

Ultimately, charter services will not save the land-based casino industry because, as things stand, it does not need saving. The segment faced impossible challenges over the last two years and has rebounded in astonishing fashion, with many operators across the country reporting record revenues. These services can offer something new, though. As Lupo highlighted and as is present in every piece of marketing involved from operators, charter airlines can work to build upon the identity that the land-based industry wishes to portray to its customers: an exclusive, luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The offering also clearly taps into a want among the American population that has arisen in response to lockdown.

People want to get away after months inside, and when it is safe to do so, these operators are clearly ready to fly you from almost anywhere to experience the nation’s premium casinos. Moreover, these services act an interesting balance to the ease and simplicity that mobile has brought to gaming, conjuring a traditional image of the casino, of well-dressed patrons and high rollers. There are questions that operators must identify solutions to, specifically ones related to the sustainability of the aviation industry in general.

When contrasted to the cornucopia of sustainability efforts operators engage in, the choice to invest in an industry that is distinctly unsustainable should be examined. Overall, the rise of the charter service is an interesting phenomenon, part convenience part luxury, and it will be intriguing to see where this takes the land-based casino sector in the years to come.

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