Two decades ago, when Iowa’s casino industry was launched, the
attraction was gambling and cruising on riverboats. On the riverboats, “every inch counted,” said Carrie Tedore, spokeswoman for Dubuque-based Peninsula Gaming, which operates the Diamond Jo Casino
in Dubuque and the Diamond Jo Northwood in Northern Iowa. “Now, we have room for all these amenities.”|By David DeWitte, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Sept. 19–Two decades ago, when Iowa’s casino industry was launched, the attraction was gambling and cruising on riverboats.
On the riverboats, “every inch counted,” said Carrie Tedore, spokeswoman for Dubuque-based Peninsula Gaming, which operates the Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque and the Diamond Jo Northwood in Northern Iowa. “Now, we have room for all these amenities.”
As the industry moves toward age 21 next April, Iowa’s 18 state-licensed casinos — and to some extent its three native-American casinos — have become diverse entertainment centers built around a core of gambling.
They are often the largest performance venues in the communities they serve, Iowa Gaming Association CEO Wes Ehrecke said, and have branched out to offer spas, golf courses, fine dining, shopping and banquet facilities.
There are even casinos in the state with a shooting range and a bowling alley.
“You’re always looking at your competition and trying to make sure yous has something more desirable than your competition,” said Dan Franz, general manager of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, which opened in August 2006 with a hotel, spa, restaurants and one of the first 18-hole casino-owned-and-operated golf courses in the state.
“It is to some extent to appeal to somebody who’s interested invvsomething other than pure gaming.
“We’ve had up to 3,800 (attendees) for our summer outdoor concert series, and we usually average 2,500 to 2,800,” Franz said.
Although many guests just come for the concerts, those events also drive business at the casino and its restaurants, he noted. The financial performance of the restaurants at Riverside have greatly exceeded the pre-opening expectations, he said.
The casino and resort complex already is thinking about some renovations to its hotel area, and Franz said thought has been given to adding an RV park — although nothing has been decided yet on either proposal.
Broadening the attraction beyond pure gaming works on multiple levels to attract customers and keep them longer, according to Tedore, who is also a spokeswoman for Peninsula Gaming’s Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque.
It can bring in customers who aren’t interested in gambling and can melt barriers for couples that include one spouse who isn’t interested in gambling. It can also bring in large groups for business conferences, weddings and other events.
The Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque moved from a riverboat-based operation to its new land facility in December 2008, adding a long list of amenities including the 30-lane Cherry Lanes Bowling Center.
“A lot of people said, ‘Why a bowling center?'”Tedore recalled. Peninsula Gaming actually had responded carefully to a market need,
however. Tedore said Dubuque hadn’t had a new bowling facility in close to a half-century, and the bowling center could attract tournaments during the winter months of January, February and March when local hotels often had lower occupancy rates.
The casino’s Missisisippi Moon Bar offered a performance space that seats 990. Part of the attraction of seeing acts in a casino bar, Tedore said, is that longtime fans frequently can find seating within 10 or 20 feet of “superstars” such as Rich Little and Uncle Kracker that they’ve previously seen only from a distance in much larger venues.
The casino’s Mojo’s Sports Bar hosts a weekly radio show by broadcaster Gary Dolphin during Big 10 football season.
Comedy acts and longtime touring acts of yesteryear have become the staple fare of many Iowa casinos, but events also can range from gun shows to recordings of television programs. The Diamond Jo, for example, features a Broadcast Center that hosts disc jockeys from throughout the region.
Isle Casino Hotel in Waterloo has hosted such diverse shows as the Black Hawk County Street Machines Car Show and American Pickers, the antique-hunting TV show.
Hotels are usually integral to new casinos in Iowa, according to the Iowa Gaming Association’s Ehrecke. Having a hotel allows a casino to draw from a larger area, and for groups such as wedding receptions and business conferences, Ehrecke noted.
The Diamond Jo Dubuque is one of the few newer casinos in Iowa without a hotel. Tedore said the casino chose instead to work closely with the nearby Grand River Center and Hotel Julien Dubuque, which provided reduced rates to its Diamond Club members.
In addition to all the nongaming offerings, casino operators said they strive to bring their gaming customers the slot machines and games that are popular at the time.
The Isle Casino Hotel Waterloo, for example, added more than 60 new slot games to its casino floor in 2011, spokeswoman Kelly Heth said.
“We look at changing about 10 percent of our (slot machine) floor out per year, or to do conversions,” added Franz of Riverside Casino and Golf Resort.
He said slot machines can cost $15,000 to $20,000, so it’s useful to update machines when possible. Riverside also leases some of its slot machines, which enables it to swap them out for different models on 30-days’ notice.
Riverside also rotates table games to vary the experience for regular customers. Franz said Riverside typically will keep the newer games at least long enough for customers to learn them adequately before deciding if the, machines should become long-term offerings or be rotated out.
Casinos in Iowa attract nearly 23 million visitors per year, according to the Ehrecke. He said the number of out-of-state casino guests can reach up to 65 percent, with most of them coming from Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska.
Only two casinos in Iowa still have riverboats, Ehrecke said, and both of those now have substantial land-based facilities. Iowa’s racetracks all have table casino games, he added.
The Meskwaki Bingo Casino near Tama did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
(c)2011 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)