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Best of John G. Brokopp

Gaming Guru

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New Empress Casino Making Most of a Tough Situation

19 August 2009

Maybe it was because my expectations were too high, or perhaps I didn't know what to expect, but I came away from last Thursday's re-opening of Empress Casino in Joliet with mixed feelings.

That may be too harsh a judgment to make on a day that was extremely busy and in light of the extraordinary effort it took to completely remodel the gaming barge just a little over three months after a fire destroyed the pavilion.

Nobody knows better than executives with Empress and parent company Penn National Gaming that to operate a casino in what has become a sophisticated gaming market without the amenities of a pavilion puts the property at an extreme disadvantage.

In a year and a half there will be a new pavilion, re-branded in a Hollywood Casino theme, but in the meantime the gaming barge is all they have.

Recreational gaming enthusiasts have come to expect a total entertainment experience from the casino properties they visit, and that's exactly what Empress has in mind when the pavilion eventually is rebuilt.

The gaming barge itself is huge, 50,000 square feet of floor space over two levels, but it is obvious that maxing out the gaming positions while at the same time incorporating a buffet and an expanded VIP lounge and high limit room created a negative impact on the comfort level of guests.

The top level is so jam-packed with slot machines that navigating the casino floor is a challenge. The aisles are narrow, creating traffic flow problems that escalate during peak periods of operation.

The slot carousels are so close together that at some points on the floor, players seated back to back further hinder the ability of guests to play and comfortably move around.

Empress officials placed a premium on attracting higher-end players when it was forging ahead with the $50-million renovation of the pavilion. When that all went up in smoke, making a more comfortable environment for high rollers remained a priority for the barge.

They've accomplished this with a large and very attractive VIP lounge and spacious high limit gaming area, but dedicating all that space to what is a small percentage of the casino's business when compared with the core customer base of average players may have been premature.

Developing a buffet on the barge was a bold and admirable move, more out of necessity than anything, but again, it takes up a lot of the space that could have been used to increase the comfort level of the gaming floor.

All of the table games have been relocated to the lower level, which also is home to the Take Two Deli and poker room.

Driving to the temporary entrance is a snap, there's plenty of parking, and valet service is fast and convenient.

It comes as no real surprise that Empress is dumping its Egyptian theme and morphing into a Hollywood Casino consistent with its sister property in Aurora.

Both locations are owned by Penn National Gaming, which is aggressively expanding what has become its premier brand in gaming jurisdictions across the country.

The company also has Hollywood casinos in Mississippi (Bay St. Louis and Tunica), as well as Baton Rouge, La., Bangor, Me., and Penn National Race Course in Philadelphia, Pa.

Argosy Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind., one of Penn National's most successful destinations, re-opened last Friday as a Hollywood Casino in a new 150,000 sq. ft. gaming vessel with 3,200 slots, 90 table games, and 41 live poker tables.

John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp
John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp