It’s amazing how fast a huge building can rise when all of the permitting is completed in a timely manner and ample financing is in place. Just ask Rob Norton, the general manager of the Cordish Co.-owned Live! Casino, in Hanover.
Ground was broken in September 2016 on the 5-year-old casino’s 17-story, 310-room hotel, and construction has been proceeding on schedule. “All of the floors are poured and, at this point, we’re up to floor five with the glass. Progress is great,” said Norton, noting that a mural at what will be the entry point, next to Phillips Seafood at the casino’s south end, is on the way.
“What’s surprised me is how magnificent the space is and how seamlessly it will be integrated with the casino,” he said, adding that the topping-off ceremony is slated for September and, if all goes as planned, the hotel will open in early 2018.
While it’s almost hard to recall the day when hotels were lacking in the BWI Business District, since it’s now home to about two dozen options, these accommodations will be different from what has previously risen in that area: Most of the 310 rooms will be targeted not for the general market, but for the casino gamers.
That makes sense, since the idea is that the casino gaming market will expand accordingly with the opening of the hotel, which will also feature a 1,500-seat event center, a spa, a restaurant concept by celebrity chef Tod English and 1,000 additional surface parking spaces, with the point being to bring in more gamers from greater distances.
“Due to our access to BWI [Thurgood] Marshall [Airport], we consider any area that has access to the airport [to be] part of our market,” said Norton, which includes not only Richmond and Norfolk, Va., but Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta, Ga., as well as the obvious pull of gamers who live within one to two hours driving distance. “Soon, we’ll be able to bring them in for longer stays and a better visit.”
That’s crucial today, given the recent opening of the MGM National Harbor and the ongoing competition from nearby Horseshoe Casino in Downtown Baltimore, which opened in 2014 and is owned by Caesars Entertainment.
The competition was expected to dent Live! Casino’s revenues and it has, though not as severely as some observers thought it would.
“There are things that we’re learning and identifying as we adjust to the [increasingly] competitive market,” Norton said, noting that Live! Casino is a nimble operation. “We can duke and dive faster than the big corps can,” Norton said. “That [makes it easier to deal with] the hand we were dealt. There weren’t supposed to be table games in Baltimore, for instance, so we had to modify the airplane while it was flying.”
While the basic Live! Casino is the same, Norton pointed out the multiple new options that have debuted under the roof in the five years since it opened, notably the poker room, dining options like Morty’s Delicatessen and Luk Fu, and some changes that are not as visible.
“We had 800 employees when we opened; now we employ 3,000 workers,” he said, “and the state owned the slot machines when we opened. Now we do.
“I think the addition of the hotel, event center, spa and some of the other amenities give us a competitive balance,” Norton said, “and we expect that we will see some recovery of lost revenues.”
And those updates “definitely help and makes [Live! Casino] a more attractive destination,” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “It’s not just for the gamblers, but [the additions] appeal to the gamblers, as well as appeal to the convention market, with the multi-purpose hall and the proximity to Arundel Mills, in this case.
“That approach usually works at casinos in other areas around the country,” Schwartz said. “It’s fairly common anymore. In Nevada, for instance, it’s the law that to build a casino, you have to build a 200-room hotel, too.”
He said the new hotel will not only drive the gaming, but the non-gaming, too, “because the people who stay there contribute to the economy in different ways. They spend money in various places, not just the casino.”
Schwartz added that Arundel Mills “was built in the first place with the idea of getting people to stay for a long weekend, and the new casino hotel will do nothing but strengthen that part of the market — and remember that Baltimore and all of its attractions are nearby.”
The added attraction will only tighten the market between Live! Casino and other casinos in the region, said James Karmel, a history professor at Harford Community College and an independent gaming consultant.
“That creates head-to-head competition with the MGM National Harbor,” said Karmel. “I don’t think Horseshoe has plans for a hotel at present, but if they go that route, it could be a real plus,” given that the casino is located along the main entryway to Baltimore on Downtown’s south side, in what’s being billed as an entertainment district.
“The new hotel at Live! Casino makes it more of a regional player,” Karmel said. “It doesn’t have the advantages of the MGM National Harbor, but it can sure expand its reach.”
Expanding its market is especially crucial for Live! Casino, because that will help blanket the market from Maine to Florida — aside from in the south, where Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia do not offer gaming.
“The problem with expanding in the south concerns where that would be possible,” he said. “Maybe Atlanta,” if gaming is approved in Georgia, where there is a push.
“But the growth in the casino market is international,” Karmel said, noting that Cordish is looking outside of the U.S. for its next moves, such as a project in Spain.
As for today, the focus is on the company’s next splash at Arundel Mills, which Norton said will be complete in about six months.
To the locals, that’s job one. “There’s still a lot to do,” he said, “and many details go into what appears to [people outside of the Cordish organization] to be seamless. We have hundreds of people to hire and train, and the Anne Arundel Community College hospitality program is a likely feeder. We also need to develop the call center, select sheets and towels, and other specifics for amenities.
“There are thousands of pages of details,” Norton said, “that need to be addressed.”