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Chris Jones

Nevadan At Work: Bingo Paves Way for Plaza Exec's Success

9 May 2005

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- For Bobby Taylor, the path to success has been clearly marked by a series of bouncing balls.

Since spring 2001, the 57-year-old Texan known as "Bingo Bobby" has overseen bingo operations at the Plaza in downtown Las Vegas.

In that span, his 20-person staff has helped turn the church-parlor pastime into a key casino moneymaker for Barrick Gaming Group, the Las Vegas-based company that owns the Plaza and several other downtown hotel-casinos.

In addition to running 13 daily games at the Plaza and a sister casino, Taylor organizes four annual "Super Bingo" events that attract players from across North America and Europe.

Offering up to $125,000 in cash prizes, those events have become so popular that this month's next scheduled Super Bingo sold out two months in advance although it lacked supporting advertising.

"It's just a following I've built up over the years," Taylor said when asked what's made his bingo games so popular. "I really try to talk to customers, give them the service they need.

"Most places look at it like, 'Bingo loses money so why comp someone?' But they don't realize while a bingo player is here, they may drop $2,000 on the slot machines, too."

The Plaza's 400-seat bingo room typically draws a combined 900 to 1,000 players to its eight daily sessions, and Taylor hopes a pending expansion will further increase those figures.

In addition, Barrick recently opened a second bingo room at the Western, one of four downtown gambling halls the company acquired from Jackie Gaughan for $82 million in March 2004 .

Taylor hopes the added space will allow more Southern Nevadans to get acquainted with "Bingo Bobby."

"Right now about 80 percent of our play comes from visitors," he said. "We're just getting started trying to build our clientele so we can compete better in the local market."

Question: With so many career paths out there, even within a limited industry such as gaming, what brought you to bingo?

Answer: Back in Texas I started playing bingo a little bit and I realized that the state had enacted laws that allowed an individual to own a bingo hall and lease it out to nonprofit organizations. I did some research into that and opened my first bingo hall in Texas in 1983.

Question: How did you earn a living before that?

Answer: It was a dramatic career change for me. I had worked in the plants there in Texas, doing industrial work.

Question: Was that change difficult?

Answer: It came pretty easily since bingo was something I really wanted to do. I pursued it with everything and didn't look back.

I had to be licensed by the state, so that required background checks and things like that, so I went to another man, Chuck Bertani, who was the biggest commercial bingo operator in Texas.

He was kind enough to tell me what I needed to do, who I needed to talk to and what applications needed to be filled out.

He took me under his wing and helped me through the process since the hall I was going to open was in Freeport, a different jurisdiction, and wouldn't be competing with his.

Question: How did you pay for your first bingo hall?

Answer: I got a partner to invest in exchange for half of the business. It probably required about $100,000 (in startup money).

I stayed there for a while, then went out on my own to open a larger bingo hall in Port Arthur. I ran it for five years, and out of 1,800 commercial bingo halls in Texas my hall was No. 1 in profits for the organizations three out of those five years.

It was in the top five the other two years.

Question: Given your success in Texas, what caused you to leave for Las Vegas?

Answer: We had vacationed here two or three times a year and we just knew this was where we wanted to be. So I sold my business in Texas and moved here basically with no idea what I was going to do for work.

I went to dealing school and realized that wasn't what I wanted.

Then there was an ad in the newspaper that said the Showboat wanted a bingo manager; I applied, and three months later took over what was the largest bingo room in Las Vegas.

Question: Was the Showboat gig very different from your experience in Texas, where you were the owner rather than one employee within a large casino operation?

Answer: They pretty much gave me a free hand. At that time, they were losing a lot of money and wanted to turn things around.

The halls in Texas had to make a 33 percent profit or the state wouldn't let you keep your license so my experience operating outside Las Vegas was a good fit (for Showboat management); they wanted bingo to at least break even.

Question: Did you reach that goal?

Answer: In three years, we went from losing about $2 million a year to breaking even.

Question: How?

Answer: A lot of it was customer service, marketing that wasn't done before. I brought in a point-of-sale system to keep better track of the money.

And that's where I started doing the big events that now are here at the Plaza.

Question: Poker has become the hot new casino trend in recent months. Do you ever envision a similar rush for bingo?

Answer: It's growing tremendously because bingo is played all across the nation -- even states with no legalized gambling offer church bingo -- so everyone is familiar with it. And when people come to Las Vegas and have a chance to play in a high-stakes game, they really enjoy it.

Question: What do players get when they sign up for Super Bingo?

Answer: For $199, they get three-night stay at the Plaza, $70 in dining certificates, a dauber and a special gift that changes with each event. That also covers all of their bingo play.

The last game of the first day is for $10,000, and on the second day the top prize is $20,000.

Question: Given their popularity, why not offer Super Bingo events more than once a quarter?

Answer: We're looking to expand to five times a year once we expand our bingo room to 500 or 600 seats. That's so we can better focus on the local market. But with that larger room, we can do bigger games on a normal weekend. Those games would offer prizes of up to $30,000 in one session and draw people from Arizona and California on a monthly basis.

Question: Are younger players making time for bingo?

Answer: We've got computers that allow for electronic bingo now, and those are more popular with younger players. They're used about 40 percent of the time.

You just carry a machine back to the table and watch it; if you get bingo, it tells you so all you have to do is holler to get paid.

There's a new color unit coming out in a couple of months, and in the next five years you'll probably be able to play bingo and slots at the same time (using integrated devices).

Question: Bingo players are known for their quirks. Do you have any favorite memories of off-the-wall guests?

Answer: We have people who want the same seat every time they come.

They're superstitious and put little trinkets out on the table (as) good luck charms. Anything they think is lucky, they'll bring in and set up on the table.

They really are a different group of people than you'd find in other parts of the casino.