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Howard Stutz

Cool stuff but no takers

24 November 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Linda Zarzycki, a purchasing manager at the Potawatomi Casino near downtown Milwaukee, said some of the newer slot machines displayed during the Global Gaming Expo this week caught her attention.

Same for Barry Joannides, general manager of the Prairie's Edge Casino, situated 129 miles west of Minneapolis. He wandered through the brightly illuminated booths and tested some of the prototypes offered by International Game Technology, Bally Technologies, WMS Industries, Konami Gaming and others.

Doug Morrison, chief financial officer of the Red Wind Casino near Olympia, Wash., was also impressed by the newest gambling concepts. He had his eye on casino management systems.

All three had something in common, however. They weren't buying.

Gaming equipment makers pulled out all the stops last week for G2E, but fears that the economic downturn would curtail spending hovered throughout the 355,000-square-foot trade show floor inside the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Zarzycki said the Potawatomi casino recently completed a $240 million expansion that grew the gaming floor to almost 3,200 slot machines. However, the expansion recently opened and she wasn't looking for new gaming equipment.

Joannides said the souring economy didn't influence his spending at G2E. He uses the show to determine what purchases he will recommend eight or nine months down the road for his 750-slot machine casino.

"I'm not treating this year any different," Joannides said. "I like to see what the companies have to offer. It's what I do every year."

Morrison said his casino was limited by Washington tribal gaming regulators on what can be purchased. He said the economy, however, may keep him from upgrading the casino's management system.

"We're not that high-tech, but we're not leveraged," he said. "We don't have debt."

Still, representatives of the major slot machine makers and gambling equipment providers weren't deterred. G2E unveils what casinos could purchase over the six months. By then, the optimists within the sector hope the economy will be nearing an upswing.

"We've invested millions of dollars into (research and development)," Bally Technologies Chief Operating Officer Gavin Isaacs said as he bounced through the company's booth. "We think we're offering tremendous products that casinos will want to put on their floors and their customers will want to play."

Some experts thought the machines were the best displayed in the last several years.

"Unlike previous shows where there were strong products from a few market leaders, this year it was evident that all the manufacturers had great products," Goldman Sachs gaming analyst Steven Kent said. "Each manufacturer showed us a new and innovative game and increased the technology dealing with everything from the look of the game to the math that runs it."

IGT, Bally and WMS had similar versions of slot machines that combine traditional spinning reels with three-dimensional high-definition animation and graphics on the game's glass. Bally displayed DualVision, a slot machine built for two with a love seat and two games on one screen. IGT offered a video slot machine that lets a player wager on up to four games at the same time.

WMS showed customers 143 game themes across every category on a casino's slot floor while taking advantage of available technology.

"The idea is to give slot players innovative entertainment experiences," said Robert Bone, vice president of marketing for Waukegan, Ill.-based WMS. "We have the technology to make the games even more visually appealing. We think that benefits the casinos through increased slot revenues."

IGT Chairman and CEO TJ Matthews said the company's sales force was receiving positive feedback on its products. The industry's largest slot machine maker set aside more than one-third of its G2E showroom for a server-based gaming display, showing customers what a server-based casino floor might resemble. The Reno-based company now calls its server-based system, sbX.

"We know consumer spending is down, but we also know that a number of operators need to keep their casino floors fresh with new products," Matthews said.

Shuffle Master, which provides casinos with nontraditional table games and table game management devices, divided its booth into three sections, the traditional casino, dealerless electronic gaming tables and hybrid games that combine a dealer with technology. Most of the hybrid games don't use casino chips and employ a touch-screen computer monitor to record wagers.

CEO Mark Yoseloff said the idea is to offer gambling products that generate revenues but also provide the casino with operating efficiency.

Reduced consumer confidence has meant fewer dollars are being set aside for discretionary spending, such as gambling.

The American Gaming Association, co-producer of G2E, said gaming revenues had fallen 2.6 percent through September in the 12 states with commercial casinos.

Despite the upgraded product offerings, Kent questioned whether slot managers' smaller capital expenditure budgets will let them buy the new machines.

"We are already seeing a slow replacement cycle," Kent said. "While these games were new and intriguing, the test will be if operators have the money to buy them."