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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

PT's Brand Grows Locally

21 June 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- While billion-dollar projects on the Strip are the talk of the town, a home-grown chain of taverns is quietly building an empire by cornering a market where locals drink beers, eat real restaurant food and play video poker.

PT's Pubs are becoming the Starbucks of Nevada taverns, hugely popular among casino workers, young singles and professionals who eschew neighborhood casinos for the darkened comfort of a corner joint where servers get to know the customers' names and preferred drinks.

Named for local businessmen Phil and Tom Boeckle, the PT's chain dates from 1982. The company's growth spurt came after former Station Casinos executive Blake Sartini, the brother-in-law of Station Casinos Chief Executive Frank Fertitta III, bought 23 PT's locations in 2002.

The year before, Sartini had founded Golden Gaming, PT's' parent company, as a spinoff of Station Casinos. The company initially operated slot machines in bars and convenience stores owned by others. The purchase of the nearly two dozen PT's, however, marked a transition for the company into running its own gambling establishments.

Like Station, its ubiquitous counterpart in the locals casino business, Golden Gaming has an aggressive growth plan that reflects the growing Las Vegas economy and a population that likes to drink, gamble and seek out a social network that is lacking in many valley neighborhoods.

Golden Gaming, now Nevada's biggest chain of taverns, plans to open up to six taverns a year for the foreseeable future, most of them in Las Vegas. By the end of the year, Golden Gaming will have 35 taverns in Southern Nevada and eight in Northern Nevada, where it is buying existing taverns and building Las Vegas-style pubs with more amenities.

PT's targets high-growth areas and up-and-coming neighborhoods. The latest PT's tavern will open next week at Fort Apache Road and Martin Avenue at the southwest edge of the valley.

In recent years, the company also has expanded its tavern business by creating three separate brands: PT's Pub, PT's Place and PT's Gold.

Golden Gaming's five PT's Place locations are mini casinos with 30 slot machines each, while its 17 PT's Pubs each have 15 machines and are typically storefronts located in strip malls. The company's newest brand, PT's Gold, has eight locations and is more upscale, emphasizing interior design and gourmet food.

"If you look at our newer taverns, it's not your Mom and Dad's PT's," said Rod Atamian, Golden Gaming's chief financial officer.

The original PT's Pubs attract folks who like to crack open a few beers after work, while the PT's Place locations lure an older crowd who like to play a variety of slots, said Tracy Harven, Golden Gaming's director of creative marketing. And PT's Gold draws a more refined crowd of professionals for lunch meetings or after-work drinks.

PT's also has cultivated a strong following among all-hours casino workers, accommodating them with 24 hours of service and a second happy hour from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. In the pecking order of Las Vegas' growing population of gaming employees, Strip workers often patronize local casinos, while local casino employees gravitate to smaller joints like PT's, where they can wind down after their shifts.

For people like Aaron Crowley, the chain has become part of the fabric of daily life. The 30-year-old sales manager for radio station giant Clear Channel Communications has patronized about 25 PT's locations around town over about eight years.

As a UNLV student, Crowley frequented a PT's Pub at Flamingo Road and Durango Drive. He has branched out with his job, hosting lunches or after-work drinks with advertising clients at more upscale PT's Gold locations across the valley.

Convenience and brand recognition - as well as the consistency of food and drink - are big draws.

"You don't want your client to drive around the valley," Crowley said. "They're kind of like a 7-Eleven in this town. I rely on a PT's being nearby."

The company's business model is unique to Nevada, where bars can offer slot machines. While bars in other states have had little success branding their operations into statewide or national chains, PT's is a prime example of how a company has used highly profitable slot machines to fuel growth.

Golden Gaming has a slot club program - as sophisticated as ones that big casinos use - to track play at PT's locations and qualify frequent customers to win jackpots and other prizes.

Much of the taverns' success is linked to its slot club and gambling marketing programs, Las Vegas casino consultant Jeffrey Compton said. That business model would not translate well into other states where slot bars are illegal, he said.

Last year, Golden Gaming upped the ante by introducing Sierra Gold, its most deluxe restaurant and bar yet.

The two-story bar and restaurant, located at Jones Boulevard and the Las Vegas Beltway, is modeled after a similar tavern in south Reno.

The "ultratavern," though, is not a steppingstone to full-blown casinos of the Station or Coast variety.

Golden Gaming has no appetite to compete with the locals casino giants.

"The gaming industry today has consolidated," Atamian said. "We need to focus on markets where we can carve out a niche."

To that end, Golden Gaming purchased the largest casino in nearby Pahrump this month, adding a fourth casino to the company's fledgling casino division of non-Las Vegas properties.

While comparisons to Starbucks and McDonald's abound, Golden Gaming's taverns and small casinos are more like community bars than a franchise of an average corporate chain.

Each PT's takes on somewhat of its own personality, becoming a reflection of the neighborhood and of employees hired for their enthusiasm and ability to socialize with customers.

"As long as we can attract quality people and make it a fun environment ... we can continue to grow and develop the brand further," Atamian said.

Customer service is more than a marketing ploy. PT's has stolen market share away from other neighborhood bars in large part because of the appealing ambience of its newer pubs and the attentiveness of its staff, said Mohsen Azizsoltani, a food an beverage professor at UNLV.

"You can go to any lounge in this town and get a Heineken for $3 to $4," Azizsoltani said. "People choose one over the other because of service and atmosphere. PT's understands that. They are right on you at your arrival, and they have a standard for how long it should take an employee to get to a customer. And they take care of their regulars."