SHREVEPORT, La., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- When Tony Bennett comes to Shreveport, he calls it "Cajun country" -- some indication of just how rarely Tony visits Louisiana.
You would need to drive a full day to the south before you encountered any honest-to-God Cajuns, but old saloon singers can be excused if they're not too familiar with the scenery beyond the showroom. You're in the plain ole Northwest Louisiana Piney Woods, Tone.
Tony is being imported to Louisiana as a weapon. He's part of the Hollywood Casino's arsenal of amenities designed to upgrade Shreveport into a destination resort for real gamblers. Tony is one of the few headliners whose very presence connotes "real casino," and he has a long-term contract to appear several times a year in the Shreveport Civic Theater, which happens to be just across the street from the casino and has been lavishly refurbished with casino money so that it can function as the Hollywood's showroom.
Jay Leno and Brooks & Dunn have signed similar contracts with the Hollywood, and the goal is to convince the big Dallas gamblers who normally go to Vegas to take a chance on the greater Shreveport/Bossier City metropolitan area instead.
To do that, the Hollywood is billing itself as "Louisiana's most exclusive new resort" -- obviously not an ad campaign aimed at the traditional clientele of East Texas farmers and Fort Worth day-trippers.
Shreveport is a three-hour drive from Dallas, three-and-a-half from Fort Worth, but if you're a "true premium player" -- that would be somebody with a $50,000 line of credit -- then you no longer have to make the drive anyway. The Hollywood maintains a corporate jet that will fly you to the casino 24 hours a day -- an attempt to steal from Vegas at least part of the Dallas/Fort Worth high-roller market, sixth largest in the country.
"But some of these Texas gamblers are a strange breed," says Ed Pratt, President of the casino and one of the Dallas-based Pratts, who also own Hollywood Casinos in Tunica, Miss., and Aurora, Ill. "We say, 'We'll send a jet for you,' and they say, 'Naw, I think I'll just drive in.' You can't separate these people from their cars!"
When the Hollywood opened a year ago, Shreveport was dominated by one man -- Jack Binion, owner and operator of the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City. Binion, son of the legendary Dallas gangster and "King of Downtown Vegas" Benny Binion, had swept into Louisiana with all his father's showmanship. Interstate 20 between Dallas and Shreveport is lined with billboards featuring his smiling visage and bald head, offering 100-times-odds bets on craps and unlimited maximums.
Binion promises to take any bet up to a million dollars -- something even the big Vegas Strip hotels won't do -- and his advertising campaign says that, if you don't believe it, then "You Don't Know Jack."
But the Pratt family opened with the promise that they would take any bet the Horseshoe would take, and they've followed that up with an ad campaign of their own.
"Our ad campaign," says Pratt, "is 'You're not gonna believe this is in Shreveport.' And really, if you didn't walk outside, you wouldn't know you we're in Shreveport. We think that, once people see it, they'll come in droves. We've built a spa. We've built the upscale rooms. This is a four or four-and-a-half-star facility. We're the first truly Las Vegas-style facility in this market. Our memorabilia and uniforms are the best you'll find. It's really clever and really fun."
Like the company's other casinos, the theme is 1930s Art Deco Hollywood, with movie memorabilia featured in all the restaurants, lobbies, foyers, walkways and gaming areas. But it's not just any movie memorabilia. When I was there they had the actual ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," the actual motorcycle ridden by Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider," and that black leather jacket that Eddie Murphy wore in "Beverly Hills Cop." In the open airy lobby they have the world's biggest chandelier, beautiful marble columns, and an excellent steakhouse called Fairbanks, decorated with Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s memorabilia from the movie "Don Q, Son of Zorro." The whole complex -- casino, hotel, spa -- is plush and elegant. All 403 rooms are suites.
Since all casinos in Louisiana are riverboats -- and since people despise the cramped feeling of being on a boat -- the Pratts spent a lot of their $230 million budget on dredging out a "bathtub-like coffer" on a bend of the Red River, and then jamming the boat right up against the shore. As a result, it's impossible to tell when you leave land and enter the boat. "We wanted high ceilings," says Pratt. "We wanted level floors. So we sucked the boat right up against the building.
"In other casinos here, you don't even SEE the casino when you walk in. The casino is stuck out on the river, and you have to have this elaborate ramping system. It's a lot more money, but it was very important for us that, when you walk in, you see the casino."
Technically, riverboat casinos in Louisiana are required to leave the dock. But the Red River is so loaded up with silt that cruising is impractical, if not downright dangerous. That means the Hollywood is, for all practical purposes, a land-based casino that happens to have a little water under the gaming floor.
After one year, though, it may turn out that the Hollywood is a little too glitzy for Shreveport. The Pratts spent the $230 million because "you need to be upscale here -- the Dallas client requires a lot more than the Mississippi client" -- but it might turn out to be too much for the market.
According to Wall Street gaming analyst Jason Ader of Bear Stearns, the Hollywood has captured only 75 per cent of its "fair share" of the market, while the Horseshoe has 132 per cent and Harrah's Shreveport -- right next door to Hollywood -- has 131 per cent. Far from challenging the supremacy of Jack Binion, so far the Hollywood has finished no better than third -- and it runs last among all five casinos in the important statistical category of "win per position" (dollars per day at each gaming position).
Wall Street's theory: promotional expenses are out of control (it costs money to fight a war with Binion), and the Hollywood has been devastated by Harrah's new 500-room hotel and, more importantly, Harrah's ability to draw customers from other markets with its "Total Rewards" program (a sort of "frequent gambler" card).
Still, if anyone can beat those odds, it's the Pratt family. Pratt brothers Jack, William and Edward were originally hotelkeepers, opening their first property in 1967 in their hometown of Mineral Wells, Texas.
Over the next 10 years they got into hotel franchising, developing and managing properties all over the states, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Then they stumbled into gambling in 1977 when they bought the Holiday Inn Condado Plaza in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"It had an 8,000-square-foot casino already there," says Pratt. "So we ran that for three years and we discovered we were making more on the casino than on the rooms."
They had the gambling bug, and by 1980 they had entered the booming Atlantic City market. Using the same management team that now runs the Venetian in Las Vegas, they operated the feisty little Sands until 1997. But by that time they had decided they wanted out of the big casino cities -- the Sands was always a small player in a pond that kept getting bigger -- and six Midwestern states made their decision easier by legalizing gambling in the early 1990s. In 1993 they landed the lucrative license for Aurora, Ill., and then followed that up with a 1995 license in the boom city of Tunica.
"And in the new gaming venues, we really excelled," says Pratt. "So we decided to concentrate on that. This is our forte. The problem with it is that licenses are limited and hard to come by. It took us six years to get in here. Four years to get the license, and two years of development."
Fortunately the riverboat casinos aren't as affected by Sept. 11th as Vegas has been. "The emerging markets always hold up better in a recession," says Pratt. "Plus we saw Las Vegas as a game we didn't want to play. You can build a billion-dollar project there and get single digit returns on your investment, or you can spend $250 million in an emerging market and get 25 percent returns. Those are your only choices. You can't be a small player in Las Vegas. You either get as big as they are or you sell out to them. We operate better in these markets. This is our niche, like Station Casinos has the locals niche in Vegas."
The other problem for a luxury casino in this market is that, until recently, downtown Shreveport was a slum. The casinos have changed that, but it's still the sort of place where people don't tend to hang around too long. The Hollywood, with strong support from the mayor, is hoping to spruce it up with a 42,000-square-foot retail development that will be designed by John Elkington, the designer of the revived Beale Street in Memphis.
The casino has also benefited from Harrah's expansion next door. The early years in the market were dominated by the three casinos of Bossier City, all located at an interstate exit, while Harrah's barely hung on in the wilds of downtown Shreveport.
The building of the Hollywood and the new Harrah's hotel tower have cut down the feeling of isolation, and to some extent the hotels work together.
"The average visitor here visits three casinos," says Pratt. "And people want it to be easy to get between them. They feel unlucky, so they go next door. In Tunica we have clusters of hotels in the middle of cotton fields. The casinos are most successful in twos and threes."
When the Hollywood opened, Pratt was hoping he would never have to discount his rooms. "Even midweek," he said, "we expect to charge 80 to 90 percent of our rate." But apparently terrorism changed that for the time being. Last week "luxury suites" were being offered for $29 per person. (Standard rates are $110 during the week and $155 on weekends.)
"The challenge in our business," says Pratt, "is to make the guy who spends $500 feel just as good as the guy who spends $5,000. A premium player for us averages from $5,000 to $500,000 in lines of credit. We do have a few million-dollar players. But it's harder to predict when that person will be here. We maybe get 20 to 30 visits a year from the true premium player. But $500 a day will definitely get you amenities here."
The actual casino is three levels and, at 60,000 square feet, the biggest gaming space in the market -- more than double the size of Harrah's next door. Nationally known party bands (the Marvelettes, the Drifters) play in the Celebrity Lounge, which was modeled after the tropical jungle look of the old Monkey Bar in New York.
The "Epic Buffet" has 3-D movie sets built by Paramount, giving it the feel of a Hollywood back lot. But the real attraction of the casino is the company's collection of more than 6,000 Hollywood artifacts, rotated often in attractive display cases. In one of those cases they proudly feature the key to the city of Shreveport, presented by the mayor to Elvis himself on one of his visits to "Cajun country."
451 Clyde Fant Parkway, Shreveport
Theme: Hollywood As Remembered by American Movie Classics
Total investment: $230 million
Known for: Some of the liveliest craps tables in the country, thanks the hundred-times-odds policy.
Marketing niche: Texas drive-in tourists, Dallas high rollers, Louisiana locals.
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Medium
Dealers: Intense but cordial
Bosses: Serious business
Surrounding area: Connected by a walkway to Harrah's, with the Shreveport Civic Theater a block in the other direction. The Red River is not much to look at it, and neither is the other side of the street, which is lined with high-rise parking garages, but all of that might change with the building of a new downtown shopping and night club area.
Overall rating: 84
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $305 after an hour at the $5 craps
table: total to date: +$250
Email Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at joebob-briggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.