Casinos target Asian Americans

March 15, 2006

Casinos target Asian Americans

By: WILLIAM FINN BENNETT – Staff Writer

Business is booming for California’s tribal casinos. National Indian Gaming Commission figures show that revenue for California tribal casinos —- there are now 55 in the state —- doubled between 2001 and 2004 to more than $5 billion a year.

Hoping to add more oomph to that boom, officials with several local casinos are trying to attract even more business by targeting particular ethnic groups when marketing their casinos. First on the list for many marketers: finding a way to maintain and boost the large population of Asian Americans who gamble at their tables.

Asian-American customers make up some 50 percent of the clientele at Pechanga Resort & Casino, a large casino near the Riverside and San Diego county lines, according to an official there. And officials at two other area casinos, while hesitant to specify how big a chunk of their business comes from Asian Americans, acknowledge that Asian Americans do make up a large part of their clientele.

“It’s no secret in the casino business Asians’ love for gambling and so we all have our own ways for going after that market,” said Pechanga VIP host Richard Slack, who while not Asian American speaks fluent Mandarin.

To attract those coveted Asian-American customers, Pechanga and at least two other area casinos are doing everything from advertising in ethnic publications and hiring multilingual hosts, to offering Asian-American entertainment and in one case, redesigning parts of the casino with Asian themes.

Maximizing chi
Pechanga Vice President of Marketing Michelle Schilder said last week that when the casino recently embarked on a major upgrade of its high-stakes room, it brought in a master of the Chinese art of feng shui to oversee the project. Feng shui means “wind and water,” and the ancient Chinese philosophy holds that the placement of certain objects in a room and the way the space is laid out can improve the flow of positive energy or “chi.”

“We definitely wanted to be sure that we were right on the dos and don’ts: the certain colors that mean bad luck and the placement of certain things that are no-nos,” Schilder said of the $4 million redesign project.

The entrance to the 14,000-square-foot, high-stakes room is guarded by pairs of fu dog statues, which many Chinese believe to be powerful, protective forces that bring good fortune. Earth tones dominate the room, table edges are all rounded and a waterfall provides a soothing soundscape to those who are betting a minimum of $100 a hand on games like pai gow poker or blackjack.

Slack said he regularly gives sensitivity lessons to casino employees on Asian cultures, even teaching them a few key expressions in Mandarin and other Asian languages.

“The customers really appreciate it,” Slack said.

One of the cultural customs employees have learned about is the Chinese custom of tapping one’s fingers on the table as a way of saying thank you to servers.

Pechanga also regularly features pop music stars and other artists from Asian countries. Filipino pop star Gary V, for example, recently performed to a packed house at the casino’s 1,200-capacity theater, said Ciara Coyle, public relations manager.

Competition fierce
Other local casinos also target Asian-American guests with their entertainment choices.

On Nov. 6, Harrah’s Rincon Casino & Resort in Valley Center had a Vietnamese show titled “Paris by Night.” The casino has been holding shows with Vietnamese artists for the past couple of years and a Chinese concert is scheduled for the coming weeks, said casino public relations manager Sheryl Sebastian.

She added that in the past year, casino officials have even started setting up prize wheels at Asian street fairs and festivals around Southern California, giving away prizes to winners and providing promotional information on the casino.

Asked what percentage of the casino’s business is made up of Asian Americans, she said: “That is proprietary information and we can’t really share that.”

She acknowledged however, that Asian Americans are the one group for which the casino has a specific marketing strategy.

“They definitely are an important target audience,” Sebastian said.

Harrah’s has a dedicated Asian host team with members who are fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese. The casino also runs advertisements in Asian-American publications, she said.

Pala Casino Spa Resort’s Chief Executive Officer Jerry Turk on Friday called the Asian-American market an important one for his business, although he declined to say how big a portion of the casino’s business Asian Americans represent.

He said that Pala also advertises in Asian-American newspapers and has billboards in Asian-American communities in the Los Angeles area. The casino also has a team of bilingual hosts and often features Asian entertainers, he added.

Pechanga, Rincon and Pala casinos also all have business arrangements with tourist agencies in the region that bus Asian Americans to their casinos.

Problem gamblers
Although Asian Americans are great for casino business, studies show that gambling is a widespread problem for Asian-American communities throughout the state, one that some health experts say may be growing due to the easy access of casinos and their marketing efforts to reach that audience.

Several studies in recent years appear to show a high incidence of problem gambling within Asian-American communities in California. A 1997 study by the NICOS Chinese Health Coalition in San Francisco found that as much as 21 percent of the Chinese community in that city could be identified as pathological gamblers, and that 16 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as pathological gamblers.

Another study by the same organization conducted in the same year surveyed 1,808 Chinese American adults in San Francisco. Respondents were asked to list what they thought were the greatest problems facing their community. At the top of the list was gambling, with 69.6 percent of respondents identifying gambling as a problem in the community.

An official with Chinese-American social-service organization Chinatown Service Center, based in Los Angeles, said Friday that early each morning, charter buses begin lining up along Garvey Avenue in the city of Monterey Park in the San Gabriel Valley, a city where Asian Americans make up 64 percent of the population. As soon as they fill up with passengers, the buses depart for casinos in Riverside and San Diego counties, he said.

And while the easy access to casinos does put more people at risk of problem gambling behavior, Chinatown Service Center Executive Director Lawrence J. Lue said it would be a mistake to blame casinos for simply following good business practices.

The solution lies in finding the resources to educate people about problem gambling, and “supporting them in correcting the problem,” Lue said.

UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program is currently conducting a survey of about 500 randomly selected adults in Asian-American communities in greater Los Angeles to try and measure the extent of problem gambling among members of those communities. The study is expected to be completed by June, said program co-director and psychiatrist Timothy Fong.

On Thursday, the program held a symposium on the issue with health care professionals, local community leaders and journalists.

In his presentation, Fong said that as a result of the increasing availability of legalized gambling in the state, “there is an increasing number of problem and pathological gamblers that have come to the attention of mental health professionals and community service providers.”

He went on to say that Asians and Pacific Islanders make up one of the most vulnerable groups for developing problems related to gambling.

“If you have more access (to casinos), then more pathological gamblers are the natural result,” Fong said Friday.

He stressed, however, that he doesn’t blame casinos for trying to attract more Asians, since casinos are simply going where the market is.

“It’s (about) personal responsibility; we all have the ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ ” Fong said, so he would not favor penalizing or trying to restrict casinos in any way.

Instead, as a society, we need to focus on prevention and treatment, and “raise awareness of problem gambling’s signs, symptoms and consequences,” Fong said.

Contact staff writer William Finn Bennett at (760) 740-5426 or wbennett@nctimes.com.

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