If you have been gaming at area casinos since their inception, you know just how far that experience has come over the industry's 21 years.
When Illinois's first casino, the Argosy Alton Belle near St. Louis, opened in September 1991, then-current laws allowed for the riverboat casino to fill with passengers, cruise down the river, let slots and table game players dine and gamble a bit, and return to the dock. The gaming experience was fun, but limitations in both space and time crimped the styles of a good many players.
Fast forward more than two decades, and area gaming enthusiasts now have the time and space to gamble to their hearts' content. Over time, laws have been changed to permit the existence of casinos that don't have to float.
That means space and time limitations have been eliminated, and area casinos have taken on the generous dimensions and provided many of the extras long associated with the finest casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Case in point? The state's newest casino, Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, serves up 44,000 square feet of gaming excitement, state-of-the-art slots, and an enormous selection of crowd-pleasing table games with Illinois' highest table limits. Visitors to Rivers Casino will also find seven dining-and/or-imbibing options ranging from white tablecloth fine dining to sandwiches and burgers, live entertainment, valet parking, electric car-charging stations and much more, all within a facility created by acclaimed architectural firm Klai Juba Architects.
"Area casinos have been maintained as first-class destinations," says Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association in Springfield, representing six of the 10 state casinos. As such, they're not only places to enjoy terrific gaming, but also to stay, dine, shop and relax, Swoik says.
"Several of them have hotels that are very nice," he reports. "Harrah's Joliet Casino Hotel is right next door to the casino, and you can walk from the lobby right onto the casino floor. Hollywood Casino Joliet's hotel is just a short distance away . . . And others in Metropolis and Rock Island are connected to those casinos."
At one time, casinos across the Midwest offered gaming enthusiasts buffet restaurants and snack bars. And while most still do, they no longer expect visitors to limit their dining horizons to these types of eateries.
"All of them now have very nice, four- or five-star, white tablecloth restaurants," Swoik says. "Most of the fine dining restaurants are steakhouses, and you'll also find the buffets have a number of ethnic dining options."
The wider range of gastronomic alternatives is a reflection of trends nationwide, says Holly Wetzel, American Gaming Association vice president of communications. Many casinos across the country are emphasizing a more diverse culinary selection, including Italian, Asian and Mexican fare.
As well, the concept of the chef-owned casino restaurant, which began in Las Vegas, is now being embraced at casinos across the country.
At many area casinos, as well as those nationwide, the chance to take in the shows of talented entertainers adds another enticement for gaming enthusiasts. "Most casinos have some level of entertainment, from lounge entertainers in lobby bars to touring performers in theaters," Wetzel reports.
Rewards programs, such as Rivers Casino's Players Club, which dispenses benefits known as Rush Rewards, have become common in Illinois casinos. "Rewards programs' point systems are like frequent flyer programs," Wetzel says. "Your spending on the gaming floor and in other areas of the casino is tracked, and you're awarded points for those expenditures."
Points can be redeemed for hotel stays, fine dining, free play and cash back offers. "You voluntarily sign up for these programs, and you can use points from one venue in others owned by the same company," Wetzel says.
Rewards programs are a way for casinos to better serve their patrons by monitoring what non-gaming activities motivate them to spend. In Las Vegas, more than half of all commercial revenues come from non-gaming activities, and that percentage is climbing in casinos elsewhere as well, Wetzel says.
A failing economy and other factors hurt the area casino industry in the latter part of last decade, resulting in falling revenues. But now that the American economy is on its way back, local casinos are expected to follow suit.
"We envision revenues rising again," Swoik says.