Gaming execs say casino industry has reached saturation point

Tourists walk on the Las Vegas Strip on Thursday, April 28, 2011.

2013 Global Gaming Expo

Sami Goldsmith, left, Porsche Youssef, center, and Jackie Unterreiner promote the Sweet 3 video slot machine by IGT during the G2E convention at the Sands Expo Center Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013.  Launch slideshow »

Saturation has arrived in the gaming industry and except for a few outposts — namely the state of Texas — there aren’t many places in the United States where a player can’t drive three hours or less to get to a casino, a panel of gaming industry executives concluded in a wide-ranging panel on industry issues.

“New England is saturated,” said Penn National Gaming President Tim Wilmott. “The market is crowded in Ohio. It’s a little underserved in Florida.”

So what does that mean for companies in the business? Panelists said it means growth will occur by acquisition and mergers and possibly diversification into the online world.

Even international markets are getting crowded, with Southeast Asia still the best option for new venues. Wilmott said Japan and South Korea have casinos in their future.

The CEOs agreed that Europe is already home to a mature casino industry and that Mexico and South America could be new frontiers.

But the saturation of the industry has resulted in more longing looks at the online industry, even though it comes with a host of other issues.

One of the biggest concerns about online poker had a familiar ring — will federal lawmakers ever get around to developing a national regulatory plan?

Like most people attending the four-day 2013 Global Gaming Expo that ends today at the Venetian and Sands Expo Center, the CEO panel was pessimistic about the federal legalization of online poker.

Panelists were satisfied that the state-by-state regulatory strategy is the next best way to pursue the legalization of gaming in cyberspace.

But with more states on track to legalize poker play after Nevada and New Jersey, another issue was raised. What effect will online play have on existing brick-and-mortar casinos?

“That’s the one thing that keeps me up at night,” Wilmott said. “Right now, what’s going to happen is as clear as mud.”

Many industry leaders expect online gaming will create more bricks-and-mortar customers in the future, the way riverboat and tribal casinos expanded the market for Las Vegas in the 1990s.

Panelist Tobin Prior, CEO of Ultimate Gaming, Station Casinos’ entrant in the online poker world, expects the company to generate revenue and stimulate local play through cross-marketing.

But what other ways are there to assure shareholders a healthy return on investment in the casino industry?

Panelists said it’s in consolidation and mergers.

Pinnacle is wrapping up a $2.8 billion acquisition of Ameristar Casinos. Other recent industry deals include Scientific Games acquisition of WMS for $1.5 billion and Bally Technologies absorbing Shfl Entertainment for $1.3 billion.