Bilingual is in the cards in Primm

Forty miles south of Las Vegas, Herbst Gaming is using its Primm casinos as a crucible for new ideas. With nothing to lose—the casinos have been hard-hit by the recession and competition from California Indian casinos—the company is getting creative. One thing that has worked better than expected is marketing to Spanish-speaking Californians. On Oct. 1, the company began offering table gaming in both English and Spanish, with surprising results.

According to Primm Valley Casinos vice president of marketing Stuart Richey, the strategy is an outgrowth of the grab bag of concerts that the company has offered at Buffalo Bill’s Star of the Desert Arena since Herbst Gaming acquired the three Primm casinos in 2007.

“We found that the Hispanic acts got a fantastic response,” Richey says. “We first noticed this after a mariachi concert a while back, so we started looking for ways to make the casino a friendlier place for a market that, traditionally, has been neglected.”

Richey has found that it’s a market loyal to casinos that offer good values for food and entertainment, something for which the Primm casinos are well suited. It helps that catering to the area’s Spanish speakers is a natural complement to the company’s bus program, which ferries dozens of busloads of California gamblers to Primm on peak days.

The easiest way to roll out the welcome mat, Herbst has learned, is to speak the language of your customers. The company debuted a Nevada first: bilingual blackjack tables.

For a minimal outlay—essentially the cost of printing up felts with English and Spanish instructions and putting up some directional signage—Buffalo Bill’s opened up a mostly untapped market: those who enjoy blackjack but whose limited English makes playing the game at a typical table an ordeal.

From a customer service standpoint, it may make perfect sense to allow players to converse with dealers in the language with which they are most comfortable. But there are gaming-enforcement reasons why this isn’t the best idea—dealers could collude with players by passing along information in a language their supervisors can’t understand.

With the proviso that any Spanish-language tables would be overseen by supervisors fluent in the language, who are able to monitor the interaction between players and dealers, the Gaming Control Board signed off on the idea.

For the most part, casinos have been slower than other businesses to embrace Spanish-speaking patrons. Yet Herbst saw bilingual tables as an idea worth taking a chance on, chiefly because of the current economic climate.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says casino shift manager Marc Feldman, adding that the casino has seen a great return on its investment—a rarity in the gaming market these days.

Spanish-language blackjack’s enthusiastic reception is impressing everyone at Buffalo Bill’s. It’s particularly striking at ground level, in the pit.

“I’ve been in the business for 26 years,” says games supervisor Maria Macedo, who oversees the bilingual tables, “and I’ve never seen Spanish-speaking people playing blackjack like this. It’s unbelievable. They can speak the language and they’re not embarrassed.

“Just this afternoon, I had a player tell me [in Spanish], ‘This is the first casino I can play in and feel like I’m at home.’”

The casino is thinking of adding other games—craps, with its frenetic group interaction, is a natural. Richey is thinking that maybe an entire dual-language pit might be in the cards. “After all, you’ve got party pits,” he says. “And this is clearly something our customers want.”

Looking at the action on a recent Saturday confirms Richey’s optimism; for now, Buffalo Bill’s has one big problem with its two bilingual tables: a shortage of qualified dealers. Hours from a Ramón Ayala concert, Buffalo Bill’s is doing New Year’s Eve-level business; the casino is so packed it’s difficult to move around. About nine out of every 10 slot machines are being played.

And, for a while at least, people are waiting to play blackjack on Macedo’s Spanish-friendly tables. Waiting.

“We need more dealers,” Feldman repeats with a smile. If everyone in the business had these problems, Nevada would be on the road to recovery.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

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