Reno Facing Up to Market Challenge

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For the Reno area's gaming industry, Monday's opening of Thunder Valley Casino near Sacramento marks the arrival of a long-feared rival.

The rival being a casino that could siphon customers from a market that's long been its base.

There's no doubt there's reason for concern.

If you talk with local officials you'll hear that concern, but you'll also hear a commitment to meet the challenge.

Through decades of economic ups and downs, including times when people found it difficult to get here from elsewhere, Reno has been able to rely on its prime feeder market - Northern California.

The drive-in or bus-in business from the Bay area and Sacramento kept our casinos busy.

This traffic has been the life blood of our major industry. You only have to glance around a local hotel parking lot to gauge its importance.

However, next week some of the cars could be parked at Thunder Valley.

"There's no freeway driving and as you get older you don't want those long drives, " says John Pappas of Rancho Murieta.

Losing customers like Pappas does concern casino executives like Gary Carano of the Silver Legacy, but he says its important to remember many customers are looking for more than Thunder Valley can offer.

"A gamber likes the opportunity, if they're not doing well at a slot to walk out the door and go down the street," Carano says.

"Reno needs to re-invent itself if it wants to compete and I'm sure it's well on its way to doing that," says Doug Elmets of Thunder Valley Casino.

And that may be the most important point.

Reno casinos haven't always worked together. They haven't always fully supported attractions and events outside their doors or down the street. They haven't always supported city-wide conventions.

Competition may be forcing changes.

"Our business has changed from come play our slots and eat our food to come enjoy all that we have to offer - America's Adventure Place - that's why we promote Tahoe," says Carano. "We have to keep coming up with reasons for people to drive past those Indian casinos."

That's the challenge for Reno. Those advantages have always been here. The imperative to promote them may not have been.

It is now.

No one is saying this new competition isn't going to have some effect. That would be whistling past the graveyard.

People we talked with today down in Roseville said they'd still come to Reno and Tahoe, but they now have an alternative.

As one local official told me months ago, if someone normally comes to Reno five times a year and - out of fatigue, concern about the weather or just curiousity - makes one of those trips to Thunder Valley instead, that's a 20% hit.

The challenge is to replace that missing customer with someone else.