In Mississippi "riverboat" has become a dirty word. When people hear it, they think of the early days of legalized gambling, around 1992, when promoters were sticking anything that floats on the water and jamming it full of slot machines.
These garbage-scow smoke dens had low ceilings, with unsteady plank walkways, and they pitched and yawed in the water, disorienting the bibulous blackjack players.
Today every new casino is built on a "hidden" barge that's so huge it obscures the river entirely, usually by putting hotel towers around the entrance. The words "river" and "boat" are never used in casino marketing, because if someone says "Let's go to a riverboat casino," the answer is usually, "No, thanks, I'd rather suffocate in my Yugo."
So why is there a giant riverboat casino in, of all places, Laughlin, Nevada? It's called the Colorado Belle, and it proudly promotes itself as a giant replica of a Mississippi paddlewheel riverboat. Not just a riverboat--a Mississippi riverboat! Actually, it's much fancier than any riverboat that ever plied the Mississippi, because it's completely fake. Its built on the banks of the Colorado River, but it's a 608-foot theme-park-style four-sided false front.
Obviously, riverboat-phobia has not yet reached Laughlin. This is the kind of place your grandma thinks of as cute. You want to put the words "ye olde" in front of every fixture-- "ye olde gaming parlor," "ye olde Captain's Table restaurant," "ye olde Southern-style poker room." The gaming area has lots of red-and-gold flocked wallpaper and golden-and-crystal chandeliers, a la the Hollywood saloons in Roy Rogers movies. The only concession they've made to the 21st century is the Boiler Room Brew Pub, a restaurant and bar built around the only micro- brewery in this part of the country, where they serve up a middling mild ale, a nice lager, and a stout that could be stouter.
"We're incredibly value-driven," says Jodi Piercey, the Belle's director of marketing.
Translation: it's cheap to stay here. In fact, you can get a three-day two-night vacation package for two people for $67, and that includes $10 in restaurant coupons, two free drinks, a cruise and other amenities, which comes out to around ten bucks per person per night. You can drive up cold on a Tuesday afternoon and probably get a room for $17. In many ways it's like the old Vegas, before it become a corporate-owned destination resort and room rates started averaging in the triple digits.
"The room rates still flash on the signs outside," says Jodi, who's so animated she can spit out statistics like an auctioneer. "In Vegas they never flash room rates on the Strip. Ninety-nine per cent of our customers come by car, and twenty-two per cent of them come from Arizona. Even though we're an hour from Vegas, they stop here because we're friendly. We're smaller. We're relaxed. And so our repeat visitor rate is over 50 per cent."
The Colorado Belle in Laughlin is built to look like a Mississippi riverboat casino at a time when real Mississippi casinos are doing everything they can to NOT look like riverboats. The Colorado Belle has basically two seasons. First come the "snowbirds" in the fall, who trundle down from the north in their RV's and keep coming until the River Run biker rally in April. (It's the fourth-largest biker event in the country, after Sturgis, S.D., Daytona, Fla., and Las Vegas, and it sells out all 11,000 Laughlin rooms months in advance.)
The second season, beginning in May, consists of crazed California Jet-Ski people, mostly SUV-driving families who bring all kinds of boating equipment and spend their days zipping around on the Colorado River. "Everyone in the casino is sunburned," says Jodi, "and the average age gets a little lower. It's not all 50 and up."
Because Laughlin is so far off the beaten path, with no dependable air service aside from twice daily flights to Phoenix, San Jose and Ontario, Calif., they rely on big destination events--blues festivals, professional rodeos, and in the summer a Formula One speedboat race called Laughlin River Days. These are all "low-roller" events, catering to slot-machine players and video pokerheads. Anyone who hasn't been to the west coast in a while has no idea how popular video poker has become, with a full 30 per cent of the Colorado Belle's 1300 coin-operated machines dedicated to that particular gambling habit.
But even with Laughlin hotels banding together to create as much hyper-activity as possible, the specter of Indian gaming in California looms large on the horizon. From Los Angeles, you have to drive past six Indian casinos to get to Laughlin. Phoenix, which is the biggest market for Laughlin, now has seven casinos, although they're much more limited than what's allowed in Nevada, with no blackjack, craps, roulette or sports betting.
"Yes, our business is levelling off," says Jodi when I press the issue. "Why would that happen? Our average visitor comes here four times a year. Let's say the Vegas boom draws off one of those visits, because he wants to see the latest attractions. Then 80 per cent of our market comes from California and Arizona, which are both Indian-gaming states. If even one visit is deflected by that, our budget is impacted."
For now the faux paddlewheeler is still buzzing with handle- pullers--table game action is almost non-existent--but there's only so much business you can do with Mark Twain's Chicken & Ribs Restaurant as a draw. Eventually the whole "riverboat" thing becomes, if not a dirty word, at least a dated one. Most people who are fascinated by Mississippi history can . . . uh . . . gamble in Mississippi.
2100 S. Casino Drive, Laughlin, Nev.
Theme: Mississippi Paddlewheel Riverboat Nostalgia
Total Investment: $100 million
Known For: "Speed Keno" tournaments, consisting of 100 consecutive games at a dime a game.
Marketing niche: Snowbirds, overnighters arriving by car, Jet-Skiers
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Surrounding area: Heart of the strip, along the Colorado Riverwalk
Overall rating: 65
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $30 after a desultory hour of video poker: total to date: -$221