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Economy

Casino Plays The Latino Card

Dealer Emilio Reynoso leads a game of blackjack in both Spanish and English.
Jude Joffe-Block
Dealer Emilio Reynoso leads a game of blackjack in both Spanish and English.
Latino Casinos
Latino Casinos

On a recent evening at Buffalo Bills casino almost every slot machine is taken and the bar is hopping. It's enough of a party that a supervisor busts out her maracas and sings an impromptu duet of La Bamba with a lady losing at the roulette table.

Spanish is almost as common as English in the crowded casino, which is one of three in a cluster in this Nevada-California border town. Francisco Felix, 69, patiently plays video poker with a smile. He’s down $200. But, he says in Spanish, he is having a great time. His entire family caravanned with him from the Los Angeles suburbs to spend the weekend here. And his isn't the only one.

"We see a lot of families here," he says. "Tons of families."

Given the packed room, it's hard to believe that for the past couple of years, the company that owns the three Primm casinos has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The recession has not been good to the gaming industry. Revenues are down for the third year in a row.

Now Buffalo Bill's luck may be turning. The casino has figured out how to routinely draw a large, Latino crowd.

Stuart Richey, the vice president of marketing at the Primm casinos, says Latino gamblers are not typically high rollers, but they are ideal clients because they often come in big groups of family and friends.

"If you can accommodate large group of people you have a great fit with the Hispanic customer," he says.

The casino’s popularity with that group reached a whole new level last fall, when someone suggested they book a Mexican accordion player named Ramon Ayala.

"I thought I was taking a chance on him by booking him here," says Richey. "Because I had never heard of him and he played an accordion and it didn't seem like it would fit with the type of acts we normally do out here."

But it soon became clear that it was precisely the type of act they should normally do.

"It was beyond our imagination," says Richey. "We don't typically sell out a 6,000 person arena out here and we did."

Ayala's performance garnered almost twice the audience that mainstream acts like Snoop Dogg and Bonnie Raitt attract when they come to this arena. After the accordion player's success, the casino followed up with a Latin music series. On this evening, another 6,000 people have come to see the Mexican norteño band, Los Tigres del Norte.

To gear up for the influx of Latino concert goers, the casino introduced bilingual blackjack tables for the first time. Dealers run the games in both English and Spanish and the table felts include instructions in both languages. Most recently, the casino added bilingual roulette and craps tables.

Vincent Pelayo, who came from a suburb of Los Angeles with a busload of friends to gamble, says even though they are all fluent in English, they like to party in Spanish.

"In English you tend to tone it down a little bit," says Pelayo between rounds of blackjack--or-- as he and his friends call it. "Spanish to me, you have more fun, you mess around more."

The gaming industry's efforts to attract Latino players are likely to intensify as that population continues to grow, says David G. Schwartz, the director of gaming research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. While other casinos have tried bringing Latin acts, no one has tried bilingual tables until now, says Schwartz.

"A lot of casinos desperately need to get people through the door," Schwartz says. "So when they see this is working, I think more people will embrace it."