The big casino in the city’s Stadium District Wednesday morning announced its plan to operate for its first three weeks on a carefully measured basis before an official grand opening for the general public at 8 p.m. on Feb. 11.
Those wanting to visit before Feb. 11 should make reservations by signing up as a Live! Rewards Club member at PhillyLiveRewards.com. They would then have access to the reservation system at LivePhillyRSVP.com.
Joe Billhimer, executive vice president of Cordish Gaming Group, part of the Maryland-based company that owns the casino, said concern about the COVID-19 pandemic factored into the drawn-out opening plan.
“It really aligns with our ‘Play It Safe’ program,” Billhimer said in a phone interview, referring to a comprehensive health and safety effort to prevent contraction of COVID in a space that can accommodate thousands of visitors.
The pandemic was also responsible for delaying the opening by about a month, due to construction shutdowns in the spring. City of Philadelphia restrictions limit the casino to 25% maximum occupancy, compared to the 50% capacity cap statewide outside of Philadelphia, and Billhimer said the city’s health officials will be consulted about the right number of people with reservations to allow into the casino daily during the phase-in period this month.
“We want to make sure we ease into the process with limited capacity as we get used to all the Plexiglas and all the various elements we’ve put in place from a guest safety standpoint and a team safety standpoint,” Billhimer said. “We’re just trying to temper the capacity as we get rolling.”
Biggest new casino in state in a decade
The casino with 2,200 slot machines and 150 table games, plus a 12-story hotel with 208 rooms, is the first large casino project of its kind in Pennsylvania since its main rival, Rivers Philadelphia, opened in 2010.
Cordish Gaming Group, part of The Cordish Companies, also on Nov. 24 debuted the most recent casino project in the state, the satellite Live! Pittsburgh mini-casino in Westmoreland County. That venue was built in a remodeled mall department store to contain 750 slot machines, 30 table games, a sportsbook, and restaurants.
That western Pennsylvania project’s public response in its first few weeks — before a statewide shutdown of gaming properties from Dec. 12-Jan. 4 — only added to optimism that Live! Philadelphia can itself succeed in the midst of the pandemic, Billhimer said.
“I think our expectations were met or exceeded with the opening in Westmoreland,” he said. “But for the shutdown, it’s done very well. I think it proves the point that when you build a Cordish-style facility, it’s definitely a driver for visitation from the market and is perceived very well.”
Aside from gaming, the Cordish firm is involved in numerous restaurant-entertainment districts around the country, including the Xfinity Live! development within walking distance of the Philadelphia casino. The company strives to embody that multi-purpose concept with plentiful dining and entertainment options in its gaming properties, including at its Live! Maryland casino located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Billhimer said a few amenities designed for the Philadelphia casino won’t be available upon opening due to COVID concerns, including a large events center and several of its restaurants. Patrons on the gaming floor, however, should see everything normally expected, including a 29-table poker room, in addition to the safety aspects such as abundant Plexiglas use and widespread disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers.
One piece of COVID-era technology available at Live! but not other casinos is the ability to turn off adjacent slot machines automatically — for social distancing purposes — when a patron sits down at one.
“We’re going through testing of that system now,” Billhimer said, along with completing training of 1,200 employees before the property opens. That number is down from the 2,000 that had been projected in pre-COVID plans.
Timing for attracting sports fans is not ideal
Live! will open in a crowded southeastern Pennsylvania casino market at a time when COVID has hurt one of the newcomer’s main assets: its location within walking distance of the Wells Fargo Center, Citizens Bank Ballpark, and Lincoln Financial Field.
Those venues would normally attract thousands of people with money in their pockets and entertainment on their minds on game days for the 76ers, Flyers, Phillies, and Eagles. Many of them would also normally be interested in placing sports wagers on their contests beforehand, potentially using the FanDuel Sportsbook at Live!
Due to coronavirus attendance restrictions, there’s no telling when those venues will be allowed to have normal or partial attendance that could spill over to the casino.
“That’s certainly going to have some effect,” Billhimer said of initial visitation, “but we still sit right next to Interstate 76, right off of I-95, and the location is still very easy to get in and out of. We really rely on that.
“We wish all the sports teams a speedy recovery to get back in form with fans, but again, everyone here is focused on doing things in a safe manner, so when it comes it’ll be great.”
Four casinos that have already developed customer bases during a decade or more of operation lie within 25 miles: Rivers, Parx, Harrah’s, and Valley Forge Casino Resort. Combined, they already present the Philadelphia metropolitan area with more than 5,000 slot machines and 400 table games. Pre-COVID, without cutbacks due to capacity and social distancing curbs, those numbers were 8,000 and 500.
In 2019, those four competitors claimed more than $1.3 billion in revenue from gambling losses by patrons, although that still-to-be-announced total for 2020 was lower due to COVID shutdowns and restrictions.
Asked how Live! will crack that market, especially at a time when all of the properties have suffered revenue decline compared to a year ago, Billhimer said, “We’ll start by building a superior facility in a great location in a great city. All those elements help us.
“One of our first objectives is to try to keep Pennsylvania business in Pennsylvania, and we’ll let our facility and hospitality and team members do that work. … I wouldn’t view it as a saturated market, like the Mississippi Gulf Coast or other places with numerous properties.”
In addition to reservations for casino visitation, Live! is accepting reservations for its hotel from those calling 267-682-7300.