If you’re entertaining dreams of owning your own casino one day, you’ll need anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few billion.
The casino business is so lucrative that every time a new casino opens as “the most expensive casino ever built,” investors pop champagne bottles and raise a toast. It wasn’t always that way. Only a few decades ago, casino operators built on slim budgets.
Steve Wynn gambled big in the late ‘80s when he opened The Mirage in Las Vegas. Wynn and his backers invested an unheard-of $630 million in the new casino. At the time, industry analysts calculated the casino would have to turn an average daily profit of at least $1 million to meet its financial obligations.
In 2019 dollars, that isn’t so bad. If a casino has only 1,000 gaming machines, it can turn a $5 million daily profit just by retaining an average $1000 per machine.
According to a 2015 Las Vegas Sun article, about 40 million people visited Las Vegas on an annual basis at that time. That works out to nearly 110,000 visitors to Las Vegas daily. There are just over 100 casinos in Las Vegas.
In 2017, it was then reported that annual visitors had climbed to more than 42 million.
If each visitor loses only an average of $100 per day, Las Vegas is raking in $11 million in casino earnings every day. The reality is much more startling.
In 2013, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas published a study on the daily revenues of the 23 big casinos on the Strip. To be included in the study, a casino had to produce gaming revenue at least $72 million a year. The average for each of the big 23 turned out to be over $230 million per year.
That’s a far cry since The Mirage opened in 1989, but competition has changed the city’s gaming industry. Here is a deeper look at what it costs to build a casino.
Location, Location, Location
If you want to build a casino for as little as possible, buy cheap land. Where that wicket becomes sticky is in finding the right land. Not only do you need favorable laws allowing gambling and zoning for casinos, but you also need at least a good nearby highway.
Las Vegas is a hub for three Interstate highways and several US highways. The city is also home to McCarran International Airport. About 40 million passengers pass through the airport every year.
Considering AmTrak carries passengers to the city as well, tourists visit the city by car, bus, train, and plane.
If you decide to build your own casino, lacking the transportation channels that Las Vegas boasts means your location will attract fewer annual visitors. This probably explains why few cities dominate the casino industry. The casinos need both good zoning and access to transportation to attract visitors.
Hence, you should expect to pay a lot of money for the land.
Size Counts In Every Way
The Mirage currently boasts about 2,000 slot machine games. While that sounds like a lot, the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, OK has about six times the floor space as The Mirage. The WinStar opened in 2003, making it 14 years younger than The Mirage.
According to their website in 2019, the WinStar holds about 8400 slot machines. They also have a 55-table poker room, all squeezed into 400,000 feet of floor space. If you want to compete with the WinStar, you’ll need a lot of floor space and thousands of more games.
The casino is owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation, who had plenty of available land for development. That’s an advantage over the average commercial developer. By owning the land as part of their reservation, they were able to invest more in creating a high-quality resort.
You Need a Hotel and Restaurant
One reason why good casinos cost so much to build is the bigger casinos contain or are paired with big hotels. By providing their visitors with safe, comfortable accommodations, they ensure those visitors spend more time in their gaming areas.
On-site entertainment and dining venues enhance the hotel and casino experience. The farther away from Vegas and Atlantic City one gets in the United States, the less extravagant the casinos tend to become.
Only a handful of states and cities allow commercial casinos to congregate in their jurisdictions. The demand for suitable land limits the competition.
Biloxi, MS is North America’s third big commercial casino hub.
The Beau Rivage may be the best known of the Biloxi casinos. They only offer about 1800 slot games. Owned by MGM Resorts, Beau Rivage promotes its hotel, entertainment, dining, and nightlife venues equally with the casino.
These are not afterthoughts. They are part and parcel major pieces of the whole package.
According to Fixr.com, the average cost of a hotel in the United States is just over $22 million. A hotel comparable to the resorts at WinStar or Beau Rivage will easily set you back in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Factor in the Cost of Games
Assuming the hypothetical new casino brings in a lot of slot machines, how much do they cost?
The website HowMuchIsIt.org rounds up a list of price ranges for popular slot machines. Expect to pay at least several thousand dollars per basic game. The enhanced games may run $30,000 or more for the consoles.
If you can bring enough people in, the games should pay for themselves in only a few months. That’s not so bad.
However, the games will need to be maintained. A new casino must include the cost of hiring qualified staff or for paying authorized service contracts.
Plant Operations Are Expensive
Whether you’re building a roadside casino with 100 machines or planning a massive resort with more than a handful of casino games, the buildings will need electricity, water, heating and air systems, sewage, and maintenance areas.
Assuming a modest 200-room hotel is built on the property, it will have its own plant facility. Ditto for a small restaurant.
This new casino will need tools and equipment no one thinks about when pushing buttons and counting cards. There are lighting systems, sound systems, security systems, communication systems, and staff offices.
Employees will need dressing rooms and lockers, or at least their own break room.
Administration will need at least one office, maybe two if there is a dedicated full-time security team.
The cashiers will need a counting room and vault.
All these facilities must be built out, equipped, and brought online. This is all before you hire your first employee.
If the idea of building a new casino seems crazy, it is. This is an industry for billionaires and rich investment fund managers to play in. It’s not for the faint-hearted or small business person.
It’s true there are hundreds of small casinos that do just fine. With only a few dozen to a few hundred games, they cater to local customers. They don’t need big highways, trains, and airports.
Even so, the cost of setting up a small commercial will run into the millions of dollars. Most communities won’t accept commercial casinos. Most states don’t license them. The Native American tribes may contract with casino management companies but only the big ones.
In short, it costs a lot of money to open a casino. Buying one is out of the question for most people. Donald Trump is believed to have lost about $1 billion in investors’ money by trying to buy his way into Atlantic City.
Short of inheriting a small fortune or casino, this kind of development is one game well beyond the reach of typical investors and small business owners.