Riding the Bus: from Harrah to Bethlehem, from Wynn to Highland

On Thursday, August 22nd, 50 people were injured when a bus bound for San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in Highland, California overturned.  These days it takes a bus accident before the topic of “casino buses” interests anyone beside the bus operators, the bus riders and the casinos footing the bills.  Busing has become something very different from what it started out to be. Long, long ago in another century and another time, Bill Harrah invented the casino bus tour.

In 1955, Harrah bought George’s Gateway Club on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  Casinos had existed at Lake Tahoe since the 1930’s, but they were only seasonal operations, opening on the Memorial Day Weekend and shutting down after the Labor Day Weekend.  Harrah cleaned up the Gateway Club, put in a restaurant, loser slot machines and then he kept his casino open all year long.  He later sold that casino and built Harrah’s Tahoe, his jewel on the lake.  By the time Harrah’s Tahoe opened, he had changed the casino business on the South Shore to a year-round business and he did it, at least in part, with buses.  Harrah ignored tradition and the weather and delivered a steady stream of gamblers to his casinos all year long with a fleet of buses.

In a Stanford Research Institute study made for Harrah entitled ‘An Investigation of Factors Influencing Bus Scheduling,’ Dr. Bertrand Klass and Dr. Harry V. Kincaid described the people who used buses as ‘elderly, in a low occupational status, unmarried, renter rather than a home owner, and without a car.’  “Harrah set his sights on this segment and ordered an all-out campaign to proselytize it. He spent about $450,000 in one year on newspaper and radio advertising in San Francisco, Sacramento, Stockton and twenty-eight other cities, offering round trips to lovely Lake Tahoe in chartered Greyhound buses..One Washington’s Birthday, during the worst blizzard of the winter, fifty-nine buses unloaded their cargo into Harrah’s salons….”   Harper’s Magazine, 1962; William Fisk Harrah, Leon Mandel, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York 1982

The success of Harrah’s bus trips depended on the pent up needs of an underserved market and a population capable of and willing to gamble, but with no way to get to a casino.  Fifty-eight years later, finding a population with a desire and capability to gamble but without transportation is very difficult.   And, there is hardly any regional market in the country that remains underserved without its own casinos. Still, the casino bus tour companies continue to sell their product to casinos.

Harrah’s owned its own buses, but today’s casinos do not own buses and haven’t for 25 years.  Instead, independent bus operators make a living delivering gamblers to casinos. At least they promise to deliver gamblers, but there are few gamblers to be found in the lot.  In 2013, the people being delivered to the casinos by the buses are very different from the people Harrah’s buses brought to Lake Tahoe in 1955. The population Bill Harrah cultivated to make his casinos successful no longer exists.  Instead today’s bus operators are delivering poor people looking for a free meal, something to do and a couple of dollars.  These people are without the means or the desire to gamble. They often don’t speak English.  Their only employment is riding the buses; their pay comes from the casino cash and free meals. It is a hidden, underground economy that is only exposed when a bus crashes or a New York Times reporter decides to do a story.

“The casino is a kind of place that can bleed you dry of everything,” he said. “It can also save your life when you have nothing.”  – For dozens of Korean and Chinese immigrants living in Flushing, Queens, riding the casino buses has become a way of life. Twice a day, they descend on unmarked bus stops off Main Street to secure a $15 seat to the Sands casino in Bethlehem, Pa. Many do not gamble. They make the trip solely for the free gambling and meal vouchers they receive when they arrive, coupons they sell on the black market. A half-day trip to the Sands can net around $40.  Since February, the photographer Yeong-Ung Yang has been documenting what he calls the “endless commute” of these regulars, known as “bus-kkun” (bus riders in Korean). “For many of them, it’s a job,” Mr. Yang, 28, said. “There are those that arrive at the casino and go straight to the waiting room and immediately start waiting for the next bus to go home.” Jeffrey E. Singer, New York Times, 8-23-13

According to conversations on the California Highway Patrol radio, officers were seeking Chinese translators at the scene and at hospitals to help talk to passengers.  At least 50 people were injured Thursday when a chartered casino bus overturned after apparently swerving on Interstate 210 east of Los Angeles.  The accident occurred about 10 a.m. PT on eastbound 210 in Irwindale, just past the interchange with the 605 Freeway. The crash left the bus — with the front windows knocked out — resting on its side down an embankment beside train tracks.  The Da Zhen Travel Agency bus was headed to the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, near San Bernardino, said the charter company, based in Monterey Park, Calif. Doug Stanglin, USA Today, 8-23-13

The list of Harrah’s contributions to gaming is long indeed, but one of his most important contributions was measurement and evaluation.  Harrah had high standards for both service and products in his casinos.  But everything was subject to measurement and evaluation, including the bus program. If the buses had not made money for Harrah, he would never have continued the program.

In the mid-1980’s at the Comstock Hotel-Casino in Reno, we went through a very rigorous evaluation of our bus program. We learned that the average player spent less than 15 minutes of a four-hour stopover in our casino and that they wagered less than five dollars.  At the time, each bus customer cost us about $15 in commissions, coins, free meals, drinks and payroll.  The program lost money. To gather the data, we followed people and timed all of their actions for two or three weeks. After that, we got out of the bus business as fast as we could.

Steve Wynn had a simpler system.  About the same time, in Atlantic City, Wynn’s Golden Nugget had a bus program as all of the casinos did at the time.  Steve did not think it was a good idea, but he needed some proof.  So in search of proof, he got on a couple of buses and offered cash bonuses to everyone with over $20 in cash. Wynn did not give out many bonuses.  Steve was shocked at the result; not more than one or two people on a bus had more than $20.  Wynn drew the same conclusion we did in Reno; the bus program was not profitable and he discontinued it.  The 2013 buses filled with Chinese and Korean immigrants may be providing a profit for the bus operators and even a little cash in the pockets of very poor and unemployed immigrants, but it is not possible they are making a profit for the casinos. At least that is the way it looks to me from my perch in the ivory tower.



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