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Tour buses vanishing from Sacramento-area casinos

The charter buses that deliver customers to Sacramento-area Indian casinos may be starting to disappear from their parking lots, victims of the weak economy and new marketing philosophies. By Dale Kasler, Sacramento Bee

The charter buses that deliver customers to Sacramento-area Indian casinos may be starting to disappear from their parking lots, victims of the weak economy and new marketing philosophies.

Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel ended its charter bus promotions last week, while Thunder Valley Casino has scaled back its program considerably. To drive home the point, the Jackson casino hired daredevil motorcylist Robbie Knievel to leap over three buses at the rancheria's RV park in a publicity stunt set for Thursday.

Tour buses have been as much a part of the gaming scene as slot machines and the prime-rib buffet. In return for a per-head commission, the buses bring customers from the Bay Area and other points distant. The casino provides the bus riders with food and gambling coupons.

Many Northern California casinos have consistently targeted bus patrons, particularly in the Asian community. Jackson Rancheria acknowledges the tradition in a new television ad in which casino Chief Executive Rich Hoffman says ending bus service "may seem a bit crazy."

But analysts say casinos are realizing that the spending by patrons arriving on charter buses doesn't justify the cost of attracting them, particularly in a weak economy. Most are seniors with relatively little disposable income, not big spenders, said Reno consultant Ken Adams.

"When times get tough, you get more critical," Adams said. "For every dollar they spend (on tour buses), they may only get 50 cents in return."

He said many casinos in markets such as Lake Tahoe, Reno and Atlantic City, N.J., cut back or eliminated bus promotions years ago.

"Busing built Tahoe," Adams said, but bus promotions are now considered examples of "old marketing."

Some California tribes, to be sure, are standing pat with their charter bus operations. The region's newest venue, Red Hawk Casino in Shingle Springs, said in a statement that "we are very pleased with the performance of the charter buses. … Business continues to grow across the many service lines."

Red Hawk brings in charter buses from as far as San Jose. The casino's management company, Lakes Entertainment Inc. of Minnesota, has pledged to ramp up marketing to the Bay Area as part of its response to a disappointing first year of operations.

All casinos are scrambling to cope with the recession. Red Hawk, owned by the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, has trimmed employment by at least 15 percent in recent months. Thunder Valley, owned by the United Auburn Indian Community, laid off nearly 100 workers and halted construction on a hotel for several months. The hotel, about a third smaller than originally planned, is scheduled to open next summer.

The Jackson casino, owned by the Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians, is doing "a little bit better" than most but hasn't been immune to the weak economy, said spokesman Doug Elmets.

Earlier this year, the Jackson casino actually increased its charter bus service to counter the recession. As many as 15 buses a day were bringing in hundreds of patrons from the San Francisco area, Modesto, Stockton and Manteca.

But Elmets said the casino realized the system wasn't making sense financially. Jackson was spending $20 on each bus visitor – $15 in food and gambling coupons, plus a $5 commission to the bus operator – but wasn't getting much gambling revenue as a result.

"If we're going to drive people to the casino, we want to make sure they're going to gamble," he said. "In the current economic environment, casinos are looking for ways to control costs but also to market in a way in which you get good return for your investment."

Jackson plans to reinvest the money into rewards programs targeted at the casino's core customers, who were feeling neglected amid the flood of bus patrons, he said.

Elmets, who also speaks for Thunder Valley, said the Lincoln casino has cut roughly in half the volume of charter buses arriving from San Francisco and San Jose. Instead, Thunder Valley is ramping up service from points in Sacramento using the casino's own shuttle buses.

By using its own buses, "we don't have to pay a commission," Elmets said.

And, unlike most charter buses, the casino's shuttles carry the Thunder Valley logo. "To have a moving billboard throughout the region is one more example of creative marketing," he said.