CASINOS' LUCK HOLDS AGAINST STORMY OPAL

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Joe Giardina, marketing director for the Lady Luck Casino in Biloxi, Miss., went to bed Oct. 3 thinking he was safe from Hurricane Opal.

But he found out he was wrong when, at 4 a.m. the next morning, the Mississippi Gaming Commission ordered all casinos along the Gulf Coast closed immediately.

Fortunately, Opal-the ninth hurricane of this mean season-caused more disruption than damage to the 12 casinos on the Mississippi coast. By Oct. 5, the slots were spinning and the dice were rolling again. No casino reported being closed more than 18 hours.

"We're getting really good at this," said Jean Herbert-Wiesenburg, publicity director for the Grand Casinos in Gulfport and Biloxi.

Mississippi's Gulf gaming parlors also received a scare from hurricane Erin in early August. But, like Opal, it only skirted the coastline and landed on the Florida panhandle.

Mr. Giardina said his casino lost business because nine busloads of gamblers couldn't get into the area.

"Some other events that were planned we couldn't do at all, and that creates a lot of public relations as well as revenue situations," he said.

From a PR standpoint, Mr. Giardina said, the Lady Luck had to deal with angry customers who didn't understand why the casino was closed when no hurricane was in sight.

The financial effects of the storm will show up soon, casino operators said, due to the damage to the Florida panhandle. One casino, the Treasure Bay, estimates that Florida customers contribute 22% of its revenues.

The Lady Luck's Mr. Giardina agreed: "Much of our business comes from the panhandle of Florida, and that [impact] will probably show up on the negative side. A lot of those people won't be coming here until they get insurance checks."

Mr. Giardina said casinos on the coast always advertise in Florida, and he and his staff are discussing several special promotions for Florida citizens. Their promotions are handled in-house.

"The problem now is all the news is about the hurricane, and it's tough getting on the air with anything," he said.

Rich Westfall, marketing director for the Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi, said the idea of hurricanes blowing up every year or so has become "routine."

"We just kind of go on automatic pilot," he said.

Eleven of the 12 casinos on this part of the Gulf Coast are housed on barges. When the casinos received the order to close last Wednesday, those 11 simply had to send all customers and employees home, lock the doors and secure moorings.

But the 12th, the Copa Casino, is a ship, and it falls under the jurisdiction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Port Authority. So the Copa was required to get the ship ready to head out to sea.

"We had to remove everything of value from the ship, close and prepare" to leave, said Kim Fritz, director of marketing for the Copa. However, they weren't ordered to put to sea.

Grand Casinos' Ms. Herbert-Wiesenburg said that on her vessels, "American Night" had to be canceled, but a post-hurricane party was scheduled in its place Oct. 5. "Just to shake off the hurricane blues," she said.

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