Food focus grows at G2E

17 November 2006

by Jennifer Robinson

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – In a constant effort to separate customers from their paychecks, casino owners have added a bumper crop of high-end restaurants to their operations in recent years.

The growing importance to casinos of a thriving culinary scene was on display this week at the Global Gaming Expo.

The expo hosted its third annual F&B at G2E, a food-and-beverage trade show that convention organizers Reed Exhibitions and the American Gaming Association added in 2004.

"The gaming industry has really become an entertainment industry, and that's represented by the restaurants, the shopping, the shows and other forms of entertainment," said Judy Patterson, senior vice president and executive director of the American Gaming Association. "We consider our show to be by the industry and for the industry, and we wanted to represent all aspects of it."

Statistics show how vital the food scene is becoming to the casino sector.

Patterson said food-and-beverage revenue among casinos on the Strip has risen 134 percent in the last decade, while gaming revenue has grown 46 percent. Nongaming revenue, which includes restaurants and entertainment, rose from 47 percent of total sales 10 years ago to 58 percent of sales in 2005. The food-and-beverage segment provided 19.2 percent of the Nevada gaming industry's revenue in 2005, she said.

Exhibit space at F&B at G2E has mirrored the exponential growth in the casino's food arena, jumping nearly 50 percent from 10,000 square feet in 2005 to almost 15,000 square feet in 2006.

Plenty of big-time brand names -- Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Sara Lee, Nestlé, Burger King and Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs among them -- put in an appearance at this week's food-and-beverage show.

But dozens of smaller operators jockeyed for face time with the purchasers, marketers and chefs strolling the show's aisles.

Beaver Street Fisheries was making its second appearance at F&B at G2E.

The company, which started serving the casino industry in Tunica, Miss., about 10 years ago, entered Las Vegas in 2005 with delivery to three or four local restaurants. Jeffrey Parisi, an account executive for the Florida seafood importer, said he hoped to add another three to four area restaurants to his client base following the trade show. By the convention's end on Thursday, Beaver Street had already struck an agreement to serve Terrible's Hotel & Casino on Paradise Road.

"Meeting people in person helps you make friendships, and if you can make friendships with your customers, then it's nice to service them, and it's nice to visit with them," Parisi said.

Beaver Street spent $10,000 to $15,000 for its exhibit booth, where company representatives handed out crab cakes, freshly grilled tilapia and fried frog legs.

Parisi said one or two key deals would cover the expense of attending F&B at G2E. Participating in the show also furthers Beaver Street's goal of capturing up to 65 percent of the Las Vegas market within the next five years.

For 10-year-old N'Genuity Enterprises, the Indian-gaming market is the grand prize.

Co-owners Valerie LittleChief and Bo Jackson -- yes, the Bo Jackson who knows both professional football and baseball -- have concentrated on providing meats to the military, including outposts in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan.

But an interest in diversifying the Arizona company's business base brought LittleChief and Jackson, who was on hand to lure conventioneers to N'Genuity's booth, to F&B at G2E for the first time.

LittleChief said she made about 30 important contacts with Indian-gaming executives on both coasts. She even forged inroads into the tough-to-crack Las Vegas market. She said she's been working to place her steaks, burgers and sausages with MGM Mirage properties since 2003, but the megaresort operator buys massive quantities of meat at once rather than the individual pieces LittleChief offers. Still, she may have broken through at F&B at G2E: She managed to schedule a January meeting with MGM Mirage's purchasing executives.

"We had a good dialogue," LittleChief said. "We needed to be here. Everyone wants to be inside MGM Mirage, but if you're not here in their face, you're not going to get an answer."

Over at Bling H2O's booth, the biggest MGM Mirage honcho of them all stopped by Wednesday and gave an important morale boost to company partner Luins Williams Jr.

Williams spotted Terry Lanni, chairman and chief executive officer of MGM Mirage, on the F&B at G2E floor and called him over to thank him for the casino company's support of Bling H2O, a high-end line of water that comes in a signature bottle hand-studded with 61 Swarovski crystals. The Mirage added Bling H2O to its beverage lineup in June, after Williams, who's black, attended an MGM Mirage purchasing fair for minority-owned vendors.

During the booth chat, Lanni gave Williams the name of the chief of purchasing for all of MGM Mirage's hotel-casinos, and asked Williams to keep in touch with his office.

"It was a very encouraging two minutes," Williams said.

Opportunities to connect with decision-makers brought Phillips Foods of Baltimore to F&B at G2E.

Craig Witte, regional sales manager for the seafood distributor, said having thousands of gaming operators in the same building provided a target-rich marketing environment.

"At most restaurants, we can just go in the back door and talk to the chefs," Witte said. "At casinos, it's so difficult to get in for appointments, because (casino) chefs are busy with restaurants, buffets and catering. They don't always have time to see unexpected visitors. Here, they come to us and taste our products, and we can show them the difference in quality and taste that we offer."

Witte, whose booth attendants were searing tuna and steaming dim sum for visitors, said as many as 700 people had stopped by Phillips' display. Purchasers from Indian casinos, as well as jurisdictions in Europe and Canada, also checked out the company's goods.

"We have salesmen in Europe, but here, everyone is under one roof," Witte said. "How long would it take us to see all these people? This was an opportunity to do it in three days."

The executives at Kenny's Great Pies from Smyrna, Ga., said they made 30 to 40 useful contacts at the trade show.

But Scott Levasseur, the company's operations manager, said he was expecting more leads.

The bakery serves Las Vegas via the California Pizza Kitchen chain, and though hundreds of attendees flocked to the company's booth for samples of Kenny's Key Lime, mango and coconut-cream pies, not many of them were in a position to make buys, Levasseur said.

Yet, he said, Kenny's would return to the convention in 2007 if the contacts made this week turn into sales in the next few months.

"It's been great introducing people to our product," Levasseur said. "It's always nice to see people enjoying our pies."

Not all the F&B at G2E exhibitors were food companies.

Businesses peddling inventory software, swinging doors, uniforms, shoes, plastic utensils, silverware, dishes, matches and bar stools were among the 75 or so exhibitors on the trade-show floor.

Bob Serber, marketing director of You Got Meals, was showing off two goods: an e-mail service that notifies a restaurant's existing customers of special events and deals, and a small "table tent" that lights up acetate films promoting high-margin items such as desserts.

Serber said about 50 attendees expressed interest in You Got Meals' services. The table tents quickly disappeared as marketing executives grabbed samples to take back to purchasing departments.

There's a good chance You Got Meals will return to F&B at G2E in 2007, Serber said.

"Restaurants and casinos have a need to both build customer loyalty and immediately increase sales, and we can help them," Serber said. "We want to establish long-term relationships with the casino world."

Copyright GamingWire. All rights reserved.

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