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Live Casino & Hotel — formerly Maryland Live — is in transition after five years

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Live Casino & Hotel — formerly Maryland Live — is in transition after five years

Sometime this summer, Live Casino & Hotel will clear dozens of video poker machines from a section of its vast gambling floor so it can demolish a nearby wall.

The opening will provide access to a $200 million, 310-room hotel now under construction — a shiny, towering perk that the Anne Arundel County casino considers critical to luring the lavish-spending customers who account for most of its revenue.

The casino, locally owned by Cordish Cos. and formerly called Maryland Live, marks its fifth anniversary on Tuesday in a state of transition, fighting to keep customers against big-brand competition.

Like gambling halls in other expanding markets, Live always figured it couldn't stand pat. Two large rivals — the 6-month-old MGM National Harbor and Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, which opened in 2014 — have emerged since Live opened adjacent to Arundel Mills mall on June 6, 2012.

As expected, the competition cost Live chunks of its market share. Its May revenue of $45.9 million was 22.3 percent below that of May 2016, when the state had five casinos instead of the current six, according to figures released Monday by the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency. Live's revenue fell 21.6 percent in April, 14.6 percent in March, 14.3 percent in February and 15.6 percent in January.

Horseshoe's May revenue of $23.5 million was down 18.1 percent, while MGM reported monthly revenue of $50.5 million.

In December 2013, a state consultant predicted that MGM — if it were awarded the site license in Prince George's County — would take 23 percent of Live's revenue.

While the $1.4 billion MGM — directly across the Potomac River from Virginia — has had a sizable impact, analysts said it hasn't been as dire for Live as predicted.

"I think both MGM and Live can both settle in with their own niche customer," said Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA Corp., which publishes industry newsletters. "MGM is the more high-end, tourist and table game player while Live has the location and enough traffic near them to remain strong."

Woinski said MGM may hold an advantage during the summer tourist season because of its proximity to Washington's popular destinations.

"That being said, there is still enough business to go around between these three properties," he said. "If you took a poll at National Harbor and Live, my guess would be many regular customers frequent both locations."

Regional gambling has been thriving in many states even as the traditional Mid-Atlantic casino destination of Atlantic City, N.J., has been pinched. Five Atlantic City casinos have shut down since 2014.

The state received $510 million in revenue sharing from casinos in the last fiscal year, making it Maryland's fourth-largest source of funds after income, sales and corporate taxes.

Live is located about a dozen miles from Horseshoe and about 35 miles from MGM.

"We knew when [MGM] opened up that there would be a lot of curiosity about the facility," said Robert Norton, president of Cordish Global Gaming Group.

Live has sought to adapt to the marketplace. The changes include the new name, which was rolled out with little fanfare at the hotel groundbreaking in September and still isn't in popular use. The moniker is intended to reinforce the Cordish brand "Live!" and emphasize the addition of the hotel, expected to open in 2018.

The company said the hotel will be the first of many new hotels featuring the "Live!" brand. Others are slated for Philadelphia, where Cordish is developing a casino in the stadium district, and Arlington, Texas, where it is creating an entertainment district adjacent to a new ballpark for the Texas Rangers.

The Hanover casino has sought to distinguish itself with progressive jackpots and promotions such as giving away a licensed replica of the Batmobile from the 1960s-era "Batman" television show and a replica of the DeLorean time machine from the "Back to the Future" movies. Owner David Cordish occasionally appears on the casino floor and hands out $100 bills to guests.

It's giving away five Tesla automobiles during June to mark its fifth anniversary.

In the last five years, Maryland's Live, which has about 3,000 employees, has added new restaurants and more table games while dropping several hundred slot machines. It has expanded its loyalty program from one tier to six and claims to have more than a million members. Perks include everything from free soft drinks and birthday promotions to personal casino hosts, rounds of golf, limousine service, resort trips and tickets to sporting events.

"When we first opened, our loyalty program was fairly lean," said Mario Maesano, the casino's senior vice president for marketing. "From a marketing standpoint, you basically have a very solid five-to-10-year plan and you don't fire all of your bullets at one time."

Retaining their top-tier gamblers is essential to Live and other casinos.

"You see our monthly revenues, you can attribute nearly all of it to our loyalty base," Norton said. "We follow the Pareto Principle very much in the gaming business. It follows the 80-20 rule – 80 percent of your revenue comes from 20 percent of your best customers.

In recent years, Maryland casinos have collectively given away tens of millions of dollars a year — as much as 20 percent of their revenue — in free play on slot machines and table games designed to keep their big-spending customers gambling, according to state documents. Maryland requires casinos to identify to regulators those players who receive $5,000 or more in comped services over five consecutive days. Those reports are exempt from disclosure under the public records law.

The long-planned hotel under construction is a prominent piece of Live's strategy. Most of the rooms in the 17-story hotel and event center will be "comped" — free — for regular casino patrons.

A crane towered above the site last week as construction workers labored on a mid-level floor.

Renderings depict a building, with glass as a dominant material, displaying "Live!" in red near the top. A presidential suite will offer bird's-eye views of the area with floor-to-ceiling windows.

"On the top couple of floors you'll find suites that are as large as many houses that'll have all kinds of amenities, including movie rooms and spa suites," Norton said. Cordish already owns a hotel purchased near the casino last year and rebranded as Live! Lofts.

The hotels will provide the casino more than the ability to dole out comps, said University of Maryland professor Stephen McDaniel, who studies sports and entertainment marketing.

"The other thing that it does is they're getting you on the property and keeping you on the property," McDaniel said. "You've got hotel revenue, you've got food and beverage revenue. There's a spa and there's a 1,500 seat concert or event center."

Norton said he hopes the hotel will help Live fill an important gap for its frequent guests.

"They've been asking for a top-class hotel for the five years that we've been here," he said.

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