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A Candid Conversation with William Bissett

Published: April 29, 2009 11:38 am ET

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"We'll have a fireside chat," joked Chris Roberts, sitting down to talk face to face with William J. Bissett, President of Delaware North Gaming and Entertainment, a leading operator of gaming and racing operations around the world.

Delaware North, based in the United States, is a private company in their 95th year. A national corporation involved in sports and entertainment through a variety of avenues, they own the Boston Garden, they have an airport terminal catering business, they operate national park hospitality activities across the country, and they own a few hotels and motels, in addition to a much longer list of additional interests. "All rolled up it's about a $2 billion business," said Bissett, "and in the summer-time, at our peak, we have about 40,000 employees."

They also have a few interests internationally -- England and Australia specifically, among others. "It's a very diverse business," he smiled.

They touch a wide variety of realms in some way-- gaming, horse racing, dog racing, football, hockey, soccer and others -- and once upon a time Delaware North was the biggest operator of pari-mutuel facilities in the world.

How has the economic downturn, asked Roberts, changed the business Delaware North has done, and hopes to do?

The sport catering business, he commented, is off to a good start, though they are seeing some softness on the higher end as companies are spending less money to entertain.

"Airports are much softer, much fewer people (in the States at least) are travelling -- so that part of our business is off 10 per cent so far this year. Our parks and resorts have started off well -- advance bookings are very strong. And internationally, we are off to a good start this year."

"In the gaming business, strangely enough, we're 10-15 per cent ahead of where we were in 2008. If you have a regional gaming business where there is not a lot of money to travel, we are not seeing a lot of Draconian effect on our gaming business because so much of it is regional."

Roberts then asked if pari-mutuel racing could be a profitable and viable component of your business?

"We tend to focus our efforts and capital investments on that part of the business that returns the most investment," he admitted, "the gaming side. We tend to forget about the racing side -- we can't control the product necessarily. I think some of it is on our back, and I think some of it is on the back of providing a better product. It's still a work in progress. We've got to be more creative in how we draw new customers into the building," added Bissett. "Some of it is how you treat them when you get them there."

Service is critical, he stressed, as is the quality of the food operation. Bissett feels that raising the standard of the food quality in those locations is important, as well as creativity in offering your product to customers.

"Raise the bar and keep pushing down to the customer we're not seeing enough of -- that 18-35 group -- and get them interested in coming for an experience that's not just Derby day."

With respect to investing in the product his companies offer, Bissett asks the customer and goes from there.

"You also have to spend a little bit of money to see what your customer wants," he shrugged. "We constantly survey our customer base to find out what they would like to see more of and direct our capital to address those needs. On the racing side, those needs include more product, and more quality of product. In the live environment, having the ability to provide them with better food products and cheaper pricing is obvious, of course. In the simulcast world, having good quality signals from more locations is what we are being asked to do.

"It's such a simple business when you break it down. It's clearly not rocket science. It's clearly not brain surgery. For the most part, if the product is fairly similar, you start to get in the quality of the service, the experience, If you check off those boxes and pay attention to service and quality, people are going to come back to you. It's simple."

What is wanting?

"I think for the most part, it's pretty simplistic. Often times there is not enough maintenance capital investment to keep these places fresh. People have a fairly short view of the world. If they are not looked after quickly, you lose them. You need quick turn on how they feel about your place. I think service, again, is very, very, very important. Even if you have an average location, if you really look after a customer -- if you know their names and know who they are -- quality of the facility and change and freshness are all critical.

"When you go to Aqueduct, and you walk through the facility, the people who work there can tell you the names of everyone sitting in those chairs. And if you walk by an empty chair, unfortunately, that player has either died or missed the bus. It's that critical.

"If you ignore inserting other forms of entertainment into the mix, then you have to look at getting together and operating and conducting yourselves as a group or an industry -- and fight your battles as an industry. Until you can react as an industry and change policy -- it's very tough to do it on a one-off basis.

"Get that product into the flow of how people live their lives today. You have got to get into their world -- and their world is electronic."

The days of billboards and giveaways, Bissett joked, are over.

"That ship has sailed."

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