Mandalay Resort Group
Mandalay Resort Group
Incorporated: 1974 as Circus Circus Enterprises, Inc.
Sales: $1.48 billion (1999)
Stock Exchanges: New York
Ticker Symbol: MBG
NAIC: 551112 Offices of Other Holding Companies; 721120 Casino Hotels; 713210 Casinos (Except Casino Hotels); 721110 Hotels (Except Casino Hotels) and Motels
Mandalay Resort Group is one of the leading hotel-casino companies in the United States, and is the largest such company in the Las Vegas market in terms of square footage of casino space and number of hotel rooms. Known as Circus Circus Enterprises, Inc. until June 1999, Mandalay Resort operates ten hotel-casinos in Nevada, including four elaborate properties on the Las Vegas Strip: Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, and Circus Circus. It is also a partner with Mirage Resorts, Incorporated in a joint venture that owns and operates the Monte Carlo, another Strip denizen. Outside of Nevada, the company owns a dockside casino in Tunica County, Mississippi (near Memphis, Tennessee); has a joint venture interest in the Grand Victoria, a riverboat casino located in Elgin, Illinois; and is developing casinos in Detroit, Michigan, and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. With the exception of the upscale Mandalay Bay, the company’s properties are mainly aimed at middle-class vacationers; to appeal to this market segment, the company offers reasonably priced rooms and food, and has pioneered the concept of the casino as an entertainment theme park for the entire family.
Early Years: From a Baby Elephant to Topless Dancers
Circus Circus, the first casino of what would later become Mandalay Resort Group, began as the brainchild of Jay Sarno, a Las Vegas businessman with reputed ties to organized crime. Sarno had made his name as the operator of a chain of motels and had also developed Caesars’ Palace, a casino and hotel with a Greco-Roman theme. In 1968 Sarno opened a casino with a circus theme on Las Vegas Boulevard, more commonly known as the Las Vegas Strip. Never one to think small, the promoter installed a circus arena, a carnival midway, a casino, restaurants, and shops under an enormous pink and white-striped tentlike roof. A baby elephant roamed the premises pulling the handles of slot machines and aerialists whirled through the air, their nets hovering just above the gaming tables. On the midway customers threw baseballs at targets and were rewarded for a bull’s-eye by a topless woman springing out of a bed to dance for them. Stunned by the excess of the display, rivals on the Las Vegas Strip declared Circus Circus a combination of Sodom and Disneyland.
Sarno had hoped that the extravagant displays of Circus Circus would attract high rollers to his baccarat tables, but the circus theme—with clowns and animals and the children they attracted—was at war with the ambiance of a posh gambling hall. Trapeze artists whizzing overhead were a constant distraction to gamblers and the casino was not the big money-maker that Sarno had envisioned.
Although a 400-room, 15-story hotel tower was completed in 1972, Circus Circus continued losing money; within two years Sarno was broke. In February 1974, the casino and hotel operation were formally incorporated as Circus Circus Enterprises, Inc.; three months later, in May, the setup was purchased for $50,000 by two new investors, William N. Pennington and William G. Bennett, a former furniture store executive who became chairman and CEO of the company.
1974–79: Making Circus Circus a Success
Bennett and Pennington set out to revamp Circus Circus. After briefly attempting to cater to big spenders with perks and free services, the new managers soon became convinced that a circus theme would never attract high rollers. “Circus acts and kids and high rollers—it doesn’t mix,” Bennett later theorized in Fortune magazine. Bucking the industry trend, Bennett and Pennington decided to try to make their greatest weakness a strength by seeking out family business. In place of the traditionally coveted high-stakes customer, they would try to attract the masses, going after the middle-class tourist.
Implementing a shift in marketing emphasis and strict financial controls, the new owners remade their casino. The circus was moved to the second floor to cut down on interference with the gambling, the slot-playing elephant was retired, and the company banished the topless dancers. Bennett removed the high-stakes baccarat tables, ended complimentary services for big spenders, and stopped issuing credit to gamblers. Instead Circus Circus installed nickel slot machines, blackjack games, and $1 tables on the gaming floor. In addition to the circus acts, the company provided video games for kids and additional children’s games on the mezzanine-level carnival midway; adult gaming activities were, therefore, separated from children’s activities in compliance with state gaming regulations.
Most importantly, Circus Circus began to provide low-cost rooms and food to attract vacationers looking for a bargain. The company offered $28 rooms and inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffet meals. The buffet’s purpose was to pull people in, not to make money on the food; indeed, the company lost about 50 cents on each meal served. Circus Circus also lost money on the hotel operations, but was subsidized by the casino. Patronized by hordes of people attracted to inexpensive food and lodging, the Circus Circus casino became one of the busiest and most profitable gaming arenas on the Strip. Bennett and his cohorts had refined their vision of what Circus Circus ought to be, becoming the first of a new generation of casino operators who saw their business not as an offshoot of a slightly shady underworld practice, but as an entertainment franchise designed to attract people of all income levels and all ages.
By June 1974 Circus Circus was turning a large profit. In the following year, the opening of a second 15-story hotel tower provided an additional 395 rooms.
Four years later, the company duplicated the Las Vegas operations in Reno, Nevada, opening a second Circus Circus casino in a space that had formerly been a department store. The new casino was accompanied by a 104-room hotel. In addition, the company opened a five-story garage in Las Vegas to serve the original casino.
This facility was expanded in the next year with the opening of the Circusland RV Park, part of the company’s strategy to attract vacationers looking for a bargain. The park had slots for 421 recreational vehicles, complete with electric hookups to power utilities, a 24-hour convenience store, a laundromat, a children’s playground, a pet-walking area, a community room, pools, saunas, a Jacuzzi, and a game arcade. Vacationers paid just $10 a night to use the park’s facilities.
Circus Circus’s steady construction of parking facilities resulted from heavy reliance on patrons who drove from areas around the Southwest, primarily southern California, to Las Vegas. This dependence left the company vulnerable to fluctuations in the oil industry. A gasoline shortage, resulting in long lines at service stations, lessened Circus Circus’s profits for several months in 1979.
1979–87: Steady Expansion Beyond Circus Circus
Slot machines remained a staple of Circus Circus’s strategy to keep costs down and returns high. Unlike table games, the machines did not need casino attendants and were extremely inexpensive to operate. Furthermore, visitors found them unintimidating, so the machines typically had a high rate of use despite the fact that the house paid out a smaller percentage of winnings on slot machines than on other games. In 1979 Circus Circus purchased Slots-A-Fun, located next door to the first casino on the Las Vegas Strip, and a dramatic renovation of this once-ailing facility soon followed.
- Jay Sarno opens Circus Circus casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
- A 400-room, 15-story hotel tower is added to Circus Circus.
- The hotel-casino is incorporated as Circus Circus Enterprises, Inc.; company is acquired by William N. Pennington and William G. Bennett.
- A second 15-story tower, with 395 more rooms, is added to the casino.
- A second Circus Circus casino is opened in Reno, Nevada.
- Company purchases Slots-A-Fun, a Las Vegas casino located next to Circus Circus.
- Silver City Casino, located in Las Vegas, is acquired.
- Company goes public with a listing on the NYSE; the Edgewater Hotel and Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, is acquired.
- The addition of Circus Skyrise and West Casino to the Circus Circus-Las Vegas complex gives the company the largest gaming capacity in the industry.
- Company opens its first casino developed from the ground up, the Colorado Belle, located in Laughlin.
- The company opens what is then the world’s largest resort, Excalibur, a casino with a castle theme located on the Strip.
- Company adds a high-rise hotel tower with almost 1,000 rooms to the Edgewater casino.
- The $390 million Luxor opens on the Strip next to the Excalibur.
- Gold Strike Resorts is acquired for about $500 million.
- The $950 million upscale Mandalay Bay resort opens on the Strip; company changes its name to Mandalay Resort Group.
Circus Circus added more hotel rooms in 1980. Circus Manor consisted of five three-story buildings; this project included 810 hotel rooms and a mini-casino. To link the different areas of the company’s extensive Las Vegas operation, Circus Circus constructed a $5 million amusement-park-like elevated car system named the Circus Sky Shuttle. Pink and white air-conditioned cars glided along a monorail 18 feet above Circus Circus Drive carrying casino patrons between the big top and their hotels starting in 1981.
Circus Circus’s rapid expansion continued in 1981 with the purchase of the Silver City Casino, a failing casino located onequarter mile south of the company’s headquarters on the Las Vegas Strip. The new owners revamped the property’s exterior and expanded and updated the interior. In Reno, Circus Circus had an additional 725 hotel rooms in a new 22-story building.
In an effort to keep the flagship property fresh, the company spent $7 million in 1982 remodeling Circus Circus-Las Vegas. The casino, restaurant, and parking facilities were enlarged and a new front entrance marquee was built. By 1983, 20,000 people utilized the facilities each day and Circus Circus reported $240 million in revenues, making the venture the most profitable public gaming company.
In order to finance more expansion, Circus Circus went public in October 1983, offering four million shares on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock was introduced at $15 a share and quickly rose to $16.25 in trading, the start of a process that would lead to rich rewards for the shareholders, notably chairman William G. Bennett and president William N. Pennington. “We changed this business when we went public,” Bennett later acknowledged in the New York Times. “People knew we were doing well, but until then nobody knew how well. Once they found out, everyone went after the so-called family business.”
With the influx of funds that resulted from the stock offering, Circus Circus extended the operations to a third city in Nevada, purchasing the Edgewater Hotel and Casino on the Colorado River in Laughlin, Nevada, in 1983. Shortly thereafter the company announced plans for a $12 million expansion and renovation of the property, which had fallen on hard financial times. This expansion, based on a Southwestern theme, included the construction of an additional 450 hotel rooms, quadrupling the Edgewater’s existing 150 rooms to 600, and the enlargement and total overhaul of the casino. Other facilities appealing to middle-class vacationers, such as a Keno lounge, a sports betting center, a swimming pool, and a bowling alley, were also added.
As part of these plans Circus Circus purchased the Colorado Belle Casino—located next to the Edgewater—in 1984, for $4 million. The company wanted to move the original Colorado Belle building out of the way of the Edgewater’s view of the Colorado River to make space for the expansion of adjacent property. The following year the company announced that the Colorado Belle would be reincarnated as a new resort in the shape of a $70 million replica of a three-deck Mississippi paddlewheel riverboat.
Circus Circus expanded the Reno facilities in 1985 as well: a 27-story hotel, the Skyway Tower, boasted more than 1,625 rooms and suites. The company’s revenues in Reno, however, failed to match capacity. Harsh winter weather, in particular, resulted in an extremely poor showing for the Reno properties during 1986.
Construction in Laughlin and Reno did not stop the pace of expansion in Las Vegas, though, as Circus Circus added a new casino, which provided 17,000 more square feet to the gaming area, and also opened a large garage. Since occupancy rates for the existing hotels remained high, the company began constructing a 29-story hotel tower in 1985, called Circus Skyrise. The new accommodation provided an additional 1,188 hotel rooms. When inaugurated early the following year, Circus Skyrise and West Casino gave the company the largest gaming capacity in the industry. The property was not immediately profitable, however, and revenues remained sluggish for the next six months.
On July 1, 1987, Circus Circus opened its first casino developed from the ground up, the Colorado Belle, in the booming Laughlin, Nevada, market. Designed to attract a slightly more affluent customer than the company’s staple blue-collar gamblers, the Belle was decked out in authentic riverboat decor. With a 210-foot “smokestack,” elaborate lighting to give the effect of a turning paddle wheel, and a length three times that of the actual river boats, the casino site dominated the banks of the Colorado River and was accompanied by a hotel building with more than 1,200 rooms. The Colorado Belle and the Edgewater quickly became the top two money-makers in the Laughlin market and Circus Circus ended 1987 with earnings of nearly $56 million.
1988–98: The Megaresort Era Begins
Despite persistent rumors that Circus Circus would follow other Las Vegas casino companies to New Jersey’s Atlantic City, chairperson Bennett insisted that the cost of doing business in the East Coast city, where land prices were far higher than in Nevada, made such a decision unlikely. Instead Circus Circus looked to develop another massive resort in Las Vegas. In April 1988 the company purchased a large parcel of land once owned by Howard Hughes on the Las Vegas Strip and designated a sizeable chunk as the site for a new megaresort bearing a castle theme. The castle was intended to be the first thing motorists saw as they left the highway. The project—a large casino, a shopping arcade, a “dungeon” with miniature golf and other amusements, and more than 4,000 hotel rooms—was slated to cost $290 million. After a contest the castle was dubbed “Excalibur” and groundbreaking ceremonies were held in October 1988.
In February 1989 Circus Circus relinquished its only nongaming unit, Circus Hobbies, Inc., a money-losing enterprise that marketed radio-controlled toy planes. The company sold the unit to chairperson Bennett, who put up approximately $11.5 million in stock for the purchase.
When Circus Circus opened Excalibur in June 1990, the enterprise became the world’s largest resort. With multicolored towers and crenelated battlements, the castle established new standards of flashiness for Las Vegas properties. In keeping with Bennett’s belief that “the non-casino areas have to be winners for the casino to succeed,” as reported in the Wall Street Transcript, the hotel featured jousting tournaments in the main dining hall, strolling minstrels, fire-eaters in medieval garb, and periodic sword fights between knights in armor in the hallways. In an appeal to the prearranged tour market, the company promised fairs, festivals, rides, and shows. The hotel was almost always full.
Circus Circus continued growing steadily. Early the next year, the company unveiled a new high-rise hotel tower with nearly 1,000 rooms, attached to the Edgewater Casino in Laughlin. Only the Reno property remained largely unchanged. By the end of the first nine months of 1991, the company had earned $84.3 million on sales of nearly $620 million, despite a general recession in the gaming industry.
Circus Circus announced plans for the other half of its parcel of the Las Vegas Strip in November 1991, unveiling “Project X,” a $300 million development shaped like a pyramid with a glass facade. Slated to have 2,500 rooms and 30 stories, the pyramidal casino would be located next to the Excalibur. President William Bennett, who was nearing retirement age, announced that he would change his plans and stay on at the helm of the company in order to supervise the new project.
Four months later Circus Circus made a serious stab at opening a casino outside of Nevada. The company joined with two competitors—Hilton Hotels Corp. and Caesars World Inc.—to propose a $2 billion joint gambling and entertainment project to be built in the Chicago metropolitan area. Although Illinois had legalized gambling on Mississippi riverboats, land-based casinos were still forbidden; the realization of the plan depended on a large number of significant factors. This plan represented the company’s first serious bid to expand beyond Nevada, but it was soon abandoned following the emergence of local political squabbling.
The Circus Circus-Las Vegas complex gained another entertainment venue in August 1993 with the opening of Grand Slam Canyon, a $90 million domed amusement park. Gland Slam failed to become the drawing card envisioned, however, with officials admitting it was “underattractioned” and needed to be expanded. Two months later came the long anticipated opening of the Egyptian-themed Luxor, which ended up costing $390 million to build because of construction problems. Boasting 120,000 square feet of gambling space, the Luxor had a debut that was marred by numerous glitches; it was eventually able to overcome these problems and become a successful property. The executive who oversaw the opening, William J. Paulos, became the latest high-profile departure, when he resigned in January 1994 to become a top executive at an Australian casino company. The following month, Bennett unexpectedly stepped aside as CEO of Circus Circus, remaining chairman, with Turner assuming the roles of CEO and president. According to Forbes, the management turmoil proved a distraction for the company, whose growth slowed at a boom time for the industry; for the fiscal year ending in January 1994, Circus Circus posted revenue growth of 13 percent (to $954.9 million), nearly all of which was attributable to Luxor’s opening, while net income fell one percent, to $116.2 million.
Mounting pressure from institutional shareholders, other investors, and the company’s board itself finally forced Bennett out in July 1994. Bennett resigned as chairman, and soon thereafter gave up his board seat and sold most of his 7.8 percent stake—although not before tussling with the board one more time over the Hacienda hotel-casino, which Bennett attempted to purchase before Circus Circus snatched it away from him in an acrimonious dispute. Following Bennett’s resignation, Turner took over as chairman. Soon thereafter, Circus Circus had to fend off a takeover attempt by Chicago-based casino rival Bally Entertainment Corp. Around this same time, the company finally made its first foray outside of Nevada with the opening of a new Circus Circus in Tunica County, Mississippi. The dockside casino was located on the Mississippi River about 20 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. Also debuting at this time was the Silver Legacy, a joint venture hotel-casino in Reno in which Circus Circus was a 50 percent participant. Attempts to expand into Atlantic City and Louisiana failed during this period.
A key development in 1995 was the acquisition of privately held Gold Strike Resorts Inc. for about $500 million. An operator of small casinos, Gold Strike was coveted more for its management ranks than for its properties. About 100 of the company’s managers had once worked at Circus Circus, including Schaeffer and another one-time Bennett heir-apparent, Michael S. Ensign, a principal partner in Gold Strike. Ensign became vice-chairman and chief operating officer of Circus Circus, while Schaeffer became president and CFO. In addition to shoring up the Circus Circus management team, Gold Strike brought to the company two small casinos in Jean, Nevada—the Gold Strike and Nevada Landing; a 50 percent interest in a joint venture with Hyatt Development Corporation, which owned and operated the Grand Victoria riverboat casino in Elgin, Illinois; and a 50 percent interest in a joint venture with Mirage Resorts that was building the Monte Carlo casino. Located on the Strip on part of the property where the Dunes Hotel used to stand, the Monte Carlo was a 3,000-room resort catering to middle-class clientele through an atmosphere of “casual elegance.” It opened in June 1996 and cost $350 million to develop. The acquisition of Gold Strike also led to Circus Circus Mississippi being rechristened Gold Strike-Tunica. By early 1998 a 1,066-room, 31-story hotel tower had been constructed and opened adjacent to this casino.
In January 1998 Turner resigned from the company and Ensign became chairman, CEO, and COO. Around this time the company was in merger discussions with several real-estate investment trusts. These discussions led nowhere, as did talks with Hilton Hotels Corp. in early 1998 regarding a merger to create the largest U.S. gambling concern. Circus Circus’s earnings were suffering from increased competition in the casino industry and its stock price was depressed.
1999 and Beyond: Going Upscale As Mandalay
In the midst of a Las Vegas Strip building boom that promised to add thousands of new hotel rooms to the gambling mecca, Circus Circus was betting its future on its biggest resort yet, Mandalay Bay. Construction of the hotel-casino began in 1997 on the site of the Hacienda, which was imploded on New Year’s Eve 1996. Opened in March 1999, Mandalay Bay marked Circus Circus’s move upscale. Costing $950 million to build, the South Seas-themed megaresort included 3,700 hotel rooms and 100,000 square feet of casino space; 15 restaurants, a 12,000-seat sports and entertainment complex, a Broadway-style theater, and a House of Blues nightclub; and an 11-acre pool “environment” featuring a beach, a shark tank, and a wave machine through which world-class surfing competitions were able to be held. Adjacent to the new casino, Circus Circus also built a high-class, 424-room Four Seasons Hilton, which did not offer gambling but became the first hotel in Las Vegas to receive the coveted five-diamond rating from the American Automobile Association.
The initial results at Mandalay Bay were positive, and the increased traffic within Circus Circus’s “Masterplan Mile” helped to improve results at the struggling Luxor. Circus Circus moved its headquarters to Mandalay Bay following its opening and further signaled its future direction by changing the company name to Mandalay Resort Group in June 1999. As it looked toward the early 21st century, Mandalay Resort had no immediate plans to develop another megaresort on the Strip, although it had land set aside for that purpose. It did have in the works smaller additions to the Mandalay Bay area, including a time-share condominium development. Also in the development stages were a casino in Detroit, Michigan, being developed through a joint venture 45 percent owned by the company; and a hotel-casino resort on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the third largest U.S. gambling market after Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Circus Circus Casinos, Inc. (dba Circus Circus Hotel & Casino-Las Vegas, Circus Circus Hotel & Casino-Reno, and Silver City Casino); Slots-A-Fun, Inc. (dba Slots-A-Fun Casino); Edgewater Hotel Corporation (dba Edgewater Hotel & Casino); Colorado Belle Corp. (dba Colorado Belle Hotel & Casino); New Castle Corp. (dba Excalibur Hotel & Casino); Ramparts, Inc. (dba Luxor Hotel & Casino); Circus Circus Mississippi, Inc. (dba Gold Strike Casino Resort); Pinkless, Inc.; Mandalay Corp. (dba Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino); Circus Circus Development Corp.; Ramparts International; Galleon, Inc.; M.S.E. Investments, Incorporated; Last Chance Investments, Incorporated; Goldstrike Investments, Incorporated; Diamond Gold, Inc.; Oasis Development Company, Inc.; Goldstrike Finance Company, Inc.; Railroad Pass Investment Group (dba Railroad Pass Hotel & Casino); Jean Development Company (dba Gold Strike Hotel and Gambling Hall; Jean Development West (dba Nevada Landing Hotel & Casino); Nevada Landing Partnership; Gold Strike L.V.; Jean Development North; Lake-view Gaming Partnerships Joint Venture; Goldstrike Resorts, Inc.; Gold Strike Fuel Company; Jean Fuel Company West; Goldstrike Aviation, Incorporated; Circus Circus Louisiana, Inc.; Circus Circus Michigan, Inc.; Circus Australia Casino, Inc.; Circus Circus New Jersey, Inc.; Pine Hills Development II; Scentsational, Inc.; Darling Casino Limited (Australia; 50%); Circus and Eldorado Joint Venture (50%); Detroit Entertainment, L.L.C. (45%); Victoria Partners (50%); Elgin Riverboat Resort (50%); Pine Hills Development (90%); Circus Circus Leasing, Inc. (78.7%); New Dirt, Inc.; Ramparts International PTE Ltd. (Singapore); Time Share Operating Co.
Aztar Corporation; Boomtown, Inc.; Boyd Gaming Corporation; Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc.; Hollywood Casino Corporation; MGM Grand, Inc.; Mirage Resorts, Incorporated; Park Place Entertainment Corporation; Santa Fe Gaming Corporation; Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.; Station Casinos, Inc.; Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc.
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—updated by David E. Salamie