DeSalvio in New York: Lifting Catskills Resort Is ‘Job 1’

No sooner did Bob DeSalvio bow out as head of Encore Boston Harbor than Genting’s top brass invited him to take over their Resorts World-branded operations in New York State. Their plan: use the success of the NYC casino to buoy the flagging Catskills property.

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DeSalvio in New York: Lifting Catskills Resort Is ‘Job 1’

As a gaming executive with 40-some years in the business, Bob DeSalvio is used to moving around—from Atlantic City to Connecticut, from Connecticut to Pennsylvania, out west to Vegas, back east to Boston. He’s worked for big-gun gaming operations including Foxwoods, the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Wynn Resorts, and most recently, served as president of Wynn’s $2.6 billion Encore resort in Massachusetts.

Over five and a half years, DeSalvio steered the massive Boston Harbor project through development, completion and launch. He navigated touchy investigations into misconduct allegations against company founder Steve Wynn. He briefly presided over talks to sell Encore Boston Harbor to MGM Resorts International.

Last November, when he left Wynn, DeSalvio hoped for a little time off, but a breather wasn’t in the cards. Almost immediately, he was tapped for another demanding leadership role, as president of Resorts World New York, a Genting operation.

In his new capacity, he’s responsible for two properties at opposite ends of the success spectrum: Resorts World New York City at Aqueduct, the most successful slots casino in the United States, and Resorts World Catskills, about 100 miles upstate, which has struggled since it opened in February 2018, and, under former owner Empire Resorts, teetered at the edge of bankruptcy.

Last fall, majority shareholder Kien Huat Realty and Genting Malaysia bought the rest of the Sullivan County resort, then recruited DeSalvio to help turn it around.

“I had hoped to take a little bit of a break (between jobs), but it didn’t work out that way,” said DeSalvio in a recent interview with GGB News. “Shortly after leaving Encore, I wound up getting a call from the Genting folks.”

He didn’t need much persuasion before signing on. “I knew the leadership team—the Lim family and Genting were behind the original notes the Mashantucket Pequot tribe needed to open the original Foxwoods, and over the course of my 10 years there, I came to know both KT Lim, the chairman, and Colin Au, one of the senior leaders of the company.”

DeSalvio saw the promise in their plan,” to leverage “the tremendous synergies between Resorts World New York City and the relatively new property in the Catskills,” to the benefit of the underperforming property.

As a bonus, the new role would also be a homecoming. DeSalvio grew up in northern New Jersey, has relatives in Brooklyn, and spent boyhood summers at his family’s summer home in the Catskills. “We love the Catskills. The idea of joining the company, leading these projects and looking after these two incredible assets seemed like a wonderful opportunity.”

So he pulled up stakes, relocated to Long Island, and hit the ground running, splitting his week between the two properties. “We had literally just completed (Genting’s takeover of the Monticello resort), and immediately launched into a transition plan for the Catskills, to marshal the resources of both properties and execute on the synergies” between the two.

He found that the Catskills marketing team “had already done an excellent job of getting a solid base of the local market. Our No. 1 mission is to get more people to come and see Resorts World Catskills, because when they come, they stick—and in our business, that’s half the battle. People on the east coast have been going to their favorite casinos for years; we’ve got to shake it up a little bit, get them to try something different.”

DeSalvio described the mountain property as “absolutely gorgeous, a 1,700-acre, campus-like setting with beautiful amenities: two different hotel products, a pool, spa, onsite sports betting, a really nice-looking casino.” Yet it had foundered since its debut, along with three other casino resorts— del Lago, Rivers and Tioga Downs—that were approved in 2014 to jumpstart upstate economies.

Last year, an unnamed Genting official reportedly said the company’s management expertise, plus cross-marketing with the New York casino, could lead to dramatic increases within the next 12 months—possibly quadrupling performance upstate. Is DeSalvio that optimistic?

“Who can really make those predictions?” he asked. “Without getting into numbers, let me give you a concept. As I mentioned earlier, we have great penetration in Sullivan and Orange counties, which are right on our doorstep. But when I looked at the northern New Jersey market—at Paramus, Bridgewater, Fairmont, Fern Rock, Passaic, Bergen County, Morris County—our penetration rate was very low, even though we’re the closest casino, the customers have a high propensity to game, and they have a high net worth.

“All this gives me reason to believe that, with proper marketing and promotion—making sure we tell our story—we can get those customers to go north instead of south, west and southwest. And that could move the needle very quickly.” The resort will also market heavily to Connecticut, and people who currently patronize Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods.

Frank Fantini, of Fantini Gaming Research, said the plan has potential. “Las Vegas Sands certainly showed they were capable of getting Asian players out of New York City, mainly out of Queens, to go to Sands Bethlehem,” he said. “There’s a precedent for tapping into New York City for a casino 70, 80 miles away. The combination of having the Catskills and New York City is amazing, if they can complement each other.” The upcoming Resorts World Las Vegas, due to open next year, “is going to be an incredible add to the portfolio.”

The New York City property has been a runaway success since it opened nine years ago, but even there, Genting isn’t resting on its laurels. It’s adding its first hotel, along with new restaurants and a retail component. It doesn’t hurt that nearby JFK International Airport is undergoing a major redevelopment, which officials project will increase traffic from 62 million passengers a year to 100 million.

“Opening 400 rooms, 10 minutes from JFK, will attract a whole new segment: the pre- and the post-flight visitors, a lot of business people,” said DeSalvio. “The rooms will be reasonably priced compared to New York City. For all these reasons, we think this is a game-changer. We’re full steam ahead with that.” The expansion is due to be complete this summer.

Meanwhile, sports betting has helped generate business for New York’s four upstate casinos, which are exclusively allowed to offer it, but only onsite, not on mobile. But DeSalvio isn’t overly territorial about the amenity.

“You can’t bet on mobile devices as of today, which means there’s lot of excitement about the onsite opportunity, and we’re hoping to see this continue now that football season is over. We love the energy it brings to the property. But while it’s wonderful to have it exclusively with three other places, the numbers tell the story. Look at New Jersey. The handle is now approaching 85 percent to 90 percent on mobile. The consumer wants convenience, and ultimately, if all the surrounding states have it and you don’t, that’s not good for New York. I think we’ll get there. It’s just a question of when and how.”

He said he’s been happy to see the boost that sportsbooks and two new casinos have brought to Atlantic City. “I always root for Atlantic City, I spent 18 years there. It was nice to see the addition of Hard Rock and Ocean, to see a real momentum change in New Jersey. Good for those operators. I like to see them have a good streak.”

He also speaks appreciatively of his five-plus years with Wynn Resorts, and is confident Encore will succeed, despite a sluggish start. “Like every other property, it will take some time to find its footing and build its customer base. Boston Harbor is a beautiful facility, and it was built for the long haul. I think over time, it will be extremely successful.”

Asked to sum up Genting, a global powerhouse with casinos and iGaming in Malaysia, Singapore, the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere, DeSalvio said, “Our mission is to take care of our guest, anywhere they go in the world. If we take care of them, they’ll take care of us. It’s as simple as that.

“We have to talk to our customers and our employees, keep it simple, and remember that we’re in the hospitality industry.”

Articles by Author: Marjorie Preston

Marjorie Preston is a staff writer for Global Gaming Business. She is a writer, editor, author and expat Pennsylvanian who now considers herself a New Jerseyan. Based on Brigantine Island north of Atlantic City, Preston has been writing about the gaming industry since 2007, when she joined the staff of Global Gaming Business as managing editor of Casino Connection.