Casino chief Rob Norton held the stick high, dangling a ceremonial head of green lettuce and a red envelope over the lion dancers in the Maryland Live foyer.
Norton — wearing an embroidered silk shirt picked out by Maryland Live’s director of Asian marketing — fed the lettuce and the envelope to one of the lions. The lion, a bright-red blur with four human legs, chewed, then spit the leaves all over the stage as members of the troupe banged on drums, gongs and cymbals. He kept the envelope for good luck.
Maryland Live Casino’s Lunar New Year celebration was underway, all good fortune, good blessings and good business.
“We want to wish everybody a happy and prosperous new year with good luck,” said Norton, the Anne Arundel County casino’s president and general manager.
The Year of the Horse celebration — which began Thursday and continues through Feb. 9, when a popular Hong Kong entertainer will perform two late-night concerts at the casino — is just the latest, and loudest, example of Maryland Live’s robust efforts to court one of the region’s fastest-growing and most affluent ethnic populations.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Asians in the Washington area grew by 60 percent, according to census statistics. There are nearly 600,000 Asians — immigrants and residents of Asian descent — in the region now, and many are affluent. The median income in Washington area households headed by Asians is second only to those headed by non-Hispanic whites — about $101,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. (The figure is about 15 percent higher than the median household income for the entire population of the metropolitan area.)
With gambling deeply ingrained in many Asian cultures, Maryland Live has been wooing and accommodating them accordingly.
That’s been particularly true since the state’s largest casino added live-action table games in April. Games such as baccarat and blackjack have been particularly popular among Asians, Maryland Live officials said, prompting the casino to expand its International Player Development Department — a team of fluent Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean speakers, which exploded from two to 12 in a matter of months.
“All of our customers are important,” Norton said. “But our Asian customers have become a very important segment of our business.”
Maryland Live’s Web site is available in five languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean (“CVK,” in casino shorthand). The casino uses outdoor advertising in those languages in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs where East and Southeast Asians are concentrated, particularly Rockville, Annandale and Ellicott City. They’re promoting the Lunar New Year events, including a Saturday-night dance party featuring Vietnamese singers and the Feb. 9 concerts by Johnny Ip Chun Tong.
There are ads in ethnic newspapers (Viet Bao, Washington Chinese Daily News) and on cable channels (New Tang Dynasty, WKTV), too.
To reinforce the importance of its Asian clientele — and to attempt to avoid awkward exchanges that might deter some customers from returning — Maryland Live recently put all of its front-of-the-house employees through a cultural training program “to understand the differences of our Asian customers, their superstitions, things they may find rude or that may come across differently,” Norton said.
Among the lessons taught: When giving a business card to an Asian gambler, hand it over with both hands — a sign of respect. And don’t touch players on their shoulders, which is considered bad luck.
The trend is hardly a new one. American casinos have been wooing Chinese gamblers for years, running international junkets as far back as the 1970s. In more recent years, domestic casinos have become more aggressive about courting high rollers from Asia along with immigrants and their American-born offspring. Asian player-development and marketing divisions are de rigeur at the casinos now, as are Asian-themed gambling sections. And pan-Asian restaurants have become as ubiquitous as casino steakhouses.
Maryland Live, which opened in 2012, recently began construction in the center of the casino floor on a new Asian eatery, to replace the noodle bar tucked away in the far end of the property. The current restaurant, called Noodles, is serving in excess of 1,000 people each day — far more than casino officials anticipated, Norton said, adding that the number surged once table games went live.
“It’s ridiculously undersized,” he said.
The new restaurant will have five times as many seats and more (and better) menu options, Norton said, along with an elevated “show kitchen” and an entrance that will be close enough to the baccarat pit that diners will probably hear players yelling “Ding!” before opening their cards.
The as-yet-unnamed 24-hour restaurant — “which was completely feng shui’d” before construction began, Norton said — will open this spring. This year, the casino also hopes to begin using pai gow tiles, and it may attempt to introduce an increasingly popular Chinese dice game called sic bo.
Gambling has seduced Asians for thousands of years. Games of chance “have been promoted, celebrated, endorsed and normalized across generations in these populations,” said Timothy Fong, co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at UCLA. “Very simply, this culture wants to gamble. It’s enjoyed not just as a pastime, but as a way of life.”
The notion that destiny is predetermined makes gambling attractive to many Asians, who enjoy testing their fate, Fong said. And there is no more popular time to gamble than around the new year, when winning would suggest auspicious times ahead.
Some community leaders worry that casinos that market themselves aggressively to Asians — which is to say, most casinos — are exploiting the culture to damaging effect. Fong is not so sure. Although research suggests that the prevalence of problem gambling among Asians is higher than it is in the general population in some California communities, he said, it’s not true everywhere in the state.
“When I look at these marketing campaigns, I don’t think it’s exploitative at all,” Fong said. “It’s just smart business.”
Maryland Live officials won’t say what percentage of the casino’s players are Asian or how much of its gambling revenue comes from that demographic. The casino generated about $586 million in gross gambling revenue in 2013, including more than $150 million from table games. All Norton would reveal is that “baccarat represents a tremendous amount of business” for Maryland Live.
On Thursday, as the lion dancers made their way across the casino floor, action stopped in the eight-table baccarat pit. (The number eight was chosen because it’s considered good luck.)
Staggering amounts of money, in the form of casino chips, were on the table in front of the players, most of whom were Asian. But the action had shifted: As the two lions bobbed and weaved around the tables, Asian casino employees and players stuffed money into red envelopes and put them into the lions’ mouths.
“Gung hay fat choy!” somebody shouted. The traditional Lunar New Year greeting, in a Chinese dialect, loosely translates to “congratulations” and “may you be prosperous.”
“Gung hay fat choy!” somebody repeated.
Carol Morello contributed to this report.