Monday, July 7, 2008

Pinnacle Entertainment (PNK)

Jake Fuller of Thomas Weisel Partners agrees with me on choosing Pinnacle Entertainment over the Vegas casinos. See CNBC's article titled, "Casino Stocks: Don't Bet On the Biggies." Of course, I made the same call weeks ago, only to see Pinnacle Entertainment become a victim of the overall market decline:

PNK is Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. Although their HQ is in Las Vegas, they don't own casinos there. The six casinos they own are in Louisiana, Indiana, Missouri and Reno, NV; in addition, they operate casinos in the Bahamas and Argentina. This is a fairly small company--its market cap is still under 1 billion. So why choose this stock over WYNN, LVS, or MGM?

I watched a PBS documentary on Vegas recently, and let me tell you, Steve Wynn and his vivacity are a hoot to watch. The documentary reminded me of how cool Vegas used to be, starting with the Mafia and the Rat Pack, moving to JFK/RFK and Howard Hughes coming in to clean up Vegas, and then ending with shareholders and Wall Street finishing the job. What struck me most during the documentary is that Vegas seems like it's all out of gimmicks. The old Sands, where the Rat Pack used to play, is gone. Steve Wynn's Mirage is no longer the epitome of cool. By focusing so much on the future and demolishing anything older than a decade, Vegas has neglected to preserve its history, which would have been a tourist draw (who wouldn't want to walk on the same stage that Sammy Davis Jr. danced on?).

To be fair, when I went to the new Wynn hotel in Vegas, I was impressed. I wasn't impressed in the sense that this hotel was something wild, something fun--but it was a darn nice hotel and casino, and the no-smoking sports book didn't hurt (of course, it's impossible to find a seat). Would I fly out from California to Vegas just to see the Wynn hotel? That's the million dollar question, isn't it? I wouldn't--and if I did, there's nothing in that particular hotel that I couldn't get by staying at another hotel nearby and, say, walking over to view the Wynn's Ferrari display. The problem with sinking so much money into these hotels is that it's based on the hope that the high rollers will come to you and make up for the initial costs. But other than Charles Barkley, it's unclear why an international client would fly to the Wynn rather than another more exclusive resort, say, in Macau.

The next stage for Vegas hotels is to do what the Hard Rock Hotel has done--make each room unique so that customers are paying for the inside of their room, not the outside. I genuinely look forward to staying at any Hard Rock Hotel (HRH), because you don't necessarily know ahead of time which rock star your room will be based on. The problem with the HRH is that they don't have good locations (the one in Vegas is off the strip), and it's harder for them to expand in an already saturated market. But Vegas as a whole doesn't seem too much different than it was ten years ago, and so far, other than making its hotels more lavish, there's no new major attraction. With a looming recession, people might go to Reno or a cheaper hotel instead.

PNK is building casinos in areas where casinos are a unique, new attraction. It's like a Walmart coming to a tiny town--even if it's not fancy, even if it's just downright ordinary, the lack of competing attractions will still promote a steady stream of business.

Also, labor costs are cheaper in Indiana, Missouri, Louisiana, etc. A major cost of any Vegas casino is their unionized workforce and sheer number of employees needed to run all the attractions (or did you think the lions at the MGM fed themselves all day?). Especially in a slower economy like Indiana, casinos won't have as hard of a time finding cheaper labor and good employees. That's good news for the Midwestern and Southern-based casinos and PNK.

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