Bus rides to the casino: Enjoyment for most, a dangerous addiction for others

Frances L. Brisbane | 7/13/2011, 5:07 p.m.

The casino industry in America has caught the attention of many women and men 60 and older, offering them an inexpensive social experience that is convenient, comfortable and safe. In addition to air-conditioned coach bus rides, abundant buffet meals, friendly staff and scenic locations, casinos offer older consumers wheelchairs and walkers-and as if that wasn't enough, some casinos will even provide oxygen refills as a life-support amenity. Casinos also have brilliant marketing campaigns that promote the winning promise of "free" food, gifts and hotel nights. But, as the seniors soon find out, nothing is really free.

Buses leave from shopping centers, roadsides, diners, park-and-ride sites, nursing homes and senior day care programs bound for casinos every day of the week. Regardless of the weather-snow, ice, sleet, rain, hurricane or tornado-buses headed for casinos are usually filled to capacity. For many seniors, the ride to the casino is the most enjoyable social experience they have each month. It is not unusual for regular passengers to become friends who enjoy each other's company and look out for each other and the people who take care of them.

Case in point: On a recent bus ride to a casino, passengers were informed that the wife of their regular driver had died unexpectedly. The passengers took up a collection to help their driver and collected $600 to help him with his funeral expenses. However, before they gave the substitute driver the money, they called the dispatcher told him about the $600 and asked if they should get a money order or was it safe to give the substitute driver the cash. I was on that bus as part of my research and I made a donation.

Every month, like clockwork, a day or two before Social Security and government pension checks are deposited in the bank, well crafted "giveaway" promotions arrive in the mailboxes of targeted seniors, especially those whose profile is on casino mailing lists. The marketing approach is imaginative, appealing and tempting, pushing incentives such as a "free" room at the casino for spending the day. The hidden charge is the amount of money lost in the casino during previous visits.

These promotions are part of what are called rewards points programs, in which points corresponding to a percentage of the money spent are given to the consumer. Although it's actually a small give-back, it is designed to appear as a huge promotional give-back to the casino's loyal customers. As a result of the esteem associated with these give-backs, most customers are devoted to one casino and may visit it exclusively.

Because of the increased demand for bus transportation just after retirees receive their monthly Social Security or other government checks, those without reservations may be left at the curb. However, some casinos and bus companies arrange to have buses in reserve that are speedily dispatched to pick up the overflow crowd.

Although the ride to the casino is full of chatter, friendship and welcoming newcomers, this is strictly reserved for the bus. Spouses, relatives and close friends seldom remain together once they dart out of the door to the casino.