The almost $1 billion St. Louis gaming market is a key one for Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection Ameristar Casinos (NASDAQ:ASCA), accounting for nearly 30% of the company's $961.4 million in net revenue in 2005 and more than 30% of its property-level EBITDA. Since introducing a barge with 130,000 square feet of gaming space in August 2002, Ameristar has largely controlled the market: Despite being without a hotel, it raked in $305.7 million in gaming revenues in 2005. And along with rival Harrah's Entertainment (NYSE:HET), the two casino operations -- located roughly 25 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis -- today account for nearly two-thirds of the business in the St. Louis market, which includes five competitors.

However, as we noted in evaluating the Kansas City market, nothing in this business is stagnant. In March, Harrah's opened a relocated, expanded, and upgraded poker room in St. Louis and has held the leading market position since, and in fact held a slight edge through the first five months of the year. Moreover, in the next two years, Pinnacle Entertainment (NYSE:PNK) will open two new properties in the market, and yet another competitor -- the Casino Queen in East St. Louis -- has begun building a new gaming barge that will open in 2007.

It would be naive to think that more gaming opportunities here will have zero effect on Ameristar's profitability. Still, all is not as bad as it sounds, for a number of reasons: (1) The relative location of the new competition; (2) Ameristar's competitive position; and (3) Ameristar's own projects, which include an additional parking garage and what will be one of only three AAA Four Diamond hotels in St. Louis.

First, we'll take a look at the two big players in the northwest corner of the market: Harrah's and Ameristar. Then we'll discuss the new competition and examine its effects for the next two years. Here's a look at the market, which also includes Penn National Gaming's (NASDAQ:PENN) Alton Belle riverboat casino.

St. Louis market gaming revenues (Through May)






















Casino Queen







Alton Belle














Harrah's Maryland Heights
With several additions and other improvements to its property over the last few years, Harrah's has differentiated itself nicely.

Until July 2004, Harrah's essentially operated two separate casinos sharing a common land-based entrance. One was the standard Mardi Gras-themed Harrah's casino, featuring the high-limit tables and slots, while the other was the Island casino acquired in Harrah's 2000 merger with Players International. The downside was that, because of the $500-per-two-hours loss limit rule in Missouri, players going from one casino to the other had to be carded; I believe this restricted the overall performance of the property.

But in July 2004, Harrah's opened a new poker room adjoining the two casinos. It also added a 210-room hotel tower, bringing the total number of hotel rooms on the property to 502, opened the new VooDoo Cafe and Lounge, and added express ramps to the parking garage.

Since then, Harrah's has taken its property to another level. The company made the Island side of the casino younger, louder, hipper, and more risque, with the new iBar -- featuring scantily clad dancers on weekends -- leaving the quieter, more standard Harrah's experience to the other side. In March 2006, Harrah's further upgraded the Island side by relocating and opening a brand-new, first-class 21-table poker room encased in glass. As I've noted, most of the highest-stakes games in town have since moved from Ameristar to Harrah's. Harrah's has led the St. Louis market in both poker and overall gaming revenues since.

The casino today features about 2,802 slots and 94 table games over 120,000 square feet of gaming space.

Harrah's advantages:

  • The location: Where Interstate 70 and I-270 meet, roughly 10 miles west of the airport and 25 miles northwest of downtown. Coming from Kansas City, Harrah's is the second casino, but the first hotel/casino. The property is also roughly adjacent to UMB Bank Pavilion, a major site for live outdoor concerts.

  • The Island casino and its appeal to younger gamblers.

  • The poker room: Clearly the best one in town, and possibly the best among those at several of the closest markets, too.

  • The Total Rewards program: Offers a substantial advantage because patrons can now rack up comp points, and -- as of April -- use them at any Harrah's property (including those acquired in the Horseshoe and Caesars acquisitions) in the U.S., including ones on the Las Vegas Strip.

  • The Diamond Card: Harrah's highest-advertised player card (there is a higher "secret" tier called Seven Stars) allows players into the Diamond Lounge on a daily basis. I believe this card offers superior value to Ameristar's Elite tier (its highest advertised level).

  • The hotel. The 502-room hotel provides a competitive advantage over everyone else in the market. The only other hotel is the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.

Ameristar St. Charles
Ameristar acquired both the St. Charles and Kansas City properties from Station Casinos (NASDAQ:STN) in December 2000. In August 2002, Ameristar finished the expansion project that Station had started in St. Charles, opening a virtually entirely new property with a two-level gaming barge and dining options. The casino, featuring 3,244 slot machines and 100 table games over 130,000 square feet, is the biggest in the market.

Overall, Ameristar's gaming barge gives the company a superior platform from which to compete. I think one thing that Ameristar has figured out better than anyone else in the business is the two-level gaming facility. The best way I can describe the barge is a casino about twice as long as the average riverboat, with a high ceiling and a second level of gaming overlooking the first level. The result is that Ameristar has the most gaming space in the market, while keeping the intimacy of a smaller boat.

When considering how Ameristar lost the lead in the St. Louis market, one of the keys is that Ameristar's St. Charles hasn't changed much since the August 2002 reopening. In fact, the streetscape hasn't changed a lick, and the changes to the casino have been mostly cosmetic, save for installing the cabaret on the bottom floor, upgrading and relocating the deli to the top floor, and installing a large multipanel video screen and bar next to the deli.

Moreover, the property has been without a hotel, spotting Harrah's a 502-room advantage for the last two years. Ameristar's St. Louis property is in a state of relative infancy compared with its more complete Kansas City counterpart.

That will change next year. Construction has begun on the AAA Four-Diamond hotel: All of its 400 rooms will be suites. That will give Ameristar not only the highest-end accommodations of all the casino operators in the market, but also further its imposing presence, what with the 25-story tower and the location almost on top of I-70. Ameristar is also the first casino that visitors coming from Kansas City will see.

I think the hotel will go a long way toward making Ameristar the destination casino of choice at this end of the market.

Another key advantage is that Ameristar's parking garage offers what is easily the best parking in the market. Harrah's parking garage simply isn't big enough, which gives Ameristar an advantage when the weather is bad. And Ameristar will fortify this advantage by adding a new garage, completing the first 950 spaces by Q4 2006 and the remaining 1,400 spaces along with the hotel in Q4 2007. The 55,000-square-foot conference center should be completed by the end of the second quarter, or June .

Ameristar's advantages:

  • The property: It has a highly visible property that's virtually on top of I-70, is one exit west of Harrah's, and is the first casino you see coming from Kansas City.

  • The superior gaming barge.

  • Dining: It has, arguably, the more attractive dining options, with the signature Amerisports Bar being a key differentiator, as well as the Falcon Diner. The Bottleneck Blues Bar, featuring live entertainment and smaller national acts, is also a favorite.

  • Parking: Its parking is the best in the market, and the new garage will only fortify this advantage.

  • Club: I believe Ameristar's Star Club is superior to Harrah's Diamond Lounge.

  • The new hotel.

Two of the best
St. Louis is shaping up to be one of the premier gaming towns in America, and Ameristar and Harrah's represent two of the best properties in the riverboat casino industry.

That said, from Ameristar's end, I am not particularly concerned about a lack of quality or competitiveness, despite what I consider to be a permanent loss of regular high-end poker clients to Harrah's. I think that, under these conditions, Ameristar will probably end up with the market share lead again when the hotel opens at the end of 2007. The real question is what happens when Pinnacle opens its St. Louis City Casino downtown next year, and then its River City casino down in South St. Louis County.

I think the answer lies in both the historical gaming revenue trends in the St. Louis market, as well as the fairly comparable Kansas City market. We'll discuss these ideas when we look at the future in St. Louis in the next part of this series on Ameristar.

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Fool contributor Jeff Hwang owns shares of Ameristar Casinos. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.