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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — The COVID pandemic forced most U.S. casinos to close for months, causing payrolls, revenue and earnings to tumble.

But the forced shutdowns and highly regulated recoveries also taught the industry useful lessons that will endure even after the pandemic is a distant memory, panelists at a major casino conference said Thursday.

Speaking at the East Coast Gaming Congress, executives from major gambling companies said the changes they were forced to make because of the pandemic had some benefits.

“We learned lessons that can’t be unlearned,” said Thomas Reeg, CEO of Caesars Entertainment.

“It forced us and gave us the ability to say to our guests that things that used to be viewed as an entitlement, maybe they don’t need them as much as they thought they did,” added Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International. “Do you need a buffet? Should you have a buffet?”

The conference was held in the Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City, whose buffet is still operating. Some of Hard Rock’s casinos in other states, including Florida, offer buffets while others do not.

David Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Companies, which operates casinos in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maryland, said the pandemic offered his business an opportunity “to tighten the ship.”

“We have not gone back to buffets,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t fun. Being closed for months was horrendous for employees. But there were a lot of lessons learned.

“What we did — and we may need to do it again — is when we were shut, we put in every possible type of health and safety screening you could do,” including hand sanitizers and barriers between player positions at table games, measures that were commonly adopted at casinos across the country.

Cordish said those expenses paid off handsomely once the casinos were allowed to reopen in mid 2020.

“People were fed up with being cooped up and came pouring back to the casinos, particularly when we did these things,” he said. “Since we reopened, business has been terrific.”

Eric Hausler, CEO of Greenwood Racing, which owns Pennsylvania’s Parx casino, said the pandemic opened his eyes to one particular liability.

“We had a restaurant that was open every day for lunch and never made any money,” he said. When the casino reopened after its pandemic-related closure, “We didn’t bring it back, and no one ever said a thing about it.”

Jeff Gural, who owns two racetrack casinos in upstate New York, had a similar experience.

“We had a Subway sandwich place that didn’t work,” he said. “Then we converted it to a pizza place and that didn’t work. Someone suggested converting it to a sushi place — and I don’t like sushi. And it succeeded.”

Gural also said closure helped him realize that spending big money on broadcast ads, billboards and car giveaways wasn’t bringing in the return he expected, making it easier to scale back spending on such things.

Daily housekeeping of casino hotel rooms has become another casualty of the pandemic in some places. In June, Atlantic City’s main casino workers’ union filed a complaint with the state that four casinos were failing to clean guest hotel rooms daily as required by law, and one admitted it did not have enough housekeepers to clean every room every day.

Hospitality industry leaders say the combination of a shortage of housekeeping workers and the reluctance of some guests to allow hotel workers into their rooms during their stay has led to the abandonment of a daily room cleaning standard in resorts across the country.

One lingering effect of the pandemic is smaller payrolls. This is due both to workers who were let go during or shortly after the closures and have not been rehired, and a continuing difficulty in attracting new workers across the gambling industry, as with many others.

Jayson Guyot, president and CEO of Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino, said he ordered a complete restructuring of the business from top to bottom during the closure— something that would have been difficult to do had it still been operating.

“It enabled us to rebuild our margins from 10 to 13% to 18 to 20% now,” he said.

But he also voiced a common concern: Foxwoods has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic business levels.

That is a major preoccupation for Atlantic City’s casinos, which collectively have yet to return to 2019 revenue and profit levels for in-person gambling.

Second-quarter earnings, released in August, show that five of Atlantic City’s nine casinos failed to exceed their pre-pandemic profit levels, and the resort as a whole saw a decrease in profits of nearly 1%.

Atlantic City has thousands less casino workers than it did before the pandemic struck. It, like virtually every other casino market, has struggled to attract new workers and retain existing ones.

Hard Rock recently made headlines by spending $100 million to give big raises to 10,000 non-tipped workers, most of them in the U.S. Other companies have given smaller raises recently. Foxwoods has raised its hourly minimum wage from $10.50 two years ago to $14.50 now, Guyot said.


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I’m not ashamed of losing my virginity to a 27-year-old as teen – we need to be more open about sex, says Vogue Williams

LIKE most other parents of new babies, Vogue Williams is talking about sleep – or rather, the lack of it.

Having given birth to her third child, Otto, five months ago, she was up no fewer than seven times last night and is surviving on just a few hours of broken Zzzs.

9Like most other parents of new babies, Vogue Williams is talking about sleep – or rather, the lack of itCredit: Mark Hayman 9Despite this, model Vogue is a cool, calm picture of catwalk perfection and looks completely flawlessCredit: Mark Hayman

“He’s lovely all day, very smiley, never whinges and is just such a sweet baby,” she says. “At night, it’s a different story. He is the absolute worst sleeper of the three. 

“I do go on about my sleep quite a lot. I need it to not be the only topic of my conversation any more, because I can see people’s faces going: ‘This is so boring.’”

As if the struggle wasn’t already real enough, Vogue also forgot to bring her breast pump along to our shoot and, as any breastfeeding mum will affirm, the discomfort of an unexpected missed feed or pumping session is no laughing matter.

You’d never know all this was going on, of course. Irish model and presenter Vogue, 36, is a cool, calm picture of catwalk perfection and looks completely flawless.

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She and her husband, former Made In Chelsea star turned entrepreneur Spencer Matthews, 34, welcomed Otto into the fold in April, joining Theodore, four, and Gigi, two. 

Despite baby Otto’s love of partying through the night, Vogue says that they are all just about managing the transition from two to three children.

“I mean, going from none to one was harder!” she jokes. “The thing is, after three babies, I do know it’s going to pass.

"And Spenny gets up at 6am with Otto, which lets me lie in until seven so I’m not absolutely exhausted for the day.

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“There is so much more organising with three, though. And because I’m still breastfeeding, that makes things a little bit trickier.” 

She adds: “I know I’m not working a nine-to-five and I have someone at home who helps me, so I’m in a really lucky position.

"I would love to see more companies and workplaces making it easier for women to take longer maternity leave and to be able to return to work. 

“I love being a mum, but I also love my job and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do both.”

And work has rarely been busier for Vogue. Her debut children’s book, Jump For The Stars, came out earlier this month; her new E4 show Send Nudes: Body SOS has been causing a stir; and over the last couple of years, she has emerged as the queen of podcasting, with two hit shows consistently in and around the top of the pod charts.

A third podcast, Taboo Talk – produced on behalf of Boots – grabbed headlines recently after she spoke on it about losing her virginity when she was 18 to a 27 year old.

Vogue found the attention it attracted bemusing, but says the whole point of the podcast series is to help people become less squeamish about such discussions.

9She and her husband, former Made in Chelsea Star Spencer Matthews, have three children 9The pair welcomed Otto into the fold in April, joining Theodore, four, and Gigi, two

“It’s about normalising conversations exactly like that,” she says. “I’m not one of those people who will go into detail about my sex life, but talking about virginity can help a lot of people, because we shouldn’t be ashamed of these things. 

“We did a whole episode on vulvas with Anna Richardson from Naked Attraction – it’s just a part of our body, nothing to be embarrassed about.” 

Her first podcast, Spencer & Vogue, which gives a comical insight into the Williams-Matthews marriage, launched in 2020 and Vogue says that recording it each week provides the only bit of quality time they have as a couple at the moment.

“It’s like we’re getting an hour just to be on our own, which is unusual in a house that’s as busy as ours. And especially since I go to bed at eight o’clock most nights, because I’m so shattered at the moment!  

“We get to sit down and chat about things we’d never normally get the chance to because we’ve got a million other things going on.

"It’s just so fun to do and great that we’ve got such nice listeners and people are really enjoying us.”

Vogue and Spencer met in early 2017 when they both appeared on Channel 4’s The Jump and they married the following year.

She has said in the past that he was the partner who broke the destructive cycle she was caught in when it came to relationships.

9Vogue and Spencer met in early 2017 when they both appeared on Channel 4’s The Jump and they married the following year 9Vogue has said in the past that he was the partner who broke the destructive cycle she was caught in when it came to relationships 9Spencer was educated at Eton and she says it is on the list of potential schools for Theo and Otto when the time comes

“With Spen, it’s easy. He’s a super-positive person and he has a great way of deflecting and not letting anything really bother him, which has definitely rubbed off on me.”

Spencer was educated at Eton and despite the fact that Vogue enjoys gently mocking him because of it, she says it is on the list of potential schools for Theo and Otto when the time comes.

“I do take the p**s out of Spenny, but Eton’s an amazing school. I’d love to go and see it because it sounds almost like a little village.

"It’s bizarre to me, because we don’t have anything like that in Ireland and I find it fascinating. Even the uniforms they wear are very foreign to me.

"But I don’t mind where my kids want to go to school – and we definitely haven’t ruled out Eton.”

Given the fees for Eton are over £40,000 a year, it’s perhaps just as well that Vogue is so busy.

She says podcasting has taken her quite by surprise, not only because of how much she has fallen in love with it, but also at how successful she’s become at it. 

As well as Spencer & Vogue and Taboo Talk, she records a hilarious weekly pod with best friend Joanne McNally.

My Therapist Ghosted Me attracts 2.5 million listeners every month and when a 12-date live residency at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre sold out within three minutes, they announced extra shows at the city’s 13,000-capacity 3Arena. 

“Everywhere I go, I meet people who say they listen to the podcasts – I love that we’ve built up such a nice, solid listenership.”

9Podcasting has taken Vogue somewhat by surprise, not only because of how much she has fallen in love with it, but also at how successful she’s become at it 9Although she has a figure most women would kill for, Vogue has been on her own journey with body imageCredit: Mark Hayman

Her latest foray into TV, presenting E4’s Send Nudes, where people who are considering cosmetic surgery – from penis enlargements to boob reductions – are invited to “try before you buy”, is also proving a success.

Each participant has a life-sized naked avatar created of themselves, which is then altered before their eyes to show how surgery would change their body.

This is done alongside advice from surgeons, who warn of the risks, as well as 50 members of the public offering their views on the before and potential after.

It is at times jaw-dropping TV, but there is often real emotion, too, and despite the shock factor, there is a positive message at its heart.

“I think before people actually watched it, they were ready to jump at me,” says Vogue. 

“But actually, the whole concept behind it is a body-positive show. The thing about plastic surgery is that people rush into it thinking it’s going to be the answer to all their problems. So many of the people we had on were like: ‘Hold on… that is not what I want to look like.’

I love that we’ve built up such a nice, solid listenership

Vogue Williams

“A lot of them walked away being really happy with themselves as they were, and I loved that.”

Although she has a figure most women would kill for, Vogue has been on her own journey with body image and says she had an affinity with a lot of the people who appeared on the show.

“I think most people will relate to it in some way. There can’t be many of us who haven’t had hang-ups about something or other.

“I feel a lot more confident than I did when I was in my teenage years and I think we should celebrate the difference in people’s bodies. For me, that has come with age.  

“I love training and going to the gym – and I don’t just do it for my body, I do it for my mind as well. When I feel healthy and strong, that makes a huge difference.”

Notoriously honest critics

Proving that Vogue’s work is nothing if not varied is her new kids’ book, Jump For The Stars, which focuses on being active and is beautifully illustrated by Tilia Rand-Bell.

Since kids are notoriously honest critics, was she nervous road-testing the book with her own children?

“My kids are obsessed with books, so I was confident they would enjoy it. Also, there’s a Theo in the book, so how could he not like it?”

She describes both Theo and Gigi as “great craic” and recently said “the door is ajar” to the idea of having a fourth child.

While Vogue admits that she’s not a fan of pregnancy, not least because she has suffered severe sickness throughout each time, she savours the experience of giving birth. 

“I love the whole day!” she says. “We’ve been very lucky to have a great doctor and lovely midwives – I’ve had good experiences, for sure.

"I think I’m so ill during the pregnancy, when the time comes to have the baby, the thought of not being sick tomorrow makes it quite an exciting day.”

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But while the door may be “ajar”, the current sleep situation means another baby is probably some way off.

“I’d never say never, but I’m very happy with three,” she says. “I’m definitely on a break!” 

  • Jump For The Stars by Vogue Williams (£12.99, Catch A Star) is out now.
Fabulous Parenting Club

What has been your funniest parenting moment so far?

Gigi is constantly making me laugh. She’s only just turned two, but her vocabulary is amazing. She takes my phone and just wanders around chatting away.

What’s been your biggest win?

Whenever I get out the door on time – it doesn’t happen regularly!

And the biggest fail?

Well, I got to the shoot today and realised I’d forgotten my breast pump, so that wasn’t great.

Do you have any parenting hacks?

Snacks, snacks, snacks! I always make sure I’ve got plenty on me.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before having kids?

How much my mum did for me. It’s only when you become a mum that you appreciate that.

Who’s your parenting inspo?

My mum. She had three kids on her own for a long time. before she met my stepdad. That is just incredible.

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