UPPER MERION >> Valley Forge Casino Resort is currently celebrating its fifth year in business, which makes the glittering First Avenue betting house and entertainment mecca more of an adolescent than a tot.
No one is better equipped to offer that analogy than CEO Eric Pearson, the fourth commander of the King of Prussia getaway that opened its doors at 12:01 a.m., March 31, 2012.
The veteran of Vegas and the riverboat gambling scene is well aware that he inherited a renowned icon that is still growing and evolving in many ways.
“When you first open a property it takes time to figure out the market you’re in what your customers respond to,” Pearson said. “You start with a set of assumptions about what you think your market will produce, what you think your customers will like, but it does take a few years to understand the reality of what’s happening. I think this property has gone through that process, to understand what our customers are looking for, what services we need to provide. And in the initial years you see a lot of change. And so, five years in, I think we’re taking strides in our adolescence now. As far as everything we offer in our food court and steak house, the different concepts that we want to roll out, we have a good understanding of who our customers are, what they want, and we can now make sure we’re offering the right types of amenities and give people what they’re looking for.”
At the outset of Pearson’s reign last October, the casino-resort’s flagship eatery, LP Steak — which launched the year before by chef Luke Palladino — gave way to Revolution Chop House.
It was the third steak house concept to debut since Valley Forge Casino Resort made its grand entry with Pacific Prime.
“It’s very difficult to compete in this area because there are a lot of great restaurants all right around us,” Pearson said. “Revolution Chop House has a nice mix of steaks, seafood and Italian items. It’s important for us to have a good mix of dining experiences for customers. If you want to come for a quick slice of pizza, we have that, and if you want to come out for a nice dinner for a special occasion, we’re covered. The Valley Tavern has great pub food, and right now we’re sitting in our food court, and we have three outlets here, for someone who may want a quick bite to eat, and that’s where the food court really comes in. Plus, in our steak house we want to have an elevated dining experience for our guests as well, so that we can have something for everyone.”
Soon, the food court will welcome a new coffee venue to replace the limited Starbucks offering, Pearson noted.
“We have Starbucks coffee but we never had a full blown Starbucks here. In an analysis I did I realized one of the things we were missing was a really good coffee outlet, so it’s one of the things I’ve been working on since I got here,” he said.
Growing up in the gaming world in the small town of Laughlin, Nev., Pearson seemed destined for a life of helping others in laying their odds in style.
“Laughlin is about 90 miles outside of Las Vegas on the Colorado River, where Nevada, Arizona and California all come together,” Pearson noted. “There are about 10 casinos there. My mom was a cocktail waitress for 25 years and my dad was a food and beverage executive. I started as a teenager busing tables at a casino steak house and have been in the business ever since.”
Pearson recalled moving on to parking cars at the Grand Victoria riverboat casino in Elgin, Ill.
“The best job I ever had was parking cars. I worked there summers in between going to Arizona State,” said Pearson, who soon swapped out toiling in the non-gaming amenities for the casino floor itself.
“It was in a division that doesn’t exist anymore … you had these slots money runners who would essentially facilitate the flow of coins and cash throughout the casino,” said Pearson, whose career path led him to management opportunities at the MGM Grand on the Vegas strip and eventually to Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut .
“And then I came here,” noted Pearson, who described the typical Vegas gambler as a different type of customer than you’d find at Valley Forge Casino Resort.
“In Vegas, every three days we would essentially get a whole new group of customers,” he said. “And lots of times it was their first time visiting your property, and most times it was their last time, because when people go back to Vegas they stay at different properties. Here it’s very different. We’ll see the same folks sometimes several times a month. When you’re a local casino you can’t just rely on having a big residency show for entertainment for years. We have to continually offer new things.”
Reinvesting in the King of Prussia property has always been a priority and Pearson indicated that he will continue that philosophy, as he has with the recent completion of a $6 million remodeling of the casino tower’s 156 guest rooms.
“If we just made that initial investment and kind of skated on that we really couldn’t expect people to keep coming back. We’re not doing that. So we continued to invest in our non-gaming amenities,” he said. “We have very large convention and meeting space facilities and a lot of those guests stay at our Radisson Hotel. Casino customers tend to stay at the casino tower, so the customer mix here is a little different. The tower existed long before the casino opened, and with the remodeling I think it’s one of the finest hotel products in the market.”