Coming down the stretch to its first anniversary, Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway—the $250 million gaming and harness racing facility on Dayton’s north end—appears to be a winner.

The 125,000-square-foot facility off Wagner Ford Road is performing as expected in Ohio’s increasingly crowded gaming industry, says General Manager Gary DeWitt.

“So far it is going really well,” says DeWitt. “Like any new operation, we’re literally learning every day. We’re still learning the market and our customers, but overall we’re real happy. ‘’

In March, Hollywood Gaming, owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., had its best month so far, with $7.7 million in net revenues on $79.5 million wagered—its second consecutive monthly increase.

“The weather cooperated for sure,” says DeWitt, who’s spent more than 25 years in the gaming industry. “I’ve been in several Midwest markets, and unless you have some really bad weather, for the most part March is one of your better months. People have a little bit of cabin fever [and want to get out].”

Hollywood Gaming, which opened Aug. 28, is one of Ohio’s smaller gaming facilities, with about 990 video lottery terminals, or VLTs, on its gaming floor where patrons can bet from a penny to $25.

However, it has held its own against larger rival Miami Valley Gaming, which is about 30 miles south, off Interstate 75 near Monroe.

Miami Valley, which has about 1,600 VLTs, raked in $10.9 million in net revenues on $126.6 million in wagers in March. On a win per VLT basis, however, Hollywood Gaming recorded $252 a day, compared to Miami Valley’s $224 per day.

“We view Miami Valley Gaming as our most direct competitor,” says DeWitt.

Like Miami Valley, Hollywood Gaming is positioning itself as a comfortable entertainment option for guests who live nearby.

“Most, if not all, of our customers come from a 50-mile radius,” says DeWitt. “So, our team members want to make sure when customers come here they feel comfortable, feel safe and, hopefully, build a relationship with our team.’’ 

Building relationships with customers is a big key to Hollywood Gaming’s success, says DeWitt.

“If a customer comes in once a week or so, we have an opportunity to get to know them a little bit and make them feel comfortable,” he says. “We talk to team members a lot about building relationships with our customers.” 

The facility combines classic Hollywood art and an art deco feel with the latest audio/visual effects, large video screens and live entertainment. “So far, this theme and interior design has been well-received in Dayton,” DeWitt says.

“Another large differentiator is our Marquee Rewards Player’s Club, which connects all of our Hollywood/Penn National Gaming properties to one reward system. When a customer plays here in Dayton, they are earning complimentaries that can be utilized at any of our other properties.”

DeWitt says Hollywood Gaming is on target to draw about a million visitors in its first year.

On Sept. 14, it will launch its second season of harness racing, five nights a week on its five-eighths of a mile track, complimenting its year-round simulcasting of races from around the country. This year, Hollywood Gaming will offer 75 nights of live racing, up from 56 nights last year. The racing adds about 60 seasonal jobs to the more than 300 employed year-round.

”It adds another element to our property,” DeWitt says. “When the lights are on, the horses are running and the announcers are talking, it adds another level of energy to the facility. It brings a lot more visitors, too.”

There isn’t a lot of crossover between the racing and VLT customers, however. VLT players tend to be mostly female and in their 50s and 60s, while racing tends to draw more males in the same age group.

“They really complement one another,” DeWitt says. “The common denominator is people like to eat. What we’ve noticed during live racing is that it helps food and beverage sales. People come, and some watch racing and some want to play VLTs, but they get back together to get something to eat.”

There are four dining options at Hollywood Gaming, including the Sky Box Sports Bar, a full-service restaurant featuring everything from steak to wings; the H Lounge, which features live local music on Friday and Saturday nights; a food court with three different venues; and a concession area on each floor of the racing area.

A native of Las Vegas, DeWitt has spent more than 25 years in the gaming industry and managed facilities in Indiana, Missouri, Nevada and Louisiana.

“No one day is ever the same,” he says. “There’s always something new and always something exciting.’’ 

One of the things he’s learned, he says, is that no two markets are exactly alike.

“You can’t make any assumptions about what you’ve learned at other properties. Every market has its own intricacies and its own dynamics, and you’ve got to keep an open mind.’’

For example, Hollywood Gaming added Warped Wing, a local brewery in Dayton, to its beer taps when customers requested craft beer. For its live music on weekends, Hollywood Gaming initially booked a variety of different music genres, but DeWitt says, “We’ve come to find out that country, ’80s tribute bands and Top 40 bands are most popular.”

Hollywood Gaming also continues to tweak its VLT offerings.

It recently added a new Flintstones game, based on the TV cartoon series, and a Batman and Robin game, based on the comic TV series characters and not the movies. Still other games, such as Wheel of Fortune, based on the TV game show, remain as popular as ever.

“Sound and visuals attract people,” says DeWitt, who’s spent part of his career managing gaming slot machines. “But at the end of the day, it is about play mechanics. If a customer puts in $20, do they get to the bonus round? Did they get some free spins? Did they feel they got good value for their gaming dollar? That’s true of everything we do.”