The Next Big Change in Free Casino Drinks is Already Here

Back in the day in Las Vegas, drinks flowed freely. Emphasis on “free.”

You gambled, you drank free. Sometimes, you drank free whether you gambled or not.

Over time, though, casinos realized the cost of free hooch was affecting their profits, so they started paying more attention to whether guests were playing enough to warrant free drinks.

Stratosphere cocktail

Colorful cocktails are a great way to calm one’s nerves prior to diving into drink monitoring.

Here’s a quick overview of how drink monitoring has evolved.

1) Back in 2015, Mirage began using drink vouchers at its lobby bar. If you put $20 into the machine, you got a free drink. As you played more, you got a voucher which got you more free liquor. The Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier Bar still uses a similar voucher system.

Mirage Vegas comp drink voucher

Oh, look, a harbinger. We’re real big on harbinging.

2) In 2016, we dropped the bombshell Caesars Entertainment was rolling out drink monitoring machines (we informally referred to them as “red light, green light” machines) at its video poker bars. Again, guests who played a minimum bet (usually $1, or four quarters a hand) at a steady pace got a steady supply of free drinks. For bartenders, traditionally the free drink gatekeepers, these machines took the guesswork out who got a free drink, and how often. Green light, you’re good. Red light, keep playing until you meet the freebie criteria.

Everyone freaked out, including us.

Caesars Palace sports bar comps

These drink monitoring systems are ubiquitous now and we aren’t just saying that to prove we finally learned how to spell “ubiquitous.”

3) In 2017, we shared drink monitoring would be coming to casino floors. (That’s still in the works, but systems are still being field tested in Laughlin.) In 2018, Westgate implemented drink monitoring on slot machines across the resort, but the program didn’t pan out.

4) Earlier in 2019, we made sort of an awkward prediction based upon discussions with industry insiders. Hold onto something.

Free drinks in casinos

Yes, it’s overly dramatic. It’s the Internet. Get used to it.

If you haven’t heard about MGM 2020, it’s an initiative that’s taking a long, hard look at the way MGM Resorts does business with the goal of saving hundreds of millions of dollars. Read more.

We’d seen some red flags related to comp drinks at Park MGM, formerly Monte Carlo. When Park MGM opened, drinks weren’t being comped for video poker players. The casino quickly reversed course on that, thankfully.

Now, though, we think MGM Resorts is putting a new system into place that will fundamentally put quotation marks around “free” in the phrase “free drinks in Las Vegas casinos.”

In Park MGM’s West Bar, patrons are no longer getting comped drinks if they are not members of the MGM Resorts loyalty program, M Life.

Guests still get a drink when they put a minimum of $20 into a video poker machine, but only if they use a player’s club card.

Park MGM bar

This bar at Park MGM is ground zero for the way free drinks will work in casinos, mainly because “ground zero” sounds pretty badass.

After that first drink, a player must either pay for their drink—yes, even if they’re gambling—or earn 10 session points. A bartender shared the program originally required 25 session points, but customers shared their displeasure, so the number was reduced.

On the bright side, it’s easy to tell how much longer you need to play before your next comped drink. Here’s what’s displayed on the machine.

Park MGM drink monitoring

Even if you can’t pace yourself, this bad boy can.

What we’re seeing is a practice we’re fairly sure is going to become the new normal. Not just at MGM Resorts casinos in Las Vegas, but at all of them.

The era of free drinks in casinos, without limits, is done.

Comped drinks will be closely tied to gambling, as has always been the case, but now play will be tracked more closely and free drinks will have to be earned.

Here’s the thing, though.

Our view of drink monitoring has changed dramatically since the inception of such practices. Our outrage subsided when we realized the threshold for free drinks is still relatively low. Monitoring is really just an attempt to prevent people trying to get something for nothing.

We have no problem with that. Casinos aren’t charities.

Drink monitoring ensures seats at video poker bars are available for people who want to play, as opposed to people who slip a $1 bill into the machine and immediately demand free liquor.

Drink monitoring serves a secondary purpose for casinos, too. It keeps customers from being over-served. The average time between comped drinks is about 20 minutes, or three cocktails an hour.

The long-standing practice of giving away free drinks in Las Vegas casinos is remnant of a time when gambling subsidized everything. Now, as gambling revenue declines and casino stock prices slip, casino companies are faced with the reality giving free liquor costs them millions.

Oh, and if you think the issue of casinos scrutinizing the return on their comped drinks, check out this memo from a casino comptroller at the El Rancho in 1955. Thanks to our friends at Classic Las Vegas for this amazing find.

El Rancho comps

The more things change, the more bean counters stay the same.

Moving forward, even if your drink is “free,” expect to earn it.

At the bar, in the sports book, at the slots and table games and anywhere else free hooch is served in Las Vegas casinos.

Our advice: Sign up for the loyalty club. always use your card. Find a machine with a decent pay table and have a blast.

That’s why you’re in Vegas in the first place.

32 thoughts on “The Next Big Change in Free Casino Drinks is Already Here

  1. Drunk Don

    I’ve been to casinos that charge for each drink with no freebies because of preexisting state laws or roving bands of Puritans. They’re not fun.

    What you describe here isn’t as bad as those casinos, but that oppression is creeping ever closer. People go to Vegas for excess. For sin. For amnesia. Not to have some machine say 8 more credits are needed to get a “free” N-F-L Corona from an overworked and disinterested server.

    I have no pity for a casino’s bottom line. The gambling rules already have been tightened in the house’s favor. Food and beverage prices already cost many times more their wholesale prices. Any fees (parking, resort, etc.) that can be applied already have been. Staffers already have been told to do “more” with the proverbial “less.”

    If these casino companies can’t find success in that environment without further sucking the joy out of Vegas …

    Reply
    1. Coop

      On point Ron! And then “Surge” pricing says it ALL!! I can no longer leave hungover, refreshed, or relaxed. When I leave I no longer feel the need to immediately go back. I feel like Disney world has taken over. Long Live Downtown. It is the only reason I visit anymore. I feel like the owners downtown “get it”. So I give my money to them.

      Reply
      1. Vegas Insight

        They get it, but when will pressure to increase profits and emulate what is working on the strip creep into the downtown business model? If the strip can get away with 6:5 blackjack and 000 roulette, why not downtown?

        Business is booming downtown these days…. and things are looking better downtown than they did 20 years ago. Downtown has its limitations, but the casinos have overcome those, and are aided by the idiocy of the strip. Yet plenty of people still piss away money on the strip, because who wants to brag they spent their evening in the luxurious Four Queens?

        I agree, the downtown folk get it, but you can’t keep making $x million per year. Profits have to increase. Every year. You need to earn $x+1 million next year. And $x+2 in the year after that. Will downtown casinos avoid MGM tactics in perpetuity? I’d like to think they’ll do better than that, but not wholly.

        My hope is that any erosion in downtown casinos is as slow as molasses, and that my Vegas days are over when the day finally comes where people are complaining downtown casinos killed the golden goose.

        So far, so good.

        #faith*

        *Copyright Paul Allen (not the rich guy)

        Reply
  2. Bill Brash

    We have some good friends who serve drinks on the casino floor in a downtown casino.
    Believe it or not, the clear majority of slot players do not tip the girl, most don’t even acknowledge their existence.
    Quite a few of these folk are not playing but still demand a drink.
    I’m not defending casino profit lines, they can’t build the resorts that exist without massive bottom lines but certain “players” are abusing the system. It’s this abuse that is forcing us to play a minimum amount.
    We have the “freebie” people to thank for these new criteria as much as the casino bean counters

    Reply
    1. Coop

      Its clear to me that this is all related to the Strip courting of the basement dwelling millenials with no concept of money, and families on a tighter budget. These demographics do not care about free drinks or parking fee’s. They have drugs and Uber to avoid your fee’s. Let them have their clubs and malls they will sure spend money there. But realize they are not your bread and butter like you wish. You wanted them you got them. We old folks will be downtown gambling until you “get it”.

      Reply
      1. Tom

        You are so right, Coop. I left the strip behind in 1997, I didn’t like the direction it was heading, and I was a young man then. I always preferred gambling with the older folks who were much classier than the trashy strip party animals. I would still make an occasional foray back to see a show or restaurant. Now you couldn’t pay me to walk into those dumps. Downtown or local casinos is all I’ll consider today and downtown is losing it’s way as well. People, you don’t need to put up with it, just avoid the bad business practices these mindless execs are forcing down your throats. There are many choices to gamble away your hard earned money, don’t patronize the losers.

        Reply
        1. Coop

          Yep. We old people enjoy understanding reality. (Lost art form and impossible these days) We once hoped to make it better. Now a days its called stereotyping and considered rude. Now get off my lawn and take your Loser trophy with you! LMAO

          Reply
          1. Bill

            Wait Vegas is giving out trophies for losing now…

            (Maybe you just cracked the millennial nut for Vegas).

          2. Funkhouser

            Actually the idea of trophies for losing isn’t that far from the truth. Caesars Entertainment started a promotion this year Where do you rank. In a nutshell you compete against other gamblers earning tier credits in a given period of time to win a prize. Because we all know how important it is for me to earn more tier credits than the 20 something down the street.

    2. OHM

      Probably Euro-trash, Asian whales, and millennial’s. What’s worse is the next generation: they don’t drink, most don’t want driver’s licenses, few eat meat and they probably won’t gamble. Sounds like a revival,but most don’t believe either.

      Reply
  3. Charles in Richmond, VA

    I think the reason MGM is now requiring your players card is so they can eventually charge your players account for the cost of the drink.  

    Reply
  4. Coop

    Certainly. But also don’t forget the value in tracking your meanderings through their casino. wifi players cards are coming. These are now so cheap my hospital is issuing these to every patient so they can track them down. Greedy business is next.. They watch us like Sim City to squeeze every dollar or analyze every glance at an advertising screen. Very valuable information. Facial recognition is next after that. See TSA. See Cruise ships…etc.

    Reply
  5. Rachel Cobb

    These programs are just to get their foot in the door. First phase, make the amount of play low so that customers don’t complain much. Then, next year or the following year, they will probably the play required by 10-15%, and do so again and again over time. No different than phasing out/removing the best video poker schedules.

    Reply
    1. Sober Steve

      I must not realize that the more I drink, the more I gamble. Wherever I play, the drinks are usually weak, and after several, I’m wondering when I get one with booze.

      Reply
  6. Amy

    I was at Harrah’s in New Orleans earlier this year. You earn free drinks at the slot table with your card. You order your drink on the machine and any discount (if any) is applied. They tell you how much your drink will be when you order.

    Reply
  7. Matt

    What if all I want is a Diet Coke or simply a glass of water? Will these sons-of-bitches require me to play the same amount of time to get that as opposed to a cocktail?

    Reply
  8. Scott

    I think it’s bullshit you have to use the loyalty card. I get it, free drinks for no play costs money. That doesn’t bother me. But loyalty cards these days are trash. You have to play, especially at MGM, an enormously large amount of money to even earn a few dollars in free play. So why would I use one??? But now I have to, in order to get a cheap bottle of Beer?

    Reply
  9. Scott

    Vegas Insight.

    Downtown already has a ton of 6:5 blackjack tables. I usually play Blackjack Downtown, and it was extremely hard to find 3:2 tables. My favorite place El Cortez has them, and there are few rules or restrictions on them. However, Binion’s, Golden Nugget, Four Queens are all 6:5. And if they have 3:2, there are a ton of restrictions.

    Also, I’m disappointed in Derek Stevens. All his properties Downtown have minimum 8 deck shoes.

    Reply
    1. Vegas Insight

      I know there are some 6:5 downtown. I tend to play at Boyd properties, and ElCo, and I still find 3:2 payouts. I was under the impression 6:5 was the exception, not the rule downtown, but perhaps downtown is not as glorious as I’d like to remember. It has been six months since the last time I was in Vegas.

      Reply
  10. mattbob77

    Scott,

    Great post. Level-headed consideration of both sides of the issue as opposed to “oh-no-the-sky-is-falling” every time something costs more in Vegas.

    I don’t like reduced comps, worse gambling rules, resort fees, etc., etc. any more than anybody else. But the fact is that prices for everything, in general, rise with time. Candy bars used to be a nickel.

    When the casinos price me out of the market, I’ll leave with no hard feelings. They did what they thought they had to do to make a profit, and I’ll do what I think I have to do with my entertainment dollars to maximize value.

    Reply
  11. JOhn Chip

    And the demise of Las Vegas moves forward. I only hope this bombs like paid parking.

    Vegas’s “tough times” are its own fault. Want more people gaming? Have better rules. Want people to stay longer? Remove hourly paid parking. and now, want people to gamble longer? Free drinks. Vegas tore down all the lower/middle tier hotels and packed everything with ultra luxury rooms. (and added BS “resort fees”) No wonder people come (staying in motels off strip) and just wander around, look at the lights and go home. Why would I “try” to gamble when the buy in is $20 a hand and rules are worse than ever? No sympathy for Vegas in this regard. And if it keeps up, we’ll have another Detroit on our hands.

    Reply
  12. James McElyea

    I have not been back in 4 years, After going 4 to 8 times a year for over 25 years I said no more. Gone are the good old days. Great casino host, fair priced shows and food free parking no charge to use swminning pools, gyms ect. A-1 service all around. Someone mentioned Dereck Stevens above just wait he is going to do the same to downtown that has been done on the strip. Vegas needs to keep a sharp eye on this guy.

    Reply
    1. Scrutinizing Steve

      Stevens is not above making a buck and chasing the beautiful people to do it. He’s no dummy.

      Reply
  13. Bill

    I lament the old Vegas. But, the old Vegas was built on gambling and all the freebies and deals were designed to draw people into casinos to gamble (and were supported by the gambling). Now, gambling is apparently no longer the cash cow it once was and casinos are rethinking expenses tied to decreasing revenue from gambling. Unfortunate, and some practices to re-coop lost revenues like charging for parking, changing betting odds and pay-outs, pouring less alcohol, and renting space to third-party vendors, which have an incentive to charge more, not to mention resort fees -which are probably more tied to competing on room rates while maintaining a base-line, but still a very dubious practice – have, I believe, backfired and at any rate are in bad faith to the consumer. At least with controls on comped drinks I can understand, as this is not directly hurting consumers, but is a pure freebie and an incentive to gamble. I don’t gamble to get a free drink, although it is nice when it happens and sometimes it plays into whether I will stop and gamble at a particular place or time. I don’t like the new practice, but it is somewhat justifiable and not strictly underhanded or bait-and-switch towards the consumer, if a little big-brother. I do hope that some casinos can find a way to market off this, like what the El Cortez does with the free beer pit. (I had a funny experience with this, but I’ll leave it with that.)

    Reply
    1. Funkhouser

      Vegas used to be the champion of the value and luxury travel destination. You had a class of people with disposable income who came to Vegas to be treated special and who were happy to lose their money. In some ways Vegas in the 50’s / 60’s was trying to overcome the stigma of gambling. Now you have local casinos in just about every state and the proliferation of gambling. People don’t have to travel to NV to gamble. So the value proposition is eroding. Bottom line Vegas is going to have to increase the wow factor if they become as expensive as everywhere else in the country to vacation. Free drinks while not the deciding factor is definitely an influencer on where I spend my vacation dollars.

      Reply
  14. Kevin

    Hey Scott where and what is that colorful cocktail in the first photo? Great article like always Mr. Vital Vegas aka PAPA.

    Reply
  15. Gary

    I enjoy a free cocktail when I’m playing VP downtown. As soon as the bartenders realize you’re not doing a hit & run to just get a free drink and you engage in a conversation they usually take good care of you so long as your tips reflect their attention. When I’m going to be out on the floor I will stop at one of the outdoor bars and buy a large drink. They always provide a good drink that you can taste the alcohol. It allows me sit and relax or the freedom to move around and not wait for a cocktail waitress to find me and then get back with my drink.

    Reply

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