BILOXI -- This year's Southern Gaming Summit reflected the belief that people visit casinos for more than slot machines -- they go for the fun.
Along with new slots to try and educational sessions on the latest trends, there were interactive events -- the conference attendees could play Bingo, cheer on the casino managers playing slots for charity and sample dishes cooked up by three of the state's best chefs.
"Awesome," was the word most used to describe the Cold Jambayala Salad created by Chef John Currence, who lived up to his 2009 honor of the James Beard Best Chef in the South. Chunks of crabmeat, shrimp and crawfish were mixed with vegetables, rice and a surprise ingredient -- Rice Krispies -- that provided a tasty crunch.
Currence is a New Orleans native and in the 24 years he's operated restaurants in Oxford, he's built a relationship and trust with his customers and challenges them with new tastes. When he prepared Carpaccio at City Grocery, "I could not give it away that first summer when we were open," he said. On the 20th anniversary of his restaurant, the top appetizer was lamb fries.
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Chef Kelly English, changes the menu a bit every quarter at his Magnolia House at Harrah's Gulf Coast, prepared Shrimp Creole for the Gaming Summit crowd. He likes to look at very traditional dishes, he said, and see how it would be made new.
"I brought some Vietnamese flavor to it," he said.
"Food is a part of gaming," he said, and part of the total experience customers crave.
Chef Tom Ramsey, who's been seen on "Guy's Grocery Games" and other cooking shows, showed how to cut an onion before he prepared Catfish Etouffée.
As he sauteed vegetables, added spices and filled the Expo Hall at Coast Convention Center with a tantalizing aroma, he said, "We're just building up layers of flavor."
The same is happening in the casino industry across South Mississippi and the country, the panelists said when talking about the amenities and the technology that combine to create an experience.
There are still fewer slots and table games in the market than in 2004, said Frank Fantini, CEO of Fantini Research. But since 2005's Hurricane Katrina, he said, "what we've seen is a slow stabilization and now a recovery on the Gulf Coast,"
South Mississippi has the weather, water, geography and its own history and culture, which he said bodes well for it.
What's lacking is low-cost air service, he and several other speakers said.
Joel Simkins, head of Gaming Lodging and Leisure Investment Banking for Sun Trust Robinson Humphrey, said he was visiting Biloxi for the first time in a couple of years.
"I was pretty impressed," he said. Along with the casinos, he was "wowed" by the restoration of the White House Hotel and the Biloxi Shuckers' baseball stadium, which he said gives tourists another reason to come to Biloxi and stay an extra night.
"I think all of these things supplement the experience," he said.