From The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, October 6, 2009:
Clutching the handle of his worn cane, Don Blair boards a bus that will transport him from the parking lot of a discount grocery store to another world – a glitzy casino a province away.
It is not an easy journey for Mr. Blair to make with his aching back, knees and hips. But it is too good a deal for the 85-year-old to pass up. The coach picks him up in Brockville, Ont., and whisks him to Quebec's Casino du Lac-Leamy for five hours of gambling – for $15, round trip.
"I was taking four buses a week [to casinos] for probably four years," said Mr. Blair, wearing a thick black money belt that contains several rolls of quarters. "Now I'm down to two buses."
Ninety minutes after boarding, Mr. Blair winces as he slowly descends the steps of the bus. Entering the casino, he stands on a red carpet while an employee swipes his player's card, which will track how much he spends on the slots and mechanical horses in the vast, glitzy room.
Subsidizing commercial bus fares to bring patrons to casinos – particularly during the times of the day when casinos are at their slowest – is common across Canada, with hundreds of trips daily.
The Quebec government pays some of the highest bus subsidies of any province – more than $3.2-million over the past two fiscal years to transport patrons to its casinos, according to figures obtained by The Globe and Mail under the Freedom of Information Act. Casinos du Québec spokesman Patrice Lavoie said the province lays out an average of $7 for each person brought to its casinos by bus.
Although such bus tours were long thought to be benign – retirement homes routinely shuttle residents to casinos as part of their entertainment – researchers now question whether these trips potentially set seniors up for future gambling problems.
"I think the worst is that gambling is presented like leisure, and maybe sometimes it can be leisure, but some people can develop big problems," said Magaly Brodeur, a PhD candidate in public administration at École nationale d'administration publique. "Addiction is a really big problem."
Barry Hall, a professor of social work at the University of Calgary, says casino bus tours represent a shrewd marketing strategy that caters to the egos of lonely seniors, particularly women.
"I have observed the buses … and I have watched very handsome young men come out and squire the elderly ladies who are absolutely enthralled that they are being treated as royalty," Prof. Hall said.
"I have seen people in the casinos struggling with their oxygen tanks, I have seen them come in off the bus with assistance or, due to their arthritis, they could not put the money in, nor could they push the buttons. … It's taking on a very, very frightening approach here."
The feel-good tours
When the popularity of casino tours exploded in Quebec – Casino de Charlevoix, for example, saw its numbers increase over a decade from 200 trips a year to 3,400 – researcher Francine Ferland hopped on the bus to see who was taking it and why.
Her study, published in 2006, found significantly more at-risk gamblers than she expected. Those gamblers lost an average of $3,500 each in the previous year, drawn in part by the lure of the fun and familiar.
"Going into the casino, everybody knows you, everybody will try to make you happy," said Dr. Ferland, of the Quebec Centre of Excellence for the Prevention and Treatment of Gaming at Laval University. "You are a someone when you are there."
Rina Gupta, a psychologist at McGill University and co-director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors, says the majority of seniors can enjoy themselves at a casino without developing problems. But they can also be vulnerable.
"If a seniors home is going to be allowing their residents to be bused to a casino," she said, "then they have the responsibility to open their doors up to prevention and to invite other family members to these prevention sessions as well so family members can be aware of what their parent is doing."
Larry Hundt, co-owner of Great Canadian Holidays and Coaches Inc., based in Kitchener, Ont., says the casinos use players' cards to measure how much people are spending.
"Some of them tell us which groups are unprofitable," Mr. Hundt said. "They never tell us how profitable some of them are. They will tell us sometimes they like this particular group and encourage that particular group because they are good gamers."
Andrea Lawrence, who manages Regina-based Moose Mountain Tours, was told of the profitability of one of her groups: 42 seniors who headed south on a bus last year for a three-day casino trip to Deadwood, S.D. – a 10-hour drive.
"Deadwood phoned me and said judging by their player's cards, they spent $40,000," Ms. Lawrence said. "Deadwood offered me better room rates for the next year to keep this group coming back."
A trip fuelled by boredom
At Casino du Lac-Leamy in Gatineau, Que., business is slow on a sunny September day. Most of the customers are seniors, parked before slot machines that ding and whir in a continuous din.
Some labour with their walkers to get down the stairs. Others make their way to the ATM machines to withdraw cash. But not Mr. Blair, wearing a worn plaid shirt and grey wool pants, who does not bring any bank or credit cards as he doesn't want to be tempted. He pulls quarters from a giant plastic tumbler, feeding the game of mechanical horses, where he always plays No. 16.
At one point, his horse wins, causing a red light to flash. This event isn't nearly as impressive as it looks, he says – he only won $3. When it is time to board the bus back to Brockville, he counts his money and notes he is only down $5.
"Most do it out of boredom," said Mr. Blair, a former police officer, explaining why nearly two dozen people have taken the trip with him. The buses, he adds, are at their busiest at the end of each month, when social security cheques arrive.
Since that road trip a month ago, Mr. Blair has boarded the bus twice a week to the casino in Gatineau and once to Montreal.
"I never lose much because I never play much," he said, speaking from his home in North Augusta, north of Brockville. "You've got five hours to put in. I haven't got the money to spend five hours playing the slots because it can be hundreds of dollars if you're not careful."
The Montreal trip, he says, looks like a particularly good deal: $40, including a $10 meal voucher and $10 for slots.
"But then you realize," he said, "that you can't spend it anywhere but in the casino."