After five years and an investment of $1 billion, the largest casino in Canada opens this afternoon in Toronto. But for Chuck Keeling this day is more about relief than excitement.
Keeling is the executive vice president of stakeholder engagement, community and social responsibility for Great Canadian Entertainment, the company that built and will operate the Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto. The Ontario casino is a mega-expansion of the casino Great Canadian already operates at Woodbine Racetrack just down the road from Pearson Airport.
Speaking to PlayCanada last week, Keeling said the fact that “it is actually going to happen” is his primary emotion.
“There’s a bit of a surreal nature to it being five years in the making,” Keeling said. “Going through COVID, winning the bid, having this opportunity to demonstrate [our commitment] the provincial government, to the city of Toronto, to OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming) and to all of our community partners through the community benefits agreement.
“We’ve got a lot of external stakeholders here and a big audience, never mind the market itself. We have a lot to prove. And we were pretty excited to get these doors open and show the market and our stakeholders the first phase of it with a whole pile more coming.”
A casino as large as the Rogers Centre
Keeling said what impresses him most is, “the sheer scope, scale and enormity of this facility. It will be the largest and newest casino resort in Canada. It’s going to be one of the largest in North America. You’re talking to 330,000 square feet of gaming space. You could drop the Rogers Centre onto the gaming floor. That’s how big this place is.”
The casino will open today (June 20) at 5 p.m. Phase one of a multi-phase opening will include the gaming floor and some dining outlets.
When completed, the 328,000-square foot Great Canadian Toronto casino will feature:
- 4,800 slot machines
- 145 table games
- a 400-room hotel
- a 5,000-person entertainment centre
- 11 restaurants
Keeling said the next phase of the largest Canadian casino will see the opening of the hotel, which overlooks Woodbine Racetrack on one side. That will be followed by the opening of the entertainment venue, more dining and, finally, the retail space.
Will there be a more elaborate sportsbook in Great Canadian Toronto?
Casino Woodbine was one of the first in Ontario to offer retail sports betting via kiosks.
“We will continue with that service while we determine whether there’ll be an actual dedicated sportsbook, in the conventional sense, located in the new property,” Keeling said.
He added that if Great Canadian opts to add a more elaborate sportsbook to its new facility, what still needs to be determined is where it would go and what it would look like.
Bottom line: the company is considering it, but has not made a final decision.
At the same time, its partner at Woodbine Racetrack has long campaigned to add retail sports betting to its facilities.
Great Canadian partnering with OLG on iGaming
Great Canadian is taking a slow, measured approach to online gambling, much as it has to retail sportsbooks.
“There’s a lot of noise in the data in terms of what this means for the land-based sector and what’s happening in the market,” Keeling said. “And a lot of the noise that I’m referring to is also coming out of COVID. Consumer habits changing in general because of COVID because we were closed for a year-and-a-half effectively. The impact of inflation, the impact of supply chain challenges, all of the external factors that we’re all aware of. So it’s very difficult to necessarily determine at this juncture what’s happening in the market.”
In the meantime, Keeling said Great Canadian, which operates 25 bricks-and-mortar casinos in Canada, has signed an affiliate agreement with the OLG on online gambling.
“We’re not in the iGaming space right now, but we’ve always supported iGaming and the concept of it,” Keeling said. “We are always trying to determine how we would enter the space ourselves. So, we’ve partnered with OLG and their digital platform and how we leverage our land-based audience to support that digital platform. But, conversely, it taps into the 1.6 million people that they have in their database, and how they can support… our properties, our promotions, our offers.
“For us, it made the most sense because we’ve partnered with OLG on the land-based business anyway, so this was kind of a logical extension for us to partner with them. We are early days in that partnership. But that’s another way that we’re going to try to grow the brand for our properties in Ontario.”
Keeling believes expanded casino will be a boon to horse racing
Once thought to be a threat to horse racing, both Keeling and Woodbine president commercial Michael Copeland have told PlayCanada that the expanded casino will be a positive for the sport. Keeling came to Great Canadian many years ago from the horse racing industry in British Columbia.
“You’re talking tens of thousands of people that will be coming to this site,” Keeling said, “whether it’s for a live race day, whether it’s to the gaming floor, a show in that 5,000-person venue, the hotel. Just the sheer mass of people as a potential audience for racing for gaming, for entertainment and just all those synergies that will inevitably, organically evolve, this will be very interesting and without precedent in Canada, if not North America.”
Copeland, who will become the CEO of Woodbine in October, said the horse racing industry stands to benefit from the new facility, particularly from exposure.
“It’s very important to us,” Copeland said. “It’s going to create more energy and more people. But even from an immediate business opportunity, Woodbine runs all food beverage service in the casinos, with the exception of a couple restaurants. So, that is an immediate boost to our business.
“The casino operators rent the land from Woodbine and that rental agreement is based on how well they do in terms of their gaming operations. So, we have shared goals for their success. And that’s another one of those variables, that it’s difficult to go through all the details of how that can impact what we’re able to do, but our belief and hope is that the investments we’re making now into that to help fuel that are really going to be able to pay back in multiples.”
This year’s King’s Plate could be momentous for horse racing
This year’s King’s Plate, set for Aug. 20, could be a banner day for Woodbine. Keeling said it is possible the new hotel could be open by that day. That means people could watch Canada’s biggest horse racing event from their hotel rooms.
“We would be interested in that, Woodbine would be interested in that,” Keeling said. “I think the dynamic of this property, particularly on a day like King’s Plate, let alone just a regular race day at Woodbine, I think that this is going to be materially different for that overall property for our operation on the gaming floor, for the racetrack, itself. And that true, integrated dynamic that we’ve all been talking about in the [horse racing] industry between gaming and racing, this will be probably our best shot at it in terms of trying to attempt that seamless integration for the consumer: going to the races, going to the gaming floor, a little bit of both, dining, a show, all of that.”
Also, Copeland said he is hopeful betting on horse racing through sportsbook apps will be available by then, as well.
Great Canadian Toronto has deep commitment to community benefits agreement
The Greater Toronto community of Rexdale, where Great Canadian Toronto is located, also stands to benefit from the expanded casino.
Keeling said the community benefits agreement it signed with the city has 21 provisions, including:
- Local and social hiring for both the construction project and operations.
- $5 million contribution to build a childcare centre in the neighbourhood.
- $5 million commitment to local artists to purchase art to adorn the property.
- Use of the entertainment venue for the community groups.
- Standards around responsible gambling largely led by OLG.
“Social hiring includes diversity targets,” Keeling said. “We’ve got we got to hit a target of 40% local and social hiring. So, 40% of the people we hire either have to live within a seven-kilometer radius of the property, or belong to a diverse or underrepresented group.”
Bricks-and-mortar casinos in a post-COVID world
The COVID-19 pandemic was a huge setback to both the construction of Great Canadian Toronto and the company’s entire business, Keeling said.
“Go back to those early days of COVID. We closed our casinos, and the overarching narrative was: You can’t touch money, you can’t touch anything, you can’t be around people, you can’t pick up cards. That was pretty scary,” Keeling said.
“But fast forward to when we were able to open in abbreviated circumstances, still accounting for social distancing, plexiglass, face coverings, expedited cleaning and emphasis on cleaning, to me it’s pretty amazing. Like many other jurisdictions, particularly in the US, the business came roaring back. There’s no question that there have been some systemic changes to how we operate and how consumers have changed their behaviour, but we’re pretty enthused by what we’re seeing.
“[Though] we’re not back to normal. We’re not back to what we were pre-COVID in terms of just consumer behaviour writ large.”
Still, Keeling said there are many positive trends for Great Canadian’s retail casino business. The opening of the Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto is the biggest among them.