Originally scheduled to take place in New Orleans, the International Simulcasting Conference kicked off Monday afternoon in San Diego with discussions focusing on the future trends in gambling and the growing presence of Internet wagering.
Despite the relocation forced by Hurricane Katrina, attendance has remained above 300 for the annual event sponsored this year by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, Harness Tracks of America, American Quarter Horse Racing, and the American Greyhound Track Operators Associations.
In his welcome address, TRA executive vice president Chris Scherf posed questions that would set the theme for the three-day conference by pointing out the racing industry faces major competition from online wagering sites that are luring bettors away from the racetrack, but are not contributing financially to the sport.
"I don't think there is any question that less and less people are coming to the racetrack and more and more people are betting from home," Scherf said. "At a time when most racetracks derive more than 50 % of their pari-mutuel revenue from patrons who come to the track to wager on the imported simulcasting, this change in consumer habits poses some grave implications for our industry."
In his address on future trends in gambling, Eugene Christiansen, founder of the well-known gaming consulting firm Christiansen Capital Advisors, drew parallels between horseracing and poker and challenged industry leaders to follow the imagination and creativity found behind the explosion of television and online poker games in the past few years.
Christiansen cited producer Steve Lipscomb's innovation of the rail cam, which allowed television viewers to see players' cards, as the key factor in propelling poker forward and turning it into a $3-billion per year industry.
"Horseracing is still waiting for its Steve Lipscomb," Christiansen said.
He said the pari-mutuel industry needs an innovator and needs to embrace a new kind of business engine that involves Internet working with television, but most of all it needs to listen to its customers.
"Do not fear change," he said. "Do not try to hold back the march of technology. Listen to what consumers want."
Christiansen said online wagering companies like Betfair have been successful despite legal issues because they are answering customers' calls for lower prices.
"Loyalty should be with customers and not an aging business model," Christiansen said. "The customer is always right."
Tuesday afternoon panel discussions will focus further on online betting sites, or betting exchanges, and how racetracks can protect their product from online bookmakers.
The International Simulcasting Conference continues through Wednesday morning.