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Native American Gaming Resorts Go Beyond Casinos

The origins of today’s $30 billion per year Native American casinos and resorts began with a married Chippewa couple in northern Minnesota refusing to pay an unjust property tax bill and a single bingo hall in 1970s Seminole Tribal territory of Florida.

These two scenarios led to one of the most remarkable Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history: California v. Cabazon Band, which was argued before the Supreme Court in 1987 and delivered a landmark opinion in a 6-3 decision.

By 1988, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was born, and tribes across the nation were allowed to develop gaming activities in accordance with federal law.

Fast forward 30 years and there’s no doubt about it: Native American gaming resorts have come a very long way, so much so that they are now on par with their high-end counterparts in major gaming destinations like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, as well as top-tier resort destinations overall.

Having moved beyond the reputation of being gaming-only properties, many of these resorts not only offer unique group venues and experiences, they tout high AAA Diamond ratings and Forbes Travel Guide Star ratings—and continue to strive for ongoing stellar status.

The following resorts are just a few Native American gaming properties in the West that are significantly expanding, upgrading and augmenting to offer outstanding experiences for both leisure travelers and meeting attendees.

Pechanga Resort & Casino, Temecula, Calif.

Set in San Diego County’s Temecula Valley, home of the Luiseno Tribe, Pechanga Resort & Casino was already a longtime AAA Four Diamond property, but it just got even better.

In March 2018, Pechanga became the newest, largest casino resort on the West Coast when it unveiled its impressive $300 million expansion with a star-studded grand opening featuring a concert by Steven Tyler. The expansion includes a new AAA Four Diamond hotel wing with 568 rooms and suites, a stand-alone two-story spa with 17 treatment rooms, a fitness center and hydrotherapy pool terrace, a 4.5-acre pool complex, two new restaurants and an additional 70,000 square feet of function space.

The resort can now host events of up to 3,000 people.

“The sheer size of meeting and event space truly sets Pechanga Resort & Casino apart,” said Scott Wilson, director of sales and marketing at the property. “The fact that we now have 275,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space allows us to offer groups a vast variety of options.”

Apart from its square footage of meeting space, Wilson said there are very few venues that offer the amount of activities and amenities Pechanga does, pointing to its 20 bars and restaurants, new resort-style pool complex, rooftop nightclub, comedy club, concert series, Broadway plays, championship golf course, upscale spa, yoga and other wellness activities, and vast gaming options, not to mention off-property excursions.

“We’re seeing groups utilize the local partnerships Pechanga works so hard to build,” he said. “It allows groups to fully experience what Temecula is all about through options such as horseback riding, wine tours and tastings, and hot-air ballooning.”

Meanwhile, Edith Atwood, president of the Pechanga Development Corporation, said Pechanga is unique in its combination of indoor and outdoor offerings and how it blends them together.

“The indoor space flows into beautiful mountain views of Temecula’s rolling hills, with a poolside event lawn right outside of The Cove and equipped with fire pits, as well as a fourth-floor green roof for private events,” she said. “When The Cove closes its pool hours for the day, it makes for a beautiful oasis-style reception area.”

The cultural appeal of the property also makes it a standout, according to Atwood.

“We’ve designed the buildings and art in a way that there are nods to our Native American culture,” she said. “You’ll find inspiration in the clay pottery artifacts, geometric Luiseno basket designs, Great Oak Tree art, river decor and outdoor elements used in the spa.

“The architecture and design throughout the property was all created with a purpose to showcase who our tribe is, though we’ve done it subtly and elegantly. We’re proud of how far we have come.”

Pala Casino Spa & Resort, Pala, Calif.

Just to the north of San Diego is another AAA Four Diamond sparkler, Pala Casino Spa & Resort, where groups will find a balanced blend of business and pleasure, with 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting areas and plenty of activities and entertainment.

The architectural design of Pala allows groups to enjoy the excitement of the casino via one entrance or the solitude of the picturesque Palomar Mountain Range from another.

“Pala Casino has long been the destination property for those looking for a great resort, excellent food and the additional benefits of evening entertainment with live music and casino excitement,” said Bill Bembenek, Pala’s CEO. “Fun when you want it, serenity when you need it, and all business.

“It’s the best of all worlds,” he added.

In 2017, the Pala Band of Mission Indians Chairman Robert Smith drove a groundbreaking excavator through a brick kiosk to announce the resort’s $170 million expansion.

More recently, Pala announced the opening of its expansive new pool area to complement its place in the Southern California sun, replete with waterfalls, fireplaces and an outdoor restaurant.

The opening of the expansion will be highlighted by the performance of the Red Rocker, Sammy Hagar, as part of Pala’s Starlight Theater Summer Concert Series.

But rockers are not the only stars at Pala. Traditional bird singers and dancers can be seen and heard frequently at the resort, and groups can experience this as they honor the heritage of the tribe.

Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, Cabazon, Calif.

On the way to Palm Springs, Calif., is one of the West’s most prestigious gaming properties.

Morongo Casino Resort & Spa established itself as a group destination decades ago and has recently taken it to a new level. Ranked by Yahoo Travel as California’s No. 1 casino resort, Morongo’s group programming is on par with any resort in the country.

The 12,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom is equipped for leadership dinners led by the likes of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Morongo regularly hosts industry groups in the corporate, military, trade and educational arenas.

For smaller gatherings, try The Drum Room, Morongo’s most recent addition on the 26th level, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the San Jacinto mountains. Adorned with beautiful drum motifs, this special room with a view can host talks by dignitaries or your favorite COO.

Ease, variety and Morongo’s singular focus on exceeding expectations are what planners and attendees enjoy most about Morongo, according to Simon Farmer, the property’s executive director of marketing.

“Morongo’s attentive and professional staff makes sure all of the details for special events and meetings are handled efficiently, making the experience seamless and worry-free,” he said.

Twenty-five years of experience places Morongo in an elite class for groups.

Throw in some Southern California sun at the Oasis Pool Complex, equipped with a sandy beach, and you’ll be able to soak it all in knowing your group is in good hands.

Tulalip Resort Casino, Tulalip, Wash.

With ample room for work and play, Tulalip Resort Casino has 192,000 square feet of gaming and entertainment space and 30,000 square feet of premium, recently renovated meeting space.

The property also features 370 recently renovated rooms, outdoor campfires and a group program as diverse as carpool karaoke and the Festival of Trees experiences.

“We work diligently to continue to be the number one location of choice in the Pacific Northwest by continuously improving our property and offerings,” said Tracy Banfield, director of sales and hotel operations at Tulalip.

“The feedback we receive the most from our customers is their experience of impeccable service at a premier destination with luxurious accommodations, award-winning dining, a rejuvenating spa and casino excitement all in one location,” she added.

Plans for 2018 include the addition of its eighth dining venue, Tula Bene, with locally sourced, Italian and steakhouse fare.

Casino del Sol, Tucson, Ariz.

The ancient Pascua Yacqui Tribe lived in the Sonoran desert amid the striking Tucson and Santa Catalina Mountains, and this ancient lineage is at the heart of Casino Del Sol, Arizona’s only Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star and AAA Four Diamond casino resort.

For meeting planners, the resort offers impressive features like the 19,000-square-foot grand ballroom, which accommodates up to 1,800 guests. In all, Casino del Sol boasts 100,00 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space adorned in the Pascua Yacqui Tribe’s cultural art and expressions.

Proximity is one of the major selling points of Casino Del Sol, which is just a 20-minute drive from Tucson International Airport—closer than the majority of most tribal resorts, according to Jacquiline Stillwell, director of sales and marketing at the property.

Notable and outstanding aspects include the onsite Hiapsi Spa and Sewailo Golf Club, which was designed by famed Native American golf pro Natoh Begay III.

Combine all this with the decidedly Southwestern-inspired, locally sourced cuisine by Executive Chef Ryan Clark and Chef Roderick Le Desma of PY Steakhouse, a four-time winner of the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Award, and groups have a world-class casino resort at their doorstep.

“Casino del Sol Resort also has a state-of-the art amphitheater that plays host to major entertainment acts almost year around,” Stilwell said.

“With seven dynamic bar-restaurant themed options, we offer dining and entertainment diversity and the ability to stay put and focus on the content of their event or meeting,” she added.

Coeur d’Alene Casino & Resort, Worley, Idaho

The art of storytelling is a generational tradition at Coeur d’Alene Casino & Resort, which was founded by proud tribal members 25 years ago in order to provide for its community.

Today, storytelling is part of the resort’s unique group programming.

Attendees are paired with tribal experts who guide them in curating their own rich storytelling experience within their corporate group. There are authentic teepees and drumming circles with dancing followed by a traditional feast of pit-baked elk stew in the tribe’s tradition.

Coeur d’Alene Casino & Resort has welcomed everything from corporate groups to eclectic gatherings such as a 1,000-strong tattoo convention.

The property’s Events Center can handle 1,600 delegates, and there are sweeping meadows where wildlife is as welcome as outdoor gamers.

Coeur d’Alene offers an array of other group offerings that would be expected at any destination resort, such as championship performance classes at its Circling Raven Golf Course, entertainment venues and delicious cuisine and catering.

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About the author
Todd Raymond