Feature
Gaming Meetings / October 04, 2017

Gaming destinations bet big beyond the casino

by Jeff Heilman

  • MOHEGAN SUN Arena

    MOHEGAN SUN Arena

    /Portals/0/images/Magazine/2017/1017/Gaming.jpg

    MOHEGAN SUN Arena | Photo by MOHEGAN SUN

    MOHEGAN SUN Arena
  • PECHANGA

    PECHANGA

    /Portals/0/images/Magazine/2017/1017/Gaming2.jpg

    PECHANGA

    PECHANGA
  • Central Conference Center Ballroom, Borgata, Atlantic City

    Central Conference Center Ballroom, Borgata, Atlantic City

    /Portals/0/images/Magazine/2017/1017/Gaming3.jpg

    Central Conference Center Ballroom, Borgata, Atlantic City | Photo by Borgata

    Central Conference Center Ballroom, Borgata, Atlantic City

With some 950 land-based and riverboat casinos in 40 states, tribal properties included, people can gamble virtually anywhere in the U.S. That’s not counting racetrack casinos, card rooms and electronic gaming, all contributing to America’s $240 billion gambling market. 

All things being relatively equal in the world of slot and table games, how are U.S. gaming destinations, brands and properties creating an identity apart at the local, regional and, for some, national level?

The established frontline strategy, of course, is non-gaming product diversification. As the following major U.S. operators reveal, however, there are other paths to distinction and uniqueness.  

Entertainment, Experience, Execution

Caesars Entertainment’s coast-to-coast portfolio includes Vegas icon Caesars Palace, and Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center and Hotel in Atlantic City, the largest meetings complex between Baltimore and Boston. Yet, “Bricks and mortar are not the feature that helps people execute memorable meetings,” noted Michael Massari, the company’s chief sales officer. 

“We also have top dining with celebrity chefs and amazing villas, and are the country’s third-largest entertainment provider behind AEG and Live Nation,” he said. “But those features are the standard for competing in today’s meetings industry. Everyone makes that same claim and our customers honestly expect those things. What differentiates Caesars Entertainment are the ways we help customers execute meetings and events.” 

For Massari, that means when planning and executing a conference, what’s most important is to understand what the company is looking to achieve, determine how to achieve it, and make it happen.

Organizational structure is one key component. 

“A few years ago, we moved all our sales people into big markets, where meeting planners live,” Massari said. “By doing that, we are able to provide our clients with face-to-face meetings that help develop better relationships and enhance our understanding of planner needs and objectives. Our sales people are decision-makers, and with the power to check availability, book hotel rooms, venues and negotiate contracts, they can make quicker decisions.”

 Another differentiator is the Diamond Card, which Caesars provides to meeting planners and their VIPs for preferred treatment at all Caesars properties. 

“Diamond Card holders are high rollers, the most important customer, and for us, planners are our most important customer,” Massari said.

 Caesars stands proudly on the pillar of great service. 

“We receive surveys from more than 75 percent of our planners,” Massari added. “Eighty percent give us a top-box rating. That’s important to us.”

 Delivering on this promise across its multibrand U.S. portfolio, Caesars is setting one high mark for the industry.

Also resetting the bar is MGM Resorts International, where a singular focus on converging entertainment with every aspect of its offering, meetings included, is creating a dynamic new business-pleasure template—and competitive separation—for the future. 

“We want people to understand that we are an entertainment company first,” said Michael Dominguez, chief sales officer for MGM Resorts International. “It starts with our manifest belief that all human beings were born to be entertained. And with non-gaming now generating 75 percent of our revenue, the shift is definitely on.”

Behind multimillion-dollar investments like the T-Mobile Arena, Park Theater and Park MGM, the luxe reimagining of the Monte Carlo, MGM is emphasizing the entertainment lifestyle across its Vegas stronghold. 

Introduced last month at the MGM Grand, Level Up, housed in a 2,000-square-foot arena, is the first free-roam virtual reality gaming experience in Vegas. Innovation comes into play at Park MGM’s Ideation Lab. Geared for groups of six to 25, seven labs, each with multiple integrated displays and furniture that encourage movement and conversation, are purposed for maximum engagement, collaboration and productivity.   

In MGM’s case, what happens in Vegas does not just stay in Vegas.  

“After making the 5,200-capacity Park Theater the entertainment centerpiece of Park MGM in Vegas, we did the same with the 3,000-seat Theater at MGM National Harbor in Maryland,” Dominguez said. “And when contracting star talent, the consideration includes performing across our portfolio. With Springfield, Massachusetts, next, our expansion into the casino-heavy East Coast market intentionally focuses on creating destination venues driven by top-line shows, chefs and other entertainment.” 

The equation includes flowing end-to-end experiences, infused with emotion, positive vibes and lasting memories.

“Ten years ago, it was about the total experience,” Dominguez continued. “Today, it’s about each step of the experience. What Vegas does especially well is program ‘micro-locations.’ Whether with music, visuals, or a scent, every piece of the building offers its own setting and context. And it must be uninterrupted. Think about going from a general session energized by music and a light show into a break area with no music. Why is that location less important? Referencing Vegas again, that is where we can continue to learn and grow.”

Sustained growing demand means more competitive operating space in Vegas than in other destinations, allowing players like Station Casinos to own and fortify market share.

Founded in 1976 as “a different kind of casino,” the family-run enterprise maintains distinction as an off-Strip leader.

“Station Casinos proudly caters to smaller meetings and conventions, offering a more intimate and value-oriented experience throughout our family of off-Strip casino-hotels,” said Lori Nelson, vice president, corporate communications, for the company. “With our historic local roots, we appeal to the more discriminating convention visitor, one that has ‘been there, done that’ and seeks Vegas excitement and a true resort experience without the crowds and intensity.” 

Noting Station’s Green Valley Ranch Resort and Red Rock Resort properties as examples, Nelson added that, “our two hotel-casinos located closest to the Strip, Palace Station and The Palms, are currently undergoing hundreds of millions of dollars of significant reinvestment to bring new offerings and updated designs.”

Long maintaining its own off-Strip pole position as a perennial association favorite, 2,080-room South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa takes care of business with 155,000-plus square feet of conference and exhibition space, and a 4,000-seat Equestrian Center. For entertainment, delegates have the 400-seat showroom, 16-screen multiplex cinema, 64-lane bowling alley and 600-seat bingo parlor. 

Easterly Wins

The stakes are up on the East Coast, as major players reshuffle the competitive deck. 

MGM’s presence includes Atlantic City market leader Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa; Maryland’s top-earning casino MGM National Harbor; and slated for 2018, the $950 million MGM Springfield. 

Scheduled for 2019, the 671-room Wynn Boston Harbor becomes America’s first five-star urban gaming resort, while March 2018 sees the expected debut of the long-anticipated $1.4 billion Resorts World Catskills, featuring a uniquely windowed casino and 27,000-square-foot event center.

With newfound stability in its casino market, Atlantic City, the nation’s second-largest gaming destination, continues to prioritize groups in its investment and diversification strategy. 

“Over the past three years, we have seen growth in virtually every meeting segment, with significant gains coming from the corporate, association and sports markets,” said Meet AC President and CEO Jim Wood. “Major convention space investments by our casino-resorts are beginning to pay huge dividends, as the meetings market is rediscovering Atlantic City, along with its dining, entertainment and world-class Boardwalk and beach.”

Complementing Caesars’ $126 million Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center, other standout commitments encompass Tropicana Atlantic City’s $90 million in enhancements over the past two years. These include all 1,000-plus North and Havana Tower rooms, and Havana’s 21 meeting rooms. Other enhancements include refurbishments to the 20,000-square-foot Grand Exhibition Center and 17,800-square-foot Ballroom; three new restaurants from Philadelphia celebrity chef Jose Garces; and this fall’s planned South Tower update.

“Keeping the property fresh directly increased group business,” said Jim Ziereis, Tropicana’s assistant vice president for hotel sales.  

Same story at Resorts Casino Hotel, behind its new high-tech conference center and refresh of all 450 Ocean Towers rooms. 

Unveiling its new $11 million, 18,000-square-foot Central Conference Center this May, Borgata now offers three venues (with sibling Water Club), with 106,000-plus square feet of combined versatile space. Other additions include celebrity chef Michael Symon’s Angeline.

“As a top New Jersey destination for meetings and conventions, we continue to reinvest in our property to offer a premium experience and evolve with our guests’ needs,” said Liza Costandino, Borgata’s director of communications.    

While the city gears up for the Steel Pier’s new $14 million, 250-foot-tall Observation Wheel, anticipation is amped for next summer’s anticipated reveal of Hard Rock International’s $400 million transformation of Trump Taj Mahal.  

 In neighboring Pennsylvania, where group coordinates include Sands Bethlehem Resorts Casino (see “Forged in Steel” sidebar), Valley Forge Resort Casino, with 479 rooms (Radisson Hotel included), commands the Philadelphia casino scene.

“Our unique positioning starts with 100,000 square feet of flexible space, including five ballrooms,” explained Lani Baird, executive director of sales for the company. “With today’s groups seeking an experience, our strengths extend to the casino, live entertainment, six dining options and four nightlife experiences. And we offer 150-plus newly renovated rooms in the Casino Tower.”

The East Coast also stands tall in the tribal gaming market, which hit an all-time high of $31.2 billion in gross gaming revenue for fiscal 2016. Regional leaders include Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y., east of Syracuse. Casino Player’s “best overall gaming resort” in New York State this year and last, including 2017 wins for Best Hotel, Golf Course and Poker Tournament, the 707-room Oneida Nation-owned resort, 25 next year, draws corporate, incentive and other groups with its 48,000-square-foot convention center, 5,000-seat arena; 20-plus dining concepts; and entertainment galore.   

Connecticut’s two casino-resorts, both tribal-owned, are national giants.

Opened by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in 1992, Foxwoods was the full-service casino built on tribal land. Today, North America’s largest resort-casino, featuring the nation’s second-largest gaming floor, offers 2,230 luxurious rooms and suites in four hotels, 150,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, and an all-inclusive amenity set that only keeps getting more exciting. 

Highlights include the new PLAY Arena @ Foxwoods, New England’s first and only arena-style gaming environment, with over 30 stations offering fast-paced, multisensory fun. Also adrenalizing the agenda are the Foxwoods Thrill Tower, featuring two extreme free-fall rides, and the 330-foot-tall, 60mph Highflyer Zipline experience.

“This is just the beginning of a much bigger strategic expansion that will offer meetings and conventions guests exclusive and unforgettable experiences in one place,” said Felix Rappaport, president and CEO of Foxwoods Resort Casino. “As we continue to evolve in the destination industry, these new amenities will completely redefine what it means to evolve as a resort. We are constantly asking ourselves how else we can bring satisfying, exhilarating moments to all of our guests and we can’t wait to reveal what is next.” 

With 1,563 rooms in two luxury towers, Mohegan Sun (also see “Spirit of the Aquai” sidebar) is gearing up for its own big reveal. Presently offering 100,000-plus square feet of flexible, high-tech space at its convention center, plus 30,000 square feet of exhibition space at the adjacent 10,000-seat arena, the property is adding the $80 million Mohegan Sun Exposition Center. Aiming for summer 2018, the 132,000-square-foot facility will become the largest expo space along the New York-Boston I-95 corridor.

Regional Riches

Iowa made U.S. gaming history in 1991 by launching the nation’s first riverboat casinos. Hawkeye gaming has since moved ashore, with just three of its 19 commercial casinos on the water today. With meetings-capable standouts such as the riverside 504-room Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf, the industry attracts more than 22 million visitors annually, generating more than $1 billion in economic impact. 

“Most having evolved as land-based facilities, our casinos stay competitive with significant ongoing investments and upgrades,” said Wes Ehrecke, president and CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association. “Recognizing that today’s customer wants a great experience beyond just gambling, our properties are among Iowa’s premier entertainment destinations, offering spacious rooms, fine dining, exceptional conference and concert space, and amenities ranging from golf to water parks. Each casino’s strength is in accommodating the varying needs of meeting groups.”

With three tribal casinos, Iowa sits amid several leading tribal casino states, including top-ranked Oklahoma and third-ranked Minnesota. Three states away in sixth-ranked Michigan, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi-owned Firekeepers Hotel Casino is a 243-room AAA Four Diamond property with 20,700 square feet of flexible space and a 2,000-seat event center available for meetings.

In California, second behind Oklahoma in tribal casinos, standouts include Pechanga Resort and Casino. Owned by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, the state’s largest casino-resort, located 90 miles from Los Angeles and 60 miles from San Diego, is investing $285 million to stay ahead. 

Slated for completion this December, additions include a 568-room hotel wing; 70,000 square feet of convention space; a 23,000-square-foot, two-story spa; and two restaurants. By March 2018, a 4.5-acre lagoon-style pool complex with a rooftop garden and private event lawn will also open. The new 1,090-room Pechanga will offer 275,000-plus square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor space, 13 restaurants and nine pools.  

“Our expansion is built around attracting meeting and convention groups,” said Scott Wilson, sales director for the AAA Four Diamond property. “Truly setting us apart is how the indoor space flows into the mountain-backed pool complex, along with nods to Pechanga culture in the architecture, decor and native plants. Our new amenities will make Pechanga even more appealing for all group types.”

Value, flexibility and convenience make the Chumash Casino Resort, owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, a distinctive option in Santa Barbara, Calif.’s wine country. 

“Our exclusive one-stop shop experience combines banqueting, entertainment, gaming and hotel rooms,” said Jennifer Graham, the resort’s hospitality sales manager. “Everything is on-property, including venues unique to the area, such as our 800-capacity Samala Showroom and its state-of-the-art sound system.”  

Calling loud and clear in the Pacific Northwest is the AAA Four Diamond Tulalip Resort Casino. Some 40 miles north of Seattle in Washington state’s Snohomish County, the Tulalip Tribes-owned property recently completed a $15 million renovation, including redesigning all 360 guest rooms. Unique event venues include the Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve.  


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