Building for the Future
The Potawatomi Bingo Casino, owned and operated by the 1,500-member Forest County Potawatomi tribe, has been the premier gaming option for the Milwaukee metropolitan area since opening in 1991. During that time span, the facility has grown from a large bingo hall to a state-of-the-art casino, with 3,100 gaming machines, 20 poker tables, nearly 100 table games and a 1,350-seat bingo hall. Next up for the property is a $150 million, 381-room hotel, which broke ground last year and is scheduled to open in the summer of 2014. Casino Journal’s executive editor Charles Anderer recently met with Mike Goodrich, general manager of Potawatomi Bingo Casino since 2002, to discuss the keys to the enduring success of the facility and its future outlook.
The addition of a hotel here makes a lot of business sense for the casino, but it also appears to enjoy a high degree of support from the local business community. Can you talk about that?
Goodrich: Potawatomi Bingo has always been a very popular destination for Milwaukee and the region as well. The tribe has always been careful to look at the overall economic environment and the impact that we will have on it. Independent studies show that about 90 percent of the overnight stays at our hotel will be net new overnight stays to Milwaukee. We have been a really good corporate citizen and delivered on all the promises that we have made to the city, the county and the state. We are major sponsors for the Brewers, the Bucks and the Wisconsin State Fair. We have two outlets for our charitable donations, one of which comes from the casino itself, which is the Miracle on Canal Street. Every year we have given around $1 million, sometimes a little more or a little less depending on our ability, specifically for children’s charities in southeast Wisconsin. The tribe also has its foundation which targets poverty and the struggle to become self-sufficient.
What has been the casino’s impact on the tribe and, perhaps just as important, the tribe’s impact on the casino?
Goodrich: The real purpose of this casino is to benefit the tribe. I really stress that point to people who come in here and work with us. Because we are a small number of people, our employees become really familiar with the tribe; they will see the chairman walking around, other council members and ordinary tribal citizens. In addition to providing annual revenue allocations for tribal members, the casino has built health care facilities and provided housing as well as infrastructure for Forest County. It really has been a very nice story; we were once the smallest and poorest tribe in the state of Wisconsin. To see what we have been able to generate in the way of benefits is a great story.
When I came down here, my Mom told me to remember where I come from and to remain humble. It’s a fantastic job, a fantastic facility; we’ve got 2,600 people working here, great relationships within the community. When I go home, I’m just Mike; people don’t call me the general manager or “sir” like they do here, so it’s a nice mix. Our tribal people still feel the need to serve the community and make sure they do the right thing. It’s something we talk about when it comes to our organizational values. Our training programs here really stress the importance of treating people with respect, and to understand that our gamers are coming here to have fun, relax and enjoy themselves.
How did business hold up during the recession? It would seem rather well, since you’re coming out of it with a new hotel.
Goodrich: We have over 6 million visitors a year here and it just continues to grow. We still see increased demand from the market.
The last four years with the economy, we did what everyone else did; you see it coming, but you wait for the data that confirmed we were in a recession. As soon as that came, it had an impact on everyone. We had a lot more meetings, not just as managers but with the front-line team members, because people were losing their jobs elsewhere in the economy and, every month, rumors would start that it was going to happen here. So every month I got in front of my team members and told them we were doing what we should do. We cut back on certain expenses but kept our staff. Our visitor head counts never really wavered. People still wanted the experience here; they just were bringing less money.
Goodrich: It’s going to change things; we’re a locals casino, but with the hotel, we’re looking at marketing to a radius of 150 miles. Our focus will be primarily on gamers; we’re not building a 1,500-room hotel to accommodate the whole market. It will be a 3.5- to 4-star hotel with an average nightly room rate of around $180. We’ll have room service, expanded dining options, catered events, expanded meeting space, but it won’t be a full-blown destination resort. We’re focused on gamers which is what we have always hung our hat on.
That should work well for you; there aren’t fully built-out casino hotels in neighboring jurisdictions, at least in your target area.
Goodrich: We really looked at what our customers were telling us. They’ve been saying they’d really like to come and stay with us. We have relationships with the downtown hotels, but we know people would rather just jump in the elevator and come downstairs to the casino than put on their overcoat, their hat and gloves and wait for the shuttle.
How about staffing?
Goodrich: We’ll probably add around 250 full-time positions. We’re looking at that right now. We won’t need a whole new facilities department or security department. We’ll need to expand on our service commitment. Whenever I talk to our employees directly and they ask me how it’s going, I tell them they will have to go through another round of service training because of the hotel. I tell them right now they are providing service to their neighbors, because we are a locals casino. With the hotel, you’re going to have people coming from different parts of the country, different parts of the region; this may be their only introduction to Milwaukee, so you have to represent the city here as well. I think our staff is going to be able to adapt to that very well; they have already grown accustomed to representing the Potawatomi and responding to any questions people might have about a tribal casino.
Mike Goodrich is general manager of Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Potawatomi Bingo Casino, one of two casinos owned and operated by the Forest County Potawatomi Community. The casino is a showcase for high-stakes bingo, offering some of the nation’s highest daily payouts. A popular attraction for local guests, tourists and tour groups, the casino features blackjack, craps, poker, and roulette table games, video and reel slot machines, and a variety of live entertainment.