New landscaping trends allow casino properties to be distinctive and memorable despite increasingly competitive markets

If casinos were ever just buildings with hotels attached and games inside, those days are long gone. From the frequent patron to the temporary tourist, customers are demanding more-and they're getting it.

"Casino designers and architects realized a long time ago that it takes more than four walls and slot machines to bring people in," said Gary Hanick, president of NatureMaker, a California based company specializing in the art of making realistic steel trees.

Landscaping-interior, exterior, hardscape materials and plant materials-has become a crucial part of the casino-resort experience.

"I think that everyone is starting to recognize the value that landscape has for the guests and how much they enjoy it," said Kathleen Eagle, landscape manager for the Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino near San Diego, Calif.

That line of thinking has led to a boom in landscaping business for those companies with casinos as clients.

Upping the ante

But why has landscaping become so much more essential in the last few years? It seems to be a matter of perspective.

"You know, I think it's becoming a trend because so many of the expansions in gaming across the country are happening on beautiful lands owned by tribes," said Rick Messura, assistant general manager of hospitality operations at Barona. "That's especially true with the Barona tribe because their valley is quite beautiful, and they've got a lot of pride in their reservation. They've encouraged us to keep a wonderful standard here with the landscape and the grounds."

Some see innovative properties leading the pack by defining a new aesthetic.

"I think (Wynn properties) have pretty much set the stage," said Teresa Ellison, director of horticulture at Wynn Las Vegas. "Prior to Mirage, there really was no such thing as landscaping on the (Las Vegas) Strip, interior or exterior...I've been working for this company for 16 years now, and I have seen such a boom in the way the hotels are being built and the focus that they have on the horticulture end of it, even to the cut flowers on the inside."

It may simply be a matter of evolving trends in structural design and differentiation from what's been done in the past.

"The thing about gardens is that they're usually in response to a particular style of architecture," said Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, president and chief financial officer for Lifescapes International, Inc., a California-based landscape design company. "It's always our responsibility, since we've worked in Vegas for so long, to keep these projects looking unique as much as we can."

So obviously-given the nature of the gaming industry and the direction of casino properties-landscaping means throwing a few plants outside, some flowers inside and then retreating to a back office to count the profits. Right?

Or maybe it means steel trees 50 feet high, solid walls of ivy, mountains that require gardeners to be trained in rappelling, lake gardens with live ducks and turtles, and guests so thoroughly inspired by what they experience that they resolve to copy the casino's style in their own homes.

Landscaping design has followed the bigger, better and grander construction goals of new or expanded properties, resulting in a variety of trends. Common to all, however, is the effort to be unique and memorable.

Distinguishing digs

At Barona, for example, management strives for impressive beauty that uses and enhances the natural surroundings. The golf course even has Audubon signature designation. "(Landscape Manager Kathleen Eagle) has worked very hard in her program to stay true to the spirit of the Audubon Society in that so much of her landscaping looks like it belongs here and occurred without any assistance from us," Messura said.

Messura added that the lake water garden in front of their property is even home to wildlife. "People are so surprised when they go through there and see just the incredible variety of koi we have," Messura said. "And at the same time they'll see a turtle swim out and sun itself, and most people just do not connect that to a casino experience."

While environmentally-inspired landscaping might make one property exceptional, others might strive for formal and strictly articulated design concept.

"We want to stand above any of the other properties in that our landscaping is very formal, clean, pristine," said Wynn Las Vegas' Ellison. "Our standards are very high, and everything is kept to the highest quality."

Landscaping can offer greater challenges, though, since climate and even microclimates limit the potential plant palettes. When sustainability and drought tolerance is an issue-as at Station Casino's new Red Rock Station Resort & Casino in Las Vegas-being distinctive involves a little more ingenuity.

"What's really interesting is that a lot of the materials we've used over the years here in Las Vegas are the same that we're going to be using out (at Red Rock)," Brinkerhoff-Jacobs said. "It's just the manner in which we're juxtaposing them with one another and against the interesting colors of the building, which are very earth-tone colors."

Brinkerhoff-Jacobs' said Lifescapes always aims for unique designs, and client demands contribute to that even with the limited Las Vegas plant palette. "It's not all that difficult because we tend to have clients that want very specific things," Brinkerhoff-Jacobs said. "But we have to use the same materials over and over again. We're kind of doing it with smoke and mirrors."

NatureMaker's Hanick has seen the casino properties' demand for distinction in the trend toward more exotic tree species, such as African baobobs. He's also facilitated the abstract design of otherwise natural-looking trees.

"What we're known for, of course, is very naturalistic trees," Hanick said. "But what's happening is now-to sort of keep it fresh, keep it different-it still has that feeling of naturalism, but the design might be just a little bit more, in general, abstract. Yet it would be immediately recognizable as a tree."

"Clads"-steel tree exteriors covering up structural columns-and trees hollowed out with walk-through space are also in demand, allowing guests to interact with their surroundings. "If you've got a 40-foot high column," Hanick said, "we can take that column and aesthetically and artistically disguise it and turn it into a wonderful indoor streetscape or icon trees in the center of the casino floor."

Giving guests more interactive opportunities makes the resort experience more memorable.

"You know, people can come out and have an experience, the action-packed gaming getaway," said Kelly Jacobs Speer, public relations consultant at Barona, "but at the same time they can go walk around these gorgeous grounds and learn about different plants, the natural habitat in the area."

Educational programs at Barona allow guests to take note and copy the elements they most admire. "We currently are offering a daily opportunity if guests want to talk to my staff," Eagle said.

Barona intends to further expand educational programs to encourage guest involvement. "We've actually got a couple tours scheduled for different groups who've contacted us after hearing about our program," said Messura, "and that was really gratifying to us that we didn't even have to advertise that...We hope to have a more structured, standardized tour program as we go into the summer months."

Home sweet casino

Landscaping doesn't just make a property feel more luxurious. Certain trends provide practical enhancements to the gaming resort experience as well.

At the Wynn Las Vegas, lakeside dining gets an extra measure of privacy and tranquility with landscaping that separates restaurant areas.

"You don't see other areas," said Ellison. "For instance, in our Italian garden you can't see that the steakhouse is right next door...You feel like you have your own little space, and you're in your own world."

Hanick has noticed that his steel trees offer a similar comfort factor indoors.

"You've created a wonderful canopy above that people will want to linger under, whether it's a restaurant or slot machines," said Hanick. A canopy brings the ceiling level down to more homey dimensions, and it also divides space. "It tends to draw (people) in...and I think also from a sound perspective, it tends to muffle the sound a bit. The places are just noisy-the noise is part of the experience, but this is a way to bring things down to a dull roar."

Landscaping is part of the mix-along with restaurants, stores, hotels, live performances-that creates a space encouraging visitors to linger ever longer. Interior and exterior designs add to that lingering factor by making people feel more relaxed and comfortable.

"I believe that we bring the people in," Ellison said. "The casino thinks that they bring the people in, and food and beverage think that they do it. But you know what? The property has to look beautiful, and I truly believe we are a big part of that."

Hanick suggested that patrons come to expect landscaping after experiencing it properly.

"It becomes part of the collective consciousness, I think," he said. "Nature and art-what could be more universal? It brings beauty, pleasure and enjoyment. And what could be a more universal desire than that?"