Tribal resorts look inward and turn to amenities and renovation to grow existing business and provide market differentiation

When the Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo, Mich., first opened its doors in 2007, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians-owned property’s primary claim to fame was its 130,000-square-foot casino-the largest and only land-based gaming facility within a 150-mile patch of Southwest Michigan, according to company literature at the time.

Fast forward five years, and the emphasis at Four Winds New Buffalo has definitely strayed from its formerly casino-centric approach. Indeed, the property is in the midst of a multi-phase expansion which seems to be extremely weighted toward the non-gaming end of the casino resort business. This past year has seen the opening of a 250-room hotel tower; the Silver Creek Event Center, which is a 1,500 seat, multi-use facility that hosts concerts, meetings, special events, conferences, and banquets; and, most recently, the Hard Rock Cafe Four Winds, a two-level restaurant/nightclub with seating for over 275 people and a performance stage.

 “Whether you enjoy quality, classic American food or love being surrounded by one-of-a-kind memorabilia from your favorite artist, the Hard Rock Cafe Four Winds will provide a restaurant and entertainment experience unparalleled in Southwest Michigan,” said Matt Harkness, general manager for Four Winds Casinos at the restaurant’s opening last July.

The key takeaway from Harkness’s statement is that Four Winds New Buffalo was looking to become the “unparalleled” entertainment venue of the region; a wish a growing number of tribal gaming properties fully understand, and likely equally desire. Not so long ago, tribal resort operators-much like their commercial brethren-could rely on the casino alone to generate year-over-year revenue growth, as a financially secure middle class motored to the nearest casino multiple times a month to spin the slots or wager at the tables. But the recession and seemingly glacial economic recovery combined with increased gaming competition has derailed the casino revenue train at a number of locations, leaving operators in something of a quandary-should they wait for the economy to rebound, which in turn will hopefully bring people back to the casinos, or should they be bold and add non-gaming amenities to attract more people and grow revenue organically?

Increasingly, gaming tribes are choosing the latter option, which is providing something of a challenge for the designers and architects that take these visions and business strategies and turn them into brick-and-mortar reality, often under tight timelines and budgets.

“In an increasingly competitive gaming environment, our clients in Indian gaming have needed to up the ante and provide non-gaming amenities, such as hotels, that are on-par with the commercial gaming industry in terms of quality and attention to the guest experience,” said Greg Hnedak, a partner with DreamCatcher Hotels, which recently completed the 401-room Seven Clans Hotel at Coushatta Casino Resort, Kinder, La. “Good design and quality products don’t have to be expensive. It’s all about doing more with less-and not sacrificing aesthetics or standards of quality as you do it.”

DreamCatcher handled all the design and development aspects of the Seven Clans Hotel, essentially turning over a finished product to the Coushatta tribe.


For many existing tribal gaming facilities looking to grow revenue internally, the addition of guest rooms is often the top item on the “to develop” list.

“We see adding a hotel or expanding your existing room count as one of the biggest trends in Indian Country,” Hnedak said. “Everyone has recognized the multiplier effect on a loyal customer when you give them an overnight stay. It’s your gift to your best players for their allegiance to your property.” 

According to architects, some of the other items on the design/development wish list for expansion-minded tribal casinos are:

• Entertainment elements-Hotel rooms may entice overnight stays and additional business for the resort, but amusements such as themed restaurants, nightclubs, arenas, theatres, water parks, etc., not only provide new revenue sources but can attract younger clientele and impart market distinction in otherwise competitive gaming regions.

• Repurposing space-In more economically sound times, a gaming resort could afford to have swaths of empty/unused space simply to improve sight lines and design aesthetics, or to have in reserve for special events and potential casino expansions. Now it’s essentially all areas of the facility have the ability to generate revenue, and these formerly empty spaces are being transformed into restaurants, retail, meeting areas and other businesses that have the potential to turn a profit.

• Renovation/redesign of existing assets-In increasingly competitive casino marketplaces with a lack of new development opportunities, it’s vital tribal resorts maintain brand integrity by refreshing facilities as often as possible.

“Operator reinvestment in existing design has been delayed because of the recent economic doldrums,” said John Culligan, principal, Cuningham Group Architecture, during a session on casino design at last month’s Global Gaming Expo. “As financing eases, operators big and small should rush to refresh their properties. Casinos need to maintain brand strength; it’s the best way to expand business in new and existing markets.”

• Commercial appeal with cultural respect-When it comes to actually creating design for new or expanding tribal resorts, architects are asked to walk a very fine line-to make the additions or renovations as appealing to as many people as possible while at the same time maintaining and respecting tribal motifs and cultural history.

“We want our guests to have a strong emotional connection to our property when they visit Four Winds,” said Matt Wesaw, chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. “The design [our architects] provided [was] the framework for that to occur, creating a unique sense of place with great attention to the details that are important to both our Tribe and our customer base. We are confident the one-of-a-kind music, entertainment, food and hotel offerings we’ve created with this expansion will keep our players coming back for more.”


The architects for the Four Winds Casino Resort New Buffalo expansion were Memphis, Tenn.-based Hnedak Bobo Group (HBG), who, along with contractors Christman and Kraus Anderson, were tasked by the tribe with meeting most of the above goals. 

“We worked closely with the Four Winds Casino operational leadership and the Pokagon Band stakeholders to design and construct an impressive building expansion program comprised of a high-quality hotel and the event center and a Hard Rock entertainment venue,” said Rick Gardner, AIA, principal/senior partner with HBG. “The synergy between these three amenities was intentional to draw popular international headline acts and brand recognition, create new market demand and appeal to the strong existing customer base.”

The tribe’s desire to expand its customer base was exemplified by its acceptance of Hard Rock and the willingness to let it be a major design element within the resort.

“The Hard Rock brand has significant ‘staying power’ and complements the property’s efforts to reach out to a larger and broader demographic,” said Nathan Peak, AIA, HBG senior associate/shareholder.

That said, Peak was also aware of the tribe’s desire to have the casino design reflect some of the icons of its cultural heritage, and the HBG team incorporated them wherever possible.

“The event center was named for a nearby creek culturally significant to Pokagon tribal life, the Silver Creek,” Peak said. “Special attention was given to creating unique details that reference a range of significant Tribal motifs and symbolism, displayed in custom-designed lighting fixtures and ceiling and wall ornamentation detail.”

Hnedak faced many of these same challenges working with the Coushatta tribe on the Seven Clans Hotel, exacerbated by the need for the project to be delivered on time and on budget.

“DreamCatcher provided top-to-bottom, turnkey services from architecture and construction, to the selection and installation of in-room products, furniture and fixtures,” Hnedak said. “The all-in project cost, including design, construction, FF&E and OS&E was $100,000 per key.  The project is the embodiment of our beliefs. At Coushatta, we successfully delivered the highest perceived value to the hotel guest and provided the lowest development cost per key to the owner.”

Conrad Granito, GM, Coushatta Casino Resort agrees. “DreamCatcher basically handed us a set of keys to a finished hotel,” he said. “The package includes all the best branded products in the industry at a price that we honestly couldn’t believe. DreamCatcher not only met their guaranteed price, but they exceeded our expectations with the finished product.”

The interior architecture at Indian Head derived from the tribal fishing platforms, including the ceiling design with a recessed center showcasing beautiful planked woods and decorative light fixtures.

SIDEBAR: The PENTA Building Group completes construction of Indian Head Casino

The PENTA Building Group recently announced the completion of the Indian Head Casino project in Warm Springs, Ore. PENTA partnered with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and WorthGroup Architects to develop the 40,000-square-foot casino, located off Highway 26 approximately 55 miles north of Bend.

The project features an 18,000 square-foot gaming area with eight blackjack tables and 500 slot machines, a restaurant with seating for 120 people, a snack bar and gift shop. The casino floor includes a light feature that spans the entire casino floor and can be programmed to look similar to a flowing river. The lobby materials include stone veneers, warm woods and tile flooring. The main casino facade is divided into three sections symbolizing the three tribes of the Warm Springs Confederacy. Each section contains a slightly different canopy supported by three angled steel elements positioned and adjacent to large-scale rippled blue walls of sculpted foam.

To pay tribute to the tribes’ culture, they chose to incorporate two significant landmarks into the casino’s design: Celilo Falls, a former tribal fishing area on the Columbia River and the Indian Head rock formation located on the reservation. This concept was carried throughout the design and construction of the entire project.

Indian Head Casino was recently awardedEngineering News-Record‘s (ENR) Northwest 2012 Best Project Award for Best Sports/Entertainment Project.