Casino designers are rethinking interior and exterior space to better fit the modern gaming experience

Cantor Gaming’s Race and Sports Book at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas

For as much as trends in casino architecture have changed over the years, from lurid Virginia Street neon to the storybook kitsch of the Las Vegas Strip to the garish, the fancifully exotic or more sleekly self-contained structures aimed at today’s cult of aspiration, the objective of the business that transpires inside in the building-to capture and hold as much of the customers’ time and money as possible-never varies.

Therefore, neither does the fundamental narrative which the physical space must convey: that these are unique places where exciting and unexpected things happen in the instant it takes to turn a card or set a reel to spinning, that herein lie adventure, fortune, romance, or at the very least, escape. It’s design as melodrama, and not surprisingly over the years it has spawned some of the most boldly theatrical examples that exist of how space and form is employed, not just to establish fantasy, but to sustain and magnify it across a variety of diverse, and in some cases, divergent, profit centers. It’s what the people behind these iconic structures think and talk about all the time as they set about carrying the narrative forward to confront the new demands of a new century.

“As customers become more able to play their games at home, the experience of being at the casino has to be enhanced to provide a better, comfortable, exciting and memorable experience,” said Barry Thalden of Las Vegas-based Thalden Boyd Emery Architects.

Drawing from experience in markets stretching from Palm Springs, Calif., to Swift Current, Saskatchewan-the firm’s portfolio includes Southern California’s Morongo Casino Resort and Spa and Commerce Casino and Crowne Plaza Hotel, The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, Boomtown Casino in New Orleans and Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Bingo and Resort-Thalden has definite ideas about what the future holds.

“Sound, light, seating and décor are now more important than the games. The successful casinos will be the ones that provide a unique experience for gaming that people can’t get at home or anywhere else.”

"Monotonous slot rows and uncomfortable playing experience will be replaced by something much more interesting and play-inducing. Casino floors will be broken up into much smaller areas in order to give our customers unique experiences."
- Barry Thalden, Thalden Boyd Emery Architects

Paul Steelman, another legend in the field, stresses the importance of learning from history, particularly when it comes to avoiding the problem of “gambler fatigue”-where the casino portion of the property is so dominant it becomes exclusively a gambling experience rather than an entertainment experience.

“Many of the casinos being developed now, even in special regions like Maine in a limited license environment, are experiencing it,” he said. It’s what happened to Atlantic City, he adds, and it’s occurring in Macau to a degree.

“But it’s creating opportunities for new uses in new ways,” he said, pointing to the trail Cantor Gaming is blazing with race and sports books designed around high-tech mobile and tablet-gambling applications. “I definitely feel this is a spot in the gaming architecture that will bring change that is truly unique,” he said. “This is not your sea of illuminated boxes but a comfortable and configurable space that can change daily.”

The Venetian Las Vegas is a classic example of designing a casino space to surprise and excite the customer.


Las Vegas-based Steelman Partners designed the Cantor Gaming Race and Sports Book that opened just this year at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas as an area that is “meant to interact,” a kind of “club/casino/sports book,” as Steelman describes it, the basic design one of simplicity carried through in dynamic, curving shapes, with red (he called it the color of “dynamism” and “commerce”) the dominant hue.

“It is primarily designed as a sports book, but a very media-active sports book. It’s a new way to gamble, a new way to have fun, and a new way to socialize. It is a tremendous space.”

Thalden envisions gaming areas “feeling more like a Starbucks than a casino.”

“Monotonous slot rows and uncomfortable playing experience will be replaced by something much more interesting and play-inducing,” Thalden explained. “Casino floors will be broken up into much smaller areas in order to give our customers unique experiences. Games will be personalized for each customer relating to their habits and preferences.”

I definitely feel [Cantor Gaming’s high-tech sports book design] is a spot in the gaming architecture that will bring change that is truly unique. This is not your sea of illuminated boxes but a comfortable and configurable space that can change daily.
-Paul Steelman, Steelman Partners

Segmentation will be a natural outgrowth as operators respond to generational change, said Bradley Schulz, vice president of Las Vegas-based Bergman Walls & Associates and principal-in-charge of the firm’s major hospitality projects.

“You may see it broken down into separate, smaller areas-300 or 400 machines as opposed to 2,000,” he said. “You’re going to see that flexibility built into the casino design of the future. The older crowd will have the experience they’re comfortable with. The younger generation sees it differently. Socializing is more important. Making wagers on a phone, say, is more enjoyable than the solitary use of a slot machine as we see it now. Table games, on the other hand, provide an existing atmosphere that can’t be replicated electronically. And I don’t see that changing. People still want that live action. The slot machine is becoming more like a video game, more of an entertainment device than a gambling device. With the traditional circular casino design, generally, you have the pit in the middle surrounded by slot machines. You’ll still have the pit. But what goes around it will change. Sitting in front of a machine may not be necessary anymore.”

From a design standpoint, these smaller spaces-“parlors,” Schulz called them-will have to be incorporated in the architectural plan from the beginning, as will the ability to accommodate wagering in non-traditional areas like bars, lounges and restaurants.

In modern resort design, bars, such as the one pictured here at Resorts World New York City, and other social venues play as important a role as slots and table areas.

At the new Resorts World New York mega-racino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y., they’re already moving in that direction and have much of the technological infrastructure installed, including power centers and raceways under the floor, to support mobile and virtual gambling. Spaces have been designed with multiple seating for multiple screens. These will be grouped in ways that are comfortable and “much more lounge-like,” said Scott Celella, chief operating officer of JCJ Architecture, which designed the racino.

“We think Resorts World is coming close to the best example we have of where design is heading,” said Celella, whose firm also designed the Seneca Niagara and Allegheny casinos in western New York, Pennsylvania’s Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, Wheeling Island Hotel Casino Racetrack in West Virginia and an array of regional and resort-scale tribal casinos in the Midwest and West.

“Everyone has an iPad or an iPhone,” he noted, “so they’re used to getting a very personalized experience. The question is, how does that translate into a casino experience? What it’s about now is combining those amenities with the casino floor.”

It’s a question being asked throughout the field. “Our firm has focused its attention on the casino floor,” said Thalden. “We are working to bridge the gap between casino design and performance.”

A phrase JCJ likes is “sensitivity to differentiation,” which the firm identifies as a trend that will be guiding the future of casino design. “It goes back to the ability to cater to specific customer experiences and expectations,” said Joe Baruffaldi, studio director at the firm’s San Diego office. “This may be a more ‘masculine’ space using darker colors and located near the table games or a space with a different color palette, maybe something softer, to appeal more to a female clientele. If you’re going to make the gaming experience more personal you need to make the space more personal.”

"With the traditional circular casino design, generally, you have the pit in the middle surrounded by slot machines. You’ll still have the pit. But what goes around it will change. Sitting in front of a machine may not be necessary anymore."
-Bradley Schulz, Bergman Walls & Associates


The start of the new century saw the publication of Bill Friedman’sDesigning Casinos to Dominate the Competition(University of Nevada, 2001), an influential work that preached the value of a lot of what today’s architects are talking about in terms of the gaming floor re-imagined as something quite different from the vast, open, contiguous fields of machines found in so many casinos today. Indeed, instead of “slot barns,” as Friedman derided them, modern casino design emphasizes many “floors” in one, an amalgam of discrete spaces, each with a character of its own and designed to deliver a more intimate and personalized experience, something perhaps akin to the “multitude of small, appealing gambling worlds” that constituted Friedman’s ideal floor, and in this respect it’s likely that he’d applaud, at least conceptually, the influence that new technologies and younger customers are beginning to exert on the process. After all, what he set out to prove in more than 600 exhaustively researched pages was that design is more important than the number of hotel rooms, more important than marketing, more important even than management, in driving play. Only location is more important, he said.

“There is not one set thing that will be universal everywhere,” said Schulz. “Expectations differ from Las Vegas to a casino on an Indian reservation. To think of the future in terms of a total paradigm shift would not be accurate, especially if you’re talking about Las Vegas, where people are still coming for the overall experience, while the casino portion of that may change. In a tribal or regional market type of gaming, if there isn’t a lot of competition, people still come to gamble. If it’s highly competitive then you get into more thinking about the non-gaming elements. It really depends on the market, what the competitive mix is, what the long-term goal is.”

Changes are also taking place to exterior casino design, with facades and other features reflecting natural environmental elements to provide differentiation and a sense of place. Flowing water and wind influenced the design of both Riverwind Casino in Oklahoma and The Rivers Casino in Pennsylvania.

Celella recalled how “In the beginning, the thought was build it and they will come. They wanted the games up and running. Speed was key. The conversation now is starting on a different plane. You’re looking at mature markets where casinos need to attract more customers, attract them more often, and keep them there. You’re really using the gaming facility as more of an entertainment facility, and you have to think about what that means and what demographics you’re trying to reach. It’s not one space anymore. It’s not a big gaming parlor. You have to have a variety of spaces now in order to provide that encompassing entertainment venue.”

To inform this process JCJ begins with what it calls a Design Discovery Workshop, a three-day exercise during which the firm prepares a list of questions for the casino client to answer. The questions cover essentials such as the size and scope of the project and its function, “what they dream about,” Celella said, “what their goals are.” Out of this, an initial design is born by the third day in the form of a layout, a plan and a 3D model.

The Rivers Casino, Pennsylvania

As he puts it, “You want to distill complexity into something finite.”

Memphis, Tenn.-based Hnedak Bobo Group follows a similar planning process to tailor a project to the specific needs and long-term growth objectives of a client. This interactive, market-driven planning process identifies key project issues and growth opportunities to create the right design to capture a marketplace, according to company literature. For Riverwind Casino, a gaming resort designed by Hnedak Bobo for the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, this process led to an exterior design featuring an undulating portico that the company describes as more than a structural gesture toward the casino’s name-it’s an architectural abstraction of local nature, in this case of the “prairie wind.” This theme is carried throughout the resort to unify and differentiate the property: architectural features at the building’s entry represent the bend of prairie grass; the building’s sapphire blue façade lays low to the earth, projecting energy without overpowering the native prairie fields; the interior design reflects the visual concepts of “wind” and “water,” and includes kinetic lighting to give the property a different look, feel and energy day and night.

Both JCJ and Hnedak Bobo are emblematic of an entirely new approach to how the casino of tomorrow will look and feel.

“We’re barely at the dawn of a new vision for gaming,” Thalden said. “Change is coming-it’s on our drawing boards.”