There’s a saying that when times are tough you see what people are made of. That can extend to the people who run businesses as well, and if the past five years are an indicator, the tribes who own and oversee leading gaming operations in the South have shown vision and commitment.

This much was clear from presentations at this year’s Southern Gaming Summit by executives working for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. In the case of each tribe, significant investments have been made, both to protect existing operations from increased competition and to optimize growth opportunities, all in the service of promoting the health and overall well-being of tribal members. One comes away with the sense that these tribes are making all the right moves and that their businesses and nations will be strengthened for years to come.

A summary of each follows:


POARCH BAND OF CREEK INDIANS

PCI Gaming, the gaming arm of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, has recently rebranded to Wind Creek Hospitality which will enable it to leverage its core brands, which have gained great brand recognition, said Brent Pinkston, chief financial officer for PCI.

Wind Creek operates six properties; three of which are Class II facilities, which hold about 6,200 machines. Wind Creek Atmore is an hour north of Mobile and Pensacola, Fla.; Wind Creek Wetumpka is about 12 miles north of Montgomery; and Creek Casino is located in Montgomery. PCI Gaming also operates three pari-mutuel facilities located in Alabama and Florida, in Mobile, Pensacola and just outside of Tallahassee.

The company has been extremely busy in the last 12 months, starting with the opening of the beautiful Wind Creek Wetumpka. That facility holds 2,500 games and 286 hotel rooms, which it is confident, will achieve a four-diamond rating. There are also five food and beverage offerings and a 16,000-gallon shark tank that has created quite a buzz amongst patrons and the local community, Pinkston said.

Atmore has been opened just over five years. The property has added a new entertainment district that includes a bowling alley, movie theater, arcade, sports bar and a yogurt shop. The district “has performed fantastically, drawing in families and children and generating a lot of additional revenue and profit that we probably wouldn’t have received,” Pinkston said. “Even though it wasn’t developed for the sole purpose of our gaming patrons, it actually has turned out to be a great addition to the property.”

From a technology perspective, Wind Creek has focused on how to improve the guest experience and how to use technology to better manage labor. Over the last 12 months it implemented a drink-on-demand system and a technology that automates ticketed drawings.

“Most people would say they’ve gotten away from ticketed drawings, because they create a burden on the players’ club and production is time-consuming,” said Pinkston. “What we’ve done is create a technology that prints tickets out at the game that enter people into drawings. It gives those people who want to be able to feel and touch their entry a better sense that they have a chance to win. We still do electronic drawings but we use this technology to help not just our rated players but our unrated players.”

If you’re a rated player, when you achieve a threshold on your rating in terms of coin-in, it will spit out an entry ticket with your name.  If you’re an unrated player and you hit a particular threshold of coin-in, it will spit out an entry ticket that you can fill out and bring to the drawing room. Wind Creek believes that, from a guest services perspective, it shouldn’t just concentrate on rated players.

“There is always that subset of people who will never use a card, and we want to give them that same experience and have a sense of winning whether they are using the card or not,” said Pinkston. “That’s kind of a deviation from the industry, but we really feel that catering to all customers is essential to our continued success.”  

For Wind Creek, the next 12 months are going to be similar to the last five years; economic growth, derived in part by providing new customer amenities. At Wetumpka, which opened last December, a gas station has been added as an amenity to players. The old facility that used to be Creek Casino Wetumpka is also being turned into meeting space that will be able to hold VIP player events as well as concerts.

“We also see a growing number of guests requesting non-smoking areas,” said Pinkston. “I know that non-smoking areas have always been the dog of the casino floor, but we see more people trending toward that option so we’ll be adding an enhanced non-smoking area in the next 12 months.”

The quality on offer at Wetumpka has compelled the tribe to raise its game in Atmore. “We have decided to give that entire property a facelift even though it is only five years old,” said Pinkston. All rooms will be remodeled, the buffet will be updated, casino carpet replaced and the club and players’ club will be combined into a player services desk. “When people come into our facilities, we want to create an entertainment fantasy-world for them and we will do that by keeping our product fresh.” 

In Montgomery, Wind Creek is currently evaluating how to expand from an amenities perspective. The hope is to have that finalized over the summer and move forward in the fall with new amenities that will be a great draw for customers all over the region.

“We’ve been busy because we don’t believe that you can keep things constant in gaming without eroding revenues and profits, so we consistently strive to push to the next level,” concluded Pinkston. “Being based in Alabama, we are also looking to diversify our portfolio.”

 

EASTERN BAND OF CHEROKEE

In western North Carolina, the big gaming story is Harrah’s Cherokee, an Eastern Band of Cherokee property that opened in 1997. By 2002, the resort offered electronic table games and built 252 hotel rooms, and the tribe brought that up to 570 rooms a few years later. In 2007-08, when the economy declined, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation had an opportunity to continue to expand and their courage to go forward with a $633 million expansion during that time period was “phenomenal,” said Brooks Robinson, senior vice president and general manager, Harrah’s Cherokee. The property now has 1,108 hotel rooms in three towers; 10 dining options ranging from a food court to a Ruth’s Chris Steak House; and an entertainment center that seats over 3,000. The last piece of the expansion is a resort pool that opened in mid-May.

Next up, the tribe will build a second casino in Cherokee County, N.C. It is the result of a renegotiated state compact that allowed tribal facilities to offer traditional table games and, as part of that, the tribe was able to build a second casino, which is scheduled to open in mid-2015.

The annual economic impact of tribal gaming in the region west of Asheville, N.C., is roughly $300 million, with an additional $82 million in capital expenditures. “Since 2009, we’ve seen incomes in the surrounding counties, which were making an average of 70 percent of the statewide average, grow to about 80 percent and that continues to grow,” said Robinson. The tribe currently has about 2,600 employees; annual salaries are about $100 million; and almost all of employees come from western North Carolina.

The impact is not just on the employee base but on the tribe itself. “Moving into 2014, we will do approximately $300 million in tribal distributions, an increase of 10 percent over FY2013,” Robinson said. “The success of the property has had a phenomenal impact on the Eastern Band. Over the life of the casino, we have distributed over $3.3 billion and about $1.7 billion has gone directly to enrolled members.”

The new casino opening is expected to add about $180 million to total gaming revenue, according to Robinson. First-year expectations are about $30 million in incremental tribal distribution.

Before the casino, in Cherokee, N.C., there were a lot of services that were needed,” Robinson added. Funds have gone to public safety, housing, infrastructure, health care, education, cultural preservation and investments in the future economic development. Police, fire and EMS services in Cherokee County are now “as good as it gets,” according to Robinson, with the ability to fund those services. In the area of housing, as casino operations continue to grow, it was very important to find ways to house people in single- and multiple-unit housing, which has been addressed, according to Robinson.

“We are probably most proud of what we’ve been able to do in the health and medical area,” said Robinson. “Early on, the Eastern Band determined we needed to do everything we could for the dialysis center. In addition to that, we broke ground in March for a new hospital that will open in 2016.”

On the education front, the Cherokee Central School System is now in place with 473,000 square feet of campus. It’s a first-class facility that has all of the amenities necessary to support each individual student from elementary through high school.

Culturally, the tribe’s Kituwah Preservation and Education Program—a not-for-profit that is designed to focus on cultural preservation, workforce development and environmental issues—has invested in a language academy ensures that the Cherokee language continues to be offered as a subject for children in the area; a museum and a historical association have also been developed.

Gaming revenue has also spilled over into broader community development; there’s a fairground and a new theater; “things that you would not have found in this area before and that all people can enjoy,” said Robinson.

Just off the boundary of the reservation, the Smoky Mountain Parkway enters right into Cherokee County. That attracts 4 to 5 million people per year and a lot of them visit other parts of the region including the casino. “There are hiking, fishing, bike trails; a ton of things to do,” said Robinson. To optimize the potential of it all The Eastern Band has developed the Qualla 2020 initiative to look at the future, project what is going to happen and set the reservation up in such a way that it will continue to be very successful.

 

MISSISSIPPI BAND OF CHOCTAW INDIANS

Holly Gagnon, president and chief executive officer, Pearl River Resort, the gaming operating company for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, spent most of her time in the commercial casino industry before starting her current job in 2012.

“We are like any commercial casino in our day-to-operations; we hope that customer experiences with us will be as good or better as any casino,” she said. “But there are some nuances, and part of that is why we exist and who we are. The initial compact that we operate under was negotiated under Chief Phillip Martin. He had an amazing vision for the Mississippi Band of Choctaws and left an amazing legacy. He also negotiated a really interesting compact. We now operate under Chief Phyliss Anderson; she is the first woman to be democratically elected chief; an amazing leader who has been involved in tribal government for many years. We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary on July 3rd and we are looking at our next 20 years so it’s a very exciting time for our operations.”

Under the terms of the compact negotiated by Chief Martin, there is no expiration date, which Gagnon called “unique.” The tribe does not pay any taxes to the state and it has no limitations to gaming positions or the number of casinos on tribal land. The compact also limits the per capita payment to tribal members to $1,000 per year, which is also unique because it’s embedded within the compact. The Choctaws are the only federally recognized tribe in the state of Mississippi; over its 20-year existence the compact has only been challenged twice and it has been upheld both times.

Tribal government is divided unto governmental services and tribal enterprises. “We have one of the most sophisticated tribal codes in the U.S., a very established legal system that benefits us when we do business outside,” said Gagnon.  She reports to a board that has five members with Chief Anderson as its chairman.

There are about 10,500 enrolled members. “The goal is pursue new development that stabilizes and grows existing revenues and growth of employment opportunities in tribal communities,” said Gagnon. “We also want to make sure that we are always in a position to deliver the services that we have established for the tribe.” 

About 42 percent of employees are tribal members. Gaming also supports government services, arts, health care and education. A new, 178,000-square-foot Choctaw Health Department building is under construction right now, replacing the existing 58,000-square-foot facility. The initial hospital that was there was meant to service a 3,000-member community. “When we’re prosperous and run our operations well, we build hospitals, and it’s really rewarding,” said Gagnon. “I used to work in the commercial casino industry and we watched the stock price.”

The Mississippi Band of Choctaws has the largest unified education system of any tribe in the United States, from pre-K up through secondary. There is a very impressive scholarship program for tribal members. The money generated through gaming supports this system.

Casino operations opened in 1994 at the Silver Star with 90,000 square feet of gaming; two Tom Fazio golf courses were subsequently added. Pearl River opened the Golden Moon in 2002 and Bok Homa Casino in 2010, which is part of what Gagnon calls a hub-and-spoke model. “It’s slot-only right now and closer to the Hattiesburg market,” she said. “If you want to have a resort experience you can come to the main property, but you can also have a convenient gaming experience closer to where you live.”

At 20 years of age, the company is focused on refreshing, reactivating and renovating the original Silver Star property. “We’re looking at rebranding the Golden Moon facility which, at one point, was reduced to about 200 gaming positions on the floor, with part of it closed down and used as an entertainment venue,” said Gagnon. “We’re going to open up that back up for gaming and bring in new food and beverage concepts and new experience there.” All told, 1,100 hotel rooms will be renovated; both at the Golden Moon and Silver Star, and Pearl River will be looking at opportunities to refresh some of its amenity experiences.

“Like everyone else in the United States, we are now sharing the pie with many other gaming operators,” said Gagnon. “That means you need to be better on your game. You compete on service. In Mississippi, we’re seeing a lot of weakness particularly in the northern part. Being 20 years old, we had a lot to do so we had to refinance. In the last two years, we have grown top-line revenue in a declining market, expanded EBITDA and improved margins. That has allowed us to get new debt options. We went out to the capital markets, restructured our existing loan and added about $75 million in liquidity. We’re also saving about $750,000 a year on our existing debt which is a function of having a better operation.

“The debt markets liked our story, the improvements we have made on existing operations,” Gagnon added. “That money is being used to renovate the rooms. As we do that, we are making sure that we have the plan to keep the product fresh and competitive for the next five to 10 years.”


 

Latest WinStar expansion includes eclectic design, immersive customer experiences
BY HNEDAK BOBO GROUP

The urge to reinvest in the gaming enterprise is not isolated to southern gaming tribes.

Oklahoma’s largest tribal casino, WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville—an economic enterprise of the Chickasaw Nation—has a continuing and confident vision for expanding its property, while driving new customers and preserving a loyal customer base.

Located an hour drive north along Interstate 35 from the expansive Dallas- Fort Worth metroplex (boasting 6.5 million residents), WinStar has recently added a major expansion of upscale hotel, gaming and F&B amenities, to stay fresh and exciting for its primarily North Texas and southern Oklahoma gaming patrons.

Opening in 2004 as WinStar Casinos, the facility was expanded in 2009 to 519,000 square feet. The most recent completions of the London and Paris Gaming Plaza expansion projects and the second and third hotel towers more than doubles the facility’s square feet to 1.2 million.

“The Chickasaw Nation has terrific foresight about where they want to take their brand,” said Rob Jurbergs, AIA, principal and designer at Hnedak Bobo Group (HBG). “Winstar World is already a very profitable casino, and their property is ultimately successful because the Nation is driven to reach out to new clientele by expanding their amenity offerings and quality, while also accommodating the needs of their tried-and-true patrons.”

The Winstar World Casino and Resort property’s established “cities of the world” travel theme has been successful in making the resort the number one casino in the Dallas, Texas gaming market and the largest casino in Oklahoma. The expansion by HBG offers an artistic and refined design interpretation of the property’s popular theme.

“The travel-themed motif at the casino is very closely tied into the Winstar World Casino and Resort brand, so we naturally embraced and enhanced the concept,” Jurbergs said.

The inspiration for the new upscale casino design captures the excitement and wonder of faraway voyages in the gilded age of travel. The fresh new design features literal themed elements set within the context of a refined interpretation of the European cities of Paris, Madrid and Barcelona, with some Asian influences also.

Jurbergs worked with Emily Marshall, an interior designer at HBG, to ramp up the quality level of the new interiors. “The design creates synergy between the existing casino and new gaming, dining and event offerings,” Marshall said. “We really amped up the quality level, but focused on smoothly transitioning the new and existing areas, especially at adjacencies to the existing casino floor.”

 

RULES OF ATTRACTION

The new Phase II gaming expansion includes a monumental gaming lobby in the London Plaza where all finishes were refreshed with a more sophisticated interpretation of the travel theme.

The VIP gaming area across from the London Plaza bar sets itself apart with a grand entrance inspired by the gates of Buckingham Palace. A very large-scale portal flanked with gold metal and high-end stone houses three VIP gaming rooms, each more exclusive than the other.

Each tier was inspired by iconic British design. From the geometric, coffered Union Jack ceilings to the traditional designs of a Burberry-inspired plaid and deep red damask used in the carpets, the rooms are high-end traditional. Navy, red and gold are used in the fabrics, carpets and wall coverings in all the areas.

A unique immersive gaming area, called Casino 360, was also created and it has proven to be a hit with WinStar guests, especially younger customers fluent in social media. It is a new interactive gaming experience never before seen in the industry that creates a destination on the casino floor. This intimate new gaming room uses the most high-tech equipment on the market to interact with players and winners. Gamers feel like they are entering a totally different venue when they take the LED-lit portal to enter Casino 360.

The area consists of 65 machines centered on a large cylindrical high-resolution video screen. The screen interacts with the gaming machines, and its lights, speakers and banner ticker surround players literally from every direction. As jackpots are made, all of the equipment works in tandem to create an engaging light show that celebrates winners. The room also encourages the use of social media during play, by displaying the gamers’ tweets and Facebook comments as they are made.

 

EUROPEAN FLAIR, PRAIRIE SENSABILITY

HBG designers continued the European theme in the two new hotel towers with a few contemporary twists, creating an elegant yet timeless look.

The two new hotels—an 18-story, 340,000 square feet, 500- room hotel tower and a 15-story, 297,000 square feet, 500-room hotel tower, both designed by Hnedak Bobo Group—complement and connect to an existing 12-story, 400-room hotel in a “y” configuration. This shrewd positioning allows each hotel to share a centralized reception and amenity core, including a grand new hotel lobby; VIP registration; a hotel rotunda bar; a 200-seat 24-hour café/dining venue; and a new landscaped pool environment. The new amenities offer WinStar guests an added dimension in luxurious accommodations and creatively connect the customer experience between the London Plaza casino expansion and all WinStar hotel towers.

Placement of the hotel towers to the north of the property also allowed for optimum construction phasing serving dual functions as part of an ongoing expansion program: the siting allows for graceful future expansion and ensures that casino operations are not interrupted during construction activities.

Creating a virtual oasis of relaxation and respite in the middle of the expansive prairieland, the resort’s pool and spa environment serves as the physical connection between the trio of hotels and the casino. Lush landscaping, fire pits and curving water features set against a naturalistic rockwork backdrop dramatically transition guests into a serene and immersive southern-Oklahoma outdoor resort experience, with waterfall designs inspired by the Turner Falls and natural landscaping reminiscent of the region’s Chickasaw National Recreation area.

Designers focused on blending the hotel designs with the overall WinStar World casino theme, complementing the Oklahoma landscape on the exterior, but offering continental surprises internally. Stepping inside the property, the design is inspired by the excitement and wonder of faraway voyages in the gilded age of travel. Guests experience a refined interpretation of the European cities of London, Paris and Madrid, with Asian influences.

Architecturally, the distinctive, prairie-style design of the hotels makes an exciting statement as seen across the countryside, featuring deep overhangs that mimic the vast landscape around the site, maximizing open views, while protecting visitors from climate conditions such as wind and bright sun.

The most visually impactful element, especially from the I-35 corridor, is the 18-story tall LED-lit screen wall along the north tower’s end wall. From this vantage point, the hotel structure is emblazoned with an LED lighting strip that illuminates the tower with animated light and color shows, prominently displaying the distinctive “W” logo against the skyward-reaching tower “blade” design as a beacon into the property.

Inside, the three hotels share a grand new entrance lobby. Within this reception space, an open-lattice barrel vaulted ceiling highlighted by three grand, whimsical scrollwork chandeliers creates an enchanting and timeless European appeal. Like a romantic gazebo at sunset, the amber glow produces candle-lit reflections on the pearlescent Venetian plaster column inlays and inset wall panels to wrap the space in a comforting luster from ceiling to floor.

Floors are covered with light multi-hued stone tiles with stone inlay and mica-like sparkle. An artfully inspired Axminster carpet creates a focal point of bold sweeping patterns and elegant deep red, blue and gold color palettes, forming a flowing counterpoint to the geometry of ceiling and flooring. This accent motif is emphasized throughout all hotel public spaces to visually connect the hotel lobby with the adjacent hotel café.

On par with any high-end Las Vegas casino hotel, WinStar’s VIP registration area does not disappoint with its ultra-upscale finishes and abounding sparkle, all conveying continuity in the traditional European design scheme.

An extension of the lobby, the 44-seat domed-ceiling rotunda bar is a prime people-watching venue, offering a casual gathering area to take in dramatic views of the poolside oasis waterfalls. The rotunda is adjacent to the Hotel Terrace Café.

Leading through the tower’s higher floors, each typical guestroom floor becomes a continuation of the grand experience of the elegant lobby, with coffered ceilings, wall panel and millwork detailing and open lattice pendant lights guiding guests through hotel corridors. Art niches showcasing contemporary expressionist artwork enhance the European design scheme.

Throughout, the consistency of high-quality aesthetics and design storytelling makes the new casino expansion and new resort hotels a standout, engaging guests at every touch point and helping them develop an emotional connection with the WinStar brand.

Hnedak Bobo Group celebrates 35 years providing forward-thinking, innovative architecture and interior design and strategic project delivery to the gaming and hospitality industry. As NIGA’s 2012 Associate Member of the Year, HBG has built a reputation for always thinking differently. HBG offers a proven history delivering distinctive design solutions that drive competitive advantage and successful performance results for its tribal and commercial gaming clients. For more information, visit www.hbginc.com.