The top speakers at Raving’s 19th Indian Gaming National Marketing Conference, held at Choctaw Casino Resort in Durant, Okla., last month, gave attendees a unique chance to appreciate the past, present and future potential of tribal gaming. They also served as two examples of what really makes any business viable over time; the quality and commitment of its people and their strategic vision.

 The highlight for me at least was Janie Dillard, now executive officer of operations Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Division of Commerce. She started working for the tribe 35 years ago and spent two decades running its bingo and casino gaming operations. She brings a sense of mission to her job that is unique to the tribal sector of this industry.

“I’ve seen a lot of things,” said Dillard, reflecting on a leadership meeting she attended in the early 1990s. “I was sitting in the back row like some of you ladies today, and Leonard Prescott was there, Jerry Levine was there, Gary Pitchlynn was there, Jess Green was there… I could go on and on. And I didn’t even know why I was in the same room; I was not even in the same league. They were all about Indian gaming. They were warriors for Indian gaming. I didn’t have the knowledge they had, until today; now look where we all are. It was phenomenal to sit and listen to those guys talk about their pride and their passion; it was about Native American tribes. They cared, wholeheartedly, and they wanted the best for their tribal people. And they knew that one day gaming was going to be what would take our people to the next level.

“We all started in Oklahoma with high-stakes bingo. We were thrilled to death in our first year when we made $1 million! Now we’re mad at each other if we don’t have $1 million a day. What’s been exciting in my life is to see where the industry started, where it is today and where it’s going to go. It’s limitless. We’re not through yet, believe me.”

Dillard said she loves Indian gaming; loves what it does for the Choctaw tribe; and loves what it does for young people who are trying to go to college and for the money that it puts back into tribes on a daily basis. “It helps our elderly, little Head Start kids, anyone who wants to be helped,” she said, adding that before gaming, Choctaw’s budget, like most tribes, was 70/30 in favor of government funding to monies generated by the tribe for operations. Now the ratio is 20/80.

“You don’t build properties like we’ve got with one individual being at the helm of everything,” said Dillard. “You build that because you’ve got a good solid team of people around you that challenge you every day and come to the table with all kinds of new ideas and dreams. My mind is always thinking how do we improve, how do we do better.”

Dillard spoke of the time she and her team were in Choctaw, Mississippi, admiring Pearl River’s oasis pool and decided they needed one for their property. “The cost was $3 million and I had to go before our business committee and do all kinds of things. I probably stretched it a little bit with them because, at that time, we didn’t have all the analytical people we’ve got on board now. I knew it was the right thing to do, and that’s how it turned out. It took us to the next level.”

Another featured speaker was Felix Rappaport, president & CEO, Foxwoods Resort & Casino, whose roots are in the commercial sector and has been in his current job for three years. “Competition is fierce in our part of the country,” he said. “There’s Mohegan Sun and Twin River in Rhode Island, which has added table games and does an excellent job. I went to Foxwoods three years ago. Nobody wants to hear anybody cry and whine. We did monopoly very well, and we did duopoly well. We own about 5,000 acres. But with MGM opening in Springfield (Mass.) in 2018 and Steve Wynn looking to open in Everett in 2019 or 2020, we have our work cut out for us.”

Rappaport has settled on eco-tourism as a key differentiation strategy and Pequot tribal leadership has bought in. “I remember when I first got there I mentioned the term ‘eco-tourism’ to one of our executives, he said, ‘take that out of there.’ My tribal council has seen the vision and we now have a master plan, which we presented to them last October, and it’s all about diversifying revenues between non-gaming and gaming. They can’t kayak in downtown Springfield or zip-line in Everett.

“We have to evolve. Those who evolve survive and thrive, those who don’t become dinosaurs.”