Courtesy the Greenbrier
The old perceptions about holding meetings at casino resorts are no longer true. Increasingly, as these venues add upscale amenities and dedicated meeting spaces, planners are realizing that meeting at casino resorts is anything but a gamble.
Planners need to show that their meetings are a good value, and they are embracing casino resorts because the luxury these properties offer doesn’t come at a price.
Mimi Hall-Gustafson, director of sales and marketing at Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Spokane, Wash., acknowledges that casino resorts have sometimes suffered from perceptions of mediocrity.
“But if planners are still holding on to their old notions about what a casino resort is,” she said, “they should really make it a point to check them out now. This sector has undergone some huge changes in recent years.”
The Cherokee Nation
On the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in the Great Smoky Mountains, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel is in the midst of the largest hospitality expansion project in the Southeast, a $633 million investment that will, by 2012, nearly double the number of guest rooms to 1,108, more than any other resort in the Carolinas. On Labor Day, the casino unveiled a 3,000-seat event center that complements its existing 21,000-square-foot conference center.
A Paula Deen’s Kitchen will open soon with a retail shop stocked with cooking supplies. Also arriving is a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a fine Italian restaurant called Brio, a food court, an 18,000-square-foot spa and a casino expansion.
“We’ve always nurtured an upscale image,” said Carol Hawks Smith, convention and group sales manager at Harrah’s Cherokee. “And much of what we’re building here is because we’re focused on the meetings market.”
Toward this end, Harrah’s Cherokee offers several advantages to planners, including natural surroundings, impressive meeting facilities, a variety of choices for dining and entertainment, and the opportunity to keep all attendees together at night, affording extra opportunities for networking. There’s no need to pay for off-site transportation or to worry about attendees’ safety.
“People don’t want to go anywhere else when they’re here,” Hawks Smith said. “We’re at the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are hiking trails all over the place, and you can fish for trout right on the premises. Sequoyah National Golf Club is nearby. And at night, in addition to the casino, you can watch a great show or relax in a sophisticated lounge.”
But even with the glitz and glamour, what tends to stick with guests is the serenity of the mountains.
“In the Smokies,” said Smith, “our idea of rush hour is a red light with one car in front of us.”
Meetings on the reservation — Pacific Northwest
It didn’t take Tulalip Resort Casino long to start earning accolades. Located 30 miles north of Seattle, Tulalip transitioned from a casino to a casino resort two years ago when it opened a 370-room hotel with 30,000 square feet of meeting space. It earned AAA’s Four Diamond rating in 2010 and has again received it for 2011.
Luxuries are emphasized. The T Spa is among the state’s largest. At the seafood house called Blackfish, the chefs specialize in native specialties such as salmon on a stick and clam fritters.
There’s an 18-hole golf course; the 100-plus shops of the Seattle Retail Outlets are next door. The resort is decorated with more than $1 million worth of art of the Tulalip people.
At the same time, the resort has considered the practical needs of meeting attendees. There’s free Wi-Fi throughout, and audiovisual equipment is on site.
“We believe that casino resorts offer better value to meeting planners,” said Troy Longwith, director of sales. “You don’t have to worry about — or to pay for — your people wandering around off site.”
On the other side of Washington, in the Spokane area, is Northern Quest Resort and Casino, owned by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. This facility, too, was originally just a casino until a 250-room hotel with 22,000 square feet of meeting space opened in January, part of a $200 million improvement project.
There’s free wireless access throughout, complimentary airport transportation, complimentary transportation to downtown and free valet parking. Among the 14 restaurants is the signature Masselow’s, which emphasizes Northwestern specialties like elk and buffalo.
“We planned the resort to be a one-stop shop for meeting planners,” said Hall-Gustafson. “With the restaurants, the shops and all the entertainment options, your people will still be here in the evening. And that generates additional networking opportunities.”
Laurie Bergheim, senior administrative assistant at Northwest Farm Credit Services, planned a four-day training session for 50 in August at Northern Quest.
“Our meeting was extremely productive,” Bergheim said. “The technology was state of the art, the food was great, the nightlife was great, and all I heard from our attendees was ‘Let’s come here again.’”
Gulf Coast revival
The Gulf Coast has been battered and bruised the past few years. But at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Miss., thankfully, little has changed beyond new ownership that lands the casino resort in a prestigious family.
The 1,740-room resort, with 50,000 square feet of meeting space, is part of MGM Resorts International.
“We think we offer all the excitement of a Vegas location,” said Mark Peterson, convention sales manager, “but with the uniqueness of a Gulf Coast location. And we can offer great value as well. For example, we have a warehouse with every kind of prop or equipment you’d conceivably need for a meeting or a ballroom function. You don’t have to go outside.”
Cindy Jones is senior event specialist with Atlanta-based Southern Co., parent firm of a number of electric power companies. In August, she took 15 people to the resort for a planning meeting, and she’s held previous meetings there with as many as 150 attendees. She said the casino is never a distraction.
“We see Beau Rivage as a place to hold productive meetings with great meeting spaces and a great team,” Jones said. “And we keep going back because of the value.”
In light of the AIG effect and public perception of meetings, there’s something else for planners to consider.
“If you’re at all worried about perceptions,” Peterson said, “no one’s going to raise an eyebrow if you come to Biloxi, Miss.”
The tribes of Connecticut
Southeastern Connecticut is home to the Mohegan Sun. Owned by the Mohegan Tribe, it’s a mixture of modern luxury and Native American tradition.
There are 1,200 rooms, 100,000 square feet of meeting space and a 10,000-seat arena. Among the 70 restaurants and shops are dining icons such as Bobby Flay’s Bar Americaine, Todd English’s Tuscany and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and retail names such as Coach, Tiffany, Tommy Bahama and Swarovski.
Joel Feigenbaum is COO of Syms Corp., which owns Syms and Filene’s Basement. Feigenbaum held his annual store managers conference at the Mohegan Sun in August, with 75 attendees. He has an interesting story to tell.
“I always had a somewhat negative perception of casino resorts as a place to hold meetings,” Feigenbaum said. “But of all things, I attended my son’s bachelor party at Mohegan Sun earlier this year. And I was amazed at the quality of the resort and the professionalism of the people there.”
So he arranged his company’s meeting there. He was delighted with the results.
“The conference center is exceptional. And even though they were hosting meetings much larger than mine at the same time, they were very focused on ensuring the success of my meeting.”
Also in southeastern Connecticut, on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation, is the Foxwoods Resort Casino and MGM Grand at Foxwoods, a complex with four hotels and 2,200 guest rooms, 824 of which are in the MGM Grand. There’s also 150,000 square feet of meeting space, 115,000 of which is in the MGM Grand. Outdoor terraces, expansive lawns and a 1,400-seat theater are also available for meetings.
Options are extensive after the meetings are over: 40 restaurants for dining, an upscale bowling alley with a very cool nightclub/lounge, a bevy of other clubs, two Rees Jones-designed golf courses, health clubs and a spa.
In May, Foxwoods hosted the Northeastern Conference of Professional Firefighters, with 250 attendees from the six New England states.
“I did a site inspection,” said Peter Carozza, president of the Uniformed Professional Firefighters of Connecticut, which sponsored the conference, “and I was very impressed. All my preconceptions about gaming resorts were blown away.”
Just how blown away was Carozza? “Well, we’re going back there next May for our national meeting” he said.
The Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., is another example of a casino that has moved up to the next level. It added a 497-room hotel in April, and 100,000 square feet of meeting space makes the resort a major new player in the meeting business.
Attendees can avail themselves of three pools, eight restaurants (including one on the 15th floor), 10 lounges and two championship golf courses.
The Talking Stick is owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and their art and artifacts are evident everywhere.
“We built this resort partially with meeting planners in mind,” said Steven Horowitz, director of sales. “So we concentrated on flexible meeting spaces and logistics that really work for planners and attendees.
“We’re seeing a definite trend toward more upscale amenities among casino resorts,” Horowitz added. “And we think the meetings market is the reason for that.”
Meetings in the mountains
The Greenbrier, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., has always been upscale. But it hasn’t always had a casino. This iconic 232-year-old resort introduced its new casino in July, and the new casino, designed to resemble a smart club, is as upscale as the rest of the resort. For instance, gentlemen are asked to wear jackets after seven, and the thick cigarette smoke found in most casinos is absent there; this one is smoke-free.
“We have a new owner who has made some strategic investments to capture a greater share of the meetings market,” said Todd Gillespie, director of sales at the Greenbrier. “And it’s beginning to pay off.”
Planners still find the elegance for which the 720-room resort has always been known. High tea in the afternoon and activities with appeal to the well-heeled — trout fishing, skeet shooting, a falconry academy, an off-road-driving school, stables, four golf courses, tennis, a spa, 11 restaurants, 25 shops and a movie theater — make it easy to do something other than gamble.