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Racing to the top: Dover Downs Hotel and Casino

Courtesy Dover Downs Hotel and Casino

“Just a tankful away from 23 million people” is how Delaware touts Dover Downs Hotel and Casino, located in the center — and capital — of the nation’s First State.

The allusion to fuel is apt. The hotel and casino share their plot of land with the Dover International Speedway, known as the Monster Mile by NASCAR drivers who race there twice a year on the grueling, steeply banked concrete oval.

Dover is a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., and northern New Jersey. It’s 45 minutes from Delaware’s beaches to the south and cultural treasures like Winterthur and the Brandywine River Museum to the north.

On track 
In 1969, Dover Downs opened as a dual track for harness racing and motor sports. Horses ran that winter, and Richard Petty won NASCAR’s Mason-Dixon 300 that summer. A seed was sown; the racetrack grew and grew.

Today, Dover Downs Hotel and Casino is Delaware’s largest hotel, with 500 rooms and suites and 40,000 square feet of meeting and event space. It has been a AAA Four Diamond Award winner since it opened in 2002. It is a nonsmoking facility (except for about 30 guest rooms), offers complimentary wired and Wi-Fi Internet access, and was recently chosen as one of Delaware’s top places to work by the state’s largest newspaper, the News Journal. It employs 1,400.

The complex has 2,600 slot machines, 45 table games — new in 2010 — parlay betting on professional football, nine restaurants and a spa.

It sounds overwhelming, but thanks to smart architecture, guests can seek what interests them and easily avoid the rest.

“We have almost total separation between the hotel and the casino,” said George Fiorile, vice president and general manager of hotel operations.

From the hotel’s spacious marble lobby, a left turn leads to the casino. Turn right, and visitors find themselves in the Rollins Center, used for meetings and banquets, but also for concerts, festivals and boxing matches.

Its 18,000-square-foot, column-free ballroom, can be divided into thirds. One of those sections has a stage with three dressing rooms; another has 640 stadium seats that pull out from a wall for large staged events like the Miss Delaware Pageant, held there each year.

In addition, there’s a 7,500-square-foot prefunction space with an elegant rotunda and a built-in bar/registration area that opens onto a large square room and a hallway with room for 37 vendor booths. Three 1,000-square-foot breakout rooms are nearby.

Up one level, a mezzanine balcony overlooking the lobby is used for receptions and breaks for meetings in a 14-person boardroom; two other meeting rooms seat 40 to 60 people.

This year, for the third time, the Pennsylvania/Delaware chapter of the Affordable Housing Management Association used the Rollins Center for a 400-person management conference.

“I love the convenience,” said Gerri Aman, the association’s executive director. “Plus Delaware has no sales tax. It’s a no-brainer.”

The group typically plans an event that uses one of the Dover complex’s amenities or attractions. One year, it was A Night at the Races on the harness-racing track. This year the group had an evening with a DJ in Fire and Ice, Dover Downs’ circular bar that glows with shards of blue ice, tongues of red fire and televisions screens overhead.

A good size for a meeting there is 300, although the hotel can handle events for 1,500. Although it draws mostly from the mid-Atlantic region, Dover Downs also hosts conventions like Studebaker International, which will bring 700 cars from all over the world to Delaware in 2014.

Racing toward the future

Early next year, the hotel plans to add space for midsize meetings and banquets by upgrading its Diamond Room, which overlooks the racetrack. The room will be redone in the hotel’s traditional, elegant style and partitioned with a glass wall that ensures privacy but preserves the view. The room will handle up to 500; it can also be divided into as many as three sections.

The new meeting area could offer inspiration to groups that are “racing” toward their goals or moving “full speed ahead” to complete a project, said Gordon Basht, director of hotel sales.

Food for feasts
In addition to the hotel’s full catering service, it offers nine restaurants, from a deli and a buffet, both slated for upgrades this year, to Michele’s for fine dining.

Three restaurants are located in the Colonnade, a $56 million 2008 expansion that added eateries, shops, and the Fire and Ice lounge, with seating for 200.

Frankie’s, an Italian bistro, pays homage to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack with a mural of caricatures and servers sporting fedoras. Chosen by Delaware Today magazine in 2011 as Best of Delaware for family-style Italian, it has a patio and a private dining room.

In addition to the casino, there’s entertainment somewhere in the complex every night, from karaoke to trivia nights, dancing to comedy.

Spa is an escape to Bali

A $2.5 million Toppers Spa/Salon that opened in 2007 features teak walls hand-carved in Bali and a sunny mural of a rice paddy that brightens the meditation room. There’s a discount for conferees, and after hours, groups can have a dessert and cordial reception there.

The track at Dover Downs is fairly quiet much of the year. NASCAR uses the half-billion-dollar Speedway complex only twice a year for a total of six days; harness races are held from October through April.

So from May to mid-October, Dover Downs has come up with other ways for people to partake of the fastest milelong track in the world.

Monster Racing takes groups out on the track with options for a ride or a drive, or both. The hotel can also arrange barbecues in the garage or events in the Speedway’s skyboxes.

This summer, the Speedway introduced two-hour Segway tours. Stops on the tour include the Monster Bridge that spans the track; Miles the Monster, a 46-foot hulk with glowing red eyes and a full-size stock car grasped in his fist; and the Sprint Cup garage, where visitors sit on Goodyear racing tires and hear stories about the drivers before they hop back on their Segways and do a lap.

NASCAR goes indoors
Fast Action Motorsports Entertainment (F.A.M.E.) can bring a NASCAR theme indoors to group events as it did for Lisa Wildermuth, who, as executive assistant to Delaware’s agriculture chief, Ed Kee, recently coordinated a meeting of the nation’s 50 secretaries of agriculture.

“At our big event, we had a stock car in the ballroom, a race car simulator, and people could compete on a 16-by-24-foot racetrack with radio-controlled cars,” she said. “There were food stations all around.”

Dover Downs has found ways to blend its mix of cars, slots and horses, food and fedoras, meeting space and a Monster into a concoction that works for both leisure and business travelers.

“We’re known for our nimbleness,” says Tina Madanet, Delaware’s tourism marketing manager.
GM Fiorile just smiles. “We’re unique.”