It’s been less than ten years since Arizona White Mountain Apache Tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe authorized the go-ahead to build tourist attractions, initially converting a small corner restaurant into the Hon-Dah (“Welcome to my home” in the Apache language) Casino.
You wouldn’t recognize that corner lot now. “We opened right after Christmas 1993 with 143 machines,” says General Manager Brent Kurth. “And it only took a couple of years after that to realize we needed to expand the casino and open up a restaurant, which we did in 1996.”
Less than a year after that, on New Year’s Eve 1997, a hotel and conference center joined the eating and gambling site. “When the tribe first opened here, there was uncertainty the location would be a success, so they didn’t go into it full bore right away, expanding as business volumes justified the expansions,” adds Assistant GM Kevin Hansen.
This kind of expansion is fast, even in a gaming industry that exploded in the 1980s and 1990s. And both Hon-Dah’s growth and reputation for excellence has been recognized, voted one of the top casinos in the state (2009 and 2010) by Arizona Business magazine.
“The only problems we’ve run into with our several expansions is we keep building them too small, like ‘lets see how this does and what demand it brings and then go from there’. It’s an affirmation of the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy, but it’s been built in increments,” says Kurth, noting that before the recession hit, the tribe was even looking at a possible second facility (an idea now on hold).
Another part of the property that has taken a quantum leap is the small recreational vehicle park adjacent to the fledgling casino. “We started off with 100 spaces and are now on our fourth expansion which will give us more than 350 spaces,” Kurth says. “There’s more impact from the RV Park than the hotel because there’s a great demand for people with RVs to bring them here when it gets hot in the lower elevations. Our summer season runs from May till the end of September and these relief-seeking travelers will spend their entire summer here. It isn’t until desert valley temperatures fall back into the comfortable range in the fall and our frosty nights start to appear that our RVers start to head back home.”
The majesty of the mountains --- the largest stand of Ponderosa pine trees in the world --- and cooler temperatures that accompany summer breezes and seasonal showers offer a welcome respite from the blast furnace inferno at lower elevations.
“Our climate is 25 degrees cooler than on the desert floor,” Hansen says. “The difference in temperature is our biggest draw. When it’s 115-120 degrees in the metro Phoenix valley, you can come up here where it’s 85 degrees. Instead of sweltering in the city at 2,000 feet above sea level, our elevation here is 7,200 feet (at nearby Sunrise Ski Park, it’s 12,000 feet at the peak) and the cooling factor is perceptible.”
“We don’t just advertise ‘Come Up and Enjoy The Casino,’ says Kurth. “When you talk to our customers, they don’t just come here because of the casino availability --- if you want a casino, there are plenty in Arizona. Valley visitors come here to get out of the heat.”
And visit they do, making the tribal-owned Hon-Dah complex the major employer of tribal members in an area where unemployment runs high. Says Hansen: “We’re the third largest employer in the entire county with roughly 400-425 employees, 72 percent of whom are White Mountain Apache Tribal members with another 8-9% of our work force coming from other tribal entities like the San Carlos Apache and other area reservations.”
Both men smile with pride when asked about Hon-Dah’s revenue generating capabilities. “We’re the most financially successful enterprise the tribe has,” they say in unison. “There are 128 hotel units with a year-round 70 percent occupancy rate that goes much higher in the peak summer tourist and winter ski seasons when all rooms are booked on weekends,” says Hansen. An additional draw is the 8,200-square-foot of meeting space in the Conference Center that can accommodate over 600 guests.
The Hon-Dah complex receives a lot of praise from the Chamber of Commerce point of view. “Before the casino was built,” says Kurth, “the average day stay per visitor was 1½ days, now it’s 2½ days with people staying the additional day because there’s more things to do.”
In fact, Chamber promotional efforts advertise: “Travelers would be hard-pressed to find a region that offers more in the way of natural beauty, history, culture, recreation, adventure, and memories.”
Because the surrounding area is made up of small mountain communities, formal entertainment choices are somewhat limited --- going out to dinner or visiting Hon-Dah where a Monday comedy club and Las Vegas lounge acts on other nights brings people in, to eat, enjoy, and gamble while they’re there. Larger acts are also booked, like a 90-minute June 18th outdoor concert by the Oak Ridge Boys expected to draw 3,000 music lovers.
“With gasoline prices where they are, we’re anticipating family-type vacations instead of longer gas-guzzling trips to places like Yellowstone and Yosemite. We’re expecting to draw the ‘staycation’ vacationers who may have gone longer distances in the past,” Hansen says.
Pine trees. Delightful summertime temperatures. Enjoyable facilities. And a recent $321,000 casino payout. Hon-Dah: Welcome to the home of the White Mountain Apache Tribe.