Taking a Page From Vegas, Indian Casinos Add Glitz to Compete for Business

A story about what Indian casinos are doing to keep business.

With tribal gaming now a $26 billion-a-year industry—and rapidly closing in on the $35 billion churned up at nontribal casinos—many casino operations in Indian country are looking closely at what works in Las Vegas and applying those lessons to their sites. “Native American tribes across the U.S. are introducing Las Vegas–style resort amenities in their gaming centers to compete with one another as well as other gaming businesses in their region,” says Mark Birtha, president and chief development officer at Sol Casinos in Tucson, Arizona.

With a background of more than 15 years working in Las Vegas for such notable institutions as the Bellagio, the Venetian and the Las Vegas Sands, Birtha has seen what works in the Neon City and what doesn’t. And like the heads of other tribal gaming spots, he is looking to import some of the glitz and glamour that attracts visitors to Vegas, and increases revenue at his casino.

Many tribes are also looking beyond casinos to build more-inclusive resorts that can compete on a broader scale, transforming their properties into lavish, full-service casino-resorts that offer a variety of amenities, from signature golf courses to upscale retail shops to luxurious lodging facilities and branded restaurants. “My goal is to create a boutique property with all the bells and whistles of a Las Vegas resort,” Birtha says.

Tribal tourism industry efforts, especially those centered on gaming, have come a long way since the mid-1970s when tribes in Florida, California and a few other states introduced bingo halls in trailers and tents. “You see it around the country in Native American gaming,” Birtha says, “where small bingo halls have grown into small casinos and hard-faced buildings have replaced tent canvas resulting in hotels and resorts and significant destination properties like what we have in Florida, Connecticut, Southern California and, now, southern Arizona.”

Birtha’s employer, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, took its growth slowly, with the biggest step to date being the recent construction of a $130 million, 10-story resort. The paint is barely dry on that building, and efforts are already under way to take things to the next level by bringing some Las Vegas to Tucson. But making a property shine better doesn’t have to involve over-the-top attractions such as the gondola rides and wax museum at the Venetian, the cascading fountains at Bellagio or the Pussycat Dolls Burlesque Saloon at Planet Hollywood.

“It starts with basic attention to detail, focusing on amenities that don’t exist and providing them,” Birtha says. There are common-sense touches like the entry marquee when guests drive up. “We added plasma screens for a warm drive-up welcome because you only get a few seconds to make that good first impression.

“We looked for an identifier, a differentiator, like the buildings at New York, New York, and came up with a gleaming copper dome for our resort. It’s relevant to Arizona’s copper industry, it’s unique and it’s an icon. Bringing Vegas to Tucson doesn’t necessarily mean flashier neon signs and showgirls. There are things in our space that Las Vegas and other markets could learn from.

“Vegas is obviously a good case-study, but we want to evolve into what we are without losing our identity, and merely having ‘bigger, brighter, and more!’ wasn’t necessarily what we wanted. Vegas may provide a benchmark, but we don’t want to become a mini-Las Vegas. We want to mirror some of the trappings of Vegas resorts that have proven successful—without being a Vegas resort.”

Emulating Las Vegas successes is one thing; trying to be a small Vegas is another. “Although we were designed from the beginning to offer all the experiences of the world-class Vegas resorts, I’d hesitate to make a direct correlation with Sin City,” says Robert Bledsoe, spokesman for the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California. “We’re definitely not a ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ type of place, and our glitz is more low-key than the ostentatious gaudiness associated with some Vegas properties. You won’t find the decadence of nude revues or the novelty of medieval jousts and pirate battles on our property.”

What you will find at Pechanga are upgrades in fine-dining options. “We’ve completely revamped our buffet to compete with the best that Vegas has to offer and are now offering foodies as much of a reason to visit our resort as gamers,” Bledsoe says.

Pechanga also has world-class golf just steps away from the hotel. “We’ve ­created our own brand of laid-back West Coast glamour—world-class amenities and all the best luxuries of Vegas—with the outdoor grandeur that only California can provide,” Bledsoe says.

Other locations, such as the Florida Seminole Tribe Hard Rock holdings, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are constantly tweaking things and turning up the excitement factor a notch each time, while western New York’s Seneca Nation has chosen a different path, eschewing the idea of more glitz and neon and perhaps becoming a precursor for future development in the process.

The tribe invested $900 million over the last decade in three casinos and two resort hotels with something innovative on the horizon in the new, expanded Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, which is currently a small, temporary facility. It will be part of a gaming-venue master plan on the nation’s nine-acre Buffalo Creek Territory, that focuses on incorporating the casino in the city’s waterfront development, as well as the neighborhoods that surround it. “This is an exciting turning point for our development vision,” says Seneca Gaming Corporation board chairman Karen Karsten. Instead of a self-contained, stand-alone, big-box, flash-and-bling facility, the new casino taking shape along the Buffalo, New York waterfront will be integrated into the neighborhood because the nation wants to partner with its surroundings, not loom separate from them.

“The Seneca Nation decided collaboration was a more sound business decision—integration rather than stand-alone segregation,” says nation President Robert Odawi Porter.