June 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Native Niche - June 2000 Current Issue
June 2000

Native Niche

What do Native American casinos offer that groups might not find on the Strip? Insiders say service, cultural appeal and even savings

By Terence Baker

B efore 1990, there were no Native American-owned casinos. Now, just a decade later, 85 percent of U.S. casinos are Native American-owned, according to Gary Stopp, a former chief of staff of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and now senior manager of accounting giant Deloitte & Touche’s 6-month-old National American Indian Practice, based in Tulsa, Okla. This segment represents 25 to 30 percent of the country’s total gaming revenues, bringing in an estimated $7.7 billion a year. Native American casinos are “now a meter of economic development in many areas,” adds Stopp.

Since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was signed into law in 1988, 46 states (Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas are the exceptions) have actively helped Native American tribes set up casinos. California is the latest state to pass such legislation, signing on in March.

The top 20 Native American casinos all of which are near large cities account for 55 percent of total Native American gaming revenue. Of the federally recognized tribes, 35 percent have gaming contracts, but 70 percent of their reservations, and therefore their casinos, are in rural areas.

“Many tribal lands are just too far away to be feasible for any kind of facility,” says Mary L. Prevost, a Seattle-based lawyer for Levine & Associates, which publishes the Indian Gaming Handbook. This remoteness, however, is not always considered a disadvantage.

Sweet solitude
“There are no distractions,” points out Steve Neely, director of marketing at the Pinetop, Ariz.-based Hon-Dah Resort Casino, which is owned by the White Mountain Band of the Apache Tribe. “A lot of work can get done.” Diane Lopez, public information officer for the Phoenix-based Arizona Department of Commerce, says the conference she held at Hon-Dah was “like a retreat; we could focus on the task at hand.”

These scenic sites also allow groups to partake in a range of outdoor pursuits. Sheila Morago, a member of the Phoenix-based Gila River Indian Community and director of public relations for the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C., says it is hard to beat what Native American tribes can offer in terms of museums, cultural activities, lectures and scenic countryside.

Indeed, for many Native American casinos, it is their culture that distinguishes them from gaming venues in cities like Las Vegas. (There are some exceptions, such as the Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, Wash., which decided to go with a tropical theme.)

Such beautiful, peaceful surroundings are conducive to team building, says Morago. In addition, “There is quite often a staff-to-guest ratio of one to one. As people often have no choice but to stay at the casino, it is easier for bonds to be formed both around the meeting table and during the unique leisure activities.”

Other casino resorts, however, are smack in the middle of huge population centers. For example, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a casino in Palm Springs, Calif., next to a 10,000-seat convention center and amid the second-largest concentration of golf courses in the country. Now that the state of California is actively helping Native American tribes develop their casino business, the tribe is putting its Spa Hotel & Casino through an $80 million expansion that will include a 1,500-seat conference center, an entertainment center and a 240-room hotel.

Minnesota and Oregon are also centers of tribal gambling. And the latest area to join the market: the Catskills in New York, where the Interior Department has just given permission for the St. Regis Mohawk Indian tribe to build a $500 million casino 90 miles north of New York City, although at press time, there was no indication as to when the property would open.

The savings game
Donna Zubrod, executive director for the Arizona Plumbing, Heating, Cooling Contractor’s Association, based in Phoenix, chose to stage a conference at a tribal casino because the cost differential was significant. As many of these facilities are relatively new and also new to the meetings business rates tend to be reasonable. This is true for most Native American casinos, with the possible exception of the market leaders, say sources.

Next year, Zubrod is moving her conference to a traditional resort hotel in Flagstaff for variety’s sake, but says this will involve a “50 percent markup.”

Not all have found the market niche so budget friendly, however. Samira Boueir, corporate events coordinator for Michigan CAT Corp., a manufacturer of heavy equipment in Novi, Mich., says her meeting at Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mount Pleasant, Mich., proved to be more expensive than her usual venues, which are typically small conference hotels and resorts. This extra cost, however, was more than worth it to Boueir. “The staff was incredible and helpful, the facilities were clean and beautiful, and our members appreciated it. It was money well spent.”

Generally, the more established a property, the higher its rates. Jennifer Kutcher, a Philadelphia-based gaming consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, says ascertaining the average cost for holding a conference or meeting at a Native American casino can be tricky, as Native American casinos do not have to publish statistics, since they are governed by different accounting and tax rules from other casinos.

Properties such as Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos have, in their few years of operation, experienced success on a level few predicted when the IGRA was made law. Also thriving is the Muckleshoot Casino, which added conference facilities to its casino last December. Said a spokesperson from Muckleshoot, “In order for Indian casinos to succeed, they have to be near a market. Then it is purely down to the facilities a casino can offer. If what you offer is good, then there should be no difference to a meeting planner between going to an Indian casino and going anywhere else.”

Pleasant surprises
Apart from providing a fun place for groups to gamble, relax and work, tribal casinos put great emphasis on professionalism and grace. “We were all pleasantly surprised,” says Donna Zubrod. “The staff was very congenial and helpful.”

Diane Lopez comments, “Hon-Dah was faster paced than we expected but just as professional as any other place we’ve been.” Her conference was the largest event the casino had ever held and required extra staffing. The casino came through by going to the local Native American school and recruiting 16- to 18-year-olds, who were able to get some work experience after classes as porters and information-providers.

Triibal people are gracious,” adds Daniel P. Keenan, a consultant for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. They have a different perspective with regard to how to treat people. For many guests, this is a very tangible thing.”

And this perspective works both ways. Mary Prevost says the stereotypes regarding Native Americans also are being smashed. “People’s perceptions of what it is like to be on an Indian reservation are changing.” Gary Stopp agrees, saying this “awareness is one of the more important changes to affect tribal groups in the last decade.”

Another advantage: Every Native American casino and resort is in its infancy and, therefore, less likely to be in need of repair. “Everything is brand spanking new,” says Jim Soltau of the Grand Casino Hinckley, “so there is far less to worry about.”

Looking ahead
Industry analysts say for those reservations able to run gaming facilities, the future is not in craps and blackjack but in craps and blackjack and conference centers, hotels, golf courses, upscale restaurant and shopping centers. Such developments will mean more choices for meeting planners.

“Gambling will always be the linchpin for casinos,” points out consultant Jennifer Kutcher, “as there is no better cash flow for the casino, but if they are geographically well placed, then meeting space and hotels are the next logical steps.

To attract groups, the resorts first have to be on a level playing field. Then it is up to the developers to put together a package that appeals to planners one that includes good restaurants, leisure activities and other draws.

The four-year-old Mohegan Sun resort in Uncasville, Conn., may well be the blueprint for the future of Native American gaming. “We are not a casino hotel,” David H. Casey, vice president, hotel sales and marketing, explains, “but rather we are a meetings destination with many forms of entertainment.”

And its offerings are growing. Mohegan Sun, which is owned by the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut, announced in February a $750 million expansion, to be completed in 2002, that will triple the size of the property by adding a 10,000-seat arena, a spa and a planetarium. The project also will give the resort its first 1,200 hotel rooms and its first meeting facilities, which will comprise 100,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 40,000-square-foot ballroom.

Unlike at most casinos, guest rooms at Mohegan Sun are not controlled by the casino but by the hotel itself, a policy that allows for flexibility in such matters as early check-in and late check-out. (Soaring Eagle, which is owned by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, has a similar policy.) “We also do not force anyone through the casino floor,” Casey adds. “Of course gaming is here, but it is possible for those attending meetings not to ever have to see a roulette table.”

Turning heads: The forecourt of Turning Stone Casino ResortOwned by the Oneida Indian Nation, Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, N.Y., also actively seeks groups but sees meetings primarily as a complement to its gaming interests, a business viewpoint shared by most casinos. Anderson Bradshaw, director of sales for the resort, says, “as our plans developed to attract gaming guests from outside the immediate area, we also identified an internal need to develop space for servicing tournaments, special events and concerts.” He adds, “The conference business is a logical extension of the entertainment business that has already been initiated. I see a continued growth of meeting space that is flexible to accommodate the needs of the casino operation as well as to provide a unique meeting site for conferences.”

Marketing support
Often, planners arrange hotel stays and conference programs directly with the casino property, rather than relying on convention and visitor bureaus to serve as liaisons. As the reservations are technically sovereign nations, they generally have limited involvement with CVBs.

Judy Cain, executive director at the Mille Lacs (Minn.) Area Tourism Board, says the Grand Casino Mille Lacs is so well promoted that any possible input on the CVB’s side will be minimal. “The casino is part of the area mix,” she explains, “and we recommend clients to it for the right type of events.”

Cain adds that the casino sends a representative to her tourism board’s meetings so there is some dialogue between the two bodies.

Planners might prefer to go to the CVB first for information about the area’s casinos, rather than going direct to the property’s sales department.

A growing number of larger conferences and trade shows now are considering Native American casinos, sources agree. “This is a natural cycle of [a casino’s] life,” says Paul Brown, director of sales at Soaring Eagle, which has a 50,000-square-foot trade show and a 512-room hotel. “These groups book far in advance, so it has been only in the last year or two that properties of our age have been able to cater to them.”


Native American tribes are banding together to propose and build the casinos of tomorrow. In April, the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, based in Escondido, Calif., announced plans for a $180 million casino and resort in Escondido.

Taking advantage of Proposition 1A, the tribe is pooling resources with the Louisiana-based Tunica-Biloxi tribe and circumventing the need for Native American casinos to seek capital from established non-Native American sources.

As Native American reservations often are in remote locations, such partnerships and the money they produce might have dramatic consequences for the gaming industry.

“I manage a smaller block, all of the internal staff, which can be 200 to 300 people. On a real-time basis, I can look at the availability of the hotels and who has rooms left on what dates.”


The following is a rundown of the country’s largest Native American casinos.ARIZONA
Hon-Dah Casino Resort
Pinetop, Ariz.
Guest rooms: 128
Meeting space: 19,000 square feet
(800) 929-8744

Spa Hotel & Casino
Guest rooms: 230
Meeting space: 5,880 square feet
Palm Springs, Calif.
(800) 854-1279

Foxwoods Resort Casino
Mashantucket, Conn.
Guest rooms: 1,500
Meeting space: 55,000 square feet
(800) 752-9244

Mohegan Sun
Uncasville, Conn.
1,200 guest rooms and 100,000 square feet of meeting space to open by 2002
(888) 226-7711

Bay Mills Casino and Resort
Brimley, Mich.
Guest rooms: 137
Meeting space: 4,800 square feet
(800) 386-4959

Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort
Mount Pleasant, Mich.
Guest rooms: 512
Meeting space: 89,000 square feet
(877) 232-4532

Grand Casino Hinckley
Hinckley, Minn.
Guest rooms: 281
Meeting space: 10,425 square feet
(800) 447-6877

Grand Casino Mille Lacs
Lake Mille Lacs, Minn.
Guest rooms: 284
Meeting space: 27,000 square feet
(800) 447-6877

Mystic Lake Casino Hotel
Prior Lake, Minn.
Guest rooms: 416
Meeting space: 12,000 square feet
(plus 7,000 square feet to be added in July)
(612) 445-9000

Turning Stone Casino Resort
Verona, N.Y.
Guest rooms: 285
Meeting space: 20,756 square feet
(800) 771-7711

Harrahs Cherokee Smokey
Mountains Casino

Cherokee, N.C.
250 rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space to open in spring 2001
(828) 497-7777

Seven Feathers Hotel & Casino
Resort Canyonville, Ore.
Guest rooms: 15
Meeting space: 22,000 square feet
(800) 548-8461

St. Croix Casino
Turtle Lake, Wis.
158 guest rooms
Meeting space: 3,000 square feet
(800) 846-8946


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