No Reservations: Rapid growth in the Native American casino market

Move over, Foxwoods. You too, Mohegan Sun.

Lately, the growth in Indian casinos has been so rapid that our heads are spinning faster than a roulette wheel. More and more tribes are giving casinos group appeal, with hotels, meeting space, and amenities like spas and golf courses. We wondered which were the most likely contenders to become the next big meetings destination, a la Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. To find out, we turned to Steve Sherf, a casino-gaming consultant for the Virginia Beach, VA-based Cayuga Hospitality Group.

In assessing the relative potential of Indian casinos, Sherf explains that Cayuga considers three parameters: population density, number of nearby competing properties, and possible compact constraints (some compacts between tribes and state governments limit how much gaming is allowed, which in turn restricts the tribe's potential investment in gaming and meetings amenities). Based on these criteria, Sherf handicapped the major meetings-friendly Indian casinos, and came up with this shortlist, in alphabetical order.

Mystic Lake Resort & Casino
Prior Lake, MN

Located about 25 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, this property, owned and operated by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, has a population of at least three million within an hour's drive, and contains the Midwest's largest casino (it's also the official casino hotel of the Mall of America). Mystic Lake offers a 600-room hotel and 21,000 square feet of meeting space; its largest ballroom seats 750 theater style, but a 2,000-seat entertainment center, available for meetings, will open next year. Other amenities include five restaurants, offering options from snacks to steaks, and The Meadows at Mystic Lake, a new championship golf course that opens this summer.

Jim Louis of Best Meetings Inc. in Bloomington, MN, recently held a two-day trade show for flooring and carpeting companies at Mystic Lake, with 400 exhibitors and nearly 1,500 attendees. "It is a great facility," he enthuses. "The service is great—they bend over backwards to make it the best event for you." Although the resort is alcohol-free, Louis says that his client surveyed the attendees beforehand and determined that that didn't make a difference to them. Also, alcohol is sometimes permitted under specific circumstances—such as during Louis' own wedding reception at the resort, where he was able to bring in champagne for the toast.

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Hollywood, FL

This may be the most likely candidate to compete with Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods, Sherf predicts, because of its population density (the property is just a half-hour from Miami), lack of competition, and the fact that the Seminole tribe's compact with the state has no limits on growth. This sprawling, 86-acre resort offers a 500-room hotel, a 130,000-square-foot casino, and more than 60,000 square feet of meeting space; the tribe is currently negotiating to expand its gaming beyond the 2,100 slot machines now available.

Rosie Chance of PepsiCo International in nearby Deerfield Beach brought about 70 bottlers and distributors to the Seminole Hard Rock last January for a conference and trade show. Chance had never held a meeting at a casino before, and admits she was "a little reluctant," but the gathering proved a success: "The meeting services were fabulous, the property is beautiful, and the people were terrific—they couldn't have been more helpful." She received several thank-you notes from her attendees, which she says is highly unusual, and confesses that delegates took so much advantage of the entertainment options available at the resort that "one of them even dozed off during the meeting the next day!"

Says Chance, "I've been doing meetings at PepsiCo for 24 years, and this was one of the best meetings we've ever had." She's even recommended them to "everyone" in her office, "so they can hold their own meetings there."

Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel
Niagara Falls, NY

Located just blocks away from Niagara Falls and with a population of more than six million living within a three-hour drive, this property attracts gamers from as far away as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. And with the completion last month of a $200-million, 604-room hotel (the largest in western New York), Seneca Niagara is betting that it can parlay its successful casino business into a viable meetings destination.

Besides six restaurants, the property offers 35,000 square feet of meeting space, including an event center with capacity for up to 2,200. A full-service spa with 12 treatment rooms will open later this year, and the Seneca are working on acquiring land on which to build two additional hotels.

Turning Stone Resort & Casino
Verona, NY

Located midway between Syracuse and Albany, Turning Stone, owned by the Oneida Indian Nation, has close to 10 million people within a three-hour drive, and more than four million visitors each year. To accommodate this vast market, it recently added two hotels: the 98-suite, Adirondack-style Lodge at Turning Stone, and the 287-room Tower at Turning Stone. The latter includes a 5,000-seat events center, bringing the total meeting space to nearly 100,000 square feet.

Meetings business is brisk at Turning Stone, where about a thousand conferences were held last year. Many groups make use of the property's five golf courses, and with three tour-caliber courses designed by Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and Rick Smith, Turning Stone is considered a top golf resort in the Northeast, according to resort spokesman Mark Emery.

Jennifer Mauer, executive director of the New York State Association of Professional Land Surveyors in Albany, brought nearly 1,000 attendees to Turning Stone in January for an educational conference and trade show. Besides enjoying the "beautiful" spa, her attendees "raved" about the food, says Mauer (the resort just opened six new restaurants, bringing the total to 20).

"This was an absolute record, sellout conference for us," Mauer notes, and she plans to return to the property as soon as she can. The fact that the resort does not have a liquor license (though there's one in the works) was "not a deterrent," she adds, as groups can bring in their own alcohol, either individually or by using an off-site caterer for their events.

SIDEBAR: Other Good Bets

Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino
Lakeside, CA

California has the most developed Indian casino market in the country, but none of its properties made Sherf's shortlist because their growth is restricted by their compacts and there's plenty of competition. Even so, this resort, located a half-hour from San Diego, is a high-end option, offering more than 100,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, a 400-room hotel, a championship golf course, and a full- service spa.

Pechanga Resort & Casino
Temecula, CA

The largest casino resort in the state, Pechanga, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, boasts 522 guest rooms, more than 40,000 square feet of meeting space, and a spa. It recently underwent a $252-million expansion.

Sandia Resort & Casino
Albuquerque, NM

Competition from surrounding casinos and a lack of population density kept this property off Sherf's shortlist, even though he says it's "gorgeous—probably the nicest casino in New Mexico." There's a 228-room hotel, a 35,000-square-foot meetings center, a 12,000-square-foot spa, and a championship golf course.