Game On

As regional gaming destinations open across the country, meeting planners benefit.

Mohegan Sun Expands Its Reach
Mohegan Sun, located on 185 acres along the banks of the Thames River in Uncasville, CT, has been quietly expanding its reach, with the formation of Mohegan Gaming Advisors (MGA).

“Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs was the first casino to open in Pennsylvania under the Pennsylvania gaming law,” says Mitchell Etess, CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority (MTGA).

An entertainment, gaming, shopping, and dining destination, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs opened a 238-room hotel and 20,000-square-foot convention center in November. The hotel features a full-service spa, lobby bar, fitness center, and indoor pool. The convention center can accommodate groups from 10 to 1,500 and can also be converted into a live events center that can accommodate up to 1,500.

It is MGA that helped Resorts Casino Hotel, Atlantic City’s original casino, survive a downward spiral. MGA, a subsidiary of MTGA that owns Mohegan Sun Casino, assumed management of Resorts and made an initial investment in the property. Together, Morris Bailey, who owns Resorts Casino Hotel, and MGA, placed a strategic bet on Resorts’ future. More than $70 million in casino upgrades were made, including the addition of a $35-million Margaritaville complex.

Margaritaville at Resorts Casino launched in the summer of 2013 with a ribbon cutting presided over by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and a Jimmy Buffett concert on the beach that drew more than 50,000 fans. Right from the start of its overflow Memorial Day Weekend opening, it became clear that bets on Margaritaville and Resorts were paying off. What’s more, Resorts’ focus on Atlantic City’s beachfront heritage may offer a potential blueprint for gradual improvement elsewhere in the area.

Resorts features 942 guest rooms and suites, an 80,000-square-foot casino, two theaters, six restaurants, a health club and spa, retail shops, and 39,000 square feet of meeting space.

MGA has also been selected to operate gaming and entertainment at Market8, the urban entertainment center being developed at East Market Street (between 8th and 9th Streets) in Center City in Philadelphia. Additionally, MGA has been advising the Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington State, and has a proposal pending for Mohegan Sun Massachusetts, in western Massachusetts.

There was a time when Atlantic City was the only game in town. If a group wanted to have a meeting in a casino resort on the East Coast, this is where they went. But those days are over.

In 2006, when gambling in Atlantic City reached record levels, there were 27 commercial and tribal casinos, slots parlors, and racetrack casinos in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, according to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth's Center for Policy Analysis. Now, there are 55, with more casinos on their way in many other states. Pennsylvania, which first allowed casino gambling in 2006, topped New Jersey in gross gaming revenue last year and is now the country's second-largest U.S. gambling market, after Nevada.

Pennsylvania, a state that many do not instantly associate with gaming, now has 10 casinos that include Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, Mount Airy Casino Resort, SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, and the Valley Forge Casino Resort. Pennsylvania casinos also have new competition to reckon with from nearby states, including Maryland and Ohio, which added casinos last year.

What the East Coast is experiencing is not unique. For example, Reno and northern Nevada are now facing competition from tribal casinos opening around Sacramento, CA, of all places.

But while this may mean competition for existing gaming properties, it means more options for planners. "Regional gaming is a market that is in a customer's favor and will be going forward," says Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA Corporation, a gaming consultancy based in Paramus, NJ. "With the influx of regional gaming properties, meeting planners can play one property against the other. My advice is to not go in and jump at the first offer. There are great deals to be had, especially midweek."

Plus, in a crowded market, the path to survival is to add attractions. New hotels, shows, restaurants, spas, and meeting space will all benefit meetings groups. An added bonus is that many have learned to differentiate themselves in the market by enhancing customer service.

Close Proximity

It's no secret that Atlantic City is hurting. One of the reasons for its woes is that its feeder market is shrinking. "When new regional gaming properties open, it takes some of the feeder market away from other properties," says Woinski. "For the most part, regional properties now draw within a 40-mile area. That's how close casinos are to each other."

When Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun opened, it didn't severely impact Atlantic City. "Then, when Pennsylvania got in on the game, there was an attitude in Atlantic City that these slot barns would never take business away. Were they wrong."

He says that when people based in the New York metro area realized that Sands Bethlehem, "an awesome property," is 50 minutes closer than Atlantic City, it was a game changer. Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway and Resorts World Casino and Aqueduct Racetrack are even closer, says Woinski. To make matters worse, in early November, New York voters approved seven Las Vegas-style casinos to open in the state, joining the other 20 already in existence.

When Joe Brennan, COO of RDC, Inc., a regional wholesale drug cooperative based in Rochester, NY, has to plan a meeting, he doesn't have to look far from his company's home base to find the ideal venue. He has been having meetings in Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel for the last seven years.

"Seneca hosts a very important end-of-year business meeting for RDC; several major manufacturers attend the meetings to discuss current issues within the pharmaceutical/healthcare industry along with setting goals for the new year," says Brennan. "Seneca's attentiveness to our needs make our event very successful. Seneca has been very accommodating — they give us the meeting space we need and are very flexible."

Not only is there a Seneca property in Niagara Falls but there is the Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel in Salamanca, NY. Both properties draw local groups.

"You'll need travel time to go elsewhere, you'll likely pay more to present your event in other markets, and you may not get the individual care and service that we offer," says Jim Wise, Seneca's senior vice president of marketing. "The type of experience you could only get in a handful of the largest U.S. cities is now available at a handful of regional resorts."

Based in Wood Bridge, NJ, Rosa Taylor, an administrative assistant for FedEx Ground, has her pick of gaming resorts for the meetings she plans. These are strategic meetings that also include a teambuilding component. Her most recent meeting was held at Mount Airy Casino and Resort, set in the Pocono Mountains. Features include 188 guestrooms; a lakefront, 18-hole golf course; a 16,000-square-foot spa; Gypsies Nightclub and bar; close to 6,000 square feet of meeting space; and a new 52,000-square-foot, indoor/outdoor, year-round pool complex and entertainment venue now under construction.

Uncovering Gaming

The excitement of Las Vegas can now be found in the heart of the Midwest at FireKeepers Casino Hotel, owned and operated by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi. Set between Kalamazoo and Detroit, in Battle Creek, MI, there is an eight-story, resort-style, 242-room hotel, the FireKeepers Casino, that features 107,000 square feet of Vegas-style gaming, more than 20,000 square feet of meeting space, and a functional multi-purpose event center with seating for up to 2,000.

Today, gaming can be found in not-so-typical spots. Jim Justice, the West Virginia native who swooped in and bought The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy, added an elegant, "Monte Carlo-style" underground casino to the 721-room resort. This new 103,000-square-foot underground facility also includes restaurants, lounges, and upscale boutiques. Roulette, blackjack, baccarat, craps, three-card poker, and Texas hold 'em are available for resort guests and members. In addition, 320 slot machines, including refitted vintage silver-dollar machines, form the perimeter of the lower level. Greenbrier Royale, a private high-limit room, is available for those who wish to raise the stakes. The Greenbrier's newest tradition is the Casino Club's nightly champagne toast, where the Springhouse Dancers take center stage. At precisely 10 p.m., attention is directed to the grand marble staircase where the performance begins. The performers, trained by New York-based choreographers, dance to "The Greenbrier Waltz," an original musical composition by Greenbrier County native Tony Nalker.

Chris Wynn, president and CEO of The Wynn Company, a meeting management firm based in Franklin, TN, says there have been some properties his company has excluded for its clients because they include casinos. This doesn't hold true at The Greenbrier, as its casino is more of an amenity than a central focus. "The meetings we plan are so serious to the industries they belong to that we make sure there are no distractions," says Wynn. "The casino is not a distraction at the Greenbrier, it's just another amenity for the group to enjoy in the evening. It's not even open 24 hours."

There is even a casino resort nestled within a state park: Rocky Gap Casino Resort, which is located within Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland. It features world-class golf and dining, more than 550 slot machines, and table games including blackjack, craps, roulette, and live poker. There are 200 hotel rooms and suites, an indoor swimming pool, spa, fitness center, and approximately 18,000 square feet of meeting space. A new events center will be opening this month. Named the Alleghany Events Center, it houses a main meeting room, three smaller meeting rooms, and an executive boardroom.