Stately Pleasure Domes

Forget the "slot box." Native American casinos have been transformed into stately pleasure domes to rival anything in North America.
August 11, 2010

The transition from "slot box" to mega-resort marks the true arrival of Native American owned-and-operated casinos on a plane with their Las Vegas and Atlantic City counterparts.

Centered on their casinos, these resorts, accompanied by hotels, restaurants, theaters, arenas, conference centers, spas, retail components, and golf courses, are dotting the countryside from Yankee Connecticut to good-ol'-boy Mississippi, from the rich woodlands of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the sparse deserts of the Southwest.

This move to full-scale gaming resorts has been a natural progression, as Native American tribes become more knowledgeable in their gaming expertise. Many tribes are taking advantage of their picturesque locations to build high-end resorts that make their properties attractive destinations not just for gaming, but also for entertainment, conferences, and business meetings.

Branding, "boutiquing," and daylighting are three of the most important trends influencing Native American gaming resorts.

Branding experiences, not themes

As they learned from Las Vegas, Native American casinos typically try to brand or theme their properties. This is especially true for tribes and corporately owned casinos that have more than one property and want to tie them together. Near Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Kewadian Indians are developing a branded experience to their casino renovations, a "Northern Exposure experience," says Tom Hoskens, principal with the Cunningham Group, Minneapolis, which has parlayed its theme-park attraction design expertise into casino design.

In New York's Catskill Mountains, tribes are hoping to resurrect the excitement and success of the Borscht Belt lodges of the first half of the 20th century by bringing back a kind of "retro-lodge look" in two new gaming resorts.

The Cayuga Indians are taking this approach in a new $500 million, 600,000-sq.-ft. casino in Sullivan County, N.Y., being designed by BBG-BBGM, New York. The firm, together with EDSA, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also is designing an addition to the Oneida Indians' Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, N.Y., which will include two hotels, a luxury spa, an event center, and a 2,400-space parking garage. Both projects are to be completed in 2005.

"There is a branching out of the amenity package," says Mario LaGuardia, BBG's partner in charge of the Turning Stone project. "The tribes have opportunities to expand their properties to 365-day-a-year event places."

Planning is critical to such a project's success. "You have to understand the marketplace and who owners want to reach out to," says LaGuardia. "Proper planning allows that expansion to occur."

Most Native American gaming resorts want to instill a sense of the tribal culture in their properties. Two Native American casinos recently master planned, designed, and engineered by the Phoenix and Las Vegas offices of Omaha, Neb.-based Leo A. Daly pay homage to the heritage of their respective tribal owners. The Sandia Indians of New Mexico chose to reflect their native culture in the architecture of the $80 million, 210,000-sq.-ft. Pueblo Sandia Casino, which opened last year in Albuquerque. Yuma, Ariz.'s Cocopah tribe did likewise with its $18 million, 86,000-sq.-ft. Cocopah Casino, which opens this fall.

Then there is Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., a classic example of tribal cultural branding that opened its enormous 4.8 million-sq.-ft. resort expansion in September 2001. "Every detail in the casino has some significance to our culture," says Mark Brown, chairman of the Mohegan tribe and Mohegan Tribal Gaming Commission, pointing to carpet in the resort's Casino of the Earth. The dots imprinted in the carpet represent the trail of life, he says.

When it opened in 1996, Mohegan Sun was just a simple, moneymaking 630,000-sq.-ft. cookie-cutter casino. With its redevelopment, it now comprises two 100,000-sq.-ft. casinos (the Casino of the Earth and the Casino of the Sky); a new 1,200-room, 34-story glass-sheathed luxury hotel tower (the casino had no hotel before); a 100,000-sq.-ft. convention center (the largest such facility between Boston and New York, according to Brown); and a 10,000-sq.-ft. multipurpose arena (home to the Mohegan Wolves Arena Football League team and the WNBA's Connecticut Sun, and host to A-list entertainers such as the rock group The Eagles), plus 20 restaurants, nine bars, retail shops, multiple parking garages, and a $30 million access road from the interstate that takes patrons directly to the property.

The Building Team included two New York-based firms, Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects (KPF) as the project's lead architect, responsible for the program and the exterior of the project, with the Rockwell Group and principal David Rockwell designing the interiors. Hospitality specialist Perini Building Co., Framingham, Mass., was the general contractor. Perini also recently completed the Pechanga Indians' 1 million-sq.-ft. Pechanga Resort and Casino, which opened in June 2002 in Temecula, between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Though the design teams worked separately, with each team having a separate project architect, and the drawings were completed in separate packages, they were brought together through the construction management process, says KPF project architect Lloyd Siegel.

After visiting Las Vegas, says Rockwell, the design team set out to break the mold in casino design. "Each casino in Las Vegas was uglier than the next," says Rockwell. "They were confusing. There was no light. You had no idea of the time of day.

"We decided to challenge some of the traditional rules of casino design; the rules that said you can't have high ceilings, natural light, clear circulation, or use natural materials. Mohegan has 40-ft. ceilings and natural light, as well as clear circulation, and it uses natural materials."

The result is an opulent yet graceful mix of man-made materials and materials native to the area and of importance to tribal heritage. For example, crystals, used by the Mohegans for medicinal and spiritual purposes, were incorporated into the imagery of the hotel tower's glass cladding, with its edges sloped and cut at different angles, says KPF's Siegel. "The entire project is based on the crystals and geological formations found in the area and of importance to the tribe," says Siegel.

When guests enter the casino, they are not immediately overpowered by noise and lights, as they would be in a more Vegas-like setting. Instead they are met by the beauty of the Mohegan culture amid the gaming tables and slot machines. High ceilings are buffered by natural wood and countless beaded tapestries handmade in India, and a combination of normally forbidden natural and artificial light illuminates the casino.

While the Casino of the Earth is darker than most casinos, the Casino of the Sky is marked by detailed constellations on the ceilings that depict the position of the stars at important times in the tribe's history, such as in 1994 when it received official recognition as a tribal nation from the Federal government.

Before becoming a gaming mogul, tribal chairman Brown was a police officer in Uncasville and member of the tribal council. Now, he proudly guides Las Vegas power brokers on tours of his tribe's resort. "They all come to see what we've done here," says Brown. The only thing that one visitor could find wrong was that one of the edges of the gaming tables was too sharp. "If that's the only problem we have, then we must be doing all right," he says.

Where did the tribe get the money for such an expansion? Wall Street, of course, at 18% interest. Drawn by the phenomenal success of the neighboring Piquat Indians' Foxwoods Resort Casino, located only 10 miles up the road, developer Sun International approached the Mohegans in 1994 about expanding the property.

While Sun International and the Mohegans continue to pursue other hospitality projects together, Brown says the tribe now owns and operates the casino itself. What does Wall Street think of the Mohegans now? "Oh, they love us," says Brown, adding that the property now leverages capital at a 6% interest rate.

Some tribes have extended their branding to reflect other types of cultures, geographic locations, and even abstract celestial concepts.

The Pascua Yaqui tribe elected to re-create a Mediterranean village motif with their newly renovated and expanded 213,000-sq.-ft. Casino Del Sol in Tucson, Ariz., designed and engineered by the Phoenix office of Leo A. Daly, with McCarthy Building Cos., Tempe, Ariz., as the general contractor. Among its amenities, the $29 million Tuscan village expansion features a 22,000-sq.-ft. slot hall, a 4,400-seat outdoor amphitheater, a 120-seat sports bar, and a multi-screen movie theater.

In Choctaw, Miss., near Biloxi, the Mississippi Board of Choctaw Indians selected hospitality specialist Miami-based Arquitectonica, known for its eye-catching geometrical imagery, to design a sister addition to its Silver Star Casino. The resulting $280 million, 834,000-sq.-ft. Golden Moon Hotel & Casino stretches the bounds of branding into abstract celestial forms.

A moonlike geodesic sphere, 82 feet in diameter and measuring 17,000 square feet in area, has been perched 315 feet atop a sloping, punch-windowed, 26-story, 571-room hotel tower overlooking the Choctaw reservation, between Carthage and Philadelphia.

"This casino is not about a geographical theme," says Bernardo Fort-Brescia, Arquitectonica principal. "It does not evoke a specific culture. It's abstract and about its own form and image." The moon concept was chosen in collaboration with the Choctaw tribe and complements the star motif of an existing casino.

The decision about whether or not the casino should have a theme was hotly debated among the tribe and their marketing people, says Fort-Brescia. "Why would you want to re-create Rome or San Francisco in Mississippi? We wanted to tie the idea of the moon and the stars together, and create an iconic structure that people would remember as the Choctaw casino."

The illuminated moon serves as a beacon to patrons, the great majority of whom drive to the resort from a five-state area. "Of course, the first thing people ask is can you go inside the moon?" Bernardo says. "That's why we put the bar up there. So after a long drive, there is a payoff for them to be able to relax and have drink up there."

'Boutiquing' breaks up spaces

For years, casino restaurants and high-roller areas have been importing specific themes to differentiate themselves from other restaurants within a resort or from the general casino population. Building Teams in all casino genres are now moving this "boutique" concept into the casino, dividing mammoth slot-machine areas into smaller, more digestible sizes by giving each section its own identity.

Leo A. Daly's Phoenix office employed the technique in its master plan and design for Casino Del Sol's 22,000-sq.-ft. slot hall in Tucson, says Kristina Ennis Robinson, a Daly principal and the firm's director of Native American gaming. While the tribe had 500 slot machines in its existing facility, under state law it was entitled to 400 more slots in a separate venue. The project called for the new slot hall to be included in phase one of the expansion, which opened under an accelerated schedule in October 2001, so that the tribe could begin realizing the additional slot revenues as quickly as possible.

Within the past year, new gaming agreements between the state and Arizona tribes increased the number of slot machines allocated to each tribe, in addition to adding house-banked blackjack to the gaming mix. As a result, the casino can now place up to 998 slot machines and over 70 blackjack tables in the casino, in addition to poker and bingo.

Green design gains a toehold

Sustainable casinos? Traditional Las Vegas-style casinos made their mark basking patrons in bright lights, refrigerating them in energy-gobbling air-conditioning, and flooding them with fountains and other seemingly wasteful uses of water. While sustainable design and construction for casinos is in its embryonic phase, Building Teams are incorporating sustainable elements into many Native American casinos.

Daylighting, attention to indoor air quality and wastewater treatment, and use of native vegetation in landscaping are being implemented in Pueblo Sandia, Casino Del Sol, and Cocopah Casino. Pueblo Sandia has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Harvard University for excellence in environmental standards, according its designer, Leo A. Daly.

Because many Native American casinos are located in areas of spectacular natural beauty, daylighting may lend itself more easily to these properties. Pueblo Sandia treats guests entering the casino through the main rotunda to a panoramic view of the Sandia Mountains, compliments of a 45-ft. floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Many of the casino's bars and restaurants are located on the perimeter of the gaming areas, permitting these areas to be designed with large windows that let in the daylight and provide breathtaking views.

Indoor air quality and smoke reduction are growing concerns among casino patrons, and gaming operators and Building Teams are paying attention. Native American casinos such as Pueblo Sandia (as well as some Las Vegas casinos), are turning to 100% fresh outside air mechanical systems to improve air quality in public areas.

Native Americans are cutting their own path to profitability in the gaming industry, and in so doing, many in Vegas and Atlantic City are following. In gaming, money talks. Last year, total revenues for Native American casinos jumped 13% over 2001. Such a significant increase has opened the eyes of the industry, as well as local, state, and Federal governments, all wanting in on what's proving to be a sure thing.