August 2009

Gaming Destinations

by Tony Bartlett

New casino resorts and expansions have been opening in destinations across the South, providing new opportunities for meetings and entertainment.

Established gaming destinations in Mississippi and Louisiana are emphasizing that they offer even more value in these economic times.

Oklahoma has been undergoing a casino construction boom that is changing its meetings and event space landscape.

Florida’s Native American gaming is benefiting from the launch last year of house-banked table games and Las Vegas-style slots, which have replaced many of its electronic machines. Racinos (racetrack casinos) in West Virginia also added house-banked table games last year.

Alabama now boasts its first gaming resort, and North Carolina’s lone casino resort has a major expansion underway.

The Magnolia State’s gaming revenues totaled over $2.7 billion last year, a 5.9 percent drop from 2007, according to the American Gaming Association.

After a record 2007, when gaming revenues along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, the South’s second-largest commercial casino market, topped $1 billion for the first time, they dropped to $951.27 million last year.

For the first quarter, however, coast casino hotels’ average occupancy held steady at 84.6 percent, compared to 84.7 percent for last year’s period, with the average daily rate (ADR) slipping from $75 to $73.64, according to figures from the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

With 11 casinos along a 26-mile beach-lined playground, all but two with hotels, casinos account for almost all hotel meeting space. They also account for 5,569 of the area’s 12,500 guest rooms, a number still 5,000 short of the 2005 pre-Katrina room count.

With inquiries running way above those of a year ago, Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB, is encouraged and hopeful of a good season.

"People are looking for value and are staying closer to home. We are marketing to areas within 350 miles and have a huge Florida campaign under way," he says.

Biloxi’s Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center has renovated its 180,000 square feet of meeting space. A long-awaited expansion will debut in October, bringing available space to 400,000 square feet.

"It will give us greater flexibility and new opportunities," Forester says. "We’ve added sales staff devoted to the center. We’re going after national accounts and are paying more attention to the SMERF market.

By summer 2007, 10 of 12 casinos were back in operation after Katrina damage, and the new 318-room Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, with a 1,400-seat entertainment venue, had opened.

Construction on the new $704 million, 798-room Harrah’s Margaritaville Casino & Resort, adjacent to Harrah’s 500-room Grand Biloxi Casino Hotel & Spa, was halted last year. There has been no word on its resumption.

The largest hotel meetings facilities are at the 1,740-room Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, with 50,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 1,088-room IP Casino Resort & Spa, which has 18,000 square feet of meeting space and a new showroom.

Other Biloxi casinos are the 236-room Palace Casino Resort and Boomtown Biloxi. Others on the coast are the 291-room Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis, Gulfport’s 562-room Island View Casino Resort and the Silver Slipper at Lakeshore.

The new 195-room Four Points by Sheraton Biloxi Beach Boulevard opens near the Beau Rivage Sept. 3.

In May last year, the 153-room Courtyard by Marriott Gulfport, formerly the Gulfport Beachfront Hotel, reopened with 6,300 square feet of meeting space after a $9.6 million renovation. In June last year, a new Hilton Garden Inn and Residence Inn opened near Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

The airport, which unveiled a new $51 million terminal in late 2007, recently saw the addition of new nonstop flight service from Tampa, Fla., and Atlanta, on Continental Express and Southern Skyways, respectively.

Tunica, the South’s largest commercial casino market, saw its gaming revenues drop from $1.24 billion in 2007 to $1.10 billion last year.

For first quarter, the 10 riverside casinos, which offer a total of 5,891 guest rooms, had an average hotel occupancy of 80.7 percent, down from 82.2 percent during the same period last year. The ADR was $57.92, down from $60.12.

According to Bill Cantor, Tunica CVB director of sales and marketing, the destination hosted 895 meetings and conventions last year, up from 695 in 2007, and future and tentative bookings are holding their own.

"Tunica is a great value. We have new and updated product. We’re starting to trend up, although we are seeing smaller groups that are spending less," he says.

Two of Tunica’s largest casino resorts have recently completed renovations.

The 1,356-room Grand Casino Resort, with 30,000 square feet of meeting space, was rebranded Harrah’s Casino Tunica in May 2008, following a $45 million renovation that included a new 560-seat buffet and renovated guest rooms.

Late last year, Gold Strike Casino Resort completed a multimillion-dollar upgrade that included its 1,160 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space.

The 1,076-room Sam’s Town has 50,000 square feet of meeting space; the 494-room Hollywood Casino, 14,000 square feet; the 200-room Resorts Tunica, 13,464 square feet; and the 507-room Fitz Casino & Hotel, 9,650 square feet.

River communities south of Tunica have seen casino growth.

Vicksburg gained its fifth casino hotel last November when the new 80-room Riverwalk Casino Hotel opened with an 800-slot casino and a meeting/events center.

In May last year, the Ameristar unveiled a $100 million expansion, adding more than 500 gaming positions and new restaurants.

Others Vicksburg casinos are DiamondJacks, Rainbow and Horizon, which is next to downtown’s Vicksburg Convention Center.

Natchez has one riverboat casino, the 141-room Isle of Capri.

Last November, the 124-room Grand Soleil Casino Resort, a remodeled Ramada Inn, opened with 3,200 square feet of meeting space. However, a proposed 850-slot casino for the hotel has yet to be built.

Greenville has two riverboat casinos: Bayou Caddy’s Jubilee and Lighthouse Point. Its first land-based casino, the 105-room Harlow’s Casino Resort, opened near the river in November 2007 with a 2,500-seat entertainment center.

Mississippi has one Native American casino, Pearl River Resort, operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians near Philadelphia.

With more than 1,000 rooms in two casino hotels, Pearl River boasts more than 5,000 slots, 100 table games, 16 restaurants and 40,000 square feet of meeting space. It also has a waterpark, blues club, 36 holes of golf and a 140-room Hilton Garden Inn, which opened adjacent to the golf course early last year.

In January, the resort announced that the Golden Moon hotel will open only on weekends, an operational change, it said, that was "in response to a number of factors, including the country’s economic recession, a nationwide decline in gaming industry revenues and over-expansion of the resort relative to the size of the market it serves."

Louisiana has 13 riverboat casinos, one land-based facility and four racinos. Casino revenues totaling $2.584 billion last year were up 0.7 percent over 2007. It also has three Native American casinos.

New Orleans’ visitor numbers increased from 7.1 million in 2007 to 7.6 million in 2008 (compared to pre-Katrina levels of 8.5 million), according to the New Orleans CVB, which also reported more convention business on the books for 2009 than 2008.

However, the South’s fourth-largest commercial casino market had gaming revenues of $701.37 million last year, down from $703.59 million in 2007.

The Big Easy has Louisiana’s lone land-based commercial casino, the 3-year-old Harrah’s New Orleans, located near the Morial Convention Center and offering 115,000 square feet of gaming, a 500-seat theater and a 450-room hotel.

Two metro-area riverboats are Treasure Chest adjacent to Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center, which has more than 46, 000 square feet of exhibit space, and Boomtown New Orleans at Harvey, with 4,000 square feet of meeting space.

A third riverboat, the former Belle of New Orleans, damaged by Katrina, reopened near Morgan City, 80 miles south of New Orleans, in June 2007.

The city’s first permanent racino opened last November. Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, which, had been operating since September 2007 with a 250-slot temporary facility, opened a 600-slot casino.

Capitalizing on its location as the center of the Ark-La-Region, and its blend of cultures, the twin cities of Shreveport-Bossier City straddling the Red River launched a branding campaign in April last year with the tag, "Louisiana’s Other Side."

According to the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau, 59 percent of tourists to the area visit a casino.

"We are a very affordable destination, a plus in these trying economic times. Research shows our visitors believe they receive great value, and this holds true of meetings and conventions," says Stacy Brown, bureau president, adding that the average hotel rate is $79 per night, with casinos offering weeknight rates that are even lower.

Last year, the South’s third largest commercial casino market had revenues of $847.61 million, up from $844.13 million in 2007.

Each of its five riverboat casinos has a hotel and meeting space. There is also a racino: Harrah’s Louisiana Downs Casino & Racetrack, a Bossier City thoroughbred facility that can handle groups of up to 900 and has a 150-room SpringHill Suites, which opened in June 2008.

Within walking distance of the three-year-old Shreveport Convention Center are the 514-room Sam’s Town, with 18,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 403-room Eldorado with 6,200 square feet.

Bossier City has the 570-room DiamondJacks, with 20,000 square feet of meeting space; the 188-room Boomtown, with 2,400 square feet; and the 600-room Horseshoe Casino & Hotel, with 3,797 square feet. In partnership with Country Music Television, the Horseshoe unveiled the first CMT Crossroads Bar, a $3.3 million 3,300-square-foot facility, in May of last year.

Like Shreveport-Bossier to the north, Lake Charles has a new branding message. Designed to promote its gaming, sports, and hunting and fishing, the new tag unveiled last December by the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana CVB is, "Are You Game?"

"We think our rebranding is something that people can really latch onto. We have diversity and activities that are polar opposites, and a thriving amateur sports market and a thriving arts community, " says Angie Manning Istre, the CVB’s communications manager.

A two-hour drive from metro Houston, Lake Charles is the South’s fifth largest commercial casino market with gaming revenues increasing from $640.63 million in 2007 to $651.23 million last year.

It has two waterfront casino resorts and a racino at Vinton, Boyd Gaming’s 250-room Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino, which includes an 850-seat events center.

The two casino resorts are Pinnacle Entertainment’s L’Auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino, with 28,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 400-room Isle of Capri, with 14,500 square feet of meeting space.

L’Auberge opened a 250-room tower addition early last year, bringing total rooms to almost 1,000.

Last year, Pinnacle began groundwork for a second casino resort adjacent to L’Auberge, the $400 million Caribbean-themed 400-room Sugarcane Bay.

In April, the company was granted a 150-day extension from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board for the project, based, it stated, "on the continued disruption in the global capital markets." However, it now reportedly expects to begin construction by September.

A similar extension was given for its proposed Riviere, a 550-acre resort in Baton Rouge, which is in the design stage. The $250 million first phase calls for a 1,500-slot riverboat casino and a 100-room hotel.

Louisiana’s capital has two Mississippi riverboat casinos: the 1,000-slot Belle of Baton Rouge Casino, which is under the same ownership as the adjacent 300-room Sheraton Baton Rouge Convention Center Hotel, and farther upriver, Penn National Gaming’s 1,000-slot Hollywood Casino.

Louisiana has three land-based Indian casinos.

At the state’s center at Marksville, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe’s Paragon Casino Resort has a 2,000-slot casino, 531 guest rooms, an 18-hole golf course and meeting space that includes the Mari Convention Center, which offers a 2,600-seat showroom and an 8,000-square-foot ballroom.

Expanded in 2007 with a 250-room hotel tower and the convention center, the resort in January

hosted the annual Louisiana Travel & Tourism Summit, attracting over 500 delegates.

The Coushatta tribe has the 500-room Grand Casino Coushatta in Kinder, 25 miles northeast of Lake Charles, with 57,000 square feet of meeting space and an 18-hole golf course.

At Charenton, the Chitimacha Tribe operates the 1,350-slot Cypress Bayou Casino with a 50,000-square foot entertainment and dining pavilion.

The Sunshine State has eight Native American casinos and three racinos, with a fourth under construction.

The Seminole Tribe’s seven casinos include the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood, with 40,000 square feet of meeting space, and Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, with 10,000 square feet of meeting space. Tampa completed a $120 million expansion in November 2007, increasing its gaming machines by one third.

Southwest Florida’s Seminole Casino Immokalee unveiled a $22 million renovation and expansion in February. It sports an expanded casino with 1,100 Las Vegas-style slots and 38 table games, a new restaurant and bar and a new 750-seat outdoor pavilion.

Early last year, in return for paying increased revenues to the state, the Seminoles began converting from Class II electronic machines to Class III Las Vegas-style slots like those found in Louisiana and Mississippi Indian casinos, and installing such house-banked table games as blackjack, pai gow, and baccarat.

Hollywood has around 2,500 Class III slots and more than 70 table games; Tampa has more than 100 table games and most of its 3,000 slots are Class III.

The move followed a new compact (agreement) signed in November 2007 by the tribe and Gov. Charlie Crist. However, in July last year, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the compact because the state legislature hadn’t ratified it.

In June, Crist signed a bill that would allow the tribe to keep their Class III slots and table games in exchange for further increased payments. The new law has to be approved by the tribe.

One other Florida tribe, the Miccosukee Tribe, has a casino. The 302-room Miccosukee Resort & Gaming west of Miami offers 1,700 Class II video pull-tab machines, 58 poker tables, a 1,200-seat high-stakes bingo hall, 46,000 square feet of meeting space and 27 holes of golf.

Broward County has three racinos with Las Vegas-style slots and poker, approved by voters in 2004 and opened in 2006 and 2007. They are the 850-slot Gulfstream Park, the 1,200-slot Mardi Gras Racetrack and the 1,200-slot Isle of Capri Pompano Beach harness track.

Miami-Dade voters early last year approved racinos at the county’s three pari-mutuel facilities, Miami Jai-Alai, Flagler Dog Track, and Calder Race Course.

At Calder Race Course, Churchill Downs Inc. broke ground in June on an $85 million, 104,000 square-feet casino, which will feature 1,225 slots and three restaurants. It is scheduled to open early next year in time for the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl at nearby Land Shark Stadium.

The Sooner State has been the rising star of Native American gaming growth. Of the 28 tribal gaming states, it ranks third in revenue after California and Connecticut.

The National Indian Gaming Commission reported a nationwide 2.3 percent increase in Native American gaming revenues for 2008. Its Eastern Oklahoma region showed an 18.2 percent increase; its Western Oklahoma region, a 17.6 percent increase.

With more than 100 gaming facilities operated by more than 30 tribes, it has it has about one quarter of the country’s Native American gambling places, although most are small. Legislation in 2005 allowing Class III slots and non house-banked card games spurred growth.

In Catoosa outside Tulsa, Oklahoma’s first casino resort, the four-year-old Cherokee Casino & Resort began rolling out a $155 million expansion in December, adding 800 slots and a new Center Bar complete with an 80-foot-long ice bar top.

In April, it debuted 18,000 square feet of convention space bringing rentable space to 35,000 square feet. In May, it opened the first rooms of a 200-room hotel addition that will bring total rooms to 350. Late this summer, when it will be rebranded a Hard Rock hotel, it will unveil a 2,500-seat multi-purpose theater and new dining venues.

Also in Tulsa, the 300,000 square-feet River Spirit Casino opened March 31, replacing a smaller facility. Including 2,750 gaming machines and four dining venues, the Muscogee Nation facility is the first phase of of a $195 million project that calls for a hotel and convention facility.

In November, the Cherokee Nation also opened its new $100 million, 1,500-slot casino in West Siloam Springs, west of Tulsa on the Arkansas border.

Farther north, in the tri-state area near Joplin, Mo., the Quapaw Tribe unveiled the $300 million, 2,000-slot, 222-room Downstream Casino Resort last year. Features include six restaurants and bars, a conference center with six rooms, a 6,200-seat outdoor concert venue and a golf course.

Promoted as the world’s fifth largest casino is Windstar World Casino located on the Texas/Oklahoma border in Thackerville, an hour’s drive from Dallas.

With performances by ZZ Top, Patti Labelle, and Tony Bennett, the Chickasaw Nation celebrated an expansion opening last New Year’s Eve that included the new 2,500-seat Global Event Center and eight conference rooms.

Late this summer it will open a 350-room hotel. It also has an 18-hole golf course and a Microtel, which together with a Best Western, provide 160 rooms within walking distance.

The Choctaw Nation’s casino in Durant opened an event center last summer. Under construction for a February 2010 opening is a 350-room hotel and a 300,000-square foot casino, three times larger than its existing facility.

West Virginia
Of 12 racino states, the Mountain State, with five racetrack casinos and 11,500 slots is second in revenue, which totaled $951.21 million last year, up 2 percent over 2007.

The Northern Panhandle has two, the 150-room Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, with conference rooms accommodating up to 300 people and a 500-seat showroom, and the 359-room Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort 50 miles north of Wheeling in Chester, with an 11,100-square-foot ballroom.

Near Charleston, Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center can handle groups of up to 300.

In the Eastern Panhandle, the 5,000-slot Charles Town Races & Slots recently opened the 153-room Inn at Charles Town, which includes a 1,470-square-foot function room and a boardroom, augmenting the property’s existing 5,200-square ballroom.

West Virginia’s first non-racetrack casino is planned. Last November, Greenbrier County voters approved casino gaming at The Greenbrier, the legendary luxury resort at White Sulphur Springs.

The property, which had been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, was sold to local businessman Jim Justice in May. According to reports in the West Virginia press, he plans to build an underground casino within a year.

Other States
Alabama got its first tribal casino resort in January when the Poarch Band of Creek Indians opened the $250 million Wind Creek Casino & Hotel.

Near Atmore, 50 miles from Mobile, the property features a 1,600-slot casino, a 236-room hotel, four dining options, and four meeting rooms including a 3,300 square foot ballroom.

In North Carolina, bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel in Cherokee delivers 576 guest rooms and a 2,700-slot casino. The Tar Heel State’s only tribal casino has a 9,471-square-foot ballroom and a 1,500-seat entertainment pavilion.

In September, an addition to the resort will be the Sequoyah National Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones II and managed by Troon Golf. A further expansion that includes a 3,000-seat events center and 500 guest rooms is slated for completion in 2012.

With more than 100 casinos across the region, there are lots of upscale hotels with meeting space and casinos to choose from.

Puerto Rico has more than 20 casinos located in hotels.

The new 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Convention Center Hotel opens in San Juan in November. Featuring more than 35,000 square feet of meeting space along with a 500-slot casino, it will be headquarters hotel for the 580,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center.

Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria Collection and Conrad brands debuted in the Caribbean this year with the rebranding of three renovated Puerto Rico resorts, two of them with casinos.

El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa, completing a $120 million renovation in 2008, became a Waldorf=Astoria property in February; El San Juan Hotel & Casino, which completed a $52 million renovation in 2007, joined Waldorf=Astoria in April; and the Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino became a Conrad hotel in March, following a $70 million dollar redesign completed last year.

The Dominican Republic also has more than 20 hotel casinos.

In Punta Cana, Palace Resorts’ new all-inclusive Moon Palace Casino, Golf & Spa Resort, with more than 60,000 square feet of meeting space, held a soft opening in January, rolling out 200 of its 1,791 rooms.

The first nine holes of its par-72, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course opens in September. All guest rooms are expected to be completed by the grand opening late this year.

Along with a nightclub, a spa, and 12,000 square feet of meeting space, the Sosua Bay Grand Casino is scheduled to open this month at the 250-room Sosua Bay Hotel and Casino at Puerto Plata.

The Bahamas claims the region’s largest casino resort, Atlantis on Paradise Island, with more than 1,000 slots and 80 table games and 300,000 square feet of meeting space.

Also among its largest casinos are the 400-slot Crystal Palace Casino at Wyndham Nassau Resort on Cable Beach and the 320-slot Isle of Capri on Grand Bahama. Isle of Capri Casinos announced in May that it intends to exit the property to concentrate on its domestic properties. It continues to manage it during a transition period.

Pinnacle Entertainment announced last summer that it would discontinue operating The Casino at Emerald Bay, which closed Jan. 2. The casino is adjacent to the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma, which closed May 26. The hotel and casino are part of the Emerald Bay development, which has been in receivership.

On Aruba, the 411-room Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, which has 11,600 square feet of meeting space, announced in June that it had completed its multi-year $50 million renovation.

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