Southern Gaming Summit: Tribal gaming growing in the South

southern-gaming-summit-logoBILOXI — Tribal gaming is expanding in the Southern region of the U.S. with the addition of gaming space, hotels and amenities such as spas, to keep gamblers longer and the casinos profitable for tribe members.

Session attendees heard regional reports from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Oklahoma Wednesday at the Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi.

Holly Gagnon, president and CEO of Pearl River Resorts in Mississippi, was one of the panelists.

The resort, owned by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, includes the Silver Star and Golden Moon casinos and hotels plus The Dancing Rabbit Golf Cub with two championships courses and a water theme park. “Pearl River Resort is the second largest employer in the state,” she said.

The Choctaw’s most recent addition, opened in November 2010, is the Bok Homa Casino in Jones County. It is their first venture outside the Choctaw land in Neshoba County. The new 27,000 square foot facility has more than 750 slot machines and a quick serve restaurant.

At the time of its opening, officials said market studies showed the demand for the Bok Homa Casino project.

Gagnon said the challenge now is marketing both the established resort and the new casino.

“It’s more about the property keeping service consistent, employees engaged and leveraging our core competencies,” she said. “We’re getting better every day coordinating these two properties.”

The addition of amenties does serve to keep the core customers longer, she said. “It’s more about the length of stay.”

Conrad Granito, general manager of Coushatta Casino Resort in Louisiana, said said the state’s four tribes are adding spas, family entertainment centers with bowling and movies, and hotels.

“There are lots of things going on in the tribal markets,” he said.

Brent Pinkston of PCI Gaming, the gaming authority of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala., said, “We’ve been growing steadily for the last five years.”

Poarch Creek Indian Gaming manages three gaming facilities in Alabama: the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmore; Creek Casino Wetumpka; and Creek Casino Montgomery.

“The tribes have been very successful in meeting increased competition” through diversification, he said.

Pinkston said, “When you add amenities you give gamblers more value for their dollar. We’re not seeing a lot of revenue coming out of our entertainment options. It’s just a more competitive option.”

The goal, he said, is to create and enhance wealth for the tribe.

Pinkston said he believes service in the industry “has gone to the wayside” and that PCI is aiming to offer the highest level the customer service they can by emphasizing Southern hospitality. Employees who excel get rewarded.

“We are very guest-focused,” he said. “We continue to fine tune our customer service. It’s not just a transaction. Our high performers make more money. “

Tom Hoskens, a principal with Cuningham Group Architecture Inc., traced the development of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ $650 million mountain resort in North Carolina. What started as a $175 million casino in 1997 has been expanding over the years. Ground was broken in 2008 for the latest expansion of the resort, which is attracting 3.6 million visitors a year and has an annual economic impact of $300 million. Unemployment in the area is “at historic lows.” Adding amenities is “a way to keep people longer and gambling more,” Hoskens said.

Sheila Morago, executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said the state’s gaming industry began with bingo halls and today 33 of the 39 tribes have compacts with the state. There are 116 operations now open with more to come, she said.

“Oklahoma is growing,” she said. “It doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon.”

The market, which she described as maturing, is now looking to add more amenities such as hotel rooms and event centers.

“It’s expanding like crazy,” she said.

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