Casino gambling in the Caribbean is normally not much more than an afterthought. Gaming floors smaller than 10,000 square feet are typical. Roulette and blackjack are the mainstays; the number of slot machines in a given casino is normally well under 100.
Casinos in the Caribbean rarely open before late afternoon. This is paradise on Earth, after all. The last thing visitors want to do in the daytime is sit indoors.
Yet, casinos are everywhere in the Caribbean. When the sun goes down, gambling is definitely high on the tourist’s list of activities, as the small casinos pack with customers.
No place is this more true than in the Dominican Republic, the nation occupying two-thirds of the
Caribbean island of Hispaniola. There are 32 casinos in the Dominican Republic, more than in any other Caribbean nation.
Most Americans know the Dominican Republic as a cradle of baseball talent, its winter leagues having produced the likes of Sammy Sosa, Manny Mota, the Alou brothers and hundreds of other U.S. Major League players. Comparatively few in the U.S., however, consider the nation as a preferred destination for a vacation, particularly if gambling is high on their leisure-time agenda.
Officials of one new Dominican casino aim to change that.
Casino Dominicus opened in mid-December near the neighboring towns of La Romana and Higuey, on the Dominican Republic’s southeastern shore, with a goal to appeal to tourists beyond the primarily European visitors who currently frequent the region. More specifically, the casino is promoting a U.S.-style casino product.
“Dominican Republic casinos have an image problem with the U.S. market, based on the fact the other casinos on the island are small, the product is antiquated, the service is poor, and the employees do not speak English,” says Jerry Najman, general manager of Casino Dominicus. “That is why we emphasize that we have created a Las Vegas-style casino in the Caribbean. When you are playing at our tables or slots, you are experiencing the same ambiance as if you were on the Las Vegas Strip.”
Actually, the odds here are better than on the Strip, and the scenery and weather are leaps and bounds ahead of Vegas, but the casino is definitely one of the most U.S.-style gaming houses to be found in the region. Instead of 50 or 100 slots like the typical Caribbean casino, there are 300. The casino floor is 20,000 square feet, more than twice the size of most of the region’s casinos. A state-of-the-art race and sports book operation was slated to open by the end of January, as well as a shipment of new slots-including high-end denominations-and amenities outside of the casino including new restaurants, a new headliner-style theater, and a new retail attraction.
The U.S.-style amenities are being pushed by the casino’s owner-a U.S.-based company, headed by a gaming veteran and staffed with people like Najman, a Florida native who began his gaming career with management positions at Harrah’s and Bally’s in Las Vegas and L’auberge du Lac in Louisiana before heading south for executive positions in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and South America.
Casino Dominicus is owned by SSG Dominicus LLC, an affiliate of Silver Slipper Gaming LLC, the operator which in late 2006 opened the first land-based casino in Mississippi, Hancock County’s Silver Slipper. The company’s chairman is Paul Alanis, another U.S. casino veteran who was president of Horseshoe Gaming and CEO of Pinnacle Entertainment. At Pinnacle, Alanis oversaw the transformation of the company from a racetrack operator into one of the major casino operators in the U.S.
According to Najman, Casino Dominicus grew out of an effort by local hotels-there are five within walking distance of the casino-to bring in a quality casino product. The hotel owners went to Charles Harrison, the longtime general manager of Spain’s CIRSA who had recently led the startup of the Casino Buenos Aires in Argentina, for help. “The hotel owners went to Charles Harrison and said, ‘Find us an operator,'” says Najman. “They went to the owner of the Silver Slipper.”
Harrison now serves as CEO of SSG Dominicus, the new casino’s operating company. The casino maintains a partnership with the hotels, which market the casino to their customers. Five hotels-the Viva Wyndham Beach, Viva Wyndham Palace, Iberostar, Catalonia Gran Dominicus and Canoa Oasis-are within walking distance of Casino Dominicus. Another, Casa del Mar, is 10 minutes away; and the massive Casa de Campo is 25 minutes away. Casino Dominicus offers free transportation to and from the hotels.
The most remarkable resort among the casino’s partners is surely Casa de Campo, a 7,000-acre world of its own with three golf courses, a marina, a town with ancient architecture, a marina, private villas and even private residences on the property, on land leased from the resort. (Major League star Sosa has a house on the resort’s grounds.)
“Our Casa de Campo business is steadily growing,” says Najman, “as their customers are being made aware of the fact there is a Las Vegas-style casino 25 minutes away that will pick you up and bring you back free of charge. Every night, we see more and more Casa de Campo golfers at the craps table. Additionally, we are putting many of our U.S.-based high rollers in the Casa de Campo Resort.”
The hotels surrounding Casino Dominicus provide all the resort amenities one can dream up, including beautiful beaches, boating, snorkeling, and a natural beauty that rivals anything in the Caribbean.
The casino aims to provide everything that travelers from the U.S. and elsewhere expect from a world-class gaming destination. By this month, the expansions at Casino Dominicus will be complete, and ready for a grand opening celebration within the coming weeks.
The new facility features a spacious gaming floor with wide aisles and a large casino bar at the back, but the physical elegance of the room, with classic Spanish architecture accented by Caribbean flair, is really secondary to the gaming. Twenty-three gaming tables are dominated by roulette and blackjack, but also mini-baccarat, craps, Caribbean Stud Poker, Three Card Poker, and a separate poker room called the “Caribbean Poker Café,” featuring Texas hold ’em and more Caribbean Stud. The other new addition is the race and sports book, another Vegas-style offering designed to draw American patrons.
Table games feature liberal rules and limits, with table minimums as low as 100 pesos-around -or, alternatively, in U.S. currency. (U.S. dollars are accepted across the island), and as high as . “We can accommodate a ,000 player, which is a reflection of the hotels with which we have relationships,” says Najman.
While table games account for some 90 percent of casino revenues, Casino Dominicus is nonetheless adapting to serve slot customers from the U.S. and elsewhere. The casino has been working to complete a revamp of its slot floor, bringing in all new games, with plenty of variety in denominations ranging from pennies to the premium denominations, including and machines. Najman says the casino keeps paybacks generous-overall hold for the entire slot floor is 9 percent. Video poker players who look around a bit will even find a few top pay schedules, something rare in the Caribbean.
Something else here that is rare in the Caribbean: a player’s club. In February, Casino Dominicus launched the first slot club on the island, after completing installation of a Bally player tracking system. Players now earn points at slots or tables for free meals, free rooms at the surrounding hotel partners, and a few perks not even found at many U.S. slot clubs, such as same-day cashback and credits for airfare.
“When you are inside our casino, you are experiencing the same level of gaming as you would at any Strip casino, from the liberal rules to the limits and the ability to earn comps,” Najman says. “With that said, we are redesigning our slot floor to better meet customer demand. We are removing machines our customers are telling us they do not want to play, and reconfiguring the floor to make it more user-friendly. A player’s club with same-day cashback, 100 percent ticket-in/ticket-out operation, and payback percentages equivalent to U.S. locals casinos-no other casino in the Caribbean offers all of this in one package.”
The gaming offerings are complemented by a package of dining and entertainment that rivals anything on the island. The large “disco bar” at the back of the casino offers cocktails and dancing to bachata, which is what Najman calls “Dominican ‘country’ music.” There are three restaurants, headed up by Vesuvio, a branch of what is the most popular restaurant in Dominican Republic-classic Italian with fresh seafood dishes, all with a Caribbean flair.
More casual dining can be had in the sports bar, or in a contemporary sushi bar in the casino’s retail center.
Rounding out the offerings are a retail center offering high-end shops and luxury boutiques selling clothing and handmade local crafts, and a state-of-the-art theater.
The current theater seats 300, but Najman says it will be expanded into a complete entertainment complex at some point. The entertainment program features big-name Latin American artists, and big-name entertainment from the U.S. as well.
The casino’s drive to bring in U.S. business already is paying off. The property’s local business has been good from the start-it is the closest casino to La Romana and Higuey, which have a combined population of 450,000. However, since its December opening, Casino Dominicus has quickly gone from a split of more than half locals to around 66 percent tourists, according to Najman.
He says they’re actively working to bring that number up even further. “We’re already working with junkets and other efforts to draw U.S. customers,” he says. “We have a cruise port at La Romana, and there are direct flights from Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe. We now have around 500 visitors a day; we want to double that.”
The way to double visitation, and draw more U.S. business, is twofold, he says. First is the package of amenities-between the casino itself and the surrounding paradise, they’ve got it. Beyond that is a service culture not unlike the most successful U.S. casino operators.
“We treat every customer special, whether you are a nickel slot player or $1,000 blackjack player,”Najman says. “Every one of our team members knows that every customer must have the entertainment experience of his life when he enters our complex.
“If they need directions to the cage or restroom, one of our team members escorts them. If they speak a foreign language, we have someone on staff who can communicate with them. If they’re waiting for a drink, we don’t wait for the server to make the next round; any one of our team members is empowered to bring that customer a drink rather than having him wait. If the customer is hungry, we let them eat right at the gaming table or slot machine. Every team member is empowered to do whatever has to be done to ‘wow’ the customer.”
If there is a challenge that concerns Najman, it is room and airline availability, he says. “Even though we have over 3,000 hotel rooms within a stone’s throw, the hotel occupancy is so high that we are constantly scrambling for rooms,” he says. “However, we are going to commit to a room block so we can always accommodate our customers. Also, there is only one direct flight per day into La Romana Airport from Miami, and several from San Juan. (The much larger airport at Santo Domingo is an hour and a half drive.) We are in discussions with several major airlines to bring in more direct flights from the U.S.”
In the end, demand will drive those transportation improvements, and Najman and his staff are hard at work on boosting that demand.
“Our philosophy is very simple,” he says. “We want to give our customers the best value for their money, as well as the greatest entertainment experience of their life.”
The Dominican Republic may be the best-kept secret in the Caribbean region
You may have seen the television commercial in which baseball star Sammy Sosa plugs his native Dominican Republic as the “hidden jewel of the Caribbean.” Lately, more tourists, particularly from the U.S., have been uncovering that jewel.
Tourists who have never been to this Caribbean paradise often confuse Dominican Republic with its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti, and picture a poverty-stricken land where visitors may not want to venture far from their hotels. However, one visit dispels all the misconceptions.
Pristine waters, perfect temperatures, amazing natural beauty and super-friendly people are the norm here. There also is little of the poverty more common on the west side of the island-everyone is employed either at one of the resorts or at the huge factory that produces Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta cigars.
Jerry Najman, general manager of Casino Dominicus, comments that tourism has been steadily on the rise in the southeastern region of Dominican Republic ever since the casino opened late last year.
This part of Dominican Republic-which is home to more casinos than any other Caribbean island-has long been a secret hideaway of the rich and famous. Casa de Campo, one of the hotels served by Casino Dominicus, has been particularly popular.
The resort features three golf courses, including the world-famous “Teeth of the Dog” course, with greens and tee locations carved out of a coral reef. Guests are issued golf carts just to get around the 7,000-acre grounds. It has been a magnet for celebrities. According to hotel officials, among the guests who have spent weeks there in cognito have been former President George H.W. Bush and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Baseball star Sosa maintains a luxurious villa on the grounds. Hollywood stars are frequently on the guest list, usually for secret getaway vacations.
Hollywood, in fact, has had an ongoing connection to the Dominican Republic. The country’s tropical landscapes, lush rain forests and coastal vistas have made it one of world’s most popular film locations, providing location shoots for films ranging from The Godfather Part II to more recent films like The Good Shepherd. The Chavon River, which runs through Casa de Campo, was the backdrop for much of the filming of Apocalypse Now.
In all, the nation also provides a perfect backdrop for the creation of new destination resorts with gaming. According to Najman, the amenities to be found in the Dominican Republic are one reason Casino Dominicus is barely able to keep up with demand for rooms from an increasing tourist base. He adds that perhaps the nation’s strongest attribute is the group of workers who staff the resorts and casinos.
“The strongest attribute of the Dominican Republic is its natural beauty coupled with the friendliness of the people,” Najman says. “It is very hard to teach people to be friendly; they either are or they are not. Dominicans, by nature, are genuinely friendly people.”
Then again, if your workplace is a tropical getaway like this, what’s to be grumpy about?