The Pascua Yaqui tribe of Tucson has taken a reasoned approach toward expansion: When the market is ready, the tribe is ready. The new addition to Casino del Sol makes it one of the most impressive resorts in the Tucson area, competing even with the high-end properties dotting the surrounding mountains. Mark Birtha, a Las Vegas gaming veteran, was brought in last year to develop the new project and operate the facility. He discusses the goals of the tribe and how they hope the new facility will help them accomplish those goals. Birtha, with experience at Mirage Resorts and Las Vegas Sands, understands why service is the key component, however, and how the employees—largely tribal members—were trained and educated. He spoke with Global Gaming Business Publisher Roger Gros just days before the debut of the new facility on 11/11/11.
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GGB: Your main gaming competition in Tucson is the Desert Diamond casino, owned by Tohono O’odham tribe. But you believe you’re really competing with the impressive resorts that surround the Tucson area, correct?
Mark Birtha: Yes, we are the best of both worlds. We are gaming and we are a hotel resort. We have the opportunity to look at both market segments. And so, yes, we will compete on the gaming side with the Desert Diamond property, but more importantly, we’re going to be diversifying our revenue streams and looking at competing on the resort side, with some of the well-known resorts here in southern Arizona.
Give us some of the ideas of what other amenities you have here.
We’ve got a great bunch of amenities that are very publicly available, and some other hidden surprises that you would find on the property. Our 10th floor of rooms is something we call the “Sky Level,” which is our “V-VIP” level of rooms. It’s kind of a little boutique hotel within a hotel, with great incentives and amenities that guests on that level will be able to enjoy, including one- and two-bedroom suites. We have this brand new spa, 65,000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor meeting space, including our 18,000-square-foot ballroom, a beautiful, brand new outdoor pool area that has five cabanas, the Oasis Bar and Grill out there, as well as a splash pad, two Jacuzzi whirlpool tubs and a 30,000-square-foot event lawn.
Our hidden jewel, however, is the Fountains of Sol, which are six different water shows each evening that are choreographed to songs like Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be A Lady,” or an Andrea Bocelli song, or even the Black Eyed Peas. We’ve got four levels of parking—an 1,100-spot parking garage—and two brand new Starbucks. We’re the only casino in the state of Arizona to have the Starbucks program in the property, and we’re only the fifth tribal gaming property in the United States to have a Starbucks venue. We also have a new steakhouse and a brand new buffet.
Casino del Sol has that Tuscan theme, and while it’s not a tribal theme, there are still a lot of touches of the tribal culture here. How did you arrive at that?
We wanted to create a 4-Star, 4-Diamond resort experience. So if you were here in Tucson, or you were coming from Mexico, or from anywhere in the Southwest, you almost felt like you were being whisked away to Lake Como, an Italian lakeside, a Tuscan village, something like that city where you would have that kind of quality and the detail of the finishes in the rooms.
But at the same time, it was absolutely essential to us to make sure that we kept in mind the culture, the history and the journey the tribe took to get to where they are today. We wanted to make sure we evoked that in a way that was not commercialized. So, very clearly, we basically created a thread that ran through the entire resort property. And that thread is the names of all the rooms and restaurants. They are all tribal words and meant to evoke the Pascua Yaqui tribal culture.
Another thing that’s unique to this property is that the vast majority of your employees are tribal members, correct?
Our commitment was to try to reach 80 percent tribal members, and now, we are actually at 82 percent. So of those 350 positions, the vast majority are tribal members. I don’t know that this has been done anywhere in the industry before, and it was a huge victory for our entire management team.
And you’ve stressed that while this is a beautiful facility, all the great amenities really don’t deliver unless the employees deliver.
Absolutely. And they’re all committed to that. They realize that passion, training, and that the level of expectation is absolutely critical for us to be successful. In fact, our branding statement is “Raise Your Expectations.” And that was as much a public statement to our guests as it is a private kind of internal statement to our employees and to the community. We’ve done great business up to this point at this level, but we are all committing to trying to create something truly unique here, define a whole new level of experience, and of course, raise expectations across the board.