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The Next Level

Tribal casinos can no longer get by with gambling alone, so non-gaming amenities help them compete.

The Next Level

The Shops at Mohegan Sun

Cache Creek Casino Resort, located in the Capay Valley region of Northern California, upped the ante on amenities in its new upscale hotel development. Additions include an outdoor pool along with a 12-seat pool bar, and a 12,000-square-foot spa and salon.

The inclusion speaks to what sells in a casino resort these days. But what sells also speaks in part to the land beyond the hotel tower, in part to the ownership of the resort by the Yoche Dehe Wintun Nation, says Dike Bacon III, planning and business development leader for Memphis-based HBG Design.

“Our design for the expansion draws inspiration from the surrounding landscape that includes elegant vineyards and orchards and capitalizes on extraordinary views,” he says. “The land around the resort is rooted in the tribe’s own farmland and ranches and the Cache Creek River.”  

Think about that. You’ll find pool complexes everywhere. Elegant and casual dining, too. Spas to soothe every part of the body. But the connection with the land takes resorts to another level. It’s a level places like Atlantic City have tried to adapt to after years of ignoring the natural beauty of the beach and Boardwalk that houses six of the current casinos.

“The design at both commercial and tribal facilities should be chic, durable, and have timeless appeal,” Bacon says. “Where the differences are found is sometimes how said design is expressed. Those for tribal facilities are often ingrained in culture and can include the celebration of that culture in subtle and abstract ways if the client wishes.”

Some of the most successful and inspired work for tribes has a connection to land in some way, Bacon says. “This sense of place is what can make it unique.”

Spa Space

Cache Creek Casino Resort, pool and spa

Still, the line between commercial casino resorts and tribal casino resorts has blurred to the point where tribal connections don’t often enter into the frame for the average visitor, at least not on a conscious level. A multi-pronged spa retreat has the same impact for guests at Four Winds New Buffalo as it does at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City or the Venetian in Las Vegas. The fact that Four Winds boasts a tribal ownership does not seem to matter one iota to most guests.

“The approaches between commercial and tribal are similar, since the guests generally look for a resort-type experience, wherever they go,” says Andrew Kreft, executive senior principal and director of design for Lifescapes International.

“One that takes them out of their everyday lives and transports them to a world that caters to their needs, offering experiences that they would not normally get. We always strive to offer the guest a variety of experiences and destinations in the landscape, whether that is a pool area, outdoor dining, or multi-function garden. However, because tribal casinos cater to specific regions, tribes, like any other client, may have particular needs or activities they would like to offer local clientele. We always work closely with them to weave that into the experience.”

Guests of all types, and from various regions of the country, visit

Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and often these visits encompass multi-day stays, so having an impressive pool and terrace offering in the Sky Tower, along with a fitness center, world-class spa, golf and more, is a big differentiator, says Mohegan Sun President and General Manager Jeff Hamilton.

In that regard the Mohegan tribe doesn’t seem to factor into the equation.

Not true, Hamilton says.

Mohegan Sun and all Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment properties operate under a “positive and inspirational culture that derives from the Mohegan tribe,” Hamilton says. “We are grounded in the Mohegan Way, also known as ‘The Spirit of Aquai,’ which stresses the importance of being welcoming, collaborative, always showing mutual respect and seeking to build relationships. Everything the Mohegan family does have these values at heart.”

Tribal Touches

For the most part, the Seminole Tribe has few links to its history and culture in the properties it owns in Florida. Since they opened in 2004, it’s been all about the Hard Rock brand in the Hollywood and Tampa properties, spokesman Gary Bitner says. But the links exist, subtle though they may be. Those subtleties, to cite an example, include the sweetgrass scent of bathroom toiletries and pool cabanas that take their inspiration from Seminole chickees.

“Seminole branding is more evident at the other four casinos, and particularly at the Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee, east of Naples,” Bitner says.

Rotunda at Four Winds New Buffalo

The Seminoles also maintain a world-class museum (temporarily closed due to Covid-19) and its adjacent historical and cultural archives on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, an hour west of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, accredited by the American Association of Museums, predates the development of the Seminole Hard Rock brands.

“The tribe hopes the museum will reopen sometime this year,” Bitner says.

Tribal customs and culture often come out in retail settings.

“The variety of shops and specialty Native American items available for purchase at our flagship resort, Four Winds New Buffalo, provide a unique shopping experience for guests,” says Frank Freedman, chief operating officer, Four Winds Casinos.

Four Winds Outfitters sell tribal artwork. The Promenade Shop features men and women designer clothing and outerwear, Native American-designed jewelry, and more. Quill Boutique highlights stylish jewelry, bags and more.

“All Four Winds Casino locations are filled with elements that speak to the history, traditions and culture of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi,” Freedman says. This includes architecture that features copper, cedar wood and stone, which are utilized in many tribal events.

“Each of our casino locations also features large fireplaces, which pay tribute to the Potawatomi Indians, who are known as the ‘Keepers of the Fire,’” Freedman says.

The Rotunda at Four Winds New Buffalo includes murals from Native American artist Mike Larson that symbolize significant moments of Pokagon Band history. The wooden decor in the Rotunda at Four Winds South Bend is reminiscent of black ash baskets traditionally made by Pokagon citizens.

Throughout the Choctaw Casinos & Resorts properties there is artwork that shows the culture as well as the sculptures, such as the Red Warrior in Durant and the Seven Ponies in Pocola. The opening of the Sky Tower later in the summer will include a gallery showcase featuring Choctaw artists.

“During the month of November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month and showcase our tribe’s culture in various ways across all the properties,” says Kristina Humenesky, director of public relations, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Pool Power

While tribal resorts, like commercial ones, cater to adults who gamble, Bacon says a trend in certain markets speaks to family fun.

“These are multi-use facilities that can include bowling, arcades, movie theaters, and grab-and-go food outlets. These centers appeal to a large, diverse demographic and often are important contributors to a staycation type of experience,” Bacon says.

Mohegan Sun’s flagship property in Connecticut offers shops, bowling and an arcade, go-kart racing, a trampoline park and the Mohegan Sun Golf Club. The massive resort is in close proximity to the Mystic seaport and other quaint seashore towns.

The District at Choctaw casinos offer over 70 of the newest arcade games, 20 lanes of bowling and four movie theaters, Humenesky says.

Increasing competition has led various resorts to seek an advantage. The breadth of offerings at spas is one way.

Rock Spa & Salon at the Seminole Hard Rock

Rock Spa & Salon at the Seminole Hard Rock properties in Florida presents a range of treatments and healing therapies with services from Elemis, Natura Biss, Hydrafacial MD and the like. The spa boasts separate and coed dry and wet lounges, dipping pools, saunas, quiet rooms, a Himalayan salt room and three 800-square-foot couples treatment suites. The spa also features a 3,600-square-foot salon and 3,300-square-foot fitness center.

At the spa, in the Choctaw casinos, guests are able to choose from a collection of massages, facials and body treatment services. The space boasts nine treatment rooms, including two extravagant couples’ suites with an ultra whirlpool soaking tub for two and a couple’s rain shower. There is also a coed relaxation lounge and a coed reflection waters/waterfall mineral bath.

A new 23-story hotel under construction at Four Winds South Bend will feature a “spa, convention area, meeting space, a ballroom, lounge, bar and grille, an outdoor rooftop swimming pool, and terraces with spectacular views,” Freedman says.

Pools in resorts are not just places to get your laps in, not by any stretch.

“In each situation, a successful pool area creates a dynamic experience for the guest that offers them a variety of moods, activities and destinations, to promote a longer guest stay,” Kreft says. “Different types of pools and activity levels allow the guest to choose their level of interaction as their interests change from day to night, as well as catering to different age groups.”

VIP areas highlight swim-up bars and private cabanas for adults. But other areas welcome families with the kind of lazy river activities found in the best water parks.

“We want to create pool and outdoor environments that are multi-dimensional and multi-generational spaces,” Bacon says. “If the site area is large enough, these flexible outdoor areas can serve various uses like banquets, receptions, social functions, concert entertainment, and even overflow al fresco dining,”

The Choctaw’s Oasis Tropical Pools include two swim-up bars, hot tubs, fire pits, a waterslide, waterfalls and cabanas. Guests can swim in the Natatorium, year-round.

“Pool and landscape areas are wonderful to view all year, and we think there is great opportunity to design interior spaces that capitalize on views to the pool and blur the lines between outside and in,” Bacon says.

There has also been a distinct trend in casino resort design to create gaming and non-gaming spaces that are animated with natural light and celebrate outdoor views and outdoor spaces, Bacon says.

Natural Beauty

The Great Smokey Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop and another opportunity for guests to enjoy the wide variety of experiences nearby for those who visit Cherokee.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel in the westernmost part of North Carolina benefit not only from a tribal influence, but a natural one that owes to the surrounding land. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park shapes the northern boundary of the resorts, and the North Carolina entrance to the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway is only a mile away, says Brian Saunooke, regional vice president of marketing for the resorts. Visitors can enjoy year-round activities like hiking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, and trout fishing.

“Part of the resort experience is being able to take advantage of a wide variety of activities which include outdoor and local attractions serving to increase visitation,” Saunooke says.

The Great Smokey Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop and another opportunity for guests to enjoy the wide variety of experiences nearby for those who visit Cherokee, he says.

At the Oconaluftee Indian Village, visitors can see the challenges of Cherokee life at a time of rapid cultural change as European settlers invaded Indian lands. Tour the authentic working village with dwellings, residents and artisans right out of the 1760s.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian includes a self-guided tour that combines computer-generated imagery, special effects and audio with an extensive artifact collection.

Founded in 1946, Qualla Arts and Crafts is the nation’s oldest Native American cooperative, and it continues to uphold a standard of excellence when it comes to the traditional arts and crafts of the Eastern Cherokee.

One of the longest-running outdoor dramas in the U.S., Unto These Hills, has entertained more than 6 million people since 1950. Recently rewritten to better reflect the Cherokee’s true history and culture, the play is a must-see when visiting.

“Our location and the fact that we are owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians give our guests an opportunity to experience not only our offerings at the resorts, but a variety of outdoor and cultural experiences,” Saunooke says.

In the end, a casino hotel resort is a destination experience. It encourages a longer stay by offering numerous dining, retail, entertainment, and play options outside of just traditional gaming, so the guest always has something new to do.

“A connection with the outdoors and a pool experience is crucial to this, and even more so moving forward as we consider social distancing flexibility in all designs,” Kreft says. “In markets where there are competing tribal casinos nearby, the more you can offer, the greater likelihood of attracting guests to your property, thereby ensuring your casino’s success.”

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Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.