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Vegas Born

Palms becomes first tribally owned and operated casino in Las Vegas

Vegas Born

California’s San Manuel Band of Mission Indians has become the first tribe to own and operate a casino in Las Vegas. While the Mohegan tribe operates just the casino at the Virgin Las Vegas hotel, and the Seminoles have purchased the Mirage, which will be rebranded a Hard Rock, the Palms is the first fully operating casino resort to open under tribal ownership.

The Palms closed during the pandemic, less than a year after it reopened following a massive renovation by Station Casinos, which bought the casino after the original owners and developers, the Maloof family, walked away. Under Station ownership, the property never achieved the traction necessary to succeed and wasn’t reopened when most other Station casinos did following the lockdown.

San Manuel has been shopping for a Las Vegas destination casino for some time, according to Latisha Casas, the chairwoman of San Manuel Gaming & Hospitality Authority (SMGHA), the enterprise arm of the tribe that actually owns the casino. The tribe recently opened a complete renovation of its tremendously successful casino near San Bernardino, the former San Manuel Casino, which it renamed the Yaamava’ Resort Casino, which means a “new spring” or a rebirth.

“It is something that the tribe considered for a long time, and seeing the successes that we’ve had in Yaamava’ and all the lessons that we’ve learned from that experience, we wanted to expand,” she explained in an exclusive interview with GGB. “But we wanted to hold true to our core of the things that we know and build upon our expertise, and Las Vegas was where we wanted to be.”

Before settling on the Palms, however, the tribe, as it has in California, wanted to give back to the community. In early 2020, the San Manuel Band contributed $9 million to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to support course development and an endowed chair at the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality. It also provides curricular, faculty and program support at the William S. Boyd School of Law. And just this month, San Manuel established a collaboration with the college’s International Gaming Institute to conduct research into problem gambling.

“One of our tribal values is giving back,” says Casas, “and we are so committed to that because we lived off of what others provided to us for a very long time. So when we came into success, we were able to make giving back a top priority. We want to make sure that we’re giving back to our local communities and all the surrounding communities that helped us.”

So it wasn’t a surprise when the San Manuel Band announced it had purchased the Palms from Station Casinos in early 2021. The Palms was originally opened in 2001 by the Maloofs, who had achieved success in the Las Vegas locals market with the Fiesta casino. The Palms was an immediate hit, able to establish a strong locals following during the day, and attracting tourists and out-of-town younger clientele in the evenings with an aggressive nightclub strategy.

When Station bought the Palms in 2016, it immediately embarked on a full renovation, eventually spending approximately $1 billion on the purchase and redesign of the property. It reopened following the renovation in 2018 but never fully established the popularity it had under the Maloof ownership, and when the Kaos nightclub, a major investment, failed to generate ROI, Station lost interest in the property. It was one of four Station-owned casinos that failed to reopen after the March 2020 pandemic closings, until it was purchased by San Manuel for $650 million.

Shape of Things

Since the massive renovation had just been completed, Palms GM Cynthia Kiser Murphey, a longtime MGM executive and former general manager at New York-New York, said only minor adjustments needed to be made.

“The property was meticulously remodeled, with amazing restaurants, a beautiful gaming floor, and some of the finest entertainment venues anywhere—not to mention the suites with unmatched views,” she says. “So the focus for the San Manuel Gaming and Hospitality Authority first and foremost was the back of the house, which needed to be refreshed quite a bit. And that was the very first project that occurred. We also have a pretty big investment in our new sportsbook, and we’re proud of that along with William Hill (Caesars Entertainment), our partner.”

The SMGHA officially took possession of the property in January, and 133 days later, it opened, meaning executives had to build a team to run it. Murphey says priority was given to former Palms employees.

“We’re very honored that over 50 percent of our employees have returned after two years,” she says. “And we have over 70 day-one employees who opened the Palms the first time in 2001.”

She says the institutional knowledge brought by those returned employees has been a godsend.

“For example, 97 percent of the catering department came back, and they walked in here and started showing us how things were done and really helping us with the roadmap,” says Murphey. “And then we always want the new people to feel welcome, too. So we created kind of a buddy system which was started informally. They’ve helped us tremendously, and we’re celebrating them.”

Now that the property has reopened, it has done so without a database of players, always a high hurdle to overcome. Murphey says, however, there’s a plan to utilize the massive Southern California database at Yaamava’ to initially fuel visits to the Palms.

“Yaamava’ has a very loyal database,” she explains. “The property is known for tremendous friendliness, it’s immaculately clean, and it’s very, very well managed. So that’s a great introduction to our company to have the Palms partner with Yaamava’. And Yaamava’ just opened a beautiful hotel with awesome amenities and great entertainment. So we know the Yaamava’ customers are visiting Las Vegas. And whether they stay with us or just come over and earn points and take advantage of the entertainment and the dining and the gaming here, that’s great. We’ll welcome everyone.”

The locals database will be built by emphasizing the reputation of the Palms, says Murphey.

“A very big focus will be the local database, and we feel very confident that people want to come and see the Palms,” she says. “We’ve already had so much positive feedback. We’re just very fortunate about that, and we’re going to welcome our locals back. And then of course there are 45 million-plus visitors to Las Vegas every year.”

Elemental Energy

Ghost Bar

Food and beverage was a major element in the Station renovation and it remains so under SMGHA ownership. It started with Mabel’s BBQ, operated by celebrity chef Michael Symon.

“We took a trip to Cleveland to meet with him and experience the barbecue because it is outrageous,” Murphey says. “We convinced Michael to return, so we’re super excited. Mabel’s will feature not only his favorite barbecues, but he’s brought his burger. It’s phenomenal.”

Other Palms staples such as the Scotch Steak House, Tim Ho Wan and Send Noodles are returning as well.

The Palms is bucking the “no buffet” trend by opening the A.Y.C.E. buffet, which is a buffet with a twist, according to Murphey.

“This is not just any buffet,” she says. “This buffet has a vegan station, a fresh salad bar. It has unbelievable Mexican food. It has a really fresh dessert bar with our own pastry chef creations, and we’re going to have some special theme nights too. So that’ll be really fun for our customers.”

Entertainment has always been a focal point for the Palms, and that won’t change, but again, with another twist.

“We’re pivoting on the strategy to have a lot of what we call activation,” says Murphey. “There will be entertainment, literally all over the property. You’ll see it. We’re going to celebrate local musicians. We’ll have entertainment in smaller footprints all over the property. We’re going to go long on creating activation, creating energy on the floor, through entertainment.”

While Kaos as a nightclub won’t reopen immediately, she has plans for that as well.

Unknown Bar

“Kaos is an outstanding venue. We will definitely be using it. It’s very popular with bookings for special events. There’ll be live music in there. We’re going to try some new formats in there, so we’ll have some fun there.”

One of the jewels of the Palms was always the intimate theater, the Pearl.

“Pearl is coming back,” Murphey says. “We’ll be announcing as soon as we have that calendar set.”

One element that disappeared under Station ownership is returning.

“The Ghost Bar is back,” she says. “Quite frankly, we were talking about it in the early months and we just started getting so many requests, and we had a board meeting and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ There was the community that wants it so let’s do it.”

Although the views from the Ghost Bar will remain, the transparent Plexiglas block that guests could stand on and look down 20-some stories is gone.

“We don’t know what happened to it, but it wasn’t here when we took over. But the views are still spectacular.”

Another element that Murphey received lots of feedback about was the “shark” above the Unknown Bar at the porte cochere entrance to the property. The shark is a 13-foot tiger shark caught in Australia, segmented into three pieces and kept fresh with formaldehyde. It was designed by British artist Damien Hirst. The bar gets its name from the title of the installation, The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded).

“The shark will continue to welcome guests, who can enjoy our signature cocktails at the Unknown Bar,” says Murphey.

Casino and Sports

Kingpin Suite

Murphey hopes to attract gamblers to the Palms by having an eclectic mix of slot machines and table games. While the two-year closure might not seem like a long time, it can be for gaming equipment, so she had to make sure that everything was up to date, including the systems. The Palms is using the Konami Synkros casino management system, and has installed many new slot machines.

“There are always old favorites enjoyed by our players, and we want customers to find whatever they want,” she says. “So one of the things we’ll be doing is making sure we listen to our customers so we can tell them where to find their machines, whether it’s a more vintage kind of machine or it’s one of our newer products.”

Murphey and her team visited the Global Gaming Expo in October to see all the new products available.

“We all went there this year,” she says, “and I think coming out of the pandemic, the manufacturers were able to keep up production. So we’ve made sure we’ve got some really exciting new product coming on the floor and mixing it in with some of the favorites that are really well liked by the customers. We will keep our eye on that and we’ll be staying active in the gaming market.”

One of the products players will find is the largest order of the Bonus Spin Xtreme (BSX) table-game progressive system ever taken by AGS. BSX is now available on 39 total table games at the Palms.

Palm Suite

“By linking nearly 40 tables on Palms’ floor to a fast-growing single jackpot pool, Bonus Spin Xtreme elevates the player experience by creating more ways to win and have fun at the table,” says Paul Garcia, Jr., the Palms’ director of table games.

The William Hill sportsbook replaces one originally opened by CG Technology almost 10 years ago. Since William Hill bought the assets of CG a few years ago, the company had already been operating the sportsbook under Station ownership, so while it wasn’t a big change, it made an impact for William Hill.

“We’re super looking forward to partner with the tribe here at the Palms,” Michael Grodsky, general manager for William Hill in Nevada, told the Las Vegas Sun. “The team here is super passionate. We think it’s a phenomenal location.”

The book has approximately 100 seats, six betting kiosks and 10 employees, and plans are in the works to add other amenities to the location.

“We like to offer great experiences for our sports fans,” Grodsky said. “We’re also working on a system where people will be able to order food to the sportsbook from any of the outlets at the Palms.”

Tribal Pride

For Casas, the ownership of the Palms means a real commitment to the future.

“We are and will remain focused on living our values to honor our ancestors, culture and sovereignty for all generations… both on and off the reservation,” she told guests at the grand opening. “Success through Palms is a legacy we intend to leave to our children and their children as we build a solid future for the next seven generations.”

For employees of the Palms, it also means a commitment to the employees and the guests.

“We want to create a sense of community and a sense of buzz,” says Casas. “There’s something about the Palms energy and magic, and we’ve got to bring that to the people. We’re not the largest resort in Las Vegas, and that’s OK. We need to own our place and we need to do the very best we can with all of the tremendous assets we have, and providing that experience that people come from around the world to visit.

“We set up our operating plan, and knew what we could do in the first four months,” she continues. “We have a lot of work to do to build a strategic plan for not only the coming year, next year, but for the next seven generations. So we have a lot of work to do strategically.”

As for being the first Native American tribe to own a Las Vegas casino, Casas recognized the scrutiny that will be on them.

“It’s not something that’s lost on us,” she says. “We understand the huge importance of it. And we understood during the process, especially going through licensing. We were very careful in the way that we dealt with that process. And especially after talking with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, they reminded us that we’re setting precedent and paving the way for other tribes. So we didn’t take that lightly. We’re hugely honored.”

Yes to Yaamava’

The San Manuel casino was the most successful casino in California for more than 20 years. Part of that success was attributable to its location—the closest casino to Los Angeles—but it was also successful because San Manuel executives had unlocked the secret of customer service. Unlike many location-blessed casinos that simply make money by opening the doors, San Manuel learned how to deliver personal service even with the massive crowds it attracted. On a Tuesday afternoon with the parking garage overflowing and nearly all slot machines occupied, San Manuel could still deliver the personal touch.

So when the tribe decided to add a hotel to its amenities and expand the casino, it was important not to rock the boat.

“When we embarked on this journey we did not want to disrupt the business,” says General Manager Peter Arceo. “We were very busy. We attract over 13 million visitors a year. We certainly didn’t want to have their current experience impacted by our desire to expand. So it took a lot of planning. I give a lot of credit to the designers and the thought process. It allowed us to basically build everything without really impacting business or the gaming experience.”

The new hotel and amenities are spectacular. The 17 stories contain 432 rooms and suites. A new 3,000-seat theater opened in April with the Red Hot Chili Peppers inaugurating the stage in their first tour in two years. The Serrano Spa is a luxury spa offering everything from Amethyst and Marshmallow Soothing Facials to the Crystal Healing Manicure. New food-and-beverage outlets include the Pines, a high-end steak house with such over-the-top menu items like as wagyu beef and gold leaf-topped mac and cheese.

But along with the expansion came a rebranding. Arceo explains the logic behind the strategy to rename the property Yaamava’.

“We were very busy. We attract over 13 million visitors a year. We certainly didn’t want to have their current experience impacted by our desire to expand. So it took a lot of planning.” —Peter Arceo, General Manager, Yaamava’ Resort & Casino

“This gave the tribe an opportunity to share a little bit about the Serrano language,” he says. “Yaamava’ is the Serrano word that means the spring season—to spring from the ground, rebirth, renewal, refresh. And it was actually the code name for our expansion project, which for us meant we’re springing something new from the ground. So the name stuck and the tribe had a desire to reposition the brand. And it allows them to also teach a little bit about their culture by educating folks on the new Serrano word. Right. Mission accomplished there.

“We look long-term. It’s not about just this year or next year. We think generations into the future. And so generations in the future, the benefit of being able to teach the community a little bit about their culture will pay off huge dividends in terms of cultural growth, recognition and awareness.”

With almost 7,000 slot machines and more than 150 table games, Yaamava’ is one of the largest casinos in the United States, now ready to welcome visitors with all the amenities expected at a major casino resort.

Arceo says plans are in the works to promote the Palms to Yaamava’ customers, and vice versa.

“The Palms is an exciting sister property for us,” he says. “I work very closely with Cynthia Kiser Murphey. We’re putting together the plan on how we’re going to work together to really take full advantages of the synergies, and have the ability to send our players to a beautiful property in Las Vegas. And the reaction that our guests had initially when they read the press release about the purchase last year before we even took ownership of the property was amazing. We had people coming up to our players club saying, ‘Will I be able to use my points in Las Vegas?’ And of course the answer was yes.”

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.

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