Today's fear of flying favors tribal casinos
UNCASVILLE, Conn. ? The aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks might seem like the worst possible time to double your casino's capacity and open an upscale shopping mall as well. A well-publicized gaming downturn, after all, is spreading layoffs through the Las Vegas economy.
But the expanded Mohegan Sun is doing surprisingly well, in a pattern that seems to be playing out across Indian country.
Where the destination resorts of the Vegas strip are reporting a dramatic decline in fly-in visitors and as much as a 30 percent drop in work hours, American Indian casinos across the country appear to be holding up well, because they draw on day-trippers from a regional market.
"We're seeing a very positive over-year increase in our revenue," said Mitchell Etess, executive vice president of marketing at the Mohegan Sun. He said that right after the attack, "we took a sizable hit" made even more painful because it coincided with the opening of the Mohegan tribe's Casino of the Sky, the extension of its 5-year-old Casino of the Earth. But recent results have been strong, he said.
At nearby Foxwoods Resort Casino, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, attendance fell off sharply in the days right after the attack. But it rebounded quickly, a tribal spokesman said. The casino reports a decrease in its latest monthly slot win, down about $2 million over the previous year to $63.2 million, but it is still pleased.
"Considering the general economic times, the continuing fallout from the events of Sept. 11, and the recent major expansion of a nearby competitor, we think the October showing is a strong one," Foxwoods president Bill Sherlock said.
The Oneida Indian Nation reports similar resilience at its Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y. A spokesman said business fell in the first days after the attacks as people stayed glued to their television sets, but then returned to normal.
"We're hearing there's not a big drop-off," said John Harte, counsel of the National Indian Gaming Association, reporting on his informal conversations at a recent meeting of tribal gaming regulators. "The main reason is we're not depending on the airline industry as much. We rely on locals."
The shift from airplane to automobile showed up strongly in the recent Thanksgiving holiday, in which a record 87 percent of travelers said they planned to drive. At the same time, Indian casinos reported a surprisingly good turnout.
Etess at the Mohegan Sun said business over the Thanksgiving holiday "was very strong."
"Thanksgiving was very good for us, better than expected," said Oneida Nation spokesman Jerry Reed. "Friday was outstanding" though the holiday was not traditionally a peak time for gaming because of its home-oriented nature.
These upbeat reports contrast sharply with the gloom at Las Vegas, where 46 percent of the city's visitors used to arrive by air. With unemployment rates surging and casino company stocks dropping, the industry is pinning hopes for revival on ad campaigns to encourage airline travel.
But all forms of regional casinos, including riverboats and the less pretentious halls in places like Reno and Wendover, Nev., report only slight declines. Some even say business is up as they attract nearby clients who used to fly to the big time. If the trend persists, it bodes well for American Indian gaming, which has already doubled its share of the total industry over the past five years.
It would be especially good news for the Mohegan Sun, which opened its gleaming expansion in the shadow of the terrorist attack. With the World Trade Center disaster less than two weeks old, the Mohegans canceled a gala party and settled for a low-key ribbon cutting.
But the lavish interior, stretching more than 2,000 feet across, is drawing awed, if sometimes critical, attention from around the region. Continuing the mix of Mohegan legend and upscale shopping that marked the Casino of the Earth, the new space includes a seven-story waterfall around caves that give access to a clothing store and a 30-foot tall Wombi Rock with dining spaces in three levels.
An architecture critic in the Hartford Courant called this feature "lumpy, badly detailed, thoroughly ugly but amazing." It is becoming a tourist attraction for a region that stretches from Boston to New York.
Right now, Etess said the casino is "by definition a day trip because we have no hotel." But the Mohegans are close to finishing a 1,200-room hotel tower, due to open next spring. "The hotel is going to shift us to a destination resort."