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Casino golf resorts buck economic trends

17 August 2010

By Gary Trask
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe doesn't claim to have all the answers. But it does know one thing for sure. The procedures and strategies put in place before the recession at the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort in Idaho have paid off handsomely.

For proof, take a look at Circling Raven Golf Club, the highly acclaimed amenity of the resort whose tee sheet has been filled to near capacity all summer. Further evidence is provided in between the casino and the golf course, where crews are diligently working on an $85-million expansion project. Despite breaking ground smack dab in the middle of the country's economic downfall, the endeavor is well-ahead of schedule with an anticipated spring 2011 opening.

"We have tremendous confidence in the future here, on the reservation and across the Inland Northwest," says Coeur d'Alene Chairman Chief Allan. "This expansion is a powerful statement to that effect. We are committed toward long-term success and sustainability in this economy."

Of course, having a top-notch golf course to serve as a main attraction has certainly helped matters. Since opening for its first full season in 2004, Circling Raven has continued to climb the rankings of major golf magazines – from "Top-100 lists of Courses You Can Play," to "Resort Courses" and "Casino Courses." Bookings are up more than 15% compared to last year at the course and its success has played a vital role in the resort's continued development.
The 15th hole at the Sweetgrass Golf Club at the Island Resort & Casino in Michigan

The 15th hole at the Sweetgrass Golf Club at the Island Resort & Casino in Michigan (photo by Island Resort and Casino)

And the Coeur d'Alenes aren't alone. Other tribal nations across the country are using golf as a stepping stone for growth and prosperity, two words that have been practically non-existent elsewhere in the industry.

A similar development was recently completed at Little Creek Casino Resort in Shelton, Wash., which is owned and operated by the Squaxin Island Tribe. The resort doubled the amount of rooms it can offer to 190, adding to the allure of its Indian-style gaming casino that features more than 1,000 slots and table games. In addition, the new Skookum Creek Event Center is an on-site 22,500 square-foot venue that attracts live concerts, comedy acts and cage-fighting bouts.

And in the spring of 2011, another vital piece of the project is expected to be completed when the new Salish Cliffs Golf Club is unveiled. Industry pundits who have previewed the Gene Bates design are already touting it as a shoo-in for "best-in-class" honors.

Then there's Island Resort & Casino, tucked away on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Two hours north of Green Bay, the resort is owned and operated by the Hannahville Indian Community, a band of the Potawatomi Nation. The property has more than survived tough economic times, adding Sweetgrass Golf Club last year. The newest amenity of the resort immediately garnered national accolades, including a spot on Golf Digest's list of "America's Best New Courses." The par-72, 7,300-yard Paul Albanese championship design also rose to No. 14 on Golfweek's best-to-play-in-state list, six spots higher than 2009.

"The course really opened up a new market for us," says Island Resort & Casino General Manager Tom McChesney of Sweetgrass, which also made Golfweek's Top-10 list of new public courses in 2009 and had the second lowest greens fee of all the courses on the list. "When we started building Sweetgrass almost five years ago we had no idea what was going to happen to the economy. The addition of Sweetgrass allows us to add another outstanding offering for our customers while providing a much needed growth opportunity for the complex."
The Little Creek Casino Resort in Washington will open a new championship golf course in 2011.

The Little Creek Casino Resort in Washington will open a new championship golf course in 2011. (photo by Little Creek Casino Resort)

The solid footing will also give way to a newly expanded conference center, which broke ground earlier this summer and is anticipating a spring opening.

While being able to offer a top-notch golf course as an amenity has certainly benefited these two resorts, the manner in which the management teams planned ahead and made adjustments well before the economy tailed off is the primary reason both not only survived, but continue to flourish.

"Customers demand more value," explains Circling Raven Director of Golf Tom Davidson, who was honored to be named Merchandiser of the Year in the PGA Northwest Section for a second straight year, the fourth time since the course's first full season in 2004. "One saving grace is that we were already well positioned in the value category, thanks to the golf course, which made it a little easier to keep the integrity of our rates intact."

The expansion project at the CDA Casino Resort will add to the property's opulence with nearly 100 new hotel rooms, including two wings overlooking the golf course. Other elements of the project include more casino space, a fitness center, a gourmet steakhouse, a centerpiece bar, a 15,000 square-foot spa and a vast "front yard" that will offer a natural amphitheater for concerts and other outdoor events. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe – which is already one of North Idaho's largest employers – is set to hire an additional 200 workers after the expansion project is completed.

Of course, building and expanding during a recession is a dicey proposition, for sure. But McChesney points out that Sweetgrass became a reality because the resort started to plan for a recession a lot sooner than others in the industry.

"We anticipated that a downturn was coming," says McChesney, who has been with the resort for 14 years. "We took some steps to tighten our belts well over a year ago. We downsized and made it a lean operation well before we had to and that was one of the keys that has helped us sail right through the tough times."

The casino made it a point to take the employees that it retained and re-train them with a focus on customer service. It also increased its advertising efforts rather than backing off, and it marketed itself as an "entertainment venue" rather than simply a "gaming venue." It offered concerts in a new 1,300-seat showroom with fewer acts that cost less, but still drew big crowds, such as REO Speedwagon, Grand Funk Railroad and Rick Springfield. It also took full advantage of its brand-new golf course by offering special "Stay & Play" packages, which have seen an 83 percent year-to-year increase in 2010.

Equally important, according to McChesney, the casino concentrated on keeping the customers already on its gaming floor, while still trying to attract new ones from both within and outside of its market area.

"We want our existing customers to know how important they are to our success," says McChesney, whose marketing team estimates that 57% of its customers come from Wisconsin-Illinois markets, a third of which stay at least one night in the 275-room hotel. "I think a mistake a lot of casinos make is to concentrate all their efforts trying to get new customers and they take their existing ones for granted. Our philosophy has always been to highly value the customers you have and to cherish each new one."

And if those customers happen to be golfers, all the better.

"Circling Raven is already well-established as one of the premier golf experiences in the United States," says CDA Casino Resort CEO David LaSarte Meeks. "Now we can complement its success and acclaim with the expansion and the added amenities, which will allow us to market nationwide and overseas.

"Yes, these are difficult and uncertain times with the economy, but our expansion moves forward to complete a true destination resort, all with expectations that the economy will improve and that opportunities here will continue to grow."

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Gary Trask
Gary is an expert on all things gambling. The Boston native has worked as a writer and editor for more than 15 years, including a few at Casino City and was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's Media Committee.

No Limit Hold'em tournaments are a favorite of Gary's, but he also enjoys a night of dealer's choice with a variety of games like Seven-Card No Peek, Guts or Five-Card Draw with a qualifier. In addition to playing cards, another of Gary's interests is golf, a game that allows his two favorite hobbies to collide quite naturally.

Gary Trask Websites:!/casinocityGT