While the pandemic has roiled the meetings industry over the past several months, planners continue to demonstrate both resiliency and resolve when it comes to booking events that meet client needs. Whether planning hybrid or face-to-face meetings, small or mid-sized venues, ask any planner what tops their list of desirables, and health and safety protocols, accessibility, affordability and all-inclusive amenities win out every time.
Enter gaming resorts, which continue to thrive even during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a popular venue choice for planners. Despite some challenges from the uncertainty of the ever-changing pandemic landscape, gaming resort site managers have remained flexible and open-minded in creating the best possible attendee experiences.
Michael Woodside, vice president of entertainment and marketing services at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, credits team members who “have done an amazing job handling the record number of customers coming to our property as of late.” He describes how the company’s SAFE+SOUND protocols were established “to help ensure good, clean fun while staying at our resort” and remain a top priority “not just for guests, but for our employees as well.” In fact, Woodside says, “I’m proud that over 80% of our team members have already been vaccinated and that Hard Rock International created a compelling incentive program for employees who have been vaccinated,” adding, “Our team has spent countless hours learning how to efficiently navigate the COVID landscape, and I couldn’t be prouder of how we’ve responded to these challenges.”
Easily accessible by plane and rail, Hard Rock is located just 20 minutes from Atlantic City International Airport, 75 minutes from Philadelphia International Airport and 10 minutes from the Atlantic City Rail Terminal. Hard Rock offers 2,000 rooms with 290 suites and more than 150,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space at the Conference Center. Included are 30 meeting rooms and 15,000 sf of outdoor space, which can be adapted for social distancing needs. Covering 63,000 sf, Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena can host general sessions up to 7,000 people or 300+ booth trade shows and expo events. Whether planning an intimate board meeting or larger-scale events with an entertaining backdrop, Hard Rock provides abundant meeting venues.
And when it’s time to play after meeting hours, opportunities for high-energy, endless entertainment abound: a 1,000 foot-long amusement park at the Steel Pier on the Boardwalk across from the hotel; a 120,000-sf casino featuring 2,115 slot machines, plus 120 table games; an exclusive indoor/outdoor pool for up to 200 people; 24-hour Body Rock fitness center; nationally recognized Rock Spa & Salon; an array of award-winning restaurants, ranging from Robert’s Steakhouse to Il Mulino (Italian) and Asian eateries such as Kuro (Japanese), Sòng (Chinese) and YouYu (Noodle Bar); drinking spaces, such as The Lobby Bar, Whammy Bar and Beach Bar; live performances at DAER Nightclub and world-class acts at Etess Arena.
“In addition to executing great events,” Woodside says, “Hard Rock Atlantic City creates a lively, energy-filled environment before and after meetings that is simply unmatched in the region. We have an unparalleled commitment to live entertainment seven days a week, 365 days a year.” And for the record, Woodside says, “Headliner entertainment is back and bigger than ever here at Hard Rock Atlantic City.” For example, “This fall and winter, we’ve got legendary acts like Guns N’ Roses, Pitbull, and Earth, Wind & Fire” with Rod Stewart and Alicia Keys on deck for 2022.
With an eye toward planning future events at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, the company has started a $20 million capital investment to enhance the property. This includes a “full renovation of 91 suites and an upgrade of some of our meeting spaces with new carpet, and lighting and audio systems,” Woodside says. Improvements also extend to an expansion of the casino floor and cashier areas, adding table games and slot machines, and gaming units in the High Limit and other sections. In addition to beach replenishment projects earlier this year, new restrooms and more than 1,000 beach chairs are among the upgrades to the Hard Rock Beach Bar.
“I think one of the biggest things meeting planners can do to help resorts like us is to provide more insight into what the industry trends are in terms of safety protocols, as they know their clients best,” Woodside says. “We know that no meeting or conference is the same, but we still want to make sure everyone attending a meeting or conference here at Hard Rock feels that their safety is our No. 1 priority. Also, we’d love to bring in more large groups and conventions to the property midweek, especially during the fall and winter months.”
Its sister resort, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood offers similar amenities. After its recent $1.5 billion resort-wide expansion, Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood now boasts 120,000 sf of meeting and convention space and is primed to remain one of the top destinations for events in South Florida. With a seasoned team with decades of experience, Seminole Hard Rock can tailor and produce events of any size for any occasion. More than 1,200 guest rooms at the Seminole Hard Rock, including more than 600 in the iconic Guitar Hotel, are available to book through the resort’s reservations website, and several restaurant venues are open with social distancing requirements in place.
The casino at Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood features 150,000 sf of gaming space with 195 tables, including a variety of games, such as blackjack, mini-baccarat and all of the favorite specialty games. The casino also offers 3,100 of the most popular slots, as well as video poker, video roulette, electronic roulette and electronic craps. A premier destination for players around the world, Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood is home to a 45-table Poker Room with an eight-table, semi-private area. The Poker Room is open 24/7 with first-rate amenities, including more than 50 65-inch high-resolution televisions to catch all the sports action, a private cage with five windows for accessibility and delicious food selections for players on the go. The resort is located within close proximity to South Florida’s major airports: 15 minutes from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL); 45 minutes from Miami International Airport (MIA) and an hour from Palm Beach International Airport (PBI).
A renowned, award-winning destination resort in upstate New York, the Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Resort Casino features world-class amenities, including four hotels, two luxurious spas, five golf courses, more than 20 dining options, a 125,000-sf Las Vegas-style gaming floor, a cabaret-style Showroom, a 5,000-seat arena and several nightlife venues. Conveniently located 30 miles east of Syracuse, Turning Stone, adding to its 480+ public awards, has earned new recognitions this year, including multiple Forbes’ Four-Star Awards and being named among the Top 5 New York Resorts by US News. It was also named “Best Countryside Hotel/Lodge” in 2017 by Condé Nast Johansens, and the No. 1 Best Gaming Resort in New York by Casino Player Magazine in 2019. In addition, Turning Stone has earned the prestigious Forbes Travel Guide Four Star Award for The Lodge, Wildflowers restaurant and Skana spa, Forbes Recommended Ratings for TS Steakhouse and, for more than a decade, the AAA Four Diamond Award for The Lodge, The Tower Hotel and Wildflowers restaurant.
With more than 125,000 sf of meeting space, the resort’s 22,000-sf Conference Center is perfect for exhibits, seminars, meetings, company parties and group meals. The flexible design makes it easy to move from pre-function reception to daytime exhibit to post-function gathering with ease. Seven boardrooms, ranging from 400 sf to 900 sf, make this the ideal setting for small-group discussions, seminars and boardroom-style meetings. A short escalator ride shuttles participants back and forth from the parking garage, hotels and main Conference Center. The sprawling 33,000-sf Event Center can host everything from conventions to exhibits, to vendor events. Featuring a premier entertainment stage, this open space can be configured to match any need. The 15,000-sf Atrium is ideal for registration and pre- and post-event functions. As for gaming, there are 2,000 slot machines, 66 Vegas-style table games, one of the top three Bingo Halls in the world and the largest poker room in New York State.
Like other resorts coping with these unprecedented times, adapting to change is the name of the game at Pechanga Resort Casino, and often on a moment’s notice. With health and safety at the forefront of its operations, Pechanga’s Jon Chir, director of catering, notes, “We have a Tribal and leadership team that carefully monitors the situation, and implements changes for guests and safety that are often ahead of county or state officials’ guidelines.” In a further nod to the importance of health and safety protocols on-site, “We also created a specialized position within the resort, the Public Health Initiatives Manager, to better help the property and our individual team members navigate through this time with someone helping them whenever the need may arise,” Chir says. In addition to its Pechanga Cares program, which provides “enhanced cleaning and disinfecting throughout the entire resort,” the property has been actively coordinating vaccination clinics for team members on-site over the last six months, incentivizing with $100 Visa gift cards to fully vaccinated personnel.
“The most important thing is safety, and we’ve been ready to pivot, and have pivoted, at so many points during the last year and a half.” Chir cites examples, such as switching gears within a few days of an event, from planning a sit-down menu to paring back to offering grab-and-go items instead. For Chir and his team, he says, “We just want to make sure we are giving our meeting planners and attendees the best service we possibly can, and also ensuring we keep the lines of communication open with them so they’re aware of any safety changes that have transpired since the last time we spoke about their events.” Chir cites the longevity and loyalty of its team of banquet and catering professionals, many of whom have been with the resort for more than 10 years, as one of the resort’s most valuable assets. “That means a lot to our meeting planners,” says Chir “because they often return to book meetings and events year after year and tell us they look forward to coming back.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Pam Rentz, director of special events for Springs Charter Schools, and repeat client at Pechanga, who appreciates “Pechanga’s encompassing approach to safety for all of their guests.” She adds: “Pechanga is really the perfect place to host a mid-sized event. Our staff is always excited to attend events here because they maintain the facility beautifully, they get guest service and there’s a feeling of loyalty we receive there. I have worked with the same people there for years and they know me, they know what my group likes and wants, unlike other venues, where at times you may feel like you need to prove yourself and that you have all your ducks in a row. They don’t do that at Pechanga, which is why we keep coming back — that and their great amenities. It makes me look good to my staff.”
The AAA Four-Diamond-rated resort recently completed significant room renovations in the Pechanga Casino Tower, bringing the total number of guest rooms to 1,100, the most of any resort casino in Southern California. Upgrades include new furnishings, flooring, quartz counters and added USB, USB-C ports, among the many amenities. Deluxe rooms also include 55-inch, flat-screen TVs, while suites have an additional 65-inch television. The 275,000 sf of meeting space includes 23 meeting rooms, 150,000 sf of outdoor space and 40,000 sf of exhibit space. “There are always improvements happening at the resort; whether that’s changing the hours of the pool complex to better suit guests, adding more spa treatments to the menu, keeping the lineup of slot machines fresh on the casino floor or seasonally enhancing our catering menus, Pechanga continually strives to make the experience better for our visitors,” Chir says.
From fine dining to casual, Pechanga hosts a number of enticing dining options. For starters, Chef Jose Mendoza heads the culinary team at Pechanga’s upscale AAA Four-Diamond dining destination, Great Oak Steakhouse, noted for its sumptuous 100% Prime Black Angus beef and for its exceptional wine list by Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines. At the famed Umi & Sushi Bar, sushi and sashimi, oysters on the half shell and seafood platters take center stage under the culinary direction of Chef Kiyokuni Ikeda. Additional restaurant venues include Journey’s End at the golf course clubhouse and Kelsey’s sports venue.
Surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards and mountain ranges, plus plenty of scenic hiking and biking trails, Pechanga Resort Casino attracts attendees who appreciate good wine and outdoor adventures. Yet visitors need not go far as recreational opportunities are all within reach at Pechanga: an 18-hole golf course, Journey at Pechanga; Spa Pechanga, integrating “the healing powers of nature and the highest quality of service,” and The Cove, Pechanga’s 4.5-acre resort pool oasis, offering “four pools, three whirlpools, two twisty waterslides, an improved family pool and an inviting swim up bar.”
AAA Four-Diamond Mount Airy Casino Resort lies in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, accessible by car or bus from major hubs New York City, Northern New Jersey and Philadelphia in just two hours or less. Like others in the gaming resort industry, Glenn Cademartori, vice president of marketing, remains hopeful that COVID-19 limitations and restrictions will continue to ease in the coming months. In the meantime, however, he assures meeting planners that they are “continuously adjusting our offerings and finding new ways to cater to our guests’ every need.” For example, he says, “Whether it is being overly flexible with timelines, contracts or group size, we will do whatever it takes to ensure that we exceed our guests’ expectations.”
The premier full-service destination provides a total of 25,000 sf of “multifunctional, state-of-the-art” venue space for banquets, private and corporate events, weddings and entertainment serving groups for 1,000+ people. Nearly 300 spacious guest rooms have been beautifully appointed to reflect the colors and serenity of the surrounding mountain landscape. Plush furnishings, luxurious shower amenities, flat-screen, 55-inch LCD TVs (two in the King Suite) and free high-speed internet access are among the many upscale guest room features. Additional meeting space includes an outdoor patio overlooking the Poconos at Mount Airy’s nationally recognized golf course clubhouse — “perfect for outdoor corporate events, dinners, and receptions and seated groups up to 100 people” — and a 15,000-sf tented area nearby that is “perfect for a variety of large gatherings such as trade shows and concerts.”
Cademartori describes how the team at Mount Airy is thinking outside the box when it comes to exploring the different ways for groups to be interactive while socially distanced, “whether that is through unique set ups, getting creative with our outdoor space, or utilizing our state-of-the-art video wall to make sure that all guests, including those who may be virtual, are included in all aspects of work events or that special day.” New developments at the property include Last Call, a grab-and-go beverage store, that opened in the spring offering bottles of wine and beer, Mount Airy glassware and other treats for guests. Higher-end selections feature a bottle of 2007 Chateau Latour and a 2004 bottle of Chateau Margaux, with plans to expand the inventory in the next few months. In creating new unique guest experiences, the resort has also begun offering wine dinners at the Event Center, such as the upcoming experience featuring Kim Crawford wines in the early fall. Plus, “We’re excited to see some of our concert lovers, theatergoers and comedy clubbers back at Mount Airy for headline entertainment beginning in October,” Cademartori says.
In keeping with the exceptional amenities of a full-service resort destination, Mount Airy’s entertainment options are plentiful, starting at the casino with more than 70 table games, ranging from blackjack, craps, roulette and baccarat, plus more than 1,800 slots. Premier golf conditions also prevail at Mount Airy’s 18-hole Golf Club, resulting in more than 6,500 yards of fairways modeled after golf’s most legendary U.S. championship courses. Certified by Audubon International in 2018, Mount Airy’s Golf Course is also a steward for environmental sustainability, “protecting our environment while preserving the natural heritage of the game of golf.” Begin and/or wrap up your outing with a meal at the clubhouse and browse the merchandise at the Pro Shop before calling it a day. Or why not relax with a dip in the 51,000-sf indoor/outdoor pool space complete with pool bar and daybeds, or have a luxurious spa treatment to rejuvenate before heading to the next meeting?
Besides Mount Airy’s wine dinners and golf clubhouse food fare, the resort showcases several other popular dining options: Guy Fieri’s Mt. Pocono Kitchen reflects the best of regional food fare discovered in his 15,000 miles of travel around the country, with a twist of his own surprising flavors; Bistecca by II Mulino combining hand-crafted pasta, seafood, farm-fresh vegetables, steaks and chops; and Lucky 8 Noodle + Sushi Bar, featuring fried rice and other chef specialities.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic for gaming resorts this past year, Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel’s Yvette Matt, marketing director, and Dee Dee McGowan, cultural tourism manager, report: “We are on track to have the best year in the history of the casino in terms of net profit.”
Staffing continues to be the gaming resort’s greatest challenge. “It has been very difficult maintaining and recruiting enough team members to run all parts of the casino resort during our regular business hours,” they say. “We have been forced to close early, open late, open at less capacity or not open certain venues at all.” As a result, the resort is launching a total new campaign focusing on team member recruitment. In addition, Matt and McGowan say, “We have really targeted our known gamers and focused on enticing them to visit more frequently. Rather than having quantity, we are targeting quality.” New property enhancements include renovating the buffet and “looking at creating a high-limit area and food court with more diverse offerings.” Regarding new events, the team is excited to be hosting the inaugural Symetra Ladies Road to the LPGA Tour in late summer, presented by the resort’s Circling Raven Golf Club. “This is the first of three years, and it an honor to host these up-and-coming ladies, and we look forward to the next two years of this tournament,” they say.
The property features more than 40,000 sf of meeting and convention space, five separate event spaces, including the newly remodeled Event Center, as well as a unique, standalone facility, Stensgar Pavilion. Planners have access to 10 meeting rooms and state-of-the-art sound system for event venues, in addition to 300+ guest rooms with 14 suites. As a top-tier resort destination, the property also houses a casino with a 60,000-sf gaming floor and 1,200 gaming machines, a world-class spa, fine and casual dining restaurants and championship golf. Voted No. 1 Golf Course in Northern Idaho by Golfweek Magazine, the 18-hole course is beautifully situated on 620 scenic acres of tribal wetlands, woodlands and Palouse grasses, providing 7,189 yards of play. Inside the Pro Golf Shop, Twisted Earth Grill offers several casual food items to enjoy before or after play.
The Pacific Northwest’s own celebrity chef, Adam Hegsted, is the mastermind behind the resort’s Chinook Restaurant, where wild Nisqually salmon and prime beef are among the favored selections. Other dining options include the Red Tail Bar & Grill, Nighthawk Lounge, Huckleberry Deli, and Jackpot Java & Creamery.
Of special note, Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel provides cultural tours for those interested in learning about the tribal traditions of the land’s native people. Kayaking and canoeing, biking and boating, underground excursions, traditional arts workshops and a bison ranch are among the notable recreational activities. C&IT