A historic storm was followed by a historic recession. Here’s how the Palace Casino in Biloxi bounced back.
In 2005, the Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi, was due for a renovation. On August 29, Hurricane Katrina hastened the plan and also handled some of the demolition.
Katrina roared up the Gulf Coast with winds of 120 mph and a storm surge that at times reached 30 feet. The casino’s hotel tower survived, but a 250-foot dockside barge was set adrift and ended up more than a mile inland. A second casino barge nearly capsized, and the walls of the land-based parking garage buckled. When the storm was over, sections of the nearby Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge jutted out of the water like a partially submerged, shuffled deck of cards.
State law at the time mandated that all gaming take place on water. As a result, all of Biloxi’s 12 casinos were damaged or destroyed, and a $1.3 billion industry sputtered to a halt.
Soon after the storm, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour signed a law that would enable the casinos to rebuild on land, and officials at the Palace wasted no time picking up the pieces. Operations were transferred “from the back yard to the front yard,” says General Manager Keith Crosby. “We were temporarily operating in the hotel lobby, and put the buffet in the hotel ballroom.”
Just four months later, on December 30, the Palace was first Gulf Coast gaming hall to reopen after Katrina. A large-scale renovation and expansion of the property would not begin for another five years. And that time, an economic storm dictated the terms.
The Great Recession, Crosby wryly observes, “has a great ability to focus your attention on the bottom line.”
Form and Function
By 2010, three years into the historic downturn, the Palace was trying to “adjust our growth to reflect the position the market was in then,” while proceeding with a much-needed renovation. “People were very careful of what they were spending and what they got for it. We needed to look hard at the longevity of our investment.”
Not surprisingly, at the top of the list for the property was durability and weather resistance. Crosby also wanted any additions to meld seamlessly with the existing structure.
“I’d seen enough properties in this area—the old Grand Casino is a perfect example—where it looked like one shoebox was set next to another shoebox,” he says. “There was not a lot of architectural continuity, and you can see the phases. This had to integrate.”
He also wanted a property that was “practical, functional, serviceable.”
“Designers have a tendency to live in a form-first world,” Crosby says. “I wanted them to know I would be on the side of functionality, 100 percent of the time.”
His collaboration with Cuningham Group Architecture of Minneapolis was lively and occasionally tempestuous.
“We were like warring factions,” says Crosby with a laugh. “I got hung up on function first and I repeated it again and again to the architects.”
“Yes, Keith was functionally oriented,” agrees architect Tom Hoskens. “Did that make it interesting? You bet. It was that good yin and yang, that push and pull, that got us to where we need to be.”
The $50 million renovation encompassed 110,000 square feet and added 64,000 square feet of new facilities, including a 40,000-square-foot gaming floor. The bones of the tower remained, but the designers did away with the quasi-Moroccan theme in favor of a handsome, streamlined Art Deco look.
“I learned a lesson from Steve Wynn in Atlantic City,” says Crosby. “The building is white and gold; it looks clean and modern. Like a new car, our goal was to keep it looking as good as the day we bought it. And we brought the same concept inside.”
Hoskens took his cues from the lines of the existing tower as well as the casino’s maritime backdrop. “We incorporated nautical elements—white, pristine boats and curved sails—and took the rhythms and shapes and forms of the tower and put them in the façade, inside and out.” Hoskens likens good design to a great orchestral piece, in which varying moods and movements serve to develop a prevailing theme.
“There are variations on the rhythms,” he says, “but it is all part of the same symphony.”
Everything Old is New Again
At the new Palace, the excitement begins with the “entry experience,” which Hoskens says must be established even before a guest sets foot on the property.
“We say spend your money on your arrival sequence,” Hoskens says. “Excitement does sell, and if you get them excited as they drive up in the car and ascend into the space, that is money well-spent.”
Once people are inside, the sights and sounds of the gaming floor generate more excitement, along with “interesting pathways through the experience, from amenity to amenity and from amenity to destination,” says Hoskens.
The goal at the Palace was to surprise and intrigue guests at every turn by presenting those amenities in an unfolding sequence. Three restaurants and a lounge are set in what Crosby describes as a “storefront” configuration around the casino floor, so gaming is no longer the ultimate destination, but one step in a longer journey.
The former lobby, with its red and ivory color palette, circular skylight and incongruous swaying palms, has been replaced by a two-story atrium dominated by a back wall with twinkling lights behind layers of brass bars. One striking architectural element—a large scrolled letter “P” towering above the lobby desk—“creates a new paradigm of what the Palace Casino is—a modern, unique and alive resort,” says Hoskens.
The lobby carpets include tones of royal blue, caramel and brown in a swirled pattern. “You can see our desire to keep the natural warm tones and play off it with deeper colors,” Hoskens says. “There is the play of the carpet pattern from large scale to small scale and back, and that happens throughout the casino as well.”
The upper levels are accessible from the lobby by both a grand staircase and an escalator, and a computerized readerboard informs guests about entertainment and other leisure options. The atrium also houses the concierge area, VIP check-in, a gift shop, spa and fitness center, business center and motor coach lounge.
When it came to a new cage-cashier and guest-services area, Crosby says he conserved money by dispensing with unnecessary signage.
“The décor in that area is the employees themselves,” he says. “We spent the money on uniforms to make them look and feel good. Our guests would see them and say, ‘I see humans over there. They must be there to help take care of me.’”
A Whole New Game
The casino floor, with 26 table games and 1,100 slots, is characterized by vivid colors and layered ceiling lights. The lights “create a texture that adds warmth and excitement to the space,” Hoskens says. The fixtures are actually engineered to move slightly overheard, as if in a mild breeze. The kinetic effect is “pleasantly surprising” for guests, and the “warm, reddish-orange and lemony colors add a real warmth and friendliness,” says Hoskens.
The pre-Katrina sports bar had theater-style seating facing a bank of giant flat-screens TVs. The new Contact Sports Bar “is a hybrid of sports bar and performance area,” says Hoskens, “with a really interactive bar that goes into the casino area itself and serves as an invitation to take a break, come in, take a look.” Built-in links among venues guide patrons to take advantage of all the Palace offers; changes in décor from one space to another—as in the ultramodern Stacked Grill—give patrons “a mental break” that refreshes them and reinvigorates them for the rest of their journey.
A Whole New World
Crosby says the new Palace is “a complete departure from what we were before;” he proudly points out that the casino property is “100 percent smoke-free.” (There is a $1 million smoker’s lounge.)
“That set the tone, because it will have no impact on the building,” he says. “Culturally we said we’re not going to impact our associates by allowing smoking, and at the same time it will save our building.”
Both form and function are served in the new Palace, Crosby adds. “My definition of a good deal is when both parties go away mad. If neither of us gets everything we want, we probably both got what we need.”
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