Casino Design 2020, Featured Articles

Sweating the Small Stuff

By Klaus Steinke & Jane Lee   Thu, Dec 05, 2020

Keeping an existing casino property current


H ow many times have you visited a theme park like Disneyland or Universal City? Do you remember what the place was like the first time you went? And how it has changed over time? Over the years attractions have been added and some have been closed, but the essence of the park has remained. Disneyland is still Disneyland.

It’s important for the theme parks to maintain that essence of what they are. Parents, who first arrived as children themselves, now bring their own children and find the experience is still thrilling, still exciting—although much of the park has changed since they were there as children.

That same sort of experience also holds to gaming properties. People come to a particular property, have a good time, and return many more times. They like the rooms, the restaurants, the entertainment, the gaming experience, and were treated well by the staff—in short, they had a good time and would like to have it again. But there is also a lesson to be learned from the theme parks, and that is leaving everything untouched, unchanged, unimproved, will soon have your guests bored and looking to go elsewhere.

There are additional challenges to a gaming property beyond just becoming stale. Brett Ewing of the Cuningham Group points out that gaming properties face challenges from new competition, from capital improvements in other existing properties, in addition to the pressure to refresh one’s own facilities.

That leaves the property managers with a difficult riddle to solve—how do we keep the property fresh and new while still retaining the look and feel that so many people already like and want to continue enjoying? How do you do what the theme parks have so successfully done, continually reinventing themselves while holding on to the essence of what made them successful in the first place?

Paul Steelman, CEO of Steelman Partners, notes, “Throughout history, significant entertainment buildings have been redesigned to enhance the experience—not change it.”

Take what your property has and what people enjoy, and enhance that. It’s also an opportunity to work out a few problem areas as well. Scott P. Celella, principal at JCJ Architecture, points out, “When undertaking renovation/improvement projects at existing facilities, it’s important to position change as an opportunity to address issues, bring a greater level of service, and enhance the existing experience.”

To illustrate his point, Steelman points to a number of famous hospitality venues around the world. “These design techniques have been developed in many of the beloved European hotels like the Plaza Athene in Paris, the Connaught in London or the Plaza in New York,” he says. “These have recently completed major renovations, and they are more beautiful and functional than ever before, yet they feel the same.”

And the results? “Our results are dramatic,” says Steelman. “Before-and-after pictures really show how much so even a simple renovation can be. Keeping track of the financial results, many of the casinos we have renovated have experienced a casino win increase of 35 percent. After all, people want to spend more time in a space they love.”

Seeing the Larger Picture

It’s often useful to begin by taking an overall look at the property and defining what its essence is. What is the property known for? Has it defined its own brand? Does it have an overriding theme, as many properties do?

Answering these questions helps define where the changes should occur and in what direction they should go. Hnedak Bobo Group started with this approach with its work at the WinStar World Casino and Resort.

“The Chickasaw Nation has terrific foresight about where they want to take their brand,” states Rob Jurbergs, principal and designer at HBG. “WinStar World is already a very profitable casino, and their property is ultimately successful because the nation is driven to reach out to new clientele by expanding the amenity offerings and quality, while also accommodating the needs of their tried-and-true patrons.”

The fact that WinStar World was a themed property also helped define the direction of the updates, so that the new would blend in well with the existing. “The travel-themed motif at the casino is very closely tied into the WinStar World Casino and Resort brand, so we naturally embraced and enhanced the concept,” says Jurbergs.

Most properties grow over time, starting with a casino, dining venues and a hotel. Future development will depend upon the customer base and their interests, and could include showrooms, convention spaces, bowling alleys, movie theaters, etc.

Seeing the larger picture means planning ahead, as Ewing of the Cuningham Group relates: “One of the properties we’re currently working with is Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, Michigan for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. Their resort opened in 1999 and since then has undergone multiple expansions to get to its current size, which includes a 292-room luxury hotel and 1,600-seat event center. They have a desire to continue to grow and change, and have a new general manager in place who understands the need to plan property-wide. They are looking at where the future opportunities are and how they can balance growth with funds as they become available. And they want to know what their guests want so there is buy-in to the process and decision-making.”

Similar but Different

Sometimes an expansion is so large and extensive that it can be considered a separate property in its own right. Think of Wynn Las Vegas and Wynn Encore, or the Venetian Las Vegas and the Palazzo. Crown Limited faced that same question for its Crown Towers Perth, in Western Australia.

“Crown Limited wanted to expand its existing hospitality offering in Perth to keep up with market demand and maintain its position as a leading resorts operator in Australia,” says Brandon Y.K. Maldonado of YWS Architects. “In order to capture the emerging luxury market, but not wanting to alienate their existing market, they decided to maintain their existing hospitality offerings and add a five-star hotel, VIP gaming and world-class retail, dining and meeting space. The addition was seamlessly integrated with the existing hotel towers and created a property ideally designed to capture a broad range of market segments.”

There are times when a number of changes can add a new theme to an existing property. Consider the Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. In 2011, Resorts Casino converted the property to a Roaring Twenties theme. The rebranding capitalized on the success of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The resort adopted this rebranding celebrating the Prohibition period of the 1920s and 1930s by accentuating the resort’s Art Deco design as well as presenting 1920s-era uniforms for employees and music from this time period.

More recently, Resorts Casino Hotel hired SOSH Architects and interiors firm McBride Design to recharge the Atlantic City property with a series of Jimmy Buffett-themed attractions. This complex project contains three main parts: Margaritaville Casino and 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar; Margaritaville Café, retail store, and coffee shop; and Landshark Bar & Grill Pier.

Paying close attention to the particulars of Resorts’ oceanfront site and the peculiarities of its existing Art Deco architecture, SOSH and McBride set out to bring a new level of energy and activity to Resorts and the adjacent Boardwalk. The completed design blends the dignity of the historic building with the light-hearted island lifestyle, refashioning Resorts into a dynamic entertainment destination.

“We were sensitive to design and create a synergy between the historic relevance and proud history that Resorts has established while at the same time infusing the fun factor of the Margaritaville brand to the property, bringing in a new demographic to the to the property,” says Michael Mangini, director of interior design at SOSH Architects. “I can’t image any other celebrity (Buffett) who transcends generations by uniting people through his music, culture and food. By introducing gaming to the equation, this is an elevated party experience.”

Enhancing the Experience

In years past, people would go out for an evening and come home smelling of cigarette smoke. No one thought much of it then, but today most jurisdictions have laws that limit where people can smoke. Casino properties are one of the few holdouts where smoking inside a building is still permitted, at least in some areas. Guests, however, have become used to non-smoking environments and find the old smoke-filled rooms unacceptable. Clearing the indoor air, then, has become one of the best ways to enhance a guest’s enjoyment of a property.

Greg Peterson of AE Associates, an MEP firm, relates the impact that new HVAC equipment made in the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California. “The dated casino floor was in serious need of an interior face lift,” he says. “New gaming machines, new carpeting, new wall covering and improvements to the existing ceiling, including a complete lighting retrofit project, were performed. The existing casino had an even bigger problem—it was extremely smoky, and the indoor air quality (IAQ) was the biggest guest complaint. The aging mechanical system could not adequately remove cigarette smoke from the casino floor. Additionally, the HVAC system could not properly cool portions of the casino.”

As JCJ Architecture’s Scott Celella notes, a renovation is an excellent opportunity to address various issues at a property to enhance the guest experience.

Peterson continues, “As ownership had a limited capital budget, an indoor air quality improvement was performed for approximately one third of the casino floor. The aging rooftop units serving this area of the casino were in need of replacement; however, there was no additional structural capacity to accommodate heavier units. A like-for-like unit replacement would not achieve the IAQ goals for the property, and ownership did not want to incur the cost or the guest disruption associated with increasing the structural capacity of the roof.

“AE proposed a solution to utilize new, custom air-handling units that were the same size and weight of the existing units, but would drastically improve the IAQ within this portion of the casino. The project was a huge success. The area of the casino where the IAQ improvement project was performed went from the worst IAQ on the casino floor to the best.”

Indoor air quality is very important to the guest experience, but so is lighting and sound. Recently, Illuminating Concepts had an opportunity to work on a renovation of the L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Working with Montgomery Roth Architecture and Interior Design and naval architect Lay Pitman, IC worked to help create an environment that maintained the ideal portions of the existing resort, streamlined the updates to blend, and filled in and refreshed where the property was lacking through use of new spaces, materials, light and sound.

In the casino floor gaming pits and cage areas, IC added lighting at table games for better visual acuity and to add dimension and accent the gaming pits. They were also able to bolster the existing audio systems and infill the dead zones to allow better transition between speakers and create supporting audio experience that blends into the environment. 

Throughout the gaming area, they were able to accent through the use of materials and lighting such as backlit alabaster, highlighted drapery, and architecturally integrated lighting to allow an easier way finding and navigating the property.

Illuminating Concepts’ Michael Shulman, executive director, design and business strategy, explains, “Through the use of lighting, audio and video, we are creating spaces that are important to gaming clientele, and help make the experience holistic at a casino resort. As an example, add a poker room with accent lighting on the tables, soft general lighting to accent the architecture, audio that can act as background sound, or as a paging system for tournaments; add TVs for players to keep track of games, poker tournaments, etc.”

Change is Gonna Come

Walt Disney was a genius, and the theme parks he and others created are still a marvel, many years later. We enjoy them not only for the rides and shows, but because the logistics have been worked out so well. We enjoy going back time after time, not only to revisit the attractions we enjoyed last time, but to also check out all the new attractions, which we confidently expect will match the level of enjoyment of all the existing attractions.

There is no reason a gaming property can’t do the same thing—create an enjoyable environment of attractions such as gaming, shows, dining venues, and retail—and keep it fresh year after year while holding to a consistent level of quality throughout.


By Klaus Steinke & Jane Lee

Klaus M. Steinke has worked on a variety of hospitality, casino, commercial and other office projects, several of them exceeding $100 million in construction costs. His most recent project was the $300 million Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. His 27 years as a licensed architect has been both in the office and in the field. Steinke is a strategic partner of American Project Management, LLC.

Jane S. Lee is a managing partner and co-founder of American Project Management. She has 30 years of marketing, business development and management experience in the global financial, investor relations, design and construction industries.  She is responsible for establishing and maintaining client relationships in casino, hospitality, Indian gaming, entertainment, international investor relations and financial markets.

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