April 7, 2017
By Nancy Trejos
MASHANTUCKET, Conn.—Michael and Diane Engel choose to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at Vue 24 at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
The couple from Sayville, N.Y., aren’t just here for the view of the hundreds of acres of Connecticut woods belonging to the Mashantucket Pequot Native American tribe.
Michael wants to gamble and Diane wants to try the cuisine of celebrity chefs such as Guy Fieri. She also wants to shop at Tanger Outlets and catch a show or two. Most recently, Alicia Keys performed at Foxwoods.
“We’ve been coming here since the 1990s,” says Michael, over their meal of lamb and filet mignon. “She doesn’t like to gamble. I like to gamble.”
Says Diane over cake that the restaurant brings over to celebrate their anniversary. “I like the food and the entertainment.”
The Engels are the sweet spot for this casino resort that debuted 25 years ago and sparked a wave of East Coast gambling opportunities for hospitality giants such as Wynn and MGM.
It used to be that anyone who wanted a combination of gambling and entertainment had to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Now, 40 states have gaming of some sort, whether it be walk in and out casinos or major resorts that support gambling.
The East Coast, which once was dominated by Atlantic City, now has gaming in almost every state.
In Massachusetts, Wynn Resorts is developing a five-star luxury resort and casino in Everett outside of Boston. MGM Resorts International is slated to open a resort in Springfield next year.
Last year, MGM National Harbor debuted in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C.
“It’s really indicative that gaming has become the mainstream of American culture,” says Erik Balsbaugh, vice president of public affairs at the American Gaming Association. “It’s no longer this little island outpost of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.”
For years, states resisted gaming in fear that it would compromise their morals. Political fights ensued, as some politicians were persuaded by the financial windfall gaming could provide. States began approving gaming, and neighboring states often followed.
“There are definitely more casinos than there were five years ago,” says Dave Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Because their neighbors have it and they want to recapture the revenue that is leaving their state.”
Just like Vegas, casinos on the East coast have had to reinvent themselves. They can no longer just focus on gamblers. Rather, they have to diversify and attract those who want to spend as much money on food and entertainment as they do on slots and poker tables.
“It’s just a well thought out package,” says Monique Sebastian, vice president of entertainment and entertainment marketing at Foxwoods. “I have eight different options and I never have to leave the building.”
Foxwoods recently welcomed celebrity chef Fieri to its lineup. Cat Cora, of Iron Chef America fame, is opening a wine bar soon. David Burke already has a steakhouse.
To appeal to families, the resort offers special programming during school breaks. To take advantage of its outdoor space, Foxwoods is experimenting with Coachella-like music festivals.
To appeal to Millennials, those younger travelers who will become the largest spending demographic in a few years, Foxwoods has added the Shrine nightclub and a tattoo parlor called King Ink by celebrity tattooist Marco Barth. There’s a high-end bowling alley called High Rollers Luxury Lanes and Lounge. The resort will also host its version of Comic Con, called CommiCONN.
“That’s the future,” says Sebastian. “When we look at the next generation, they are amenity driven. Gaming comes second.”
On a recent Wednesday night, The Scorpion Bar is filled with patrons who do not even gamble. Instead, they are there for a high-energy karaoke face-off of Katy Perry and Shania Twain songs.
“It’s really built up a following of people who want to show off,” says Kyle Norman, a regular. “It’s consistently a good turnout. I don’t generally come down to gamble. That’s not for me. It’s nice to have a lot of things going on in one location.”
It’s exactly the kind of attitude that Foxwoods’ President and CEO Felix Rappaport wants to hear. Rappaport's resume includes stints as an executive at Wynn and MGM.
Foxwoods ushered in an era of gambling outside of Vegas and Atlantic City and he wants the resort to survive and conquer even nearby competition such as Mohegan Sun.
“Competition is all the way around us,” he says. “We really followed the Las Vegas trend and try to make it a more integrated resort.”
Plans are in place to add a zip line and water park and other family friendly activities.
“We really view ourselves as being in the entertainment business,” Rappaport says. “Gaming is one portion of our entertainment process.”
Nearby Mohegan Sun has also changed with the times.
“Gaming is a commodity at this point,” says Ray Pineault, president and general manager of the resort. “Virtually every jurisdiction has the same slot machines and tables.”
Frank Sinatra was the first big name that Foxwoods got. The upcoming lineup includes John Legend, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Winwood, and Marc Anthony.
Now Foxwoods is looking to expand its brand, even partnering with Mohegan Sun to open a satellite property.