When AiRIA nightclub opened at Gila River Casinos Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino in 2009, a new trend in tribal gaming in Arizona came full circle.

There was now a hip, Las Vegas-style nightclub at an Arizona casino. It represented the last piece in the puzzle.

“Gaming guests want more than what’s been offered to them in the past,” says Melody Hudson, public relations manager for Gila River Casinos. “They want an all inclusive entertainment experience to include dining, gaming, nightlife, shows and hotel accommodations. We have the ability to offer all of those amenities in one place and have created a premier gaming destination in the Valley.”

The industry has come a long way since 16 tribes signed compacts and 10 casinos opened their doors in 1994. The trend is now to make casinos a destination, and not just a place to plunk down a few bucks on the tables or spin the reels on the slot machines – and then go home.

There are now hotels with upscale suites, Vegas-style entertainment, golf and spa packages, fine dining and even family activities.

Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino is one of those destinations. There are 242 rooms (including 20 suites) and the property was recently awarded the AAA Four Diamond Award. Guests can enjoy a meal at the renowned Shula’s American Steak House, play 18 holes at Whirlwind Golf Club, and see performers such as Jay Leno, Sinbad or Michael Bolton in the Ovations Live! Showroom.

With all those amenities, there is one thing guests won’t find at the three Gila River Casinos properties: a buffet. And that’s by choice.

“We’re seeking to modernize the traditional image,” Hudson says. “The shift is to offer the public a wide variety of dining options and to give guests choices.” Besides Shula’s, there’s Ling & Louie’s Asian Bar & Grill (Asian cuisine with an American twist) and casual dining that includes a Fatburger.

Arizona CasinosCasino Arizona at Talking Stick Resort is the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s newest and biggest property. The tribe’s first property, Casino Arizona at Salt River, can actually be credited with starting the entertainment trend. When it opened in 1998, its Showroom – a cabaret-style venue for hosting a variety of live entertainers – also made its debut.

“In planning Talking Stick Resort, we wanted to set a new standard for Arizona destination resorts with exceptional service, entertainment, dining, ambiance and amenities, and that is exactly what we have done,” says Ramon Martinez, director of public relations for the resort. “We already had the best gaming in town, now we’ve added world-class dining; our Orange Sky restaurant has won rave reviews with its … incomparable views.”

Talking Stick Resort’s amenities include proximity to shopping and spring training baseball (the new Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies facility), a 497-room luxury hotel, golf, live entertainment and seven restaurants including the upscale Orange Sky Restaurant.

“Our Showroom and Salt River Grand Ballroom have already welcomed incredible headline performers like Dwight Yoakam, Smokey Robinson and Brian Wilson,” Martinez adds. “And the property has been recognized for its service by receiving the AAA Four Diamond rating in its first year of operation.”

Presently there are 25 tribal casinos in Arizona, with the Navajo Nation’s first gaming operation in the state – Twin Arrows Casino – scheduled to open in 2013 just outside of Flagstaff. While not all of them feature the amenities found at the Gila River and Casino Arizona properties, most are also changing their marketing strategy to make their location a “staycation” destination as well.

“Casinos are not immune to the current economic challenges that other businesses must contend with,” says Mark Brnovich, director of the Arizona Department of Gaming. “However, many are using this time to better position themselves for the economic rebound. We are seeing tribes make significant investments in updated facilities and technologies to provide more entertainment options for their patrons.”

Apache Gold:

This casino 70 miles from Phoenix outside of Globe is a popular destination for Valley residents who want to get away from the city, shoot a round of golf, spin the reels on the slot machines and stay the night at the hotel or the RV park.

Bucky’s and Yavapai Casino:

This is a popular convention destination for Valley businesses wanting to escape the city and meet instead at the Prescott Resort and Conference Center. It features two restaurants and entertainment at the Yavapai Cantina.

Casino del Sol:

A 215-room resort and conference center is scheduled to open in November at this Tucson casino. The current property boasts the popular Ava Amphitheater, which plays host to varying musical acts. Amenities will include six restaurants – including a new buffet – an arcade for teens, a 44,500-square-foot convention center and a 1,120-car multi-level parking structure.

Cliff Castle Casino:

One of the hotel packages offered is called Wine and Down, a one-night stay which includes a bottle of wine from a Verde Valley vineyard. Family features include Shake, Rattle & Bowl, a 20-lane bowling center and Kids Quest, supervised child care. Entertainment venues at Cliff Castle, located in Camp Verde, are the Dragonfly Lounge and the outdoor Stargazer pavilion. There are four restaurants – including a Johnny Rockets – and three lounges.

Fort McDowell Casino:

One of the best golf courses in the state makes Fort McDowell a popular destination. We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, a  three-time national winner of Golfweek’s “Best” award, features two 18-hole courses designed by Ben Crenshaw, Scott Miller and Bill Coore. Golf and lodging packages are available at the Radisson Resort. Fort McDowell also features the Eagle View RV Resort.

Harrah’s Phoenix-Ak Chin:

The addition of 152 rooms this summer pushed the number to 300 at the casino in the city of Maricopa. Harrah’s offers free entertainment in the Oasis Lounge, features four restaurants – including a buffet – and golf packages at nearly Southern Dunes Golf Club.

Hon-Dah Resort-Casino:

Location, location, location. Nestled among the pines of the White Mountains in Pinetop, Hon-Dah is a year-round popular destination. Cool off in the summer; hit the slopes in the winter. Lodging includes a hotel and RV park. There is entertainment in the Timbers Lounge and the Showroom. At the Indian Pine Restaurant, guests can eat at the buffer or order off the menu.

“Tribal gaming has a great economic element to it and that is diversification,” says Valerie Spice, acting executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association. “With the funds from gaming tribes are able to diversify their amenities and thereby their business portfolio. All of these offerings coupled together raise the bar on the level of sophistication and quality entertainment that tribal properties can offer; not to mention the ripple effect these investments have on our local business economy.”

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For more information on Arizona casinos …



 Arizona Business Magazine September/October 2011