By Kristin Butler (originally published by Indian Country Media Network)
When the now iconic Foxwoods Resort Casino came onto the scene in Southeastern Connecticut in 1992, outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, it was the only true resort-casino destination in the country. “We had players coming in from not only all over New England but all over the country and in some cases from all over the world,” said Rodney A. Butler, who has served as chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council since 2010.
But such success wasn’t always the case for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. “Going back to federal recognition in 1983, there were just a handful of houses on the reservation, and we were cutting trees for timber and tapping maple trees for syrup,” Butler said.
Gaming created a stable economy and job opportunities, and ultimately kept the tribe intact. “It started with bingo in 1986. But where we went in 1992 with the opening of Foxwoods was just staggering, and I don’t think anybody could have envisioned it. From ’92 on, it was off to the races,” Butler said.
Butler credits Richard “Skip” Hayward as a “true visionary,” achieving Pequot federal recognition under President Ronald Reagan, and soon after starting what proved to be a highly profitable bingo operation. Hayward’s bold decisions and foresight changed the fate of the Pequots and Indian country. Hayward served as tribal chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe for 23 years, from the first tribal election in 1975 to 1998. “He was a young chairman at the time, just 26 when he became chair of Pequot,” Butler said.
After the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988, Hayward secured financial backing and opened Foxwoods High-Stakes Bingo & Casino Resort in 1992. By 1998, when the tribe debuted the Grand Pequot Tower, the casino resort was generating more than $1 billion in revenue.
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s foray into gaming helped pave the way for the $30 billion Indian gaming industry. Today Foxwoods Resort Casino spans 9 million square feet under one roof. The resort sits on 1,200 acres, and all in, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation owns roughly 5,000 acres mostly in the northeast, though also in the Caribbean. The tribal enterprise counts 6,500 employees, or 8,000 if you include its partners.
In honor of its 25th anniversary this year, Foxwoods Resort Casino is celebrating its valued guests with numerous sweepstakes and giveaways, special events and an anniversary gala in May.
“Thousands and thousands and thousands of customers have been loyal to us for 25-plus years,” said Felix Rappaport, Foxwoods’ president and CEO. Foxwoods Bingo Hall counts loyal aficionados for 30-plus years. “There’s nothing more important than our customer loyalty,” said Rappaport, adding that Foxwoods’ database of customers runs 6.4 million people deep.
Foxwoods hired Rappaport about four years ago when the resort-casino was suddenly faced with debt and in need of fresh perspective. Rappaport’s robust résumé includes leadership roles at industry giants that transformed Las Vegas: MGM, Wynn and Station Casinos, among others. He opened The Sands Hotel and Casino on the Strip when it was called Brighton Hotel & Casino, as well as the The Sands in Atlantic City. Rappaport said he has visited Foxwoods for competitive research since its debut.
When Rappaport came onboard at Foxwoods, he soon began pushing a less-gaming centric agenda. “We need to learn the lessons from Las Vegas,” he said.
On the Las Vegas Strip, gaming used to account for 90 percent of the overall revenue. Today in Sin City, nongaming claims 65 percent of revenues, and gaming is responsible for just 35 percent. Why is nongaming so big? Las Vegas is the convention capital of the United States; and it’s home to entertainment and shopping galore, luxurious hotels and spas, hot night clubs, and a food and beverage scene that rivals cosmopolitan cities worldwide.
Today Las Vegas attracts about 44 million visitors a year, and many of them are not primarily gamblers. “They come to eat, to party, to play golf, to go to conventions, to go to night clubs,” Rappaport said.
Foxwoods still tends to draw 75 percent of its revenues from the gaming category and 25 percent from nongaming. Rappaport encouraged the Tribal Council of seven, led by Chairman Butler, to consider a five-year master plan for economic diversification beyond gaming. “As more and more competitors come online, in New York State, Massachusetts and elsewhere, what can we do to evolve and remain strategically competitive in a world where there’s more and more gaming options?” Rappaport asked.
Foxwoods has all the bones to grow into a more integrated resort — 40 restaurants, 175,000-square feet of convention space, 2,230 rooms and suites, two spas, five pools (including The Fox Tower Pool, a 5,500-square-foot sanctuary with eight private poolside cabanas), and dozens of popular bars, lounges and nightclubs.
But a quick glance around the lush Connecticut scenery, and it’s clear there’s more opportunity to benefit from the land. “It’s only natural when you’re in this beautiful part of the country to look at more outdoor activities,” Rappaport said.
Beyond Foxwoods’ two world-championship golf courses at Lake of Isles, and its Pequot Trails through the verdant woods of Mashantucket territory, the tribe has yet to capitalize on the pristine Connecticut countryside from a tourism perspective.
Enter one of the first initiatives to encourage resort guests to admire the reservation’s vibrant wilderness: Foxwoods’ HighFlyer Zipline. Starting from 30 stories high on the top of Foxwoods’ tallest building, The Fox Tower, guests will ride 3,700 feet across the Great Cedar Swamp. Gliding at top speeds approaching 70 miles per hour, a state-of-the-art powered breaking system will slow travelers down for a safe landing at the foot of the tribal museum.
“Our zipline will be one of the longest ziplines in the country,” Butler said. “We’re currently designing it and plan to have it up and running by end of year.”
The zipline will connect North America’s largest resort casino to the tribe’s world-class museum. “It will really complete the loop from a destination-resort perspective. The goal is to expand additional outdoor activities around the museum as well,” Butler added.
The $200 million, 300,000-square-foot Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, the largest Native American museum in the world, showcases Pequot history — an unprecedented story of redemption and restoration. Its exhibits rival parts of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center reopens for 2017 today, March 29, launching its 19th season with a newly curated contemporary art exhibition, a free artist reception, and a program exploring the secret lives of owls.
In other adventure sports news, Foxwoods plans to add a world-class go-cart facility indoors in the basement of The Fox Tower, spanning some 75,000 square feet.
Continually curating a more impressive culinary scene, Foxwoods recently welcomed some “new, hip restaurants to compliment many of the other offerings we have,” Rappaport said.
The candy and dining emporium Sugar Factory recently opened at Foxwoods Resort Casino. The grand opening celebration for the trendy brasserie at Foxwoods takes place Saturday, April 1, with celebrity guest Scott Disick of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Sugar Factory has gained worldwide notoriety (Las Vegas, New York City, Bahrain, Chicago, Miami, Dubai, Orlando and Manila) for its couture lollipops, starting at $22. The sparkly, edible, designer accessory has been endorsed or enjoyed by the likes of Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Britney Spears and Drake, among others.
Among a handful of fine dining options, Foxwoods is home to VUE 24, atop the 24th floor of the Grand Pequot Tower, and David Burke Prime, the classic New York steakhouse. The resort is also ripe with casual, quick-service and buffet meals.
“It’s pretty mind boggling the amount of entertainment we get,” Rappaport said.
Since its inception, Foxwoods has drawn big-name entertainment acts. Luciano Pavarotti, who has performed in the great opera houses of Europe, sang in Foxwoods Bingo Hall in 1996. Frank Sinatra was the very first performer at the intimate, 1,400-seat The Fox Theater.
Foxwoods’ year-long 25th anniversary celebration includes performances by Alicia Keys, Amy Schumer, Marc Anthony, Steve Winwood, Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles, Cirkopolis, the Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra, and more. Check out the schedule of events here.
Among seven casinos, Foxwoods Resort visitors will find their niche. The AAA Four Diamond-rated Grand Pequot Tower, the resort centerpiece, features the gourmet restaurants, more luxurious casino salons, and Norwich Spa.
The Fox Tower skews toward a younger demographic. The hotel tower features SHRINE, one of the top night clubs in the northeast, and the popular Red Lantern, an Asian-fusion restaurant. But Rappaport is frank about one necessary overhaul: “The center bar was boring,” he said.
Its replacement, Centrale, is “totally on the mark. It draws a great crowd; we have live entertainment, we have DJs.”
Foxwoods houses 4,600 slot machines, 260 table games, the largest bingo parlor in America, and the largest poker room in the U.S.
“We have a very strong following of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, but we’re certainly trying to cultivate the millennials. We’re always looking for the next big thing,” Rappaport said.
For instance, soon The Fox Tower is adding a bank of six new games created by GameCo that offer a skill-based challenge comparable to many of the arcade games popular among young people, millennials in particular. “It’s a shooter game and it’s skill based. In other words, if you’re good at it, you have a better chance of winning money,” Rappaport said.
The tribe also regularly introduces new games on FoxwoodsONLINE, a social gaming experience powered through a partnership with Austria-based, international gaming company NOVOMATIC. Players can earn loyalty points that can be redeemed for real rewards at the resort.
Foxwoods’ executive team closely follows e-sports news and promotes its legalization. “For us, it’s a no-brainer that legalized sports gambling ought to proliferate across the country,” Rappaport said. “We have a Race Book, but you can’t bet on baseball or basketball or football or soccer or hockey here at Foxwoods. We’re hoping that that will change.”
Rappaport recently spoke on the future of the gaming industry and tying in entertainment and technology at ICE (International Casino Conference) Totally Gaming in London, as well as at Raving Consulting’s 19th Annual Indian Gaming National Marketing Conference at the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. This week, he’s attending an e-sports conference in New York City. “Social gaming lounges are big,” he hinted.
After 25 years of building a world-renowned brand, Foxwoods is ready to replicate its success. The Foxwoods brand will likely grace Biloxi, Mississippi, in partnership with three non-native enterprises.
The $260 million Foxwoods Resort Casino at Biloxi Pointe would feature a 500-room hotel, 16,000-square-foot casino and numerous restaurants, plus up to 70,000 square feet of convention space, as well as room for outdoor concerts and festivals. The tribe has strong support from the Mississippi Control Board and the mayor, Rappaport said.
Within Connecticut, the Pequots await the legislative verdict on a bill that would allow for the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequots to embark on a joint venture, a commercial casino in the state.
Since its inception, Foxwoods has contributed a significant amount of money to local and state economies. The resort casino has empowered a tribe that once faced near extinction. “We embrace our history and culture from an economic perspective,” Butler said.
Here’s to the next 25.