A full house

Picture yourself with options as to where you should hold your next meeting or event; you have in front of you a brochure for a great facility in a major downtown city in Canada, it’s a hotel that offers a fairly large space for your attending delegates, good food, and reasonable prices for their rooms; now look at the brochure beside it for a casino in a major city in Canada.

Yes, a casino; one that not only offers the draw of gaming, but more than enough space for what is needed for your attendees, live entertainment and shows for after hours, first-class catering, and hotel facilities for your delegates. Which one will choose? Oh yeah, did I mention it’s a casino, which could be a major factor in whether a potential delegate attends your meeting or event?

As with any facility, meeting or event space is very important, and when it comes to casinos, even though they draw millions of people into their facilities year in and year out, it’s just as important for their sustainability in the future.

What makes it so important for casinos?

Just as with any other business in Canada, casino operators and owners are always looking to attract more business; they already have millions of people each year walking through their doors spending a reported $15.6 billion in 2007 alone, but there is always room for more.

Just recently, the Canadian Gaming Association estimated that the “gaming industry accounts for over $14 billion in revenues, contributes over $7 billion annually to government programs and charitable causes.” As well, from its surveys, it found that nearly 85 percent of adult Canadians have gambled and that more than one-third of those surveyed have gambled in a casino environment.

Knowing that this many people visit casinos, it only makes sense to those operating or managing casinos throughout Canada to open up their facilities to the broader hospitality industry, which is why most casinos are offering space for events, meetings, or other venues, some becoming resort-style properties, offering everything from hotel service to spa service to complement their gaming facilities.

“I think it’s the ability to offer another product to our customers,” says Patricia Cook, vice-president of Corporate Affairs for Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA).

SIGA operates five, soon to be six, casinos within Saskatchewan — Bear Claw Casino, Dakota Dunes Casino, Gold Eagle Casino, Northern Lights Casino, Painted Hand, and the Living Sky Casino that will be completed at the end of 2008. Event and meeting space is available in the Dakota Dunes, Gold Eagle, and eventually Living Sky properties.

Dakota Dunes, located on the Whitecap First Nation 20 minutes outside of Saskatoon, offers 80,000 square-feet of possible space for events or meetings, which is their largest casino to date, in a Vegas-style casino with an entertainment centre, buffet restaurants, and located right next to the Dakota Dunes Golf Course.

“It opens up other opportunities for us, but it also opens up opportunities for our customer. It’s a first-class facility, not only on the gaming floor, but in our catering services, banquet facilities, and our entertainment.”

As well, the Dakota Dunes has 7,000 square-feet of meeting space that can facilitate 25 to 550 people depending on the event being held. The Gold Eagle Casino, in North Battleford, has 5,000 square-feet of space that can accommodate up to 500 people for various styles of events. The Living Sky Casino will also have a performing arts centre similar to their other properties. “It will be a state-of-the-art facility,” says Cook.

“We’re certainly moving in the right direction,” says Stephen Shaheen, a spokesman at SIGA. “It’s an integral piece of the facility in the larger entertainment direction we’re moving in. A little has to do with the market itself, too. Market often dictates, and that’s certainly the case with Dakota Dunes; it’s sort of out of the community, but we want to have a reason for people to make that drive, and if they can use meeting space, we want to be able to incorporate that into the experience, as well.”

“It’s one of those things, you take a look at the big picture…casino gaming is still the primary reason we do business, but we’re looking at our options in order to elevate our own business.”

For some casinos, it’s about adding diversity to their properties and operations. “I think it adds a new element to the whole driving the event business, which is something that we’ve been focusing on for the last couple of years,” says Woodbine Racetrack’s director of Catering Sales, Joseph Araujo. “We still do a very good business; we see corporations coming out for events around racing, be it a product launch, a customer party, or whatever they want to do. We have a variety of choices they can choose from”.

Woodbine Racetrack has three rooms for event or meeting planners that range from 700 to 2,200 square-feet. Araujo says “For us, it’s the uniqueness of the whole experience, the way we package it together, and unlike most spaces that you go to, where you can get a square room, a couple of windows, chairs for seating, a screen and projector, and you have a meeting space, here we’re not much different. We have a room, chairs, windows, projector, screen; the difference is we tie it in with racing.”

Araujo says some groups can have a morning meeting and for a lunch break indulge in the racing event. Participants can sit, eat, and network between races, as the average race takes one-and-half minutes, with a 15- to 20-minute break in between to allow for the networking.

“You can go to your typical sporting events where there is very little breaks in between [the action], whereas racing it’s very constant, you have a minute to two minutes-and-half of adrenaline and then a 20-minute break for people to really network and do whatever it is they need to do. Corporations like this because it gives people a good ability to interact with each other.”
“But when it comes down to adding another layer in the ‘new element,’ in my opinion, it’s very important to get them. It introduces us to some that may not be familiar with the racetrack and now all of a sudden they see that it’s not my grandfather’s old racetrack, it’s something totally renewed and refreshed.”

When it comes to the importance of the availability of space within Casino Windsor, Holly Ward, director of Communication and Community Affairs, points out the obvious trend: “With the gaming industry in general there’s been a trend to non-gaming amenities.”

Ward says that even Las Vegas has changed its style by adding signature chef restaurants, bringing in more entertainment, building a family environment, and expanding its options for more conventions. “But it’s really going toward offering more non-gaming amenities to make the property even more attractive.”

Casino Windsor will re-open in June 2008 as Caesars Windsor, which was purchased by Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. Even though it had pre-existing meeting space, the renovations and expansion will allow for much more, says Ward. In fact, the new casino will offer more than 100,000 square-feet of potential event or meeting space that includes: an entertainment theatre that can seat up to 5,000 people or be opened up for 39,500 square-feet of column-free convention space; a 26,000-square-foot ballroom; seven conference rooms; the availability of 758 hotel rooms; and eight restaurants and lounges.

“Because we have such a diverse kind of space from the smaller conference rooms to this huge entertainment centre, we really get a look at a variety of meetings,” says Ward. “We can usually get about 25 to 50 conferences a year if they are two to three days long, and do plenty of small meetings, nearly over 100 last year with the much smaller building we currently have now, and we’ll continue to lead the way.”

Ward says it will be unique because of what it has to offer other than the gaming floor. “It’s kind of the unconventional convention space, because we’ve got eight bars and restaurants to choose from, there’s lots of diversity here. It’s not only about gaming, we are very proud of our gaming floor and it’s been renovated and it’s a much more refined space, which brings it to a very luxurious level, it’s just a pleasure to be there.”

“If you’re not a gaming person, the architecture of the building itself and all the amenities are a great draw. Everything is brand new, everything has been renovated in the last 18-months, so it’s really 10-acres of anything you can imagine for your delegates that come to a meeting. Not only are they enjoying a brand facility, the Caesar’s brand name, they have lots of choices.”

Casino Rama, located about an hour north of Toronto in Rama, Ontario, offers 15,000 square-feet of flexible banquet space for its guests. The five meeting rooms contained within this space are all obstruction-free, and allow for breakout sections for up to 10 separate rooms.

Helen Cooper, senior Sales and Catering manager, and Jenna Hunter, Media Relations manager for Casino Rama, both consider the meeting space to be an important aspect of the casino, as it makes the casino a complete destination for any of its visitors.
Hunter says that they always knew it would be more than just a gaming facility. “In order to be the entertainment destination, you have to offer things such as hotels, the entertainment centre, which was built in 2001; the hotel and meeting space was added in 2002.”
Cooper says that the casino has such a diverse mix of people attending meetings from corporate to association to award shows to weddings and reunions. “It makes it fun and exciting; we never do the same thing over-and-over.”
Along with the event space, the casino has a state-of-the-art 5,200-seat entertainment centre, which features world-class artists year round, which Hunter says helps draw meeting and event planners. “Since we’ve opened it, the number of people having meetings here because they want to take their group to see one of the entertainers is growing.”

Thinking ahead and knowing your customer

In Canadian spots, other amenities need to be taken into consideration while offering the best possible solution for their guests including weather.

In Calgary, the Stampede Casino is in the midst of moving to its future location near the Round-Up Centre on the Calgary Stampede grounds and once moved-in, will offer a 5,000-square-feet space that can be used for meetings, events, or product launches. Calvin Burke, the Business Development Manager for Stampede Casino, says the Round-Up Centre and new Stampede Casino will be attached to the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) through a pedway system — a series of connecting bridges or tunnels between the hotels, shopping centres, and casino — so people will not have to worry about weather.

“One of the most important aspects for casinos that have meeting spaces is having hotel facilities, as well,” says Burke. “The new Stampede Casino will have a hotel adjacent to it. In the past, the casino has had to work with the hotels within and around Calgary to provide facilities for its customers.

But Burke says that having a facility with hotel services takes the worry out of leaving the casino to go to their hotel.

In Nova Scotia, Casino Nova Scotia, operated by Great Canadian Gaming Association, also offers a pedway system for its clients and guests. Roxanne Bentley, Banquet and Catering manager for Casino Nova Scotia, says having the pedway system provides a great attraction for meeting planners. “It helps in the winter, or if you’re planning an event and it’s raining, you can go through the pedway system without going outside.”

Along with the simple offering of the pedway, Casino Nova Scotia has two event rooms; the Compass Room, which is a 2,826-square-foot circular room that looks over the Halifax Harbour and offers an outside terrace; the other room, the Schooner Showroom, is 6,000 square-feet, and offers a permanent stage. Bentley points out that the two rooms are not near the gaming floor, but one floor above, which she says helps in easing some people’s minds that may have been concerned about the gaming being too close to their particular meeting or event.

Cook says it’s important to casinos to venture past, not just a gaming opportunity, but to look at other product offerings. “It makes us more inviting to our customers. It allows us to accomplish a couple of things — provide a comfortable venue, and also to showcase and invite guests into the casino who would not normally come into the casino.”

Angela Gordon, director of Corporate Affairs for Saskatchewan Gaming, says that by expanding the options of the casino it only helps in bridging the hospitality and gaming industries. “It’s just another service that we can provide to our guests.”

“When we have some of these larger events, where attendees are coming in from across Canada, this is a great opportunity to showcase what we have at the casino. They may not have been to Regina, they may not have been to the casino, but it’s a great way to raise our profile and let them know of the services we offer, and make sure that they have a good time while they’re here.”

Saskatchewan Gaming operates two casino properties, Casino Regina and Casino Moosejaw, with the Regina property having two spaces available for meetings. The Telegraph Room is a general convention-style room that can seat up to 100 people depending on the arrangement, and is mainly used for dinners, receptions, or demonstrations. The other space is a Las Vegas-style show lounge that can seat up to 700 people.

“We have full onsite catering services, and quite possibly one of the highest per organization of Red Seal chefs, so our food and beverage is excellent …we offer excellent options,” says Gordon. “As well, we also offer professional event planning staff.”

Linda Sasso, Banquet Coordinator at Casino de Montréal in Montreal, tells her customers that they try and make it easy for clientele to come to the casino. “We’re about five minutes from all the hotels in downtown Montreal, which of course all offer banquet facilities. However, what’s sort of unique about us is the art of it, there’s the gaming part, of course, which is something people can do afterwards and they don’t need to leave the facilities, they don’t have to hire entertainment, their guests are free to go play, and sometimes there are shows available.”

The casino offers free valet parking, interior parking and free cloak room, which are things that some hotels may not be able to offer planners. Along with these incentive services, the casino has two meeting spaces, the Salon L’Exécutif that can fit up to 20 people for a meeting and part of its new five-star restaurant Nuances Gourmet Restaurant, and the Salon Baccara room that can seat more than 140 people for a dinner and for a meeting of up to 200 people.

“When we have meetings, it’s usually convenient (for planners) to offer that as an add-on to attend an event or meeting,” Sasso says.

The casino services offer numerous possibilities for planners, from cabaret entertainment to restaurant availabilities with a dinner show option. “We take care of everything from A to Z for them.”

Jeff Dixon, convention Sales Manager for Fallsview Casino Niagara, says, “It’s an extremely important part of the overall amenities that the building can offer.”
The Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation operates a number of casinos within Ontario including Casino Rama, Fallsview Casino Niagara, Niagara Casino, and Thousand Islands Casino to name a few.

“We’re able to, as a whole, offer things from hotel rooms to function space, shopping, spa services, restaurants, so that visitors to the property can come in and have so many different options, and that individuals coming into the properties have the plethora of options that they can do and not be tied down to specifically one type of event throughout their stay.”

Fallsview Casino has almost 30,000 square-feet of space known as the Grand Hall which can either be split into smaller spaces or kept large including a large ballroom. “It’s got a real grandeur to it. The ceilings are high ceilings with carved archways, large chandeliers overhang.”

“We’re a full service, 24-7 operation, everything from our hotels to our banquet space; we’re very fortunate to have our own audio-visual company on site, which is very rare.”

Dixon says that usually hotels and resorts will sublet their audio-visual needs to an outside source. “We’re really able to accommodate groups above and beyond with their audio-visual requirements.”

As well, there is a full catering service.

Fallsview Casino typically caters to corporate and association-style events, but Dixon says they can do almost anything from that one-day board meeting for eight to 10 people, to the four or five-day convention with a tradeshow element to it, or the 800- or 1,000-person galas and dinners. In the past, the casino has had shows with everything from elephants, ice rinks and ice bridges to pyrotechnics.

Karen Kummen Diak, Sales and Catering manager at South Beach Casino in Grand Beach, Manitoba, says it is very important that a casino “offers stimulating excitement to both the convener and the participants all within a relaxing atmosphere.”

Though the South Beach Casino hotel will not be opening until August 15 of this year, the casino has already begun booking out event space and anticipates exceeding its projected goals.

“We will be able to accommodate meetings and events in our 5,000 square-feet Grand Ballroom,” says Kummen Diak. “Our Grand Ballroom is perfect for both smaller groups as well as events over 600 persons.”

The casino will also offer 2,000 square-feet of pre-function area ideal for planning a champagne reception or to set up a registration area, says Kummen Diak.

Casino Nova Scotia’s Bentley says that when it comes down to it, some meeting planners are looking for something different, “somewhere different to go other than your traditional hotel meeting rooms or trade centre meeting rooms, so with the casino, they can come here, have their meeting, and afterwards their guests can go do their own thing on the gaming floor or they can do planned events on the gaming floor. It’s just something different than just your plain, old meeting room.”

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