February 20, 2017

At 25-year milestone, Foxwoods Resort Casino plots next quarter century

PHOTO | File
PHOTO | File
Foxwoods CEO Felix Rappaport stands inside the casino’s table gaming room, which has been a key revenue driver over the past 25 years. Success over the next quarter century, however, may rely on new entertainment offerings outside the gambling hall.
PHOTO | Foxwoods
The construction team marks the topping off of Foxwoods’ Grand Pequot Tower in 1996.

For 25 years now, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has proven itself a sharp developer whose projects have provided entertainment for millions of visitors from across the region while providing a better life for tribal members.

Foxwoods Resort Casino celebrated its 25th anniversary Feb. 15 with free concerts by pop star Kesha and Motown legend Smokey Robinson, giveaways of $1 million to customers and a string of performances by major artists throughout the week.

It hasn't always been pretty, with bond defaults and public rows with the state. But there can be no denying the development of North America's largest casino, an outlet mall, destination restaurants and hotels has changed the trajectory of eastern Connecticut and the finances of both the tribe and the state treasury.

Now, as tribal leaders look ahead to Foxwoods' next 25 years, they see a changing landscape that plays a role in planning for the future. In the short term, major challenges include increased competition, especially from MGM's $950 million casino in Springfield, which is currently under construction and is expected to open next year. Foxwoods has partnered with Mohegan Sun to try to open a third casino site in Connecticut to fend off that competition.

"There are 1,511 casinos in the United States and gaming is increasingly becoming a commodity," observes Felix Rappaport, Foxwoods Resort Casino president and CEO.

That means the focus has to be on the experience, making sure every guest has a memorable time during each visit to Foxwoods.

"The biggest challenges Foxwoods and other existing casinos face are tracking trends and brand differentiation," Rappaport said. "To be successful, you have to face the reality of the situation so that the best decisions can be made for the organization. For Foxwoods, we've put this idea into action by evaluating our opportunities outside of our existing offerings and seizing them."

Two examples, he said, include Foxwoods' recent dining expansion (four new restaurants were announced last year) and the addition of outdoor experiences, like an ecotourism initiative and the return of an outdoor concert series, both of which will launch later this year. Rappaport sees the future as following the model he experienced as a casino executive in Las Vegas.

"Gaming will continue to be at the core of our business, so innovation there is important, but the expansion of entertainment, dining, shopping and hotel offerings are also vital to continued growth. We need to continue to not only meet our guests where they're at, but take them to new and unexpected places as well."

Paul LaRocca, Foxwoods' vice president of brand marketing, echoes that view:

"Today, when people think of Foxwoods, they think of everything we have to offer in addition to gaming, from top-tier entertainment to the latest and greatest in dining to the best shopping and hotel services and more. And we're only going to continue to grow — the future of the Foxwoods brand lies in our ability to continue elevating the property's overall offering as a premier resort destination and consistently exceeding our guests' expectations."

Just how that will be done remains a tightly held vision.

As tribal leaders, taking the long view is nothing new. A master plan is in place but glimpses of that plan come on an almost "need-to-know" basis, officials said.

"Foxwoods has a master plan but we have chosen to announce individual venues and attractions as they are approved, designed and funded, as opposed to making generalized pronouncements," Rappaport explained.

Last fall, Rappaport told the Hartford Business Journal he and the executive team had presented tribal leaders with a plan designed to remake the Foxwoods campus with an eye toward ecotourism. At the time, he said the projects could bring "hundreds of millions in investments."

"Our plan to expand our resort experience with an unparalleled ecotourism component is on track," he confirmed "and we're excited to unveil the first phase with the launch of our zipline later this year."

But he offered no hints as to what other steps are on the drawing board.

"In my mind," he said, "Foxwoods in 2042 looks a lot like Foxwoods today: Fresh, exciting and constantly on the verge of the next great thing. Presumably, in 2042 technology will continue to evolve but people will still be people and looking to have fun, immersive experiences and enjoy the escapism that a full-service destination resort can provide, particularly in this beautiful part of the country.

Rappaport said one of Foxwoods' strengths is that it has an abundance of space and land surrounding their building, which likely hints toward further development. He said the master plan will continue to provide activities and venues that appeal to families and every segment of society.

That sense of a commitment to the land and to the tribal values touches everything at Foxwoods.

"When we developed Foxwoods," Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler recalls, "it was about strengthening our community at Mashantucket with career opportunities, housing, health care, child care, and education opportunities to give our people the ability to better their lives. We simultaneously developed our museum project so that our history, culture and legacy could be preserved, well researched and made known to the world. We accomplished all that we set out to do. Today, we have a thriving community of tribal members who are focused on continuing this legacy for the benefit of our future generations."

LaRocca said the tribe is also attuned to its role as a major employer and its place in the eastern Connecticut community.

"We've built successful, long-standing partnerships with a wide array of companies, ranging from core local businesses like Connecticut Distributors Inc. and the Mystic Seaport Museum to regional powerhouse brands including the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, New England Patriots and W.B. Mason," he said. "These connections have helped mutually grow our respective enterprises, and established Foxwoods as a reliable business pillar and ally."

Whatever lies ahead in the next 25 years likely will be determined by the agility and creativity of Foxwoods executives and the tribe's financial partners because creating an experience that remains fresh and exciting won't come cheap.

Norman Bell is a former HBJ editor. He is managing director of TheVegasBureau.com in Las Vegas. Reach him at nbell@TheVegasBureau.com.

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