One casino has added a shopping complex that is just a short walk from its slot machines and table games.
Another is building a hotel tower that will include luxury suites to pamper its high rollers.
Still another casino plans an elaborate $5 million pool to amp up its party scene.
Some of eastern Pennsylvania’s casinos, once unimpressive slot parlors, are stepping into the big leagues of gambling by morphing into Atlantic City-style casino resorts. While no one is proclaiming any of them as Borgata-like in opulence, they are adding hotel towers, upscale shopping, gourmet restaurants and headliner entertainment and intensifying competition with Atlantic City.
“Customers in our industry want the culinary experience, the shopping, the nightlife, the entertainment — the whole package,” said Robert DeSalvio, president of the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem.
The $800 million Sands opened in 2009 next to the Bethlehem Steel Works, a sprawling and ghostly complex of mostly abandoned buildings dating to the 1800s. After the steel plant closed in 1995, the gambling industry became the next catalyst for jobs and economic development in the Lehigh Valley.
Like other Pennsylvania casinos, the Sands was limited to slot machines until state lawmakers allowed the gambling industry to add table games in 2010. Revenue from table games has helped fuel the Sands’ transformation, including a major expansion that added a hotel tower, shopping complex and events center.
Sands has emulated the everything-for-everybody business model pioneered by the Las Vegas Strip casinos and copied later by Atlantic City. DeSalvio stressed that gambling alone is not enough to sustain business levels in a crowded Mid-Atlantic market.
“In our business, the gaming is spreading everywhere, so we have to have something to differentiate ourselves,” he said.
First, the Sands built a 300-room hotel tower in 2011 to attract overnight guests. Next came a 200,000-square-foot shopping complex that features nationally known factory retail outlets. The final piece of the Sands’ expansion was a nearly 3,000-seat events center, completed in May, that has hosted big-name entertainers, from country star Alan Jackson to the Beach Boys.
Sands customers don’t have to wander far off the casino floor for the nongambling attractions. Everything is tied together within an easy walk, creating a self-contained hub for high rollers as well as shoppers.
“We gambled all morning in the casino, and now we’ve moved on to the stores,” Theresa Deady, a Sands customer from Brooklyn, N.Y., said during a shopping break with her friends.
Two other friends, Betty Ann Girvin and Beverly Looker, spent a recent morning eating in the Sands’ buffet, then hit the shops in the afternoon and ended their day playing the slot machines. Looker bought an outfit for her 6-year-old granddaughter.
“I wish they had more stores than they have,” said Looker, of Bethlehem.
National retailers such as Coach, Nine West, DKNY, Under Armour, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess and Izod are among the 30 stores in the Sands’ mall. DeSalvio said the Sands is looking to add more shops.
“This is the only outlet mall in the Lehigh Valley. The next closest ones are in the Poconos and Philadelphia,” he said. “Shopping is a destination here.”
The Sands has also created a culinary experience to lure customers. The Sands’ dining options include three outlets owned by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse — a high-end steakhouse, an Italian restaurant and a burger place.
The Sands is owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp., better known for its Palazzo and Venetian casinos on the Las Vegas Strip as well as its extravagant gambling resorts in Macau and Singapore. Originally, the Bethlehem casino was hindered by funding shortages. Work on the hotel stalled in 2008 while the rest of the casino was under construction. New financing was also needed for the shopping complex.
DeSalvio credits spinoff business from the nongambling attractions for helping to boost the Sands’ casino floor. The Sands is No. 1 in table games revenue among Pennsylvania’s 11 casinos. It pulled in $13.6 million in revenue from its 152 table games in September.
With the casino’s expansion finished, the Sands is working with city officials and community groups on a master plan to redevelop the historic buildings of the Bethlehem Steel Works. Already, some of the buildings have found new life as a PBS broadcast studio, an arts complex and a visitors center.
Mohegan Sun builds $50 million hotel
About 70 miles north of Bethlehem, just outside Wilkes-Barre, is Plains Township, a bucolic setting amid the Wyoming Valley, the Pocono Mountains and the Endless Mountains. Plains is home to Pennsylvania’s first casino, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, which is owned by the Indian tribe that controls the gigantic Mohegan Sun casino resort in Connecticut.
When Mohegan Sun opened in November 2006, it was strictly a modest slots parlor carved out of a horseracing track’s old buildings. But the owner, Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, replaced that temporary facility with a new permanent casino in July 2008, creating a resort-style destination.
Now, Mohegan Sun has 14 restaurants, eight bars and five retail shops. Its high-end steakhouse includes $49 T-bones, a far cry from the $5.95 cheesesteak sandwiches that topped the menu at the deli-style eatery in the old temporary casino.
“One feedback that we get from our customers is that they love coming here because of the array of amenities we have,” said Mike Bean, Mohegan Sun’s general manager.
Rising from a muddy construction site is Mohegan Sun’s next attraction, a 238-room hotel tower costing $50 million. When completed in late 2013, the hotel will include 20 suites for the casino’s premium customers.
“We get between 10,000 and 15,000 guests a day here now. Attaching a hotel to provide overnight options for our guests was obvious,” Bean said.
Some of those overnight guests will come from Atlantic City. Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority recently bought a 10 percent ownership stake in Resorts Casino Hotel and has also taken over management of the Atlantic City casino. As part of the management deal, a cross-marketing program allows customers at Resorts, Mohegan Sun’s Connecticut casino and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs to use their rewards points at all three properties for hotel stays, dining and entertainment.
Nora and John Keiser, who live in Hazelton, Pa., and are regular customers at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, said the cross-marketing program may encourage them to make more trips to Atlantic City.
“We used to go to Atlantic City a lot for shows. But now we come here because it’s only a half-hour from where we live,” Nora Keiser said. “We still like the entertainment in Atlantic City. We just don’t go there as much.”
John Keiser said Mohegan Sun’s new hotel tower will be another reason to visit the casino.
“We could stay overnight for special occasions, maybe on New Year’s Eve,” he said.
Pool makes Mount Airy cool
Mount Airy Casino Resort, in Mount Pocono, was the first Pennsylvania casino to have a hotel when it opened in October 2007. From the outside, Mount Airy is reminiscent of an old-fashioned ski chalet tucked away in the Swiss Alps.
But from the start, Mount Airy executives touted the casino as “Atlantic City-like.” Its suites, spa, 18-hole golf course and other nongambling amenities gave it a casino-resort atmosphere.
Next up, Mount Airy is building a $5 million pool complex that mimics some Atlantic City attractions. Harrah’s Resort and Golden Nugget Atlantic City use their pool complexes as hybrid entertainment-gambling hubs. In effect, they turned their pools into miniature casinos by adding blackjack tables. Harrah’s pool is topped with a soaring, glass dome. Mount Airy will also cover its pool with glass for year-round partying and gambling.
“It’s not just a pool. It’s going to be an entertainment venue, a party venue and a gaming venue,” Mount Airy spokeswoman Wendy Wilson said.
Mount Airy has longer-range plans for even more resort-style development. Projects may include hotel expansion, additional retail space and restaurants, and a new events center for major entertainment acts.
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