Tribal Casinos Move into New Territory: High-End Luxury

Sep 22, 2013

Tribal casinos are trying to appeal to a new kind of customer—one who may not even gamble at all.

Across the Northwest, one-time no-frills casinos are expanding into resort-style destinations and adding high-end amenities like spas, fine dining, and luxury hotels. The tribes are hoping to give Las Vegas a run for its money.

Let's face it: there's not much ambiance in a room with a thousand slot machines. Or maybe it's really that there's too much ambiance.

But leave the flashing lights and dinging machines behind, and you find a very different side of the casino at the gaming floor at Northern Quest Resort and Casino in eastern Washington.

“Well, welcome to La Rive Spa,” said Yvonne Smith, who manages the spa. Here you'll find nine different styles of massage to choose from, a locally-sourced, seasonal spa menu and French moisturizers that cost as much as an iPod.

“You can hear water in the background. We have a beautiful, etched waterfall that greets our guests before they go into the lounges as well, Smith said.

Yes, Smith says, it's not what you might expect.

“Oh, the one thing I hear all the time is, 'I had no idea this was here,’” she said.

Kalispel Tribe member and casino manager Phil Haugen stands in a suite in the casino’s hotel.
Credit Jessica Robinson

Since opening the casino in a field outside of Spokane in 2000, the Kalispel Tribe has built a top-rated hotel, 14 restaurants and bars, an outdoor concert venue, and the spa.

“It used to be that people thought tribal casinos were dirty and small, and they just didn't have what Vegas had or what Atlantic City had,” said Phil Haugen, a member of the tribe and the manager of Northern Quest. “You know, we were perceived as just being kind of second-class. But now you have these first-class properties. And it's not just us.”

In fact, a $90 million expansion is underway at Legends Casino in central Washington operated by the Yakama Nation. On the Oregon coast, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians just bought a golf course. In north Idaho, that’s how the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is attracting a new kind of crowd to its casino.

Golfers play the Circling Raven Golf Course at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in Worley, Idaho.
Credit Jessica Robinson

Out on the Circling Raven Golf Course, Rhonda Seagraves drives her ball toward the first hole. She's a banker in north Idaho who comes to golf, not gamble.

“We come down here 10, maybe 15 times a year,” she said.

It’s no coincidence these amenities give the non-gambler in the family a reason to come along to a casino.

Valerie Red-Horse is a financial adviser who specializes in tribal casinos. She says these ventures still make nearly 90 percent of their revenue from gambling. But the fancy additions give casinos an edge at a time when they need it. Casinos face increasing competition, including from other tribal casinos.

“So now if someone's going to spend money at a casino, you really have to drive their business there. So you have to offer amenities and entertainment and marketing programs. So it's a little more competitive than about five years ago," she said.

Red-Horse says high-end amenities are especially important to casinos off the beaten path. 

At the Coeur d'Alene Casino in Worley, Idaho, a kitchen worker polishes the silverware before dinner. Casino CEO Dave Matheson has watched this operation go from a bingo hall with a buffet to a destination resort. The facility has also become a source of pride for tribal members.

“I mean, for generations, people have been feeling like they were maybe treated like they weren't as smart or weren't as capable in life. And I think it gives us a chance to prove what we can do," he said.

Matheson says the facilities may look opulent. But the point is simple: It comes down to financial stability for the tribe.