It is a common theme in our modern-day world that more is, well, more. But Casino Arizona is one gaming enterprise that recognizes that while bigger may be better, the best practice is to mix a healthy portion of intimacy in with innovation.
Casino Arizona has always had a philosophy of moving forward, starting with its first live operation opening in June of 1998. This gaming enterprise began in a temporary structure with 50 table games and no slot machines. But soon enough, the group was fulfilling some of its initial plans of expansion as, mere months later, the backing Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community secured a compact with the state of Arizona that allowed the addition of Class III gaming machines. And that was just the beginning, as Casino Arizona opened a second temporary facility in March of 1999 and the first permanent facility in August of 2000, the current Casino Arizona at Salt River, 101 & McKellips. This location features a casino with 1,026 slots, 51 blackjack tables and fast-action keno. It also boasts a world-class showroom frequented by top entertainment acts. Casino Arizona at Salt River can also count itself among one of the first handful of tribal gaming properties to implement TITO technology nationally.
The most recent and significant milestone in the Casino Arizona story has been this summer’s soft opening of the Talking Stick Resort, designed by Utah-based FFKR Architects. Highly publicized, the opening was pure success for the Salt River Indian Community. “We had people waiting outside, ready to come in the door,” said Jon Jenkins, Casino Arizona’s former president and CEO. “And we opened up and there was a crowd that believed in beginner’s luck in a new facility. And they were ready to feed the slots, play the table games. I think within about 15 minutes we had every poker table full in the poker room. So it was a great opening day.”
One question associated with this impressive opening is the issue of how the tribal community could swing such an extensive project in the throes of an economic recession. For one thing, this isn’t the sort of project that just comes to fruition on a whim. It is the grand culmination of what Jenkins calls a “crawl/walk/run development plan,” starting with one temporary structure and progressing through a few more before realizing the goal of opening a full-scale resort.
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s vision for the Talking Stick Resort had been in place for a long time—more than 10 years. The community had been approved to operate two gaming facilities, and always realized the potential of the location that the resort would eventually call home.
“It’s a major milestone of our development plan here,” Jenkins stated. “It’s a dream come true. The community had always wanted and had planned to open a resort at this particular location. It’s a standout in the area. We have panoramic views of the entire valley, of all of the mountain peaks surrounding us and the lovely Sonoran desert. And it’s just a beautiful location, perfect for us dropping in a resort at this spot.” Easily accessed by the communities of Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale, and tucked in the corner of two world-class 18-hole golf courses run by Troon, there was no question that this was the ideal spot for the next chapter in the Casino Arizona story.
The Talking Stick development plan had long been in place when the nation started its steady slip into an economic recession. But the Salt River Community didn’t let that hold them back. The project had already been financed by a syndicate comprised of 10 banks and the community’s own coffers, so whether it should continue was never a question. “We felt that it would be in our best interest to continue with our plan to position ourselves for an economic turnaround,” Jenkins explained. “There was no hesitation; there was just a continuation of our planning.”
That’s not to say that Casino Arizona hasn’t experienced its fair share of effects from the struggling economy. It was decided early on that the company didn’t want to resort to using layoffs to improve the bottom line. And it has kept that promise, choosing to follow other routes such as reducing hours. Jenkins stated: “I think our staff has really appreciated our philosophy of not throwing anybody away. It all starts and stops by every relationship. So it made us do what we do better, and it made us treat everybody better. You realize what’s important in economic downturns. And if you focus on that, you’ll come out just fine.”
“These economic challenges make good operators and make good companies, and it eliminates other companies that are not able to operate within those challenges. So I think it’s been a good experience for us to go through this. You never want to ask for it, but you deal with the cards that are dealt to you, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re making the best of it.”
The primary focus of Casino Arizona’s new resort is tied in closely with the focus of the tribal community that backs it. Of course the Talking Stick has all of the major amenities associated with an upscale resort, but everything is executed with the personality and personalization of the people who own it.
Talking Stick’s signature restaurant, Orange Sky, is located on the 15th floor and offers some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Its name, chosen by a naming committee that included tribal elders, will be no surprise to the guests that are fortunate enough to experience it during sunset. Its booths are placed in order to maximize upon the view and provide the most guest comfort and privacy, as all of the seats face the windows, not the walkway, and are served from the back. “It’s different, and we’ve tried to carry that through everything that we do, to pay attention to the importance of the guest experience when it comes to intimacy, personality and quality,” Jenkins said.
Part of the Casino Arizona philosophy is to touch every part of a guest’s experience and not outsource services to other companies. Everything from the restaurants, spa and entertainment to the valet services is operated in house. Though Jenkins would like to see business expand, he refuses to let overgrowth threaten the intimacy that the Casino Arizona brand has worked so hard to cultivate, and strives to create a welcoming environment in every way possible. He said: “We blend in fun personality with intimacy and all of the features that make the guest’s stay enjoyable. That’s who we are. We’re service people and we take great pride in forming the relationships in the marketplace.”
And even though the Talking Stick Resort hasn’t enjoyed its official grand opening just yet, that doesn’t mean that the property isn’t operating at full force. They’ve already had a lot of great entertainment circling through in their concert series, from Brian Wilson to Clint Black to Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson. It can almost be said that every weekend since this summer has been a grand opening weekend, chock full of all the fun and excitement that one would expect from a newly opened casino resort property.
The reasoning for the soft opening was to allow for additional features to be phased in to the facility over time and give the staff time to become comfortable in the new venue and in their roles in it. This was the plan from the beginning. “I’ve done that before in my career—marketed a big grand opening and then no one was really used to their positions,” Jenkins explained. “So we’re going to have everybody familiar with the facility and pick a grand opening for the near future.”
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has already given its seal of approval, as it well should, since the Talking Stick is nothing without its ownership. Tribal members are a continual part of the resort, either through its planning and development or its current operations. The property isn’t themed like some of the large casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, but there is a definite Salt River Indian Community feel. “There’s a lot of cultural and tribal icons and art throughout the facility to give it the appeal and honor the traditions and the culture of the two tribes that own the facility,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins is well versed in the culture of the community, and rightly so. At his departure from his position at Casino Arizona in August, he had racked up an impressive 14 years with the enterprise, making him perhaps the longest-serving, non-tribal member CEO in the United States. “It’s a real surprise. [The NIGC] told me that I just may be.”
He has seen a lot of changes in the industry in those years, from the exciting to the challenging, and sees those changes reflected in the Casino Arizona enterprise. As operations have become more technical and more diverse, Jenkins has realized the importance of having a solid team at his side. “Listen to them and learn from them, because no one person now can know all that it takes to do all areas of the casino. Now casino businesses, like all businesses, need highly trained, highly skilled technical people to deliver the products and services that the customers want. It’s an interesting time.”
Casino Arizona is poised to be prepared for many more “interesting times” to come. And while it doesn’t necessarily want its properties to become the beta testers for new technologies like server-based gaming, the company is keeping one eye out for the future and preparing in phases. But that other eye is firmly focused within, ensuring that the intimate, personal experience associated with Casino Arizona will never be forgotten, no matter what the world has to dish out.
A Look at Jon Jenkins
Jon Jenkins is much more than your everyday bigwig. Having held 36 (yes, 36!) separate jobs within the gaming industry, he can really relate to his employees on a personal level. Jenkins first entered the industry in his freshman year of high school, when his mother got him a job at a casino marketing company. Since then, he has held nearly every position in a casino, from janitor to dealer to president, with the exception of a few jobs like IT and finance. Jenkins explained: “That was just how you were trained in the old days, performing every job, because there was no school to go to or anything like that. So you learned the job on the job, and after hours.”
Jenkins left his position at Casino Arizona, effective this August. It’s apparent that the people will be the aspect of the enterprise that Jenkins misses most. After all, that’s what attracted him to the gaming industry in the first place, the “cast of characters.”
One of the projects that Jenkins is most proud of from his time at Casino Arizona is the establishment of a community member development program. “It’s provided some opportunity in career training for a number of tribal members in this business, and that has been a success story that I’m proud of.”
Another point of pride is the completion of a 13-year phased development plan with the recent resort construction. This plan was put into place by Jenkins shortly after he arrived. Now he says, “It’s just good timing for me to depart now that we’ve finished it.”
Jenkins’ immediate plans are to focus on all of his ‘R’s—relax, regroup, refocus, recharge and re-evaluate. But one ‘R’ you won’t see is “retire.” He plans to stay in the gaming industry in some capacity as long as he can.
“I can’t believe how fast the time went by, but I sure have met a great group of people, the Salt-River community, the tribal members, the employees here. It’s just been a wonderful experience, and I’m thankful for the memories.”