Mohegan Sun Weathering the Corporate Storm, Looks to Bulk Up Association Business
September 08, 2009
By William Ng
On a late-August weekend in Uncasville, Conn., the slots and tables at Mohegan Sun's three casinos were brimming, as were the numerous restaurants and retail shops in the resort's centrally located arcade, jam-packed with patrons hard at play. Also, attendees from a major stationery manufacturer's meeting were chatting away as they filed out of a session. By the looks, it was hard to believe that there was a recession.
"We're at 94 percent occupancy right now," says Chris Perry, Mohegan Sun's vice president of hotel sales and marketing, of the 1,200-room hotel, as we walked through the lobby during a property tour. Leisure business remains brisk for the 240-acre southeastern Connecticut gaming resort, which is getting a steady stream of day-trippers and weekenders from around the region, but Perry acknowledges that with the recent troubles in the corporate world, group business is down 40 percent so far in 2009, with a flat fourth quarter projected.
Of course, Mohegan Sun is not alone in a year where not only gaming meccas like Las Vegas, but destinations from the East to Hawaii have seen marked declines in meetings and incentives business. With a still-flickering economy, the resort is working hard to market its value/post-AIG perception proposition.
"Being between Boston and New York, the value here is tremendous," says Perry. "A gallon of coffee here costs $42; in New York, it's $100," Perry cites. And though the resort recently began charging a $7.50 daily group facility fee per guest, Perry says it is lower than competitors and notes it includes in-room Wi-Fi, health club access, and generous in-room amenities. Plus, parking and public Wi-Fi on the site are both complimentary.
Mohegan Sun collateral states that its meetings can be up to 60 percent less expensive compared with meetings in those cities.
Still, luring groups here has not been easy because of the perception that the resort is not easily reachable, and Las Vegas is viewed as the pinnacle of meetings destinations, Perry explains. However, what may work in Mohegan Sun's favor is that in the post-AIG era, groups may be reluctant to go to Las Vegas, and Perry challenges that for most East Coast businesses, getting here is any more difficult.
Says the 20-year Northeast hospitality veteran: "There are 300 flights a day going into Hartford and Providence. The airports are not necessarily close, but you have to factor in traffic and the time from door to door. I bet we'll beat Dulles, Chicago, and New York. And Uncasville is low-profile—we're the low-key alternative to Las Vegas. You'll get a five-star experience here at a three-star budget."
Perry says transfers from either Hartford or Providence take about an hour. And to aid planners with logistics and the soup to nuts, Mohegan Sun has an on-site transportation and destination services team, which provides coach buses, books entertainment, and organizes off-site excursions to nearby Mystic.
Upon the addition of the Casino of the Wind in fall 2008, there are now three casinos (Wind, Earth, and Sky) at the resort totaling 360,000 square feet of gaming area. The latest casino has a 42-table poker room, which can conduct private group tournaments and lessons (dubbed Casino 101). Perry stresses that although Mohegan Sun is a gaming resort by definition, it has evolved beyond that, saying planners appreciate that the convention facility and hotel, located next to each other, are isolated from the gaming areas. "Gaming here is not in your face. The casinos are an 'amenity,' not a 'feature' at the resort," he notes.
In establishing itself as a complete destination and not merely a gaming paradise, Mohegan Sun has built a diverse entertainment lineup over its 13-year history. More and more, the resort provides a Vegas-like experience.
Its near-10,000-seat arena has a consistent schedule of top-act concerts and sporting events and is the home of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun (the team is owned by the Mohegan Tribe). The third floor of the hotel is occupied by a 22,000-square-foot Elemis Spa with 22 treatment rooms and a salon, in addition to a separate 27,500-square-foot solarium pool. Aside from nearly a dozen bars, a nightlife concept called Mohegan After Dark features Lucky's Lounge (a Vegas-style venue), Irish pub the Dubliner, and Ultra 88 Night Club.
The food and beverage roster is now led by such heavy hitters as Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville; Todd English's Tuscany; Michael Jordan's Steak House, 23.sportcafe, and Soltoro Tequila Grill; and Bobby's Burger Palace from Bobby Flay, who in November will debut Bar Americain at the resort. There is a total of 30 F&B outlets, ranging from quick-service food courts, to buffets and casual eateries, to upscale establishments.
On-site shopping similarly spans the price and demographics spectrum, ranging from discount and arts and crafts stores, to the Discovery Channel Store, to high-end shops like Tiffany & Co. and Tommy Bahama. Other brand-name retailers include Citizen Watch, Brookstone, Coach, Godiva Chocolatier, Puma, and Swarovski.
Corporate business, especially from around the Northeast, still dominates Mohegan Sun's group profile, but Perry notes that it has been slowly building association business, including national groups. Its clients have been the Rubber Manufacturers Association and the Air Movement & Control Association International.
At any one time, Mohegan Sun can have five or six groups utilizing its 100,000-plus square feet of meeting space, typically financial, retail, and pharmaceutical assemblages of 75 attendees or fewer. Up to 750 guest rooms can be blocked out for meetings and other groups.
The 37,391-square-foot Uncas Ballroom, with 11,000 square feet of prefunction area and a banquet kitchen, is the Northeast's second-largest, Perry notes, while the Mohegan Sun Arena's floor provides 30,000 square feet of exhibition space. There are 29 meeting rooms accommodating 10 to 100 attendees, and also additional venue spaces like the Wolf Den, the 450-seat Cabaret Theatre, and a 17,500-square-foot terrace at the solarium pool. F&B buyout possibilities include Margaritaville and Leffingwells, a martini bar.
Behind the food court at Casino of the Earth, we gaze at the completed entrance of a still-planned 925-room hotel, part of Mohegan Sun's multi-phase Project Horizon expansion plan, now on hold because of the recession. The plan has already brought to bear the Casino of the Wind, which in turn brought back poker to Mohegan Sun after a five-year absence. Now on hiatus are additional shops and restaurants, as well as a House of Blues concert venue and up to 300 House of Blues-themed hotel rooms.
Perry says the current hotel was envisioned to be renamed the Sky Hotel, and the new hotel tower was to be called the Earth Hotel. With the new property, the current hotel "was aiming to be more the hotel for groups" for more privacy, he explains. Now, without a definitive timetable for Project Horizon, the more pressing concern is continuing to generate group business and keeping the current infrastructure filled.
"We are committed to blowing away the customer," says Perry. "And now, we are also committed to fiscally responsible groups."