Tribe’s New Office In San Gabriel Seeks To Lure Well-Heeled

March 16, 2006

Tribe’s New Office In San Gabriel Seeks To Lure Well-Heeled
Jan 14, 2006

It already provides chartered helicopters, complimentary hotel suites and a posh, secluded gambling parlor for super-high rollers. Now, in what is described as a first for any California-based casino, the Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino has opened a marketing office in San Gabriel to attract more big gamblers to the public or very private venues of the East County tribal resort.

Las Vegas has been mining the lucrative Los Angeles market for years, and now Indian gaming is doing the same thing. “This is an opportunity to expand our market and reach that high-end guest,” Karol Schoen, general manager of Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, said of the satellite office that opened this week. “We have a little different clientele than our local competition does.” While Barona wants more gamblers of all kinds, it especially hopes to attract well-heeled players from the San Gabriel Valley.

Schoen said she saw evidence that the three-member marketing staff, which moved to the area more than two months ago, was already successful in reaching out to potential VIPs. Dozens attended Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting. “The people I saw at the opening this morning were doctors and lawyers and dentists, real pillars of the community,” she said afterward. “You didn’t see the cook at the local cafe; you saw the owners.”

The San Gabriel Valley, an area of 2 million people east of downtown Los Angeles, is one of the state’s largest and most diverse consumer markets, said Vince Baugham, director of business development for the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership. Median incomes exceed $55,400, with 75,000 households earning more than $100,000. “For the affluence that we have in San Gabriel Valley, there is competition,” Baugham said. “So if you want a piece of it, you’ve got to go after it.”

The Barona casino has tried to position itself as an upper-echelon destination since it opened a quarter-billion-dollar resort in January 2003. The expanded ranch-theme casino and 400-room hotel augmented an 18-hole golf course built in 2001. “Nobody in California will let players bet as much money as they bet at Barona,” said Don Speer, chairman of the tribe’s management consulting firm, Venture Catalyst. “There are players at Barona who have bet $100,000 a hand, many a player.

We have many players who are multimillion-dollar casino customers.” In addition to having a high-stakes gambling room like most large casinos, Barona claims to be the only California tribal casino with a “private gaming area” – two basement-level rooms with super high-limit slot machines and card tables, accessible only by a key-operated elevator or private limo port. Barona’s private gaming area is for prescreened clients with mid-six-figure credit lines – entertainers, professional athletes, business moguls – who don’t want to mingle with the masses while betting hundreds of dollars on each pull of a slot machine or thousands on each hand of cards.

Casino officials won’t give names, but they say one private room or the other – each with a lavishly appointed lounge and cash-free food and beverage service – is in use an average of three days a week. These patrons often arrive by charter jet or are flown in on charter helicopters that land on one of the Lakeside-area reservation’s two helipads. They’re greeted with a chauffeured limousine and a butler bearing a silver platter of caviar. “That’s just part of the cost of doing business,” said Lee Skelley, the Barona casino’s assistant general manager. “If they’re helicopter-worthy, it’s free.”

Also free for high rollers, known in casino industry parlance as “whales,” are luxury hotel suites, spa visits, rounds of golf and meals. Only a few of the largest and most lavish Las Vegas resorts, such as Wynn, MGM Grand and the Venetian, have private parlors, catering to top clients with credit lines above $500,000, said Jerry Markling, chief of enforcement for the Nevada Gaming Control Board. He said private gambling parlors were banned in Nevada until about three years ago.

Las Vegas gambling resorts have already been moving VIP sales teams into Los Angeles County. Wynn Casinos and MGM Mirage both have offices near Barona’s in San Gabriel. Barona says it is the first tribal casino to open an office in the Los Angeles area, where all of Southern California’s Indian gaming resorts have been advertising heavily for years. The staff at Barona’s 1,000 square-foot office suite, which is across from a Hilton hotel, has spent much of its time since moving to San Gabriel networking in the community. “The office people are going to become members of that community,” Skelley said.

“They’ll join the Rotary club, the chamber of commerce, the businessmen’s association . . . and market our casino.” Harrah’s, which manages the Rincon tribe’s North County gambling resort in addition to its Nevada properties, has had a marketing office in Century City for years and acquired two others in Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach last year as part of its corporate buyout of Caesars Palace. “We’re not surprised that Barona has opened an office in Los Angeles,” said Harrah’s Rincon spokeswoman Sheryl Sebastian.

“The L.A. market is important to the growth of the casino market in San Diego.” Operators of the other largest Indian gaming resorts in San Diego and Riverside counties, Pala and Pechanga, say they have no plans to open sales offices in Los Angeles. Jerry Turk, Pala Casino’s managing partner, said he didn’t know why Barona was setting up shop in San Gabriel, but he assumed it might be because of the large Asian communities there and in several of the valley’s 30 other cities.

“Every property in Southern California tries to appeal to the Asian community, because Asians have a propensity to like to play table games,” he said. “If you went into any casino, including Pala, you would find one of the focuses is on the Asian community.” According to 2000 census figures provided by the Southern California Association of Governments, the population of San Gabriel Valley is 44 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Asian and 4 percent black.

San Gabriel, a city of 40,000 central to the 355-square-mile region, has a population that is 49 percent Asian-American. Alice Wong, past president of the San Gabriel Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks Barona has strong odds of appealing to the area’s many affluent Asian professionals. “Asians are gamblers,” she said. “The big Las Vegas hotels and casinos like the Mirage and the Bellagio, they have special dinners for their special invitees. They fly people to Las Vegas. That happens all the time.” Wong, who owns an insurance agency, said many San Gabriel Valley gamblers might prefer San Diego to Las Vegas.

“It’s so close – a two-hour drive.” Skelley, the Barona assistant general manager, said San Gabriel’s Asian base is only part of the reason for opening an office there. He said the valley’s main appeal for Barona is its above-average income and its proximity to the Interstate 15 freeway corridor, which is easier to drive than Interstate 5. “We are conscious of the fact that there are a lot of Asians there,” he said. “We want to go to San Gabriel because it’s a thriving business center, and it has a direct access down 15 to Barona.”

Barona’s Los Angeles-area outreach staff will be going after moderate-to high-spending gamblers as well as the super-rich, Skelley said. “We aren’t looking for celebrities. We certainly are looking for business owners, people who play regularly in Las Vegas,” he said. “If we find some high-end business there, we’ll be really happy about it. We can certainly take care of them.”

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