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San Manuel tribe moves forward on transforming its hotel-casino

HIGHLAND, Calif. — As the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians prepares to open what will be its second hotel-casino, the Palms in Las Vegas, the tribe continues to transform its first.

The tribe’s Entertainment Authority is set to debut the former San Manuel Casino as a full-fledged resort, Yaamava’ Resort and Casino, when the property’s first on-site hotel opens at the end of the year. Casino executives say the Palms and Yaamava’ will run like different properties serving different audiences. But there will be similarities, primarily a focus on the guest and worker experience.

“(Officials) know that if the employees are happy and excited and feel like they’re taken care of, they’re going to do that to their customers,” San Manuel Band of Mission Indians CEO Laurens Vosloo said.

The Entertainment Authority completed phase one of a $760-million expansion at Yaamava’ in late July, adding two new gaming floors, 1,500 slot machines, three bars, a new high-limit room, new restaurants and three luxury retail shops. The property last month rebranded from San Manuel Casino to Yaamava’ to mark its evolution.

Phase two is the new hotel at Yaamava’, and the final phase will conclude next year with a 2,800-seat entertainment venue. The tribe also has a hand in operating four nongaming hotels, including the 105-room Bear Springs Hotel two miles east of Yaamava’.

San Manuel announced a $650-million deal with Red Rock Resorts in May to buy the Palms. The deal is expected to close later this year.

Guests filled most of the slot machine seats on the gaming floor closest to the main parking garage on a bustling Thursday afternoon at Yaamava’. One woman shuffled and tap danced her way down a casino floor walkway in time with a pop song playing over the property’s sound system. A group of twenty-somethings in USC apparel took turns trying their luck at a handful of the property’s 6,600 slot machines.

Local players top of mind

Yaamava’ has 290,000 square feet of casino space and a total footprint of 1.4 million square feet, general manager Peter Arceo said.

The property’s massive gaming floor, cardrooms, bars, shopping and restaurants resemble a Strip megaresort, though Arceo is quick to note that the tribe designed the property for its players and their wants.

San Manuel didn’t knock down walls until the recent expansion of the resort located about 230 miles southwest of Las Vegas. What is now Yaamava’ was first a bingo hall that opened in 1986. San Manuel opened a casino in 1994 and expanded again in 2005, leaving enough room on the property footprint to grow into the space, Arceo said. Las Vegas was “a small part” of the vision, he said.

“If they built it for what a Vegas casino did back then, it would be outdated,” Arceo said, adding that“as we’ve expanded, there are elements that are similar to Las Vegas, but it’s not like we sat down and said, ‘What is Vegas doing, and do we check the boxes off?’”

The back of the house features a full-service employee dining room with multiple TVs, music and windows overlooking what will be performing acts’ entrance to the theatre. The kitchen serves fresh food, though Arceo adds that “unlike Las Vegas, it’s not free” and food costs a nominal price.

A Las Vegas transplant

Discerning visitors may recognize an aesthetic element from Las Vegas — Yaamava’ recently hired the Bellagio’s former director of horticulture, Jerry Bowlen, for the same position. Real and faux floral arrangements and flags accent the casino floor, certain walkways, entrances and a main atrium. Life-sized bears carved into a piece of wood guard the base of a set of escalators.

The hotel tower will have 432 guest rooms and suites when it opens. The luxury hotel will seek five-star certification from Forbes Travel Guide and has met all 900 standards to be considered, Afsi Bird, vice president of hotel operations, said during a tour of the under-construction hotel with the Review-Journal.

Some suites have Juliet balconies overlooking the pool deck, while corner suites have full balconies. All rooms have a coffee maker and 300-thread-count sheets, save for the 16th and 17th floors, which have 600-thread-count sheets, Bird said.

Yaamava’ launched a new app this year that over the course of several months will feature a digital concierge, a digital key and an e-commerce shop where guests can buy products they may have liked during the hotel stay, Arceo said.

Future hotel or theatre guests were front of mind when tribal and casino officials decided to add a casino lounge, “Aces,” to give those guests a place to have a drink and listen to a DJ, Arceo said.

The property is now up to five high-limit rooms, including a slots-only room, a table games-only room, an Asian-themed room and a popular steampunk-themed room where players can order a $10,000 cocktail.

The music is louder and the ceilings are lower on the second floor. The mix of slot machines is consistent across the gaming space, even as the lighting, music and vibe vary by area. That’s by design, Arceo said, because the casino tries to cater to all gamblers.

“You sometimes go to a big Casino in Vegas … and you’re like, ‘Oh, you could tell this is where they dumped all the old games,’” Arceo said. Not at San Manuel, he said.

“Don’t shortchange them,” he said. “Why should you make someone feel less because they like a different environment?” One section that used to be where the bingo hall stood now sports a rock-and-roll motif complete with music, murals and a “Walk of Fame” featuring notable rock records.

“I like to say we have like six casinos on the one roof,” Arceo said. “But you wouldn’t know that unless you’re here.”

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

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