Changes are coming at Mohegan Sun, which sits on 185 acres along the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut. One of the largest gaming resorts in the country — and home to entertainment, dining, shopping and Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Sky Tower hotel — it’s embarking on a $15 million renovation that will include a new 6,500-square-foot VIP Lounge & Bar in Casino of the Earth, which will debut in the fall; a redesign of its most luxurious accommodations, The Royal Suites; and significant improvements to its 18-hole Mohegan Sun Golf Club over the next three years.
To learn more about the updates, Forbes Travel Guide spoke to Jeff Hamilton, a member of the Mohegan tribe who stepped into the role of president and general manager in 2019 but has worked at Mohegan Sun since 2004. Hamilton shared casino changes that will remain post-pandemic, what you can expect with the renovations and even bigger expansion plans that are in store.
How has gaming changed throughout the pandemic?
The future of gaming includes an online component. We don’t believe it replaces resort destinations like Mohegan Sun, but I would say from a pandemic perspective what we realized is that people want a little more space, and I think maybe they wanted it before, but we just didn’t identify it.
One of the things we are looking at is really thinking about our gaming experience. With slot machines, we’re doing more pods, creating separation between machines. You used to just cram them in an area, and people would sit shoulder to shoulder playing them. We’ve created a more comfortable experience.
When you sit at a blackjack table, it’s six crammed people. We’ve made the decision, even post-pandemic, to operate with four people at that same-sized blackjack table. We believe that gives people a bit more room, a better experience, and the hands are a little faster, which is good for the player and the casino. Our customers have grown to enjoy that.
What kind of trends are you seeing at Mohegan Sun right now?
Our non-gaming business has grown pretty significantly. I think in part people came to experience [our offerings] because they were unable to travel or chose not to travel. People had the chance to rethink how they wanted to spend their travel dollars. Even today, I think the pandemic is still impacting people getting on a plane — people still have different comfort levels. And then you think about airline travel and how difficult it has become, with cancellations and limited airfare.
We see people are coming here who have never been here before, and they’re staying a day or two, going to our restaurant, a show, gaming, and that non-gaming revenue has been very significant for us. I’m very excited to see our reports after this summer now that we will have a full entertainment lineup.
From a gaming perspective, we have less customers, when you compare the visitations to what we had in 2019. But our premium customers have returned.
The renovations seem to cater more toward luxury travelers. How have luxury travelers’ needs evolved at gaming resorts?
They’ve always been an important part of us. We like to be able to offer that VIP, luxury experience with butler service and luxury suites for our premium players. The player’s lounge is a destination. We have some great dining options, which have been a humongous benefit to us.
One of the things that we’ve noticed is that you have to try to create an emotional experience, and people want to go places that they can share and talk about — a destination within a destination. We’ve seen that with the addition of TAO — when you go there, you don’t feel like you’re at Mohegan Sun. The vibe and the design — everything kind of works, and people want to go back to experience that again. So we’re looking at how we can create that emotional, immersive experience in our VIP experience.
Tell us more about the new VIP Lounge.
One of the things that has always been a competitive advantage is our Momentum player’s club. We believe that even with increased competition, that’s allowed us to be a leader in gaming destinations. Part of that Momentum program is a great lounge experience. We’ve always had a great lounge experience, but we had two lounges that were fairly old from our 1990 opening that had been remodeled but didn’t meet that immersive experience. This new lounge is in a new location [next to BALLO Italian Kitchen & Bar]. It’s Rockwell designed — it’s a design where when you go in, you say, “Wow.” It’s going to have a cool fire element to it that’s going to be rooted in our tribal heritage.
Since you mentioned the online segment of the industry is growing, is Mohegan Sun doing anything to bridge that online experience with its Momentum program and in-person gambling?
That’s a significant strategy for us. We’ve always felt that our online assets should help our brick-and-mortar assets. We’ve added Momentum to our online casino, so you’re going to earn Momentum rewards that can be redeemed here on our property. We hope to expand that to include status points. So you go online, earn status points and you’re achieving additional higher-level tiers that can be used in addition to Momentum dollars here in person. Those rewards and status points are going to determine if you’re able to get tickets to a show or have access to certain lounges, so being a VIP player online is going to allow you to experience those VIP experiences on our property.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind the Royal Suites renovation?
The two Royal Suites are about 3,500 square feet at the top of our hotel tower on the 35th and 36th floors. When those were designed last, we created mirror images of the floors. We took a different approach this year and created two unique experiences that revolve around the natural elements to create, again, that immersive “wow!” When you go in, you’re blown away by the design. There’s going to be a cool fire element with the design on 36, and there’s a cool water and sky element in the design on the 35th. We’re excited about the one-of-a-kind, standout design elements that will be in both of those suites.
What are you most excited to see from the renovations?
The lounge is exciting for me because it impacts a lot of our VIP customers. That’s just our first stage: we’re going to do the Earth Lounge and then move on to our Sachem Lounge in our Sky casino. And we plan to create a cool outdoor entertainment area in one of our old valet entrances [with a permanent outdoor bar, a deck, a music stage and a redesigned area for activities].
Aside from gaming, what are the most popular amenities at the resort?
Definitely our entertainment venue. We’re the No. 1 arena of our size in the world, and we’re proud of that. There aren’t that many people who have not played here: Bruce Springsteen has been here, Prince performed here before he passed away, U2 and Taylor Swift have played here. Entertainment is part of our DNA and is a big driver to the property.
We have a great expo center that has been open for about three years, so we can do great shows and expositions on weekends as well. We host a food and wine festival every January, we do the Connecticut auto show in the center as well.
I think TAO has been a massive addition. Many people have been to TAO, whether that’s been in Vegas or New York, but ours is different. It’s much smaller and immersive, and it’s been extremely successful. The Michael Jordan sports bar [MJ23 Sports Bar & Grill] just did a remodel, and that’s been a great experience. The non-gaming components of our brand have grown significantly post-pandemic. We’re close to opening two new food and beverage offerings that take the experience to a whole new level.
You have a lot going on at the resort, but what are your long-term goals?
The tribe has agreed to purchase a property across the river from us. There’s a humongous plot of land that used to be a hospital that’s been closed for about 30 years now. The next phase is cleaning that up, and then the Mohegan tribe plans to develop that land with non-gaming amenities.
I think having that acreage will create the ability to do some cool, one-of-a-kind things that will add a whole other element to our resort, and both create a connectivity from our property across the river and become a whole destination unto itself. It’ll add new entertainment options, to both the Northeast and our property.
Thinking about Mohegan Sun five, 10 years from now, that’s going to be a key component to our development and a way that our property will continue to be the entertainment center in the North.