With the open fire pit blazing and the sun setting into the emerald green fairway behind us, I sank comfortably into my chair, sipped a cocktail and shared story after story, and laugh after laugh, with three foursomes of golf buddies.
Our jovial group had just completed a round at the serene and striking Sweetgrass Golf Club at Island Resort & Casino, one of my favorite golf and gambling destinations, and now we were taking full advantage of the dedicated on-site golf concierge that was providing us with a VIP Room, private dinner and gaming tables exclusive to me and my fellow trip mates.
The picture painted above was the primary reason for my visit to the Hannahville Indian Community-owned property tucked away in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula because Island Resort & Casino truly caters to golf groups of all shapes and sizes. And thanks to value-laden stay-and-play packages and its close vicinity to Green Bay and the historic Lambeau Field, the extra effort to get there is worth every second.
It’s been a few years since my last excursion to the property, and the Potawatomi tribe is certainly doing everything in its power to entice a return trip. As part of a massive $8 million expansion and renovation project that is on target to be completed in August, the resort recently opened Drift Spa, adding to its long list of guest amenities that includes a headline entertainment showroom, RV Park, newly enhanced fitness center, the flashy T McC’s Sports Bar, multiple other dining options, a poker room and full Vegas style casino. Still to come are updates to the lobby. Also later this year, the resort is planning a soft opening of Sage Run, a second championship golf course that, like Sweetgrass, is designed by Michigan native Paul Albanese of Albanese & Lutzke.
Yes, Island Resort & Casino has come a long, long way since opening as a community bingo hall over three decades ago. Tony Mancilla is a member of Hannahville Indian Community and first became involved with the casino 20 years ago as an attorney to the property before transitioning to general manager three years ago. With the resort thriving and continuing to expand, Casino City sat down with the 48-year-old Mancilla to discuss IRC’s metamorphosis, the early reviews of its new spa, the excitement surrounding Sage Run and what we can expect next from the tribe.
What was Hannahville Indian Community’s vision when it considered expanding from its Bingo Hall roots to a casino resort?
The vision has expanded with the success of the resort. It started as a fundraiser in the mid-1970s. When tribes were starting bingo halls and card games, Hannahville was one of the first tribes to get on board to supplement their government funds. As the popularity of the casino increased, the Hannahville Tribal Council undertook several expansions based upon customer demand. Over the past 31 years, the resort has expanded from a small pole building to a full-scale resort.
When did the casino resort debut, and how many expansions have you undertaken?
We opened our doors with banked card games and bingo on 20 December 1985. We moved to our current location on US 2/41 in Harris in 1991, adding 400 slot machines, a restaurant and 28 hotel rooms. In 1997, we added our first hotel tower, which had 113 rooms, two restaurants, an 800-seat showroom, 800 slot machines and a small convention center. In 2005 we built a second tower, adding 225 more rooms and a 1,400-seat showroom. We also added 400 slot machines and expanded to five food outlets. In 2008, we added a new convention center and the Sweetgrass Golf Club (rated No. 13 in the state of Michigan by Golfweek). We now have 1,204 slot machines, six restaurants, 318 hotel rooms, a 1,400-seat showroom, a championship golf course and 26 table games.
How does the expansion process work at IRC? Is there a formula or trigger point that helps make the decision to move forward?
It’s based on customer demand and market direction. We have determined that we have different customer segments that want different amenities. Our “core” gaming customer is looking for promotions related to gaming. These are not things you see in construction, but in expanded offers through our marketing department. Led by Susan Harris, our marketing team is very good at meeting those customer demands. Our other customer segment is looking for showroom entertainment, golf, spa services, fine dining, etc. Our current amenities have proven to be successful and can be quantified by our CFO, Scott Herioux. Once our management group can financially justify an expansion project, it is presented to our Tribal Council for consideration. If the project makes financial sense and meets the goals of our Casino and Tribe, they approve us to move forward with financing.
How is Drift Spa performing, and what’s the forecast for its first full year (2017)?
The Drift Spa had proven to be popular with our customers. We opened in June 2016 with massage, nail, hair and skin services. The massage services have been in high demand since we opened and we have added a HydraFacial service that is growing quickly. Marketing has done a great job promoting the Drift Spa, but as with any personal service it’s word of mouth that is your best friend. Our therapists are great and they are developing a clientele quickly. This winter we have been able to complete our staff and we expect a very busy and profitable 2017.
What inspired you to add a second championship golf course?
We have partnered with two highly-rated golf clubs in the Upper Peninsula since we opened. We have hosted groups of four to over 100 golfers in the past eight years. The package business is growing every year, and we wanted to offer another reason for those golfers to keep us on their list of courses to play. The success of our first course and customer demand led to the decision to add the second course. Albanese and Lutzke did a fantastic job with Sweetgrass and are great to work with as a design and construction firm. The topography of the land was so different that we could not make the same course twice, so we hired them a second time.
What are some of the main similarities and differences between Sweetgrass and Sage Run and what is the significance of their names?
Sweetgrass is a championship prairie-style course with very few trees and fescue grass that borders the fairways. It is conditioned to a private club standard with a public course green fee. The course is maintained to a very high standard with water features on six holes. The Sage Run course is 180 degrees in the opposite direction of Sweetgrass, with the majority of the holes running through trees and up and down hills. It is a resort-style course with turf intended for high handicap golfers. The look of Sage Run will be rustic with a northern Michigan feel. Our customers will feel like they played courses in two different areas of the country in just two days.
The names are taken from the traditional medicines of the Potawatomi Tribe. The medicines are sweetgrass, sage, tobacco and cedar. The Sweetgrass Golf Club has sweetgrass growing on two holes. When people gather together, it is used to clear the mind of bad thoughts and let good thoughts enter. Sage is used to expel negative energy from the body. The Sage Run course also has 10 holes that run significantly downhill.
As a Hannahville Indian Community tribal member, how do you honor tribal tradition at IRC?
We try to make sure that everything we do and present to our customers reflects positively on the Tribe. We want every customer to have a great experience and leave thinking, “Those were nice people up there.” We also keep Tribal history alive through our gift shop offerings and through our golf clubs.
Green Bay and Milwaukee are your top two markets, two and four hours away, respectively. How have you attracted visitors from them, and what percentage of your guests do they comprise?
About half of our customers drive two or more hours to get to the Island Resort. The Island Resort is in competition with all the other casinos in the Midwest, so our strategy is simple. We make it worthwhile for the customer to get up here by offering better games, entertainment, food and beverage, golf, etc. and treat them like we would want to be treated if we were on vacation. Over 85% of our golf customers drive 50 miles or further. These customers look for quality of play and hospitality. Our marketing department and front line employees are first class, which results in customers coming back to us month after month and year after year.
Of all the recent additions, which are you the most excited about and why?
I have never been exposed to the “spa environment,” but I can already see the benefits of the Drift Spa. It raises the level of expectation of our customers and service level of our employees. We are remodeling our hotel lobby to reflect the elegance of our new spa. Our guest services and marketing departments are being trained to meet the level of service our spa is providing. Our overall customer service in the resort has only increased in quality since we opened the Drift Spa.
What was the toughest lesson you’ve learned as GM at IRC, and how did you use that for the resort’s betterment, and yours as its business leader?
Good people are hard to find! With over 900 employees, everyone needs to be moving in the same direction with the same goals. As a general manager, you need to find ways to get your directors, managers, supervisors and front line employees on the same page despite any business or personal differences. It’s a challenge sometimes, but it is also achievable.
When you picture IRC three to five years from now, what do you see?
Our marketing department knows how to meet the needs and requests of our different customer groups. I am confident they will keep that going. With our most recent expansion and renovation project, I believe in three to five years we will be the premier resort in the Midwest. We will be a resort people talk about and want to visit, and in five years we will be discussing ways to accommodate our growing number of customers.