Sycuan Casino expansion means reaching outside San Diego to grow the market Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports · February 18, 2020 at 7:00 am SAN DIEGO – Robert Cinelli was getting acclimated to the Sycuan Casino’s gaming floor two days into his new job as general manager when he spotted a familiar face. It belonged to one of Cinelli’s best slot customers from his tenure at the Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas. Naturally, he was happy to learn the player was also a frequent visitor to the east San Diego County casino. Cinelli immediately received some much-valued feedback about the property. “She gave me a lot of input,” Cinelli said of the Los Angeles-area customer, who visits Sycuan several times a month. “This is a very competitive market, so her suggestions and thoughts were good information.” Sycuan General Manager Robert Cinelli Cinelli, who spent almost nine years with Las Vegas Sands Corp., became Sycuan’s top gaming executive in January and was quick to understand his changed casino environment. The Venetian and Palazzo are at the heart of the Strip and have a combined 7,000 hotel rooms. Sycuan is located in the Dehesa Valley, a 30-minute drive from downtown San Diego, and is part of the tribe’s 2,200-acre reservation. With 302 rooms and suites, the Sycuan resort is roughly equivalent to a couple of floors at Cinelli’s former Las Vegas properties. Sycuan, he said, allows offers him an environment with a more intense focus on customer service to keep guests returning. “The property has always done customer service well, and that’s where I come from,” Cinelli said. “We have to focus on getting the message out to the San Diego community that we’re now a resort. The casino will always be our mainstay focus, but we want to go after the person in San Diego looking for a weekend getaway.” The Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians invested $260 million into the casino-only property more than a year ago, opening an expansion that included a hotel tower and other resort amenities, such as exclusive restaurant offerings, convention space, a spa and fitness center, and an outdoor venue with two swimming pools and a lazy river. But since the unveiling, the tribe has looked to secure its footing in the ultra-competitive San Diego Indian gaming market, which includes 10 major resorts and is a significant contributor to California’s estimated $9 billion in annual Indian gaming revenue, roughly one-quarter of the nation’s overall figure. The Sycuans are one of San Diego’s founding tribes in the Indian gaming community, having launched one of the region’s first bingo operations in 1983. However, the tribe was the last of San Diego’s major casino operators to add a Las Vegas-style component to its operation, including a hotel, capping nearly a decade of development and expansion. Change needed A few months after unveiling the expansion, tribal leadership decided a management change was needed. “We’re not Las Vegas, but San Diego is a hot bed for Indian gaming,” said Sycuan Chairman Cody Martinez. “The tribe wanted to make sure our investment paid off. We don’t want to be Las Vegas, but we wanted somebody with a lot of experience to come in and offer a breath of fresh air and make the necessary changes.” Sycuan Chairman Cody Martinez Martinez said the tribe quickly settled on Cinelli, who was familiar with the market from his early career. Prior to joining Las Vegas Sands, he spent 10 years as director of corporate accounts for slot machine developer WMS Gaming. San Diego’s tribal casinos were his clients. He also agreed that Sycuan is not Las Vegas. “In Las Vegas, you see your best customers on average 1.8 times a year,” Cinelli said. “Here, your best players are coming three or four times a week. I want to be on the floor more and get to know the customers. That’s a much better fit for me personally.” California economist Alan Meister, who authors Casino City’s annual Indian Gaming Revenue Report, said San Diego’s tribal properties don’t just compete for business amongst themselves. Casino and resort expansion is taking place in nearby Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “The Southern California gaming market has continued to see existing tribal casinos expand both their gaming and non-gaming offerings,” Meister said. “In one way, this has been to grow the market, reaching out to largely populated areas in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties. In another way though, they are keeping up with each other. They are fighting for market share.” Sycuan ‘serious’ about economic diversification Martinez, who is in his sixth year as Sycuan tribal chairman after being elected at age 34, said the council took a measured approach when it came to expanding the successful casino into a full-scale resort. While tribes, both throughout the San Diego area and in Riverside County to the north, expanded their gaming and non-gaming offerings, the 250-member Sycuan diversified into other businesses. In 2000, the tribe purchased the 54-hole Singing Hills Country Club and a 104-room hotel, three miles from the reservation. Three years later, the Sycuans purchased downtown San Diego’s historic U.S. Grant Hotel for $45 million. The tribe spent an additional $10 million to renovate the century-old property, upgrading its 270 rooms, and restoring restaurants and convention space. Martinez said the hotel held significance for the tribe. The building’s namesake, President Ulysses S. Grant, signed an executive order in 1875 setting aside lands in San Diego County exclusively for the Kumeyaay, including the Sycuan reservation. “The tribe takes its economic diversification seriously,” Martinez said. “We reinvest our gaming revenues for the continued economic development of the tribe. Our efforts have also benefitted the community adjacent to the tribal land,” adding that the casino employs more than 2,500 San Diego residents. When the expansion to the Sycuan casino launched more than two years ago, Martinez said the tribe focused on creating a unique property for the market, contracting with Las Vegas-based Clique Hospitality to develop several of the resort’s new restaurants, such as Bull and Bourbon Steakhouse and Elicit Bar & Lounge. Sycuan offers 15 different eateries, including a food court with off-shoots of popular San Diego-area restaurants. Sycuan Casino Resort in San Diego Along with the hotel tower, more than 20,000 square feet of indoor event space and another 22,000 square feet of outdoor space was built. The casino was expanded to include 2,800 slot machines, 54 table games, and a high-limit gaming area. But the first year of results were below expectations. “We weren’t obtaining the forecasts, and it became apparent to the tribe we needed to make a tough decision,” Martinez said. Adding a Las Vegas veteran Enter Cinelli. He immediately recognized that changes were needed in both the casino and the property’s public areas to open the environment and make the space more inviting. He said any hotel-casino, no matter where it’s located, always has room for improvement. Sycuan will probably change portions of the casino layout to improve customer traffic flow. “They did a great job with the expansion. The quality of it I would put up against any major property in any major city, including Las Vegas,” Cinelli said. “There are a few things on the casino side we’ll do a little differently and we’ll work to fix, but nothing major that the customer would notice. A gaming guy might.” One change will be an effort to attract business from outside the 30-mile radius that makes up the Sycuan customer base, but is also targeted by Viejas, Barona, Jamul and other San Diego-area casinos. “There is a strong Vietnamese community in San Diego, so we’ll make a play for Asian customers,” Cinelli said, suggesting there will also be an effort to attract business from the populous Los Angeles area and Orange County. So what guidance did Cinelli’s long-time Las Vegas slot customer have for Sycuan? “They like the slot product here. Let’s just say it’s a little friendlier,” Cinelli said. “With the expansion, our slots are fairly new and updated, which they like. We’ll continue to go after their business, and they’ll keep coming here. But we’re not in competition with Las Vegas.” Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.