Raving NEXT: Continued success of tribal operators depends on long-range vision

February 9, 2024 3:15 PM
Photo: From left, Dan Stromer, owner of Black Chip Entertainment and Hospitality; Kari Stout-Smith, Cache Creek Casino Resort general manager and CEO; Anika Howard, Wondr Nation president and CEO; and Deanna Scott, Raving CEO and founder. (Gency Warren/Raving Consulting)
  • Rege Behe, CDC Gaming Reports
February 9, 2024 3:15 PM
  • Rege Behe, CDC Gaming Reports

The history of Tribal gaming ranges from “modest bingo halls” in the 1970s to the “beautiful elaborate resorts” of present day, in the words of Raving CEO and Founder Deanna Scott.

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But it’s not enough for Tribes to sit back and enjoy their collective accomplishments. During the session “Creating Comprehensive Success: Unifying Business Forecast with Tribal Strategic Vision” at the recent Raving NEXT conference, Scott noted, “These developments weren’t created for 90-day shareholder return, but for infrastructure with businesses that serve the Tribe for the next seven generations.”

The gravity of the importance and responsibility of being a steward of Tribal development can’t be understated. And the ability to do that well stems from having a “why” for the decisions leaders make.

For Cache Creek Casino Resort General Manager and CEO Kari Stout-Smith, the importance of her mission, the “why” of what she does, emerged during a conversation with the attorney general for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, owner and operator of the Brooks, California, casino-resort.

“I think I made a snarky comment,” Stout-Smith said. “I said, ‘I run a casino. This isn’t brain science. I’m not curing cancer.’ And she said, ‘No, you’re building Tribal governments.’ And it was one of those moments that I just went, that’s my why.

“I’ve had the opportunity to shift from Tribal gaming into commercial or corporate gaming and it always lacked some heart and soul for me. It didn’t have that connection to a community, to the fact that it’s something much, much bigger than just the entertainment and leisure industry that we all know and love.”

Dan Stromer, owner of Black Chip Entertainment and Hospitality and a Raving Partner, Executive Tribal Member Development and Senior Operations, said it’s important for Tribes not to take success for granted. To understand the “why,” Tribal businesses need to understand their origins. He emphasized that the importance of remembering that many people in the past “did a lot of heavy lifting” to pave the way for current success.

“Maybe we fined-tuned it to some degree, but it’s making sure that they’re all part of that,” Stromer said. “They understand the ‘whys’ of what we’re doing and we’re hopefully creating a vision and a path that the people coming up behind us will carry forward.”

For Wondr Nation President and CEO Anika Howard, her focus, her “why,” has been to build a pipeline of talent from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and create foundational knowledge for the future. That starts with leadership, but it’s equally critical for team members to share the Tribe’s vison.

“It’s not enough to sell, sell, sell, to drive the revenue,” Howard said. “We found out that conflicts happen when there’s not that emotional intelligence, or EQ, that connects with Tribal Council, that can understand and have that empathy to the important things, the underlying pieces. So a big piece of it is to start by making sure you have the right team. From there, it’s a shared vision.”

It’s difficult for anyone to foresee what’s coming next. But to realize that there will be changes, large and small, is critical, according to Stout-Smith. “We’ve learned that from how Vegas used to reinvent itself more frequently than Madonna. So we have to learn how to evolve and grow, but it takes a lot of diverse perspectives.

“Not only do I report to our Tribal Council,” Stout-Smith added, “but also to a business board. We work very closely with our fire commission and with our other businesses. The Tribe owns a line of specialty foods. They grow and manufacture lots of different items. … So we’re taking into consideration not just the needs of the resort long-term, but also the line of specialty foods, the long-term needs of the other businesses that touch our property.”