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Foxwoods Brings Las Vegas Strip, Disney-Style Fun to East Coast

The destination resort has moved beyond its casino roots to someplace designed to entertain the whole family.

When Foxwoods Resort Casino opened in 1992, the legal gambling environment looked much different than it does today. Las Vegas and Atlantic City had widespread gaming mega-casinos while a few other select locations in the United States, including select Native American reservations, had more modest casinos.

Opening a Las Vegas-style resort in rural Connecticut -- not really near anything, but easy enough to get to for people in New England and New York -- seemed like a bold, but very risky idea. And when it launched, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns and operates the casino resort, could not possibly have imagined how grand it would become.

What was once a risk, or at least a very unproven idea, has grown into the largest resort casino in North America with seven casinos, multiple hotels, and every type of restaurant imaginable being found on property. Foxwoods brought the glamor and the scale of Las Vegas to a remote corner of Connecticut, transforming from a place for gamblers to a family destiny.

Foxwoods CEO Jason Guyot, the first member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe to lead the company, has seen that growth in a unique way. Guyot started with the resort casino in 1995, when it was only three years old beginning his career "as an Employment and Diversity Manager, working his way through senior roles across Human Resources, Marketing, Gaming, and Hotel Operations," according to a news release.

He held various leadership positions working his way into the top job in March 2021. Now, he has Foxwoods embracing a very different future as a family resort destination that's also a world-class casino. Guyot sat down with TheStreet's Managing Editor Daniel Kline for an interview to talk about the plans to keep evolving the property.

(The transcript has been edited for clarity and grammar).

Jason Guyot Lead JS

Foxwoods CEO Jason Guyot.

Daniel Kline: Did you see over the years that your competition would expand and sort of, did you plan knowing that was going to happen? Or was it just sort of a, you know, evolve as you had to?

Jason Guyot: It's a great question. If you go back to what Foxwoods was in 1992 when we opened, it was a much different time. Shortly thereafter the gaming market was still focused to Atlantic City and Las Vegas and Foxwoods, and there was really no thought in anyone's mind that surrounding states would legalize gaming.

And I think, unfortunately, there was not a great plan because we were a monopoly. And they thought that it would go for a very long time. So it wasn't really until the late 1990s and early 2000s, where we started to see this shift, not only in New England, but really across the United States, as states look to gaming as another form of tax revenue, as they were struggling across the board.

And so I'd say Foxwoods has not, since 1992, really been set up well, with a long-term master plan. That didn't start until 2005-2006, when we were really starting to feel the heat of regional competition. Then it evolved. From there, obviously, the financial crisis in 2008 impacted everyone, kind of set everyone back a little bit. I've personally been working on this latest master plan and evolution since about 2012. 

Kline: Has the goal of that 2012 Master Plan, which has obviously evolved it to become a destination, sort of beyond just being a casino?

Guyot: I think it's a couple of things. I think one, despite all the competition, they are traditional casino boxes, right? So they have restaurants, some events, and there's a hotel that is mostly casino gaming. And that's what Foxwoods was until recent years, as we started to evolve. But I think competitively one of our biggest assets is the land the tribe owns, and the square footprint that we currently have all under one roof, which is really just a city under one roof.

So we want to take advantage of that space and land, and create experiences for our guests that extend the length of stay and just separate us from the competition -- whether that be expanding into doing a waterpark, or whether that's adding an RV park, or some of the future developments that are to come.

It's all in this integrated resort destination and being able to have it in the heart of New England. And within a two-hour drive, being able to go somewhere where you can stay for five or six days and have a different experience every day. Oh, and by the way, if you're interested in gaming, we have that, too.

Foxwoods Resort Casino Lead JS

Kline:  So it's more about competing with -- I hate to say this -- but with like a Disney World and MGM? Is that sort of how you view it?

Guyout: No. It's going to be a combination. It hasn't really been done to this scale. And so when you look at the Las Vegas Strip, you have all of these different casinos that all have different experiences, but then you have one-offs in between that aren't necessarily owned by casino operators and that have different amenities. We have all of that under one roof. So I wouldn't say that our goal is to compete with a Walt Disney World  (DIS)  or Universal or anything like that. But at the end of the day, we're going to be our own unique destination that's going to have these experiences that work competitively. 

And we're adding family experiences. This is a place where adults can still come and get all of those traditional casino experiences and much, much more with everything else that we're adding. So it's hard to compare us to anything. And I think that's what's most interesting about this is because we are so unique, this evolution is going to be something that hasn't been really done to the scale in the casino industry.

Kline: Are you seeing any changes in visitor habits with airfares being both high and just tricky? Like I've been to Vegas three or four times in the past few months. I can't fly direct. It's basically impossible at the moment. Are you seeing more people going? Oh, geez, gas is high. But it's still just 90 minutes from my house, I'm not going to jump on a plane and go someplace else.

Guyot: It's been tough to put a finger on any one specific kind of economic change that has affected the visitation because there's so many things happening at the same time. We have gas prices going up, flights being canceled and being very difficult to get direct anywhere, and we still have covid. So it's hard for us to say it's that one thing, like the increase in flight costs that are impacting us, or that increase in flight costs is kind of keeping people more regional.

So we continue to look and review the analytics of where our visitation is coming from, both from a player perspective and a mass market perspective, to try to get as many insights as possible, but it's very difficult. I think at the end of the day, what we believe is that being a regional integrated resort destination, people are going to decide to drive 90 minutes, versus spending $500 on a flight or taking three flights to get somewhere. Just because it's going to be more economically feasible. And it's going to be a better experience when you look at what we offer, and what the other options are where people can go and spend their entertainment dollars.

Kline: So as you evolved, I'll say, as a Vegas gambler, loyalty has been a big factor for me. I go to Vegas a lot, because Caesars gives me free rooms, and at the moment, gives you lots of stuff because they're obviously pushing very hard. How do you compete with that?

Guyot: The loyalty programs in the northeast, and specifically in Connecticut, are very aggressive and some of the richest programs in the nation. We've continued to speak to our guests, and find out what they like and want. And I think that's probably the No. 1 key to having a successful loyalty program.

But also, it's taking a look at what you're doing midweek versus the weekend, and how that changes, and people's perception of what your rewards card is. And that there's real value in it. When you go to Vegas to pick up those ear pods, and you're like, 'Wow, this is great.' Value breeds loyalty. And in a very congested market, we have to continue to evolve, because everyone is trying similar tactics.

There are traditional giveaways, like what you just mentioned, and then there are gaming promotions, and events and galas. And they're all meant to drive a visit, right?  And so the whole goal is to get that incremental visit. And the only way to do that is to make sure that there's value in your resort and what you're offering. And there's value in your rewards program -- where people are deciding to put their loyalty with you.

And once you have that loyalty and they've built up a bucket of points for your resource that they can use at their leisure? That's when you start to get true loyal guests that continue to visit. They've made the decision that that's where they want to go. That's where they want to earn their points. That's where they want to spend their points. And once they have those points built up, I think it's very, very hard to shift their loyalties. 

Kline: Do you still focus on Mohegan Sun as a competitor?

Guyot: It's definitely a different feeling over there. But yeah, absolutely. I mean, you have two of the largest casinos in the United States, you know, 15 miles apart. And as I mentioned, with some of the richest rewards programs and reinvestment in the nation. And not only do you have Mohegan Sun, there's also Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, Twin River, and the list goes on.

All of those are within two hours. And soon, New York will open up full gaming licenses within the next few years. I think they're pushing that forward. Originally, their goal was 2025. It looks like they might push that forward to late this year, or early next year, which is just going to congest the market even more. But in general, absolutely. Mohegan is our No. 1 competitor. And it's important for us not only to differentiate ourselves from them, but also the other major players that are now in the market.

Kline: Mohegan operates -- I forget which but -- one of the gaming rooms in Vegas, do you have plans outside of Connecticut?

Guyot: We continue to look at opportunities, we just opened the Foxwoods El San Juan at the Fairmont El San Juan in Puerto Rico. That was really the first venture that we've taken to expand the Foxwoods brand. It's actually been going very well. And so we continue to look at different opportunities. It has to be the right opportunity. We would look for the right opportunity where we can really bring that Foxwoods experience to Las Vegas wholeheartedly. Not just run a casino.

It's an interesting market right now. There's always a high cost of entry to get into Las Vegas with a fully integrated resort. And so you never know what the future will hold. We continue to look into numerous opportunities, whether it be in Las Vegas, in Atlantic City, or in other gaming states throughout the U.S.