WAYLAND, Mich. — In his four and a half years running Gun Lake Casino, Sal Semola has been an architect of growth in helping the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians strategically expand and solidify its gaming enterprise.
As president and COO, Semola helped the Gun Lake Tribe execute a $100 million expansion that included three new restaurants and a sportsbook that opened in 2021. Now the property is poised to undertake perhaps its most ambitious growth since it opened in 2011. The $300 million Phase 5 expansion will add a four-diamond hotel and striking new poolside entertainment venue that will transform the casino into a “stay and play” operation for the first time in its history.
Situated off U.S. 131 highway between the metros of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, the property has a good draw in the surrounding market, but offering on-side lodging will be game-changer in terms of attracting new regional customers and encouraging people to stay longer on the property, Semola said.
“Without having a hotel, it makes it difficult for somebody to drive two hours, three hours to get here, spend another two or three hours and then turn around and drive another couple hours back,” Semola told Tribal Business News. “A hotel is a normal evolution in the process.”
Another evolution of sorts is taking place for Semola, who the Gun Lake Tribal Gaming Authority Board promoted to CEO position this month in recognition of his leadership and the property’s growth.
“The Council and I are proud of the progress Gun Lake Casino has made through the years with Sal at the helm,” Tribal Chairman Bob Peters said in a statement. “We look forward to many years of continued challenges and successes with Sal’s leadership in his updated role.”
Semola spoke with Tribal Business News about why future phases of growth will largely focus on non-gaming aspects of the property, how Gun Lake Casino will adapt its marketing strategy after the hotel comes online and how the enterprise aims to be an employer of choice.
In the few years you’ve been at Gun Lake Casino, how has your role evolved given the amount of growth at the property during that same time?
The property, when I came on, was under-serving the market. If you look at our primary market and what Gun Lake Casino was four years ago, it was really not meeting the needs of the market. … We do a lot of diligence and perform a lot of analysis to come to a conclusion when it’s time to expand, and as you know, we recently completed an expansion about seven, eight months ago now. That expansion was designed to help set the table for the future, what we refer to as Phase 5, which includes a hotel. That was part of the longer term strategic view in the process.
When I came on, we always had that in mind, but I also needed to identify a vice president and general manager to handle the day-to-day types of demand of the operation. I was very selective in the process. Until I found that person, I was involved in that as well as what I’m doing currently. Clearly, filling that position freed me up to allow me to focus on the strategic plan for the overall property, the master plan, the longer term ramifications of what that involves and creating the infrastructure to support it, as well as focusing on other opportunities in the hospitality and entertainment sector.
When Phase 5 opens and you are able to offer a hotel on the property for the first time, what kind of growth opportunities does that unlock for Gun Lake?
It’s an excellent question. Clearly, it’ll expand our geographic reach and it’ll also broaden our demographic reach and appeal as well. From a geographic standpoint, we do get some visitation from folks outside of our primary and even secondary market, but (they’re) typically on the way to someplace else. Like most things, you hit a saturation point. We’ve done some studies and we have an idea in terms of what the appropriate amount of hotel rooms are. This first phase of (hotel) construction is designed to not necessarily meet those long-term needs, but certainly the more near-term needs. It’ll complement all aspects of the property, because obviously you have folks staying on the property, enjoying different entertainment options over a broader period of time.
Much of the recent growth seems focused on adding amenities and not necessarily expanding gaming to the same degree. Why is that?
It was heavily focused on what we call non-gaming amenities and that’s typical in terms of what happens in a market like this. You’ll start out on the casino side very focused on that offering, and then you expand over time into the non-gaming amenities that have that synergy and complementary effect for the property.
We’re playing catch-up. This market could have always supported what we have planned for Phase 5, but back in the day when it first started, there were a lot of (legal) challenges that the tribe had to overcome. … The recession was underway when the project began as well. There was a lot of uncertainty and so forth, and that minimized what the development could have been at the time.
That’s part of the evolution of a project like this that started small, had the market initially to support something greater, but circumstances oftentimes dictate the size of that build initially.
By adding the hotel and making the casino more of a regional draw, how does that change your marketing strategy? How do you approach advertising to new markets?
It’ll not necessarily change it, it will augment it. We’ll still be focused on our core customer in the primary market, but having these additional entertainment options provides another reason for folks to travel here. One of the things that we’re building … is a 250-room, four-diamond hotel, spa and a multipurpose aquadome. This aquadome is going to be a very unique feature. I believe 100 percent it’ll be a must-see feature. It’ll be a resort pool by the day and a performance complex at night, 80 degrees year-round — a nice little staycation type of entertainment experience. We’ll be able to hold concerts in there as well.
To your point, when we have ‘X, Y, Z act’ appearing in the aquadome, that will be an attraction for folks from Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, where they can experience the weekend here, stay at the hotel, see the concert, have dinner at night and so forth. We’re very excited about the potential opportunity for this. And to market that requires a different initiative from an advertising standpoint, being in markets that we currently don’t advertise in. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for us to advertise in Milwaukee or Chicago if we can’t really host folks on property.
Last year, the tribe bought the naming rights to the GLC Live at 20 Monroe concert and entertainment venue in downtown Grand Rapids. Does that give you any additional marketing opportunities that you would look to leverage with the new venues at the casino property?
That’ll be a different type of venue than what we are looking to provide here (at the casino). We have the naming rights there. Control and decisions in terms of who goes in there are a little bit different than when you own the property, like we’re going to have here. Given our business model, we look at that (casino) guest in a much more holistic view in terms of everything else that we can provide for them. So, having the hotel, different dining options and so forth, that plays into our ability to not only attract that entertainment to stay here, but puts us in a different position than somebody else that doesn’t have those other revenue opportunities to pull off of.
Given all the initiatives you have planned at Gun Lake Casino and recent headlines about some tribal gaming enterprises struggling to staff at appropriate levels, do you worry about finding a sufficient workforce even though you’ve recently increased pay and benefits for employees? How do you get around that talent pinch point so many industries are dealing with right now?
That’s something that we continue to study all the time, even before COVID. We’re always looking to strive to be the employer of choice. It’s creating the right culture, the right compensation packages, the right benefit packages and so on. We continue to monitor what’s being offered elsewhere and strive to either meet or exceed those offerings.
Our growth also is part of the attraction, of sorts, in the sense that as we continue to grow and evolve, you can grow with us. … I think that’s another thing that we have going for us. We’re very much on the upswing in our trajectory of growing not only this property, but other things that the tribe has planned in this area.
The past few years have been an unprecedented time for the Gun Lake Casino with the growth, but also dealing with a pandemic where you had to close for an extended period of time. How does leading through that kind of period of change and uncertainty affect your leadership philosophy?
It was a very dynamic time, very fast paced, constantly changing and evolving. But we always try to put people first at this property, team members and guests, and that was one thing that is unchanged. I think if you have that kind of concern and focus, it sets the foundation for the other decisions you make as a result of that. If that’s the cornerstone that we were working off of, it was how do we continue to carry that philosophy forward. Leadership is a broad term, but the same principles apply, whether it’s a crisis or it’s a celebration.
We’re just really excited for the next expansion in the future. There’s a lot of things planned in this area and this is the first of many. The tribe is going to be sitting in a great place 20 years from now, (given their) very thoughtful approach to long-term planning and their future. It’ll be a controlled growth, but it’ll be very thoughtful and strategic for the best interest of the tribe in the long run.