MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - As a $300 million makeover takes shape at Foxwoods Resort Casino, it is gambling's friendly new face on display.
The future is corporate golf, with a Coach handbag and a spa treatment - not merely a memorable hangover and a plastic cup of quarters. It is family entertainment, brand-name restaurants and shopping to go along with the slot machines, gambling tables and all-night drinking.
"It is," said Robert D. Sheldon, Foxwoods' chief operating officer, "more than a loose slot machine and a fast cocktail server."
Once the expansion is completed this summer, visitors arriving at Foxwoods will stroll across floors of imported Italian marble and be greeted by the revamped "Wampum Rewards" store. There, patrons will be able to use cash or gambling points to buy pricey barbecues, espresso machines, lawn tractors and plasma televisions.
An 8,000-square-foot Hard Rock Cafe is just across the sunny atrium.
Serious gamblers will still be able to wander in just as easily from the vast Rainmaker casino. But families looking for a break in routine can enter the cafe without having to navigate the new gambling floor's maze of slot machines and gaming tables.
"If we are going to grow and be competitive with our neighbors, you've got to have this," Sheldon said. "We want to give people different opportunities to spend their money."
Just as Mohegan Sun has struck gold by adding stores such as Lux, Bond & Green and Brookstone, Foxwoods hopes that brand names with cachet will entice new customers.
Ben and Jerry's, a bookstore and a Coach handbag store will be around the corner from the new Hard Rock Cafe. A two-story electronic game family entertainment center will open within months.
A new cocktail-and-sushi lounge will add to a mix that already includes the B.B. King nightclub, frequent performances by national entertainers, a giant bingo hall, the ever-crowded buffet - and more than 6,000 slot machines.
With ardent gamblers already well-acquainted with Foxwoods' offerings, the current push is about hooking a new fish: people who ordinarily wouldn't bother with a casino.
Visitors "want more than the [slot] machines," said Robert DeSalvio, executive vice president for marketing at Foxwoods. "We want to make it fun, exciting and hip."
"The customer wants ... to be able to come in and have a complete sensory experience - the food, the smell and the taste and the look," DeSalvio said.
Obviously, gambling will always be the main attraction, said Mohegan Sun's Mitchell Etess. But "you can also come here and spend a long time and have a great time and never go to the casino."
"We believe that in many ways we have helped define the adult entertainment experience. It's combining a lot of different aspects of things people want to do under one roof," said Etess, who is executive vice president of marketing.
Observers say what is emerging in Connecticut has been shaking up Las Vegas for more than a decade.
"It is very much a broadening of the gaming product into a `place to see and be seen' kind of environment," said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Construction at Foxwoods is continuing around the clock on a 2,100-car parking garage and the casino addition that will include space for the 760 new slots, the Hard Rock Cafe and other attractions. Some new attractions will open this weekend, including a Pizzeria Uno, Carnegie Deli, a renovated Al Dente restaurant and the new Storytellers bookstore.
By late July or August, when the bulk of the project opens, Foxwoods will have nearly 350,000 square feet of gambling, more than any other single casino resort. But it is the new restaurants, nightclubs and golf that will set the property apart, Foxwoods executives say.
The deal with Hard Rock Cafe is one obvious sign of more things to come, Foxwoods officials say, as both casinos in Connecticut try to persuade even people who don't gamble to give a night at the casino a try.
"We see everyone from 5-year-old children to 75-year-old grandparents," said Brian Siemienas, director of marketing for the Orlando, Fla.-based Hard Rock. "Foxwoods has established itself as the largest in the country, and we are excited to be a part of that."
This weekend, as the summer season begins, Foxwoods expects up to 70,000 visitors each day. Some might not even do much gambling.
"It's not just more of the same," Sheldon said of the casino remodeling. "We'd like to have somebody stay longer, but it is more important at the end of the day that they want to come back."
The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.