Gun Lake Casino’s newly promoted CEO outlines vision for further expansion – Natural Self Esteem

WAYLAND – During the four and a half years that he ran Gun Lake Casino, Sal Semola was a growth architect in supporting the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of the Pottawatomi Indians strategically expand and consolidate his gaming business.

As President and COO, Semola helped Gun Lake tribe Execute a $100 million expansion that included three new restaurants and a sportsbook opening in 2021. Now the property is poised to experience what is perhaps its most ambitious growth since it opened in 2011. A striking new poolside entertainment venue that will transform the casino into a ‘stay and play’ operation for the first time in its history.

Sal Semola, CEO of Gun Lake Casino
WITH KIND PHOTO

Located off the US 131 freeway between the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo subways, the property has good appeal in the surrounding market, but offering on-site lodging will change the game when it comes to attracting new regional clients and people to encourage longer stays at the property, Semola said.

“Without a hotel, it’s difficult for someone to drive two hours, three hours to get here, spend another two or three hours and then turn around and drive a few more hours back,” Semola told Tribal Business News. “A hotel is a normal development in this process.”

Another development is taking place for Semola, who was promoted to CEO this month by the Gun Lake Tribal Gaming Authority Board in recognition of his leadership and the growth of the company.

“The Council and I are proud of the strides Gun Lake Casino has made over the years with Sal at the helm,” Tribal Chairman Bob Peters said in a statement. “We look forward to many years of challenges and achievements with Sal’s leadership in his new role.”

Semola spoke to Tribal Business News about why future stages of growth will largely focus on non-gaming aspects of the property, how Gun Lake Casino will adjust its marketing strategy after the hotel goes live, and how the company plans to be an employer of choice .

How has your role evolved over the few years you’ve been at Gun Lake Casino considering how much growth the property has seen in that time?

When I came the property was not serving the market. If you look at our main market and what Gun Lake Casino was four years ago, it really didn’t meet the needs of the market. … We do a lot of diligence and analysis to come to a conclusion about when it’s time for an expansion, and as you know we recently completed an expansion about seven, eight months ago. This expansion should help set the table for what we refer to as Phase 5, which includes a hotel. That was part of the longer-term strategic perspective in this process.

We always had that in mind when I started, but I also had to appoint a Vice President and a General Manager to handle the day-to-day needs of the operation. I was very selective. Until I found this person, I was busy with both that and what I’m currently doing. Filling this position has clearly freed me to focus on the strategic plan for the entire property, the master plan, the longer term implications of what is involved and creating the infrastructure to support it, as well as other opportunities for hospitality and entertainment industry.

When Phase 5 begins and you’re able to offer a hotel on the property for the first time, what kind of growth opportunities does that open up for Gun Lake?

It’s an excellent question. It will clearly expand our geographic reach and also our demographic reach and appeal. Geographically, we get some visits from people outside of our primary and even secondary market, but (they’re) usually on their way somewhere else. Like most things, you reach a saturation point. We’ve done some research and have an idea of ​​how many hotel rooms are reasonable. This first phase of (hotel) construction is designed not necessarily to meet these long-term needs, but certainly the more short-term needs. It will complement all aspects of the property as obviously you have people residing on the property enjoying various entertainment options over a period of time.

Much of the recent growth seems focused on adding amenities and not necessarily expanding gaming to the same extent. Why is that?

It was heavily focused on what we call non-gaming amenities, and that’s typical of what’s happening in a market like this. You start on the casino side, which is very focused on this offering, and then expand over time to the off-game amenities that have that synergy and complement to the property.

We’re playing catch-up. This market could always have supported what we planned for phase 5, but back when it started there were many (legal) challenges the tribe had to overcome. … Even when the project started, the recession was underway. There was a lot of uncertainty and whatnot, and that minimized what the development could have been at the time.

That’s part of the evolution of a project like this, which started small, initially prompting the market to support something bigger, but circumstances often dictate the size of that build initially.

How does that change your marketing strategy by adding the hotel and making the casino a regional attraction? How do you go about promoting new markets?

It won’t necessarily change it, it will expand it. We will continue to focus on our core primary market customer, but these additional entertainment options provide another reason for people to travel here. One of the things we’re building…is a four-diamond hotel with 250 rooms, a spa, and a multi-purpose Aquadome. This Aquadome will be a very unique feature. I 100 percent believe it will be a must. It will be a resort pool by day and a performance complex by night, 80 degrees all year round – a nice little entertainment experience for a stay. We can also give concerts there.

On your point, if we have ‘X, Y, Z Act’ at the Aquadome, that’s going to be an attraction for people from Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland where they can have the weekend here, stay at the hotel, see the concert , have dinner in the evening and so on. We are very excited about the potential opportunity to do so. And to market that requires a different initiative from an advertising standpoint because we’re in markets where we don’t currently advertise. It doesn’t make much sense for us to advertise in Milwaukee or Chicago if we can’t actually host people on the 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 additional marketing opportunities that you want to capitalize on with the new casino venues?

This will be a different type of venue than what we want to offer here (in the casino). We have the naming rights there. Controlling and making decisions about who goes in there is a bit different than when you own the property, as we will have here. Given our business model, we look at this (casino) guest from a much more holistic perspective in relation to everything else we can offer them. So the hotel, variety of dining options, etc. all play a part in our ability to not only attract that entertainment to a stay here, but puts us in a different position than someone else who doesn’t have those other income opportunities from.

With all the initiatives you have planned at Gun Lake Casino and the recent headlines about some tribal gaming companies struggling to find staff at the appropriate level, you are worried about finding enough manpower even though you recently increased salaries and benefits for employees? How do you deal with this talent shortage that so many industries are currently struggling with?

It’s something we’re constantly studying, even before COVID. We always strive to be the employer of choice. It’s about creating the right culture, the right compensation packages, the right benefit packages, and so on. We continue to monitor what is offered elsewhere and strive to either meet or exceed those offerings.

Our growth is also part of the attraction in a way, in the sense that if we keep growing and evolving, you can grow with us. … I think that’s another thing that speaks for us. We are very much on track to develop not only this property but other things the tribe has planned in this area.

The last few years have been an unprecedented time for Gun Lake Casino with growth but also with a pandemic that has forced them to close for an extended period of time. How does leading through such a time of change and uncertainty impact 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 hotel, team members and guests, and that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. I think when you have that kind of concern and focus, it forms the basis for the other decisions you make as a result. If that’s the cornerstone we’ve been working on, then how do we continue to push that philosophy forward? Leadership is a broad term, but the same principles apply whether it’s a crisis or a celebration.

We’re really looking forward to the next expansion in the future. Many things are planned in this area and this is the first of many. The tribe will be sitting in a great place 20 years from now (given their) very thoughtful approach to long term planning and their future. It will be controlled growth, but it will be very thoughtful and strategic in the long run in the best interest of the tribe.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in Tribal Business News and is reprinted with permission.

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