The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians has become the first tribe to own and operate a casino in Las Vegas. While the Mohegan tribe operates the casino at the Virgin Las Vegas hotel, and the Seminoles have purchased the Mirage which will be rebranded a Hard Rock, the Palms is the first fully operating casino to open under tribal ownership.
The Palms closed during the pandemic, less than a year after it reopened following a $500 million renovation by Station Casinos, which bought the casino from the original owners and developers, the Maloof family. Under Station ownership, the property never achieved the traction necessary to succeed and wasn’t reopened when most other Station casinos did after the lockdown.
San Manuel has been shopping for a Las Vegas destination casino for some time, according to Latisha Casa, the chairwoman of San Manuel Gaming & Hospitality Authority (SMGHA), the business arm of the tribe that actually owns the casino.
“It is something that the tribe considered for a long time and seeing the successes that we’ve had in Yaamava and all the lessons that we’ve learned from that experience, we wanted to expand,” she explained in an exclusive interview with GGB News. “But we wanted to hold true to our core of the things that we know and build upon our expertise and Las Vegas was where we wanted to be.”
Before settling on the Palms, however, the tribe, as it has in California, wanted to give back to the community. In early 2020, San Manuel Band contributed $9 million to the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) to support course development and an endowed chair at the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality. It also provides curricular, faculty, and program support at the William S. Boyd School of Law. And just this month, San Manuel established a collaboration with the college’s International Gaming Institute to conduct research into problem gambling.
So it wasn’t a surprise when the San Manuel Band announced it had purchased the Palms from Station Casinos in early 2021. The Palms was originally opened in 2001 by the Maloofs, who had achieved success in the Las Vegas locals market with the Fiesta casino. The Palms was an immediate hit, able to establish a strong locals following during the day, and attracting tourists and out-of-town younger clientele in the evenings with an aggressive nightclub strategy.
When Station bought the Palms in 2016, it immediately embarked on a full renovation, eventually spending approximately $1 billion on the purchase and redesign of the property. It reopened following the renovation in 2018 but never fully established the popularity it had under the Maloof ownership, and when the Kaos nightclub, a major investment, failed to generate ROI, Station lost interest in the property. It was one of four Station-owned casinos that failed to reopen after the March 2020 pandemic closings, until it was purchased by San Manuel for $650 million.
Since the massive renovation had just been completed, GM Cynthia Kiser Murphey, a longtime MGM executive, said only minor adjustments needed to be made.
“The property was meticulously remodeled, with amazing restaurants, a beautiful gaming floor, and some of the finest entertainment venues anywhere not to mention the suites with unmatched views,” she says. “So the focus for the San Manuel Gaming and Hospitality Authority first and foremost was the back of the house. The back of the house needed to be refreshed quite a bit. And that was the very first project that occurred. We also have a pretty big investment in our new sports book and we’re super proud of that along with William Hill (Caesars), our partner.”
The SMGHA officially took possession of the property in January and 133 days later, it opened, meaning executives had to build a team to run it. Kiser Murphey said priority was given to former Palms employees.
“We’re very honored that over 50 percent of our employees have returned after two years,” she says. “And we have over 70 day-one employees who opened the Palms the first time in 2001.”
She says that the institutional knowledge brought by those returned employees has been a godsend.
“For example, 97 percent of the catering department came back and they walked in here and started showing us how things were done and really helping us with the roadmap,” says Kiser Murphey. “And then we always want the new people to feel welcome too. So we created kind of a buddy system which was started informally. So they’ve helped us tremendously and we’re celebrating them.”
Now that the property has reopened, it has done so without a database of players, always a high hurdle to overcome. Casas says, however, there’s a plan to utilize the database at Yaamava to initially fuel visits to the Palms.
“Yaamava has a very loyal database,” she says. “The property is known for tremendous friendliness, it’s immaculately clean, and it’s very, very well managed. So that’s a great introduction to our company to have the Palms partner with Yaamava. And Yaamava just opened a beautiful hotel with awesome amenities and great entertainment. So we know the Yaamava customers are visiting Las Vegas. And whether they stay with us or just come over and earn points and take advantage of the entertainment and the dining and the gaming here, that’s great. We’ll welcome everyone.”
The locals database will be built by building up the reputation of the Palms says Kiser Murphey.
“A very big focus will be the local database and we feel very confident that people want to come and see the Palms,” she says. “We’ve already had so much positive feedback. We’re just very fortunate about that and we’re gonna welcome our locals in. And then of course there’s 45 million plus visitors to Las Vegas every year.”