Ahead of his appearance at SBC’s Canadian Gaming Summit, G3 sits down with Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment CEO and President, Ray Pineault, to discuss capitalising on Canada’s multichannel potential, entering the Asian gaming market with Mohegan’s ambitious INSPIRE resort project and the latest on the incredibly competitive New York bidding process.
“I first walked in the door in February 2001,” explains Ray. “I initially worked for the tribe as a senior attorney, giving me the opportunity to conduct legal work on the casino side of the business. When I joined, Mohegan was just a single entity located in Connecticut with our flagship property, Mohegan Sun. I joined casino operations in 2006 where I oversaw legal matters, HR and supply chain management.”
Over the next 15 years, Ray steadily progressed before landing as General Manager of the Mohegan Sun, a position which he held for almost five years. Mohegan’s flagship property in Uncasville is ranked one of the world’s largest casinos.
Mohegan Sun’s success was instrumental to the strategic growth of Mohegan such that the brand’s portfolio of properties has expanded into other U.S. markets such as Atlantic City, New Jersey, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Ridgefield, Washington.
“The performance of Mohegan Sun since 1996 has provided the tribe with the financial freedom, wherewithal and connections within the banking community to expand its footprint,” explains Ray. “We knew competition was eventually going to come and it was as a result of the success of Mohegan Sun that we were able to purchase Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania which has since proven a tremendous asset for us.
“Mohegan has continued to look for further opportunities to diversify revenue streams in different jurisdictions. Mohegan Sun was the catalyst to that, but it took a long time from opening a small casino in 1996 and expanding into a much larger facility in 2001.
“Weathering the recession owed itself to us having those aforementioned financial connections and multiple revenue streams. Expanding the product portfolio has been and continues to be crucial.”
Over the last three years, Ray has progressed into corporate positions, first as COO prior to his current CEO and President role. Ray is responsible for the overall success of Mohegan where, in alignment with the Board, he executes a global vision, strategy, and direction for the company, driving culture, values, and behaviour.
Ray places great importance on the latter aspects of the role, ensuring that each of Mohegan’s properties around the world offer exceptional guest service abiding by the tenants of Spirit of Aquai, a centuries-old guiding philosophy embodying welcoming, mutual respect, cooperation and building relationships.
“What has kept and keeps me here at Mohegan is the culture. The tribe, management board and leadership really care about its team and the wellbeing of guests. I really appreciate the support and camaraderie that’s provided here.
“One thing we really stress with our team members is that it’s all about the guest service. We call it ‘every guest, every time.’ Each guest should be provided with exceptional service every time. We constantly measure our A scores. Bs, Cs and Ds need to be improved. Bs need to become As and Ds should never happen.
“We’re constantly stressing with our team that every time there is an interaction with a guest it should be that perfect score. We encourage our team to go above and beyond, but not in a way that’s scripted.
“We don’t want our staff to say a guest’s name three times in the first minute or do mandatory things. Be natural and who you are because people will know when it’s genuine. We want team members whose DNA is to deliver great customer service in a way that’s natural for them.”
Implementing this DNA applies to the recently rebranded Mohegan Casino Las Vegas. Having made history in 2021 as the first tribal casino operator on the Las Vegas Strip, central to the future success of the 60,000-square foot gaming venue is instilling the Spirit of Aquai culture infused at other properties.
“Ensuring culture consistency across the organisation is paramount, including at Mohegan Casino Las Vegas,” explains Ray. “This means providing our team members with a great experience, having an open-door policy and always striving for service and process improvements.”
In 2019, Mohegan expanded internationally for the first time as the service provider for Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara, both located in Canada’s Niagara Falls tourism district. Built on a cliff overlooking the Horseshoe Falls, Fallsview Casino Resort is the largest gaming resort facility in Canada.
Boasting a casino with over 3,000 slot machines and 100 gaming tables, the resort features a 374-room luxury hotel, full-service spa and fitness centre, dozens of shops and restaurants, the Avalon Theatre – an intimate 1,500-seat venue – and over 30,000 square feet of meeting and convention space.
Operationally, Ray says Fallsview is not too dissimilar to stateside properties, but there are regulatory and legal differences a close eye is kept on. As such, Mohegan has an experienced team based in Canada to ensure the company is operating with the utmost ethical standards, compassion for team members and care for guests. A priority for Mohegan’s Canadian land-based operations going forwards is having a greater emphasis on cross-border marketing.
“We don’t attract as much business as I’d like to see coming from the American side of the border. Interestingly, the percentage of Americans that have a passport is quite low, so that’s certainly a factor. But, given our proximity to the border – there is a bridge within a couple of miles of both our facilities – you’d think there would be more cross-border traffic.”
On June 14, Ray is scheduled to speak on an esteemed panel about how established land-based operators can translate their core value propositions to digital at SBC’s Canadian Gaming Summit.
In conjunction with partners Kambi, Pala Interactive and Intelitics, the brand’s iGaming division, Mohegan Digital, created PlayFallsview, a digital gaming experience for the Fallsview Casino Resort. Digital doesn’t just provide Mohegan the opportunity to convert land-based guests to online, but the other way round too.
“We have some digital customers who have never been to Niagara Falls and we are referring them to the land-based casino so they can get the full experience. We are actively using our digital offering to solicit guests into enjoying our full product range at our properties.”
Alongside Ilkim Hincer, EVP & Chief Legal Officer at Hard Rock International, the panel at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre moderated by Tim Richards, EVP Digital Strategy at Everi, will examine how partnerships with regulators and First Nations will be key for incoming digital providers, as will an understanding of how to fulfil customer needs across multiple channels simultaneously.
Alongside improving the igaming offering, Mohegan is working closely with a variety of regulatory agencies and partners in Canada. Not all the operator’s long standing American partners do business over the border, so new partnerships have had to be formed.
“I’ve always been a believer in regulators being our partners. They have a lot of control over our business. They can revoke or suspend your licence and issue fines so you want to work with them, not against.
“If you’re not friends and treat them as your adversaries, what’s their desire to work with you and respond to enquiries promptly? To me, working with regulators and having them as part of our thought process is essential to running our business in a smooth and cohesive manner.”
The Canadian market represents a crucible for the convergence of igaming with mature markets in land-based gaming and provincial lotteries. In its first year, the legal igaming market in Ontario delivered $35.6bn in total wagers and approximately $1.4bn in total gaming revenue. Placing the province among the top five igaming jurisdictions in North America, Ray is excited by what he sees as ‘a tremendous opportunity’ evidenced by the 40+ operators already competing in the market.
We’ve shown our digital gaming experience in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and here in Connecticut that we can operate in the online environment and succeed. We have the advantage of working with our partners at The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) to have one of, it not the, largest databases in Canada.
“Because they’ve been operating in the market for over two decades, we’ve created a product that’s very attractive, user friendly and it’s something that is going to grow over time.”
Later this year, Mohegan will open INSPIRE, a resort destination in South Korea which marks Mohegan’s first foray into the Asian gaming market and the largest integrated resort in Northern Asia.
Mohegan INSPIRE’s centrepiece entertainment facility, Arena, is garnering media attention as Korea’s first state-of-the-art, 15,000-seat performance hall that can support various genres of live events, ranging from K-pop concerts to festivals, touring family shows and major sports tournaments with optimal acoustics, high grade comfortable seating and private VIP suites. Mohegan INSPIRE has announced its ambition to attract over four million guests per year with the help of opening the first specialised performance hall in Korea.
“The original bidding was back in 2016 when we began design drawings and outlining what the ultimate development would look like,” reflects Ray. “Then we were hit with the pandemic. For a good period of time there were no capital markets and construction weren’t permitted. Despite this, we’ve remained active and look forward to the opening later this year.”
There are clear comparisons to be made between Mohegan INSPIRE and Mohegan Sun, a building of give or take three million square feet that was built across four various phases over an 18–20-year period.
In Incheon, Mohegan is building a Mohegan Sun scale of property in one phase. A similar size in square foot, INSPIRE will boast 1,200 hotel rooms (Connecticut has 1,500), and a 15,000-seat arena (compared to 10,000 at Sun). Alongside this will be a ballroom convention space and food and dining halls – amenities also found in the Uncasville facility.
“We’re using our 27 years of experience of operating a multi-purpose, multi-product in Connecticut and taking that to Korea. It will also host a foreigner-only casino – something we knew going into the project – so only dual passport holders, foreign travellers or expats will be able to gamble on-site.
“The facility will therefore be heavily reliant on non-gaming entertainment so we’re adding alternative amenities such as a pool dome.”
We round out our interview discussing the small matter of New York’s casino licence bidding process. The New York State Gaming Commission’s Request for Applications to develop and operate up to three downstate casinos has seen Mohegan join forces with Soloviev Group.
“We’ve found a partner that is completely symbiotic. It’s a family-owned business with very similar cultures and values. We share the same vision for carbon neutral, caring for the environment and giving back to the community. It was a perfect match for us to come together and build the project.
“Every major operator is either rumoured or known to be in the bidding. Whether it’s Sands, MGM, Resorts World, Wynn – you name them, they’re in the running. The projections are that at full maturation the market will be worth over $5bn. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?”
Freedom Plaza will introduce the world’s first museum dedicated to the celebration of freedom and democracy as well as a substantial green area, a performance venue, a 1,000+ room first-class hotel, and two residential towers which will work towards satisfying the city’s critical shortage of housing.
The immediate surrounding area is largely undeveloped in terms of real estate, providing an opportunity for access without undue disruption. Connected to the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive and numerous bus stops, Freedom Plaza is a short walk from the 34th Street ferry and Grand Central Station.
The development team will also explore providing additional dedicated ferry service. Generating thousands of jobs throughout the construction process and, upon opening, Freedom Plaza will inject the local economy with millions of dollars in new tax revenue.
“I won’t prognosticate on what our chances are [of success]. As we speak, we’re at the first round of questions stage. New York issued a 30-day period to ask questions, which we did and my understanding is that beyond us there were hundreds of other questions.
“New York State gave themselves an unlimited amount of time to respond to those questions. The second step is going to be once those responses are received another 30-day period to ask a second round of questions.
“The New York State Gaming Commission said it could be 2024/25 before licences are issued. We’re working diligently and our team continues to work on design drawings and garnering community support.
“We will continue to put our best foot forward to try and win the bid. I think we have the best site and the highest generating product that will provide the best benefit for New York City and the State of New York.
“Ultimately, it boils down to a panel of board members who will make the decision. All we can do is try our best to prevail.”