Four Winds Rethinks What A Casino Should Look Like In The Wake Of COVID-19

Written By Matt Schoch on June 1, 2020

There are no more menus to hold, bathroom doors to push. The reopening of casinos are dealing with not only cleaning and safety but the “optics of cleanliness.”

The casino and hospitality worlds are experiencing a radical shakeup while being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not just the long-term financial impacts of the multi-months-long closures: The form casinos take after reopening will be vastly different, too.

Management groups at casinos across the country are using this time to consider safety adjustments. An executive and designer held an Innovation Group webinar for industry representatives, including those at Four Winds Casinos, last week. Three of the four Four Winds properties are in Michigan.

Four Winds aims to open all four facilities by June 15. How those properties will look function during a pandemic was the main topic on Thursday during the webinar.

Short-term demand high for casino openings

Every reopened casino has boilerplate safety initiatives designed to spread viruses and make casinos as touchless as possible.
As casinos started to reopen in the latter portion of May, demand was high.

At Odawa Casino in Mackinaw City, for instance, there was a line of more than 100 players waiting for the reopening of the slot machine-only facility on May 22.

Michael Soll, the president of the Innovation Group, said his group will be surveying guests about casino experiences nationwide.
“(The) key in the reopening process and the planning for reopening is the treatment of facility design and equipment adaptations for now and into the foreseeable future,” Soll said.

Four Winds Casinos takes a deliberate approach

As of Monday morning, 227 casinos nationwide were open and 762 were closed, according to the COVID-19 Casino Tracker on the American Gaming Association website.

In Michigan, 21 of 26 casinos are open or have reopening dates. Three of the remaining holdouts are Detroit’s trio of commercial casinos that are tied to stay-home restrictions levied by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The governor’s orders will expire on June 12.

On Monday, Four Winds announced a June 15 opening for its facilities: Michigan casinos in Dowagiac, Hartford and New Buffalo, and a facility in South Bend, IN.

Two-state operations produce challenges

Frank Freedman, the chief operating officer for Four Winds Casinos, said dealing with regulations, executive orders and environments in two separate states have presented unique challenges for Four Winds.

“I can tell you that as an operator, it was challenging enough to close four facilities in one day,” Freedman said. “But the reopening of the four properties has been a real challenge.”

The Four Winds location in South Bend opened in 2018 as the company’s newest facility. It is the only tribal casino in Indiana, despite being just 35 miles from the flagship New Buffalo property in Michigan.

“We’re doing everything we can to have a very smooth opening in both facilities (New Buffalo and South Bend) and have it from a guest perspective, to be the same,” Freedman said.

South Bend is a Class II facility with more than 1,400 games, Freedman said, and a poker room. Freedman said Four Winds is undergoing staffing recall after furloughing 2,500 employees.

For starters, Four Winds has standard protocols

Freedman laid out some of the more typical safety precautions being taken at Four Winds for casino reopenings.

They include:

  • Temperature screening equipment
  • Social distancing floor markers
  • Required masks for customers and employees
  • No smoking inside
  • Touchless menu using QR codes or disposable one-use menus
  • Plexiglass in designated areas

“We’re not in the business of telling people what they can’t do,” Freedman said. “We like to tell them what they can do.”

Extra casino reopening precautions at Four Winds

Casinos are straddling the balances between safety and positive customer experiences.

“Hospitality is about a sense of escape, it’s a sense of fun and entertainment,” said Nathan Peak, of HBG Design, one of the designers of Four Winds. “We have to find that careful balance.”

Tenants for the casino reopening changes include a reconfiguration of the slot machine floor as low as 50% capacity to start.

In addition to keeping everyone safe, there’s a positive perception with advanced cleaning procedures that will take on added importance.

“The perception of clean and the optics how you portray that is very key,” Peak said.

Restaurants create unique challenges

Some casino restaurants’ ideas include a reimagined buffet, “yin-yang” seating configurations for adjoining tables, and ordering areas. The buffet could also be shifted to a food hall design.

“The big change that we think is going to be done is the opportunity for a self-pickup kiosk or an area to order and pick up food as opposed to just sitting down,” Peak said.

The yin-yang-style seating has partitions on alternate sides of seats. Extra partitions at the bar area also can create appropriate social distance guidelines.

A newly imagined restaurant can also use its space to provide contained eating zones for groups.

Peak said a display kitchen with glass partitions showing food preparations can help optics.

“Imagine full-height glass partitions looking into the kitchen with the chef wearing gloves, nicely prepared, you can see how everything is pristine,” Peak said. “That’s going to be the optics of cleanliness.”

Hotel rooms could have ‘mudrooms’, among other changes

When it comes to hotels, some of the ideas thrown around include:

  • More luxury vinyl tile and less carpet
  • Quartz countertops instead of natural stone
  • Keyless room entry
  • Check-in kiosks

“The more you can get rid of the things that aren’t important, the less you have to clean, the less you have to keep in stock,” Peak said, also referring to extras such as bedding skirts.

Peak also discussed a “mudroom” portion of the room, allowing guests to isolate outside items from the sleeping and bathroom areas.

Along with the casino floor, the optics of cleanliness are important for casino reopening, Peak said.

How to think about changing restaurants and rooms

Robert Gdowski, the director of hospitality design for JCJ Architecture, gave an interesting way to generalize the redesign of rooms and restaurants.

“In the short term, we’re going to take that guest room, we’re going to turn it upside-down, and 80% of the things that fall from the floor to the ceiling will no longer be in the room. The magazines, the pens, the menus, the ice buckets, the mini-bars, the decorative accessories … this list goes on,” Gdowski said.

“Then we’re going to turn that room back over and evaluate how we can use that space in ways, other than just sleeping. How do we look at enhanced dining, spa treatments, fitness, small gatherings… all happening within this space that we used to just assume and wrap our heads around as a sleeping corridor.”

Gdowski said for restaurants, that includes making things, like utensils, disposable. Natural light and moving attractions to outdoor spaces will also help shift casino dynamics in the right direction.

Industry should boldly embrace new casino world

Gdowski, who does not have ties to Four Winds Casinos, provided surprisingly inspiring words to close the otherwise milquetoast topic.

He said the industry should not be afraid of the changes; instead, it should be excited about the possibilities.

“The more you get into the weeds, and for a moment, let go of the complexity of emotions, I think you’re going to start to see a level of service, and an attention to detail, a commitment to embracing the physical and emotional energy of our guests that quite frankly is unprecedented for the large majority of travelers today,” he said.

“And this excites me.”

Photo courtesy of Four Winds Casinos.

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He’s also the former host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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