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When Specialty Contractors Respond to Casino Owners’ Needs, Everyone Wins

The stakes are high for contractors building and renovating casinos. These projects require acute attention to detail, strong time management skills and a mastery of installing complex specialty systems, along with experience in sustainable construction and energy monitoring techniques. On top of it all, contractors must meet the owners’ high expectations, as these projects are major revenue generators for the communities where they’re built.

Winning work in the gaming sector means listening carefully to the casino users’ unique requests and preferences. When the guests are happy, they spend more money. Ultimately, the casino owners profit and potentially have more to spend on future construction projects.

Following the recent downtown in the entertainment market, a few talented specialty contractors have played their cards right and come out ahead thanks to their ability to respond to the evolving needs of their customers.

New Business Model
Las Vegas-based ABS Systems, Inc., a division of Southland Industries, conducts nearly half of its business in the casino and entertainment market. The building automation contracting company was formed in 2003 by a husband-and-wife team who took part in Vegas’ white hot construction growth in the mid-2000s.
M Resort Spa Casino
When the market collapsed in 2008, the company didn’t fold. In fact, the construction slowdown allowed Tim Potter, vice president and founder, to concentrate on his customers’ needs and find ways to stand out from the competition. His efforts paid off, as ABS Systems continued to win new work (and was acquired by Southland Industries last year).

“Gaming companies here in town had to change their business model, and we had to change ours along with it during that downtime,” Potter says. “It forced us to focus on the existing buildings and systems market. When new construction was so hot, people weren’t paying as much attention to what was going on in existing buildings.”

In these older structures, facility managers were struggling to access and upgrade manufacturers’ proprietary HVAC systems, and they desired a contactor that could install new, more energy-efficient air handling technology and controls. “We found a way to integrate our controls into those competitors’ proprietary systems, which meant we could release the handcuffs off the customer,” Potter says. “It really turned out to be a nice growth strategy for us during that downturn. Customers were so happy to be able to get released from just dealing with one manufacturer.”
M Resort Spa Casino
In projects such as M Resort Spa Casino, a 1 million-square-foot property in Henderson, Nev., owned by Penn National Gaming, ABS Systems has become an exclusive partner to help the casino achieve energy cost savings though air-conditioning and chiller system improvements. “In this town, cooling is king,” Potter says. “The owner is very tuned into energy savings, and A/C systems are such a large user of energy. We’ve been able to come up with some unique control strategies to help the facility save money.”

ABS Systems has provided similar upgrades—new, more energy-efficient cooling and monitoring systems—in hotel-casino properties including The Station Casinos, The Mirage and the newly renovated Downtown Grand.

It’s All in the Details
Being able to offer casino owners a unique service or specialty skill is a major asset to winning new work in any economic climate.

FADCO, Inc., a 33-year-old privately owned company in Tulsa, Okla., performs commercial architectural millwork and casework for casino projects throughout the Southwest. As a specialty contractor, it prides itself on the details—understanding exactly what an owner, architect or general contractor might desire for a casino’s interiors, and delivering the installation quickly and within budget.

“Fortunately, the downturn had a relatively small effect on our company,” says FADCO General Manager Brandan Koehn. In the last five years, the company has stayed busy partially as a result of new Oklahoma laws opening up opportunities for casinos to be built closer to urban centers.
Downstream Casino Resort Hotel
Working with general contractor Manhattan Construction, FADCO recently performed the interior millwork and casework installation for the $50 million, 175,000-square-foot expansion of the Downstream Casino Resort Hotel for the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma. In its $2.3 million scope of work, FADCO provided new soffits for the revamped lobby area, herringbone wall panels for the new grill and bar, custom seating for the new coffee shop, high-end vanities and granite countertops in guestrooms, and rich wood paneling and trim for the new spa facility. The company worked with JBH Construction on the specialty installations.

The radius and custom carpentry installed in the project required the team to ensure highly accurate measurements were taken, panels were bent to match floor plans, and hand-stained cherry hardwoods were delivered and installed with care. Both the Quapaw Tribe and Manhattan were pleased with the large amount of quality millwork installed within a tight budget and short time frame.

“I think what makes us successful is being flexible,” Koehn says. “Projects in the entertainment industry use many different Downstream Casino Resort Hoteltypes of woodwork—for example, laminate casework in the back of the house, high-end moulding in the front of the house, and mid-range architectural woodwork on the casino floor—so we need to be able to work with a large variety of materials. More and more, our work incorporates high-end metals, resin, glass and plastic as well.”

FADCO has honed its expertise in choosing and installing wood veneers for highly specialized installations in entertainment and hospitality projects, in which clients are increasingly requesting veneers picked from a specific swatch of wood, or even a specific log. The company partners with preferred suppliers and subcontractors on the veneer “book matching” process to ensure the client is happy with the end result.

High Stakes, Lightning-Fast Pace
In addition to the demands for energy cost savings and high-end materials, casino projects are a challenge because they move at a lightning-fast speed. Every day the casino is not open for business equals a significant loss of cash flow, so owners will push hard for the soonest completion date possible.

“Casinos are the fastest moving type of project for us,” Koehn says. “Although a complication, this demand can be a benefit, too, because it forces us to move quickly and discover ways to be more efficient and streamlined. The projects often go smoother because they’re not dragged out for such a long time.”

When the projects move faster, it means construction and design teams must be even more coordinated in their project delivery and scheduling methods.

“Multiple trades are working very close together and often on top of each other because of how quickly the projects move. FADCO must coordinate closely with other trades, the general contractor, the design team and sometimes the casino owner,” Koehn says.

To contend with coordination issues, ABS Systems works closely with the mechanical engineering team during the design process to ensure all systems fit in the plans and that everyone is on the same page. “If we can help the mechanical engineer when they’re designing control systems for the HVAC, it tends to put us in a better position by the time the project is going out to bid. By then, the contractor knows our fingerprints are on that engineer’s design,” Potter says. 

Once the facility is open, it’s a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation, meaning that a specialty service contractor will need to be responsive at all hours.

“The hours when everyone else is sleeping, from midnight to 6 a.m., are the busiest time in casino resorts. We have to make sure that even though we’re not there, those air-handling systems are operating the way we need them to. We need to be there to respond within 30 minutes, either remotely or in person, to address their needs,” Potter says. “That puts an extra emphasis on the service aspect in the resort and gaming industry.”

In addition, occupant comfort is a major factor. Contractors working with casino managers must be cognizant of guests’ habits so they know when to schedule an air flush of CO2 and cigarette smoke, for example.

With the economy on the mend and consumer optimism higher, the casino market is expected to be active this year. FADCO is currently busy working with Manhattan Construction on the interiors of the north expansion of Choctaw Casino, Durant, Okla., scheduled to open in early 2015.

According to McGraw-Hill Construction, the amusement/recreational sector will increase 8 percent to 35 million square feet of construction put in place in 2014, compared to 32 million square feet in 2012. While the volume of work is nowhere near the peak of 2006, contractors with the right set of skills and attention to customers’ needs will have the chance to hit the jackpot in the years ahead.

Recreation Sector At-a-Glance

Nationwide, construction at tourist destinations—sports arenas, recreation and convention centers, auditoriums and theaters, waterfront developments, gaming properties and family-friendly parks—is turning the corner as the economy recovers and consumer optimism rises. Forecasters agree the recreational and entertainment sector will pick up momentum in the next five years.

According to FMI, construction put in place for amusement-related projects should reach $15.7 billion this year, with additional growth expected through 2017. McGraw-Hill Construction predicts the sector will reach 35 million square feet in 2014—an 8 percent increase compared to 2013.

Some notable sports projects giving momentum to the recovery are scheduled to open in late summer or early fall, including the San Francisco 49ers’ new 68,500-seat Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.; the Orlando Citrus Bowl’s reconstructed 65,000-seat stadium in Orlando; Tulane University’s new 30,000-seat Yulman Arena in New Orleans; and Houston Cougars’ new 40,000-seat Houston Football Stadium. Looking ahead, the Atlanta Braves will open a new 41,500-seat stadium in 2017, the Minnesota Vikings will open a new stadium in Minneapolis in 2016, and the Atlanta Falcons will open a new stadium in 2017.

Upcoming convention center projects include the San Diego Convention Center Phase III Expansion, breaking ground in late 2014, and the Miami Beach Convention Center redevelopment, breaking ground in September 2015.

In casino construction, some notable projects include Caesers Entertainment’s new $442 million Horseshoe Casino development under construction in downtown Baltimore and the 1 million-square-foot MGM National Harbor project breaking ground in Prince George’s County, Md., this summer. In Las Vegas, the 1,600-room luxury SLS Las Vegas casino resort replacing the Sahara will open this year, and Caesers Entertainment’s new boutique 200-room casino resort The Cromwell (replacing Bill’s Gambling Hall) will open in 2015.

Lauren Pinch is a writer for Construction Executive. For more information, email pinch@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.

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