Tribal Gatherings

Hotels & Resorts

Not many meetings open like this: Elders from a local Native American tribe quietly, and with great dignity, give a spiritual invocation. They pray the meeting will be a success and personally fulfilling to all who attend. They pray for communion and understanding with the natural world around them. The prayers are followed by ancient drumming and the ringing of a small bell. There are chants and mysterious spoken words. The air is scented with smoke from smoldering sage.

It was far more than Heidi Elser, the meeting professional who organized this board of directors meeting for the golf association she works for, had envisioned. “The effect was really powerful. The directors still talk about it,” she says. “No one who was there will ever forget it.” At the end of the two-day meeting at Wildhorse Resort & Casino, every board member was presented with a commemorative Cayuse blanket from the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, made by Pendleton, the area’s noted manufacturer of woolen Native American trade blankets and outdoor clothing.

As it happens, this year’s president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, Sean Hoolehan, is the course superintendent at Wildhorse, an Indian gaming and hotel facility nestled in the rolling foothills of the Blue Mountains just outside Pendleton, Ore. “It was important to Sean that the other GCSAA directors discover the local culture,” comments Elser, “so he arranged the invocation by the Umatilla tribe leaders. Everyone was extremely impressed.”

The Wildhorse facility and the cultural center are jointly owned and operated by a confederation of the Umatillas and their neighboring tribes, the Cayuse and the Walla Wallas. It is one of several dozen casino resorts that have opened on Native American reservations over the past 10 years, all of them operated by federally recognized tribes (sometimes in conjunction with professional gaming management from elsewhere). As a group, these gaming resorts offer meeting professionals an opportunity to create memorable, distinctive meetings.

True, there are challenges to consider—the location of many such resorts is prime among them. But meeting professionals who have organized gatherings at Indian gaming resorts say the overall experience often exceeds expectations. “The friendliness, the willingness to help, were great for us,” says Kimberly Schremp, an executive assistant who is in charge of meeting planning at Archstone-Smith, a real estate investment trust. “The staff was always right there.

The meeting we had at Pechanga was one of the best conferences we’ve had—and that’s not just me saying it, it’s what our people told me.”

The Pechanga Resort & Casino is owned and operated by the Pechanga Band of the Luiseño tribe and located in Temecula, Calif., roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The gaming operation dates back to 1995; the 522-room resort, including meeting facilities, was christened in 2002. Meeting space totals more than 40,000 sq. ft., with 13 individual breakout rooms and a 25,000-square-foot grand ballroom. (See pg. 40 for specific details of other Indian gaming resorts mentioned in this article.)

Archstone-Smith’s meeting, held this past summer, was a western regional conference for 80 attendees. “One thing I really liked was that there was one person at Pechanga for me to deal with regarding sales, one person for rooms and one person for catering,” says Schremp. “There were not a lot of independent parts for me to manage. It was simple and efficient. In fact, I sent a letter to the general manager telling him what a great job his staff did.”

It all comes down to a culture of customer service, according to Christine Faria, who as vice president of operations for Raving Consulting in Reno, Nev., has organized meetings at several Indian gaming resorts. “From what I’ve seen, it’s really high at a lot of these places,” she says.

“For example, when I was dealing with Pechanga I received same-day or next-day responses to every one of my phone calls and e-mails when I was in the planning stages for our meeting. When I arrived on-site they took time for a thorough meeting with me to make sure we were all in agreement. There was a welcome letter and a voice message left in every hotel room of our staff, with lists of contact names and contact phone numbers—including home numbers in case there was an off-hours problem. It was VIP treatment.”