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Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit

Pat Crofts brings a youthful attitude to Muscogee Creek Nation Casinos, interview by David McKee

Pat Crofts, CEO of the Muscogee Creek Nation Casinos, recently estimated the reach of Tulsa-area tribal casinos at 50-70 miles. He’s hoping to expand that radius exponentially with the expansion of River Spirit Casino into a Vegas-worthy destination property. The $335 million project will add a 22-story, 500-room hotel, additional food and beverage outlets, 1,500 parking spaces and enlarge the gaming capacity, just for starters.

The signature flourish is to brand a portion of the soon-to-be-augmented River Spirit with the Margaritaville logo and style. A casino, restaurant, bar, retail outlet, 2500 seat theatre showroom and pool deck – with a Landshark Landing bar – will all bear the Margaritaville  name, evoking the “It’s always five o’clock somewhere” mystique of Jimmy Buffett’s signature style.

Gamblers can look forward to 750 additional slot machines and 20 more table games in the new Margaritaville themed casino addition. Dallas architectural firm HKS will give River Spirit’s Arkansas River façade a Gulf Coast look, which joggers will be able to enjoy as they traverse the newly rerouted Riverside Trail.

With its 56 tables and 2,600 Class II and Class III machines, River Spirit is no small casino already. The expansion project is expected to be one of the largest construction projects in Tulsa history, creating over 1800 construction jobs and generating an economic impact of $226.5 million to the area during construction.  Its long term economic impact has been pegged at $135 million annually, as the completed project will result in over 800 new full time jobs.”

 “This is Phase II of the River Spirit Casino,” slated to reach completion in 2015. Crofts explains. “We’re bringing the traditional Margaritaville bar and restaurant and retail, with the volcano and the airplane hanging from the ceiling.”

There are certain attractions that can’t be bought, however, like River Spirit’s enviable location. “It’s a lot like Missouri and Arkansas,” Crofts says of verdant scenery. “It’s a very nice setting overlooking the river, the trees and the greenery,” viewable from decks that will be part of the expansion. “You’ll be able to see not only the adjacent river but a big pool deck complete with palm trees and the beach bar.

“We are extremely fortunate to have Margaritaville,” reflects Crofts. “They’ve opened recently in Bossier City, Louisiana, and are already Number One in their market. They just opened a casino, restaurant and Landshark Landing as part of Resorts International in Atlantic City. I was at the opening up there, about a month and a half ago and they’re doing extremely well.”

Why such success? Crofts provides the answer: “There are a number of Parrotheads and Parrothead fan clubs all over the country that love his music and the lifestyle. He’s ageless, Jimmy Buffett. If you go to one of his concerts, you’ll have people all the way from kids to [retirees]. I visited Atlantic City right after their grand opening. He did a free concert on the beach and there were over 50,000 people on the beach and Boardwalk, watching his concert.”

The Margaritaville alliance was no caprice. “When we were developing this project, we had feasibility studies surveys completed which revealed that the demographics of the Margaritaville guest were pretty close to ours,” the CEO reveals. “As far as the propensity to travel and gamble, [it] was almost a carbon copy of our existing customer as well as the clientele we want to go after. It’ll be a tremendous success here in Tulsa.”

Loyal River Spirit customers needn’t fear that a radical change in their gambling experience will come with the image makeover. Although Class III gambling has long been a fact of life in Oklahoma, many customers are still devoted to the Class II machines on which they play against other patrons. The Video Gaming Technology brand is highly popular at River Spirit. “People love them – lots of time in the seat,” Crofts explains. “They’re very volatile. They have a high hit frequency and a low hold percent.”

That’s not to say that Bally, IGT, Williams or Aristocrat can’t be found on Muscogee Casino slot floors, operated off of a Konami KCMS tracking/slot-accounting/back-of-house software platform. It’s evidently helped Crofts’ lieutenants cull the slot herd of weaklings. He says, “We don’t have any poor performing machines on our floor because if they are [weak] we get rid of them.”

And if Jimmy Buffett seems ageless, so does Crofts. He’s a 37-year industry veteran who wears his decades of service lightly. Even when he was starting out as an accountant, the casino business beckoned. “When I went to work for Deloitte they had one primary client and his name was Howard Hughes,” he recollects. “At the time owned about 12 or 13 casinos throughout Nevada and our other clientele included most of the other large hotel-casinos on the Strip. I stepped into the gaming business right out of college, through this accounting firm, and I’ve been in it ever since.”

He made the transition into the gaming biz in 1976 when he joined Harrah’s Entertainment as director of compliance and gaming audits. “They had just been acquired by Holiday Inns, Inc. and were headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. As I flew back and forth across the country between Nevada and Atlantic City, I would have to stop in at Memphis and say hi to my secretary and my co-workers,” Crofts chuckles.  He eventually rose to the position of CFO at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe by the time of his departure in 1983.

Sticking with the Tahoe market, he became CFO of Harvey’s Resort Hotel, departing in late 1988. Now wildly volatile, the Tahoe market was a steady performer in those days, long before the advent of tribal casinos. “Every weekend there was a sea of cars driving up over the Sierra Nevada mountains, coming up to Reno or Lake Tahoe,” Crofts reminisces. He summarizes the lessons of those Tahoe years as “top quality facilities, clean facilities and exceptional customer service.”

He got a chance to run his own shop when he went to CMS International at the end of 1988 as President and Chief Operating Officer. CMS owned or leased a number of casinos in secondary and tertiary markets, such as the Silver Club in Sparks, Nevada, and the King’s Casino in Antigua. He also worked on the development and opening of the tribally owned Route 66 Casino, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It was a fun project because of all the signage, the theming and the atmosphere,” he says.

After 11 and a half years with CMS, Crofts put in nearly another six years at American Heritage Inc. Then, in January 2007, consulting firm Navegante Group snapped him up and he soon found himself detailed to help the Muscogee Creek Nation with its 11-casino Sooner State empire. The Muscogee were replacing the  Creek National Casino Tulsa with then-new River Spirit Casino.

Retaining Navegante’s managerial expertise was a part of securing bank financing. Crofts explains, “what we established for River Spirit Casino the Creek Nation needed at their other properties, doing budgets and capital expenditure plans – Business 101 practices. The other thing that they really liked is that we helped them standardize them. They were operated all completely independently even though they were all under one nation. They didn’t take advantage of any purchasing power, economies of scale and the things you can do as a group.”

Two years ago, Crofts jumped the Navegante ship to work directly for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. In this capacity, he is overseeing a rolling capex reinvestment in all the myriad tribal-casino properties. South of Tulsa, Duck Creek Casino just completed a $3+ millionrefurbishment and expansion. A similar facelift was given to Creek Nation Casino Okmulgee – and that’s just the start. Says Crofts, “we’re just going to keep going through all of them.” We’re starting a $4+ million remodel and expansion of our Muscogee Casino property later this year with a major expansion including a hotel to follow.”

Competitors, you have been put on notice.