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It’s a hot, hot, hot, hot world

Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage is basking in unprecedented honors. By David McKee

Agua caliente” is Spanish for “hot water” and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has been playing a hot hand ever since they opened their first casino, in downtown Palm Springs, California, on April 6, 2001. Seven years later, the Tribe doubled down in nearby Rancho Mirage, opening their flagship Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage. Located amid scrubland across which Jonathan Winters madly drove a moving van in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in search of “The Big W,” you could say that the resort is Cahuilla Indians’ own “Big W,” as in “big win.” Not only has Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage’s blue-ribbon restaurant, The Steakhouse, been a regular favorite of Wine Spectator Magazine, Forbes recently bestowed upon Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage the rare and coveted Four-Star Award for the resort hotel as well as the Sunstone Spa and The Steakhouse making Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage the only property in California to do so.

Does this leave the Cahuilla no new worlds to conquer? Certainly not! The Tribe is pushing toward completion of a third casino, in Cathedral City, CA. It also continues to pursue economic diversification, the ultimate goal of many tribes for whom gaming is a springboard. At the helm is industry veteran Saverio R. Scheri III. A well-traveled casino consultant and former private-sector casino executive (including a stint at Valley Forge Resort Casino in Pennsylvania), Scheri practically beams with pride when discussing the accomplishments of his team members and kindly took time to talk with Casino Life about Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage’s myriad accomplishments.

How far has the Rancho Mirage property come in the time it’s been around?

It’s interesting. The first casino was in downtown Palm Springs and it opened over 20 years ago. Then they expanded and opened their Rancho Mirage property on April 18, 2008. They’ve gone from one casino-resort tribal enterprise to two, with a third opening later this year, a cultural museum and spa in downtown Palm Springs, a convenience store and gas station that’s also opening this year and we’ll be breaking ground on a 2,000-seat arena in just a few weeks that will be home to the minor-league hockey affiliate of the new Seattle hockey team in the NHL and we also have our G-league Agua Caliente Clippers playing there, along with lots and lots of concerts. They’ve gone from a single casino to a full-on gaming corporation.

Where is the new arena being built?

It is being built in downtown Palm Springs, just about a block away from the casino. There’s a large parking garage in between the casino and the arena, so that’s very convenient.

How diversified would you say the revenue stream is, with all those new initiatives?

Clearly, diversification is a priority, not just within a casino, which we’ve been seeing for many, many years now and we’re certainly doing that through the hotel, entertainment, food and beverage, and the spa. But now we’re doing it through other venues, clearly, with the arena, the convenience store, and the Tribe is involved with many different ventures that are outside the gaming world here. So quite frankly, the Tribe has been in this area for thousands and thousands of years. They’ve found artifacts that go back 10,000 years. When you think back to the town of Palm Springs, when Palm Springs was just a small city, it was this Tribe – the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians that developed this valley into what it is today.

And Palm Springs wouldn’t be what it is today without this Tribe.

Indeed. So how many games does Rancho Mirage have and what variety of games do you offer?

Between the two properties we have 2,500 games. We’ll be adding 500 games in our new venue. We have a full complement of table games—blackjack, baccarat, craps, roulette and we have the valley’s only poker room.

The spa is given prominent billing. What kind of spa experience can guests expect?

When you think about coming to a spa in Palm Springs, there’s a lot of great resorts and big names but our spa, Sunstone Spa, has been voted by Spa Magazine the number-one spa in California and the number-three spa in the country. So clearly the treatments, the environment, the service are clearly above and beyond what you are going to find in a particular spa. Our spa director is one of a kind. He eats, lives and breathes spa, and it shows. The moment you make your reservation to the time you walk out you are transformed.

Are customers in casinos like Agua Caliente seeking more of a resort experience nowadays or did the resort come first and the customers responded to it?

It’s a little chicken-and-the-egg there. We certainly have great fun for folks that want to pop in, have something to eat, game a little, watch a show. But here at Rancho Mirage, our Forbes Four-Star resort, it’s really an oasis and we have people that come here and stay not just for a day but for many days. We have some guests that will stay a week or more. So it’s exciting how that customer is really diverse for us.

How many of them stay for overnight or longer?

We’re a fairly large casino, so we get a little bit of both. We have over 350 rooms, so we’re booked on a fairly regular basis.

For those readers who know where Palms Springs is but aren’t so familiar with Rancho Mirage, where is it, geographically?

Palm Springs, in Coachella Valley, is just two hours east of Los Angeles. Downtown Palm Springs is the first thing that you hit here in Coachella Valley and if you were to drive about another nine or 10 minutes east, you would get to Rancho Mirage.

With the two casinos being relatively close, what kind of synergies are you able to achieve?

It’s very interesting. There’s a whole, exciting vibe downtown for the people that live and visit that area, and our casino down there is lots of high energy, lots of fun. Here, in Rancho Mirage, it’s more of the resort experience. So it’s great for people to be able to go back and forth, and say, ‘Hey, I want to try the restaurant over at Rancho Mirage. I might want to try my luck at the other casino, walk around Palm Springs a bit.’ Obviously, being able to earn their points at both properties and redeem their points at both properties is something very compelling for us and our customers.

What does the Forbes Four-Star Award say about Rancho Mirage?

I’m so proud of that. I’m so proud of our employees. When I first got here this was something they were trying to achieve and I got involved with that. I said, ‘This is a great idea, let’s really go after this.’ We engaged with Forbes to understand what we needed to do to achieve it, and we already had a great team-member base here, who provided great customer service and a great experience. But we brought Forbes in to really fine-tune that experience. And we did our own little touches as well, and in less than two years we were able to go from a Forbes-recommended three-star to a Forbes Four-Star triple winner—and to be a triple winner is extraordinarily rare. You find most places they have a casino or a restaurant or maybe they have a spa or maybe they have two of the three. But we got all three. There is no other hotel or casino in California that is a triple winner and there is no other Forbes Four-Star casino in the country that is a triple winner. The next place you’d have to go to find that, you’d have to move up to five stars and the nearest triple winner in the five-star category is Wynn Las Vegas and Encore. So we’re very pleased about the company we’re in.

Understandably. What are some of those unique touches to which you alluded?

It’s really great. I came here to Agua Caliente Casinos with the experience of being a consultant and having worked for many, many different casinos around the globe. Coming here and seeing these team members that have a passion for what they do, we’re able to collaborate and come up with some really unique ways to bring Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley to our guests. Things from the date butter in our steakhouse that is unique to us because we have date farms here in the valley. It’s the signature dishes both in The Steakhouse and some of the other venues. Some of the treatments here in Sunstone Spa you won’t find in any other spa in the world. It’s little touches like that, that you can’t find anywhere else, that certainly helps set us apart.

In addition to Sunstone Spa, The Steakhouse was singled out. What are its outstanding qualities?

Well, there’s a lot of good steakhouses in the country. I get to go to a lot and our steakhouse is the best that I’ve ever been to. Obviously, you have to have the highest quality meat and it has to be cooked to perfection. And a lot of steakhouses can do that. Not only do we do that, we have some absolutely amazing dishes. Our Filet Oscar, we put a crab on top with a béarnaise and a bordelaise sauce, which I’ve never seen before and it is one of the most delicious things and decadent things I’ve ever eaten in my life. You combine that with the service of people that are so passionate about their jobs and you’re not having a meal, you’re having an experience.

The Steakhouse has also been winning Wine Spectator awards since 2007. What’s its secret?

We have a vast wine cellar and our steakhouse manager and our food-and-beverage director take advantage, of course, of the wines that are right here in California but they’re also particular about making sure that some of the best wineries from around the world are represented. It’s an amazing selection with great variety and top-notch wines but wines that kind of satisfy everyone’s budget.

How do you find the more-select ones?

Our team works directly with wineries and they have relationships over many, many years—decades even. So because of those relationships they’re able to get special vintages and special offerings that a lot of other restaurants can’t have. With us, we’re happy to take a small batch and really highlight that in our steakhouse. A lot of places say, ‘We need a larger quantity,’ so they’re not able to work with those wineries and special vintages.

You mentioned wines being available in all price points. What amenities do you have for a customer who’s on a budget?

We have great food options. We have a buffet, of course, which is great in value, and then we have our food area called The District, where we have Indian, Mexican and American deli and you can get almost anything you can imagine. But it’s not just fast food: It’s like going to a restaurant. It’s restaurant-quality food. But it’s at an excellent price point. Then we have our 360 Sports. It’s an amazing venue. It’s a sports bar set in the middle of what would potentially be a sports book if we were ever to have sports betting passed in California. The food is amazing: large pretzels, pulled-pork sandwiches, Wagyu-beef burgers, giant tater tots—you could just get three of them because they’re huge—it’s fun. And we have our three-meal restaurant, our steakhouse and so we run the gamut of options.

How instrumental are your employees to your award-winning status?

They are the key. It’s great for us to sit at the top and say, ‘Hey, we want to go do this’ and ‘Let’s bring in the training.’ And we train the employees but, at the end of the day, they make it happen. They embrace the concept of delivering a higher level of customer service to create the ultimate guest experience. That’s what we strive to do here and our team members … we have team members that have been here 20, 25 years. I’ve worked in casinos all around the world, but I’ve never seen this kind of dedication and commitment from a team-member base.

If I’m driving down the Coachella Valley and trying Springs or Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage, what differentiates the two properties?

The downtown property has got that cool, hip vibe and it’s right where all the action is in the downtown area. There’s a club there. Rancho Mirage, we’ve got a beautiful pool, we’ve got the hotel, the resort, we’ve got a large showroom where we have entertainment such as Jerry Seinfeld, who was hilarious. We’ve got all the different dining options, a larger casino. So this is more of a destination whereas our downtown property is more convenient for folks that are visiting down in that area.

How is the Cathedral City casino progressing and when do you expect it will open?

It’s moving fast. We get down there almost every day and every day there’s a dramatic difference, so we’re very excited about that. We’re hoping to have that open by the end of the year.

What scale of casino will Cathedral City be?

It’ll be similar to our downtown Palm Springs casino: less games but it will be similar in size and offerings to what we have downtown. We’re very excited about the new pavilion area that is going to offer an indoor/outdoor entertainment area where we can put on shows, we can have DJs. It’s going to be a very versatile area and we’re going to plan on doing something down there every weekend, so we’re really excited about what that’s going to do for that community.

What sort of involvement do the Agua Caliente Casinos have with the surrounding communities?

Like a lot of big business that want to be good community neighbors, we have the ability and really the responsibility to work with a lot of local charities, cities, hospitals, police, fire—because we have a responsibility to help them to help those that are in need. Our casinos and our Tribe really go out of their way. It’s easy to write a check but it goes beyond that. They’re really involved and spend their time as well as making financial contributions, to make sure that we are part of the community in a responsible and giving way.

Some tribal casinos have started marketing in Las Vegas itself. Do you see that happening for you?

We see that and it’s interesting. We certainly understand why they’re doing it because they’re trying to compete for folks that are driving up or flying up from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. They want to give them another option. We certainly believe that it’s important for there to be an awareness of Agua Caliente in those areas. But when they’re advertising in Las Vegas they’re really focused on the L.A. market. Fortunately for us, we really are set apart from our competition. We offer something quite different. We provide that ultimate guest experience. We’re the only Forbes Four-Star triple winner in the country now. So we have many customers that will opt to drive past our competition and visit us, and we love that. We embrace that and work to expand our marketing in those areas, to build on that and continue to build that customer loyalty.

You’ve said you hope to offer sports betting. What is your preferred timeline for that?

My preferred timeline would be next week. [laughs] But that’s not the way things work here. We’re hoping that there’s an initiative on the ballot this November and we’re hoping that that’s successful. If it is, as soon as the Legislature here in California can set the guidelines and the regulations for us, we’ll be ready to go.

So you have all the infrastructure in place?

We’re prepared and we have a wonderful venue for it. The big news is that the infrastructure is much easier to do nowadays. As fast as they can let us do it, we’ll be ready to go.

Looking beyond sports betting, what do the Agua Caliente Casinos hope to offer in the future?

Ultimately what we want to do is not just provide great customer service but provide the ultimate guest experience, so that we think about going out to dinner and pick a restaurant, we want to be that when they think about their entertainment option because we’re not just a casino. We have entertainment, we have food, we have a resort, so we want that to be what people think of, first and foremost. For us to do that we have to provide them with a phenomenal guest experience every time that they come here.

As a transplanted New Yorker, how are you enjoying the California lifestyle?

I refuse to fly back east during the winter months, I can tell you that. [laughs] I’m loving it. The people are great. The weather is phenomenal. Now I see why people come here and do not want to return home

Interview Originally Published in Casino Life Magazine  March 2020