By S. Clayton Moore
One of Canada’s prime vacation spots is finding new life with the addition of the $767 million Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort. Located just footsteps from the famous Niagara Falls, the facility boasts a luxury 368-room hotel and a 200,000-square-foot casino that has brought 24-hour entertainment to one of the region’s most picturesque spots.
Located just a mile across the U.S. border, the site has traditionally hosted only day-trippers from both sides of the border. However, last year’s opening of the massive entertainment complex has started to draw visitors from deeper within America as well as those flying in to some of the area’s numerous airports. Although there’s not an airport that comes directly into the city, many visitors don’t realize there’s a major airport close by—Hamilton International in Toronto—and two regional airports on the U.S. side—Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Niagara Falls International Airport in New York.
Larry Lewin, the operation’s president, has more than 20 years of experience in the gaming industry, with roles at Hyatt Gaming and in casino marketing for the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. He believes in the massive potential of the entertainment complex.
“The thing that I would say is different about my experience here at Niagara Falls is that we’re just at the beginning of the evolutionary process,” Lewin said. “When I arrived in Las Vegas in 1975, the city was just entering its first conversion. It was starting to get into the corporate style and growing into these 50,000-square-foot casinos and generating the convention business. I think that Fallsview is really at the beginning part of moving from just a gaming destination to an entertainment destination.”
What a destination it is, too. Overlooking both the magnificent Horseshoe and American Falls, the resort opened for business on June 10, 2004. All rooms offer views of the Falls from the 31-story hotel. Outside of the entertainment venues, restaurants, and gaming options, some of the amenities include a 15,000-square-foot full-service spa, a boutique shopping galleria, and 50,000 square feet of meeting and convention space.
The entertainment matches any show schedule in Las Vegas. Even as Lewin talked up the casino’s upcoming entertainment, he was preparing to take Tony Bennett down to dinner.
“Tony has been on the floor today, going into the shops and giving out autographs,” Lewin related. “People who come here are really going to get to meet interesting people and do interesting things. We know our bread and butter is the 45 to 65 year old and we view entertainment as one of the core amenities we have to offer. There’s really a pent-up demand for this kind of entertainment in this area.”
The 30 to 65 age group is the age bracket with the most disposable income and one that is very casino-friendly. However, while the resort books entertainers like upcoming performers Kenny Rogers and Smokey Robinson into the Avalon Ballroom (a 1,500-seat performing arts center) to attract baby boomers, Lewin is also packing the schedule with younger stars as well. Lewin did a Soul Jam in February with the Temptations and will be bringing in more diverse groups like Macy Gray and the Gipsy Kings later this summer. He hopes that the change, combined with new attractions like the Dragonfly nightclub opening in December, will bring in a new audience.
“I wanted to try something different,” Lewin admitted. “We’re taking specific steps in entertainment to attract a younger clientele. With Macy Gray, it’s a little bit of a test to see if she can bring in a different type of clientele to enjoy the property.”
Another part of the resort experience is the facility’s 10 first-class restaurants. They include 17 Noir, serving high-end classic cuisine in a roulette-themed setting, a 750-seat grand buffet with views of the Horseshoe Falls, and Italian, Asian and regional themed restaurants. In August, the resort will be listed in Wine Spectator magazine, winning an award for its diverse wine list.
“We’ve really planned out the facility in terms of the kind of food we make available to our customers,” Lewin affirmed. “We’ve gotten accolades for our contemporary restaurant as the best restaurant in the region as well as similar awards from the Toronto and the Buffalo area. We’re very proud of that.”
Finally, Fallsview does have the casino heart of its Las Vegas cousins. From a casino operations standpoint, the gaming here is as large as the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The complex is home to more than 200,000 square feet of gaming space including 3,000 slot machines and 150 gaming tables. The casino operation recently upped the ante by introducing an all-new poker room with eight tables with space for up to 80 players.
“Poker is very hot right now,” Lewin said. “Our customers are watching it on TV and then coming here looking for a game. Like everything else we do at Fallsview, it’s all about customer service.”
Fallsview isn’t the first casino in the region. It follows on the success of Casino Niagara, which opened in 1996. However, Fallsview was created specifically at the instruction of the government of Ontario as an economic engine for the region. Falls Management Company, owned by several large investors including the Hyatt Group, was responsible for the financing, design and construction of the resort and has been contracted by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to operate it.
“We knew that this resort was going to be a driver and that it was going to help push everything else in the area,” Lewin said. “It’s a start and it’s important to the region, but we’re only one part of the success. We’re like a gear in a wheel. We might be the biggest gear, but you also need the other gears to make the wheel turn. It’s our cooperation with the community, with the city and with the parks commission that helps us succeed.”
Far from being the self-contained experience of the Las Vegas strip, the Niagara Falls region has many attractions all working together to draw visitors.
“In many ways, this place is more spectacular than Las Vegas,” Lewin said, a strong statement for a 20-year resident of the desert destination. “We have the Falls itself. We have one of the most beautiful parks in the world. There are over 100 wineries within a half-hour drive, and multiple golf courses of championship caliber all around the property. Then there’s the property itself, which is a slightly smaller version of any of the spectacular operations in Las Vegas.”
The impact of the relationship between the casino, tourism trade and the local economy has been enormous. The area has taken some heavy hits over the past few years from what some call the “perfect storm” of events, including the devaluation of the American dollar, the SARS scare and the economic realities of the post 9/11 world. However, the opening of Fallsview has done much to help.
The resort created 2,500 new jobs directly and estimates of spin-off employment run about 12,000 jobs. The Niagara region receives 50 percent of all travelers entering the province and accounts for 40 percent of the Ontario tourism industry. Tourism spending has doubled since 1996 and visitor numbers are expected to hit the 20 million mark in the next couple of years.
“It has had a positive impact especially in terms of bringing individuals to us from a variety of destinations year-round,” said Victor Ferraiuolo, acting director of Tourism Niagara. “It’s one of those attractions that’s fully complete because it offers so many amenities including casino, the hotel, dining, entertainment, shopping, conventions and even weddings. It truly is a full-service attraction in the heart of Niagara.”
Ferraiuolo also recognizes the dynamic synergy between Fallsview and the other attractions in the area.
“Visitors realize that the area has so much to offer once they get here,” he explained. “Niagara is a destination that offers something to visitors with all kinds of interests. Someone who would come for golf but is also interested in gaming is now frequenting the golf courses. Someone with an interest in the wineries and gaming and the many concerts that Fallsview offers is more prone to make the visit.”
Lewin credits the staff at Fallsview with much of the resort facility’s success and reputation.
“I think that the Canadian hospitality is the most unique offering we have,” Lewin said. “People who are born and grow up here have a great passion for the area and they love to entertain visitors. The integrity of the staff is critical to the success of our organization.”
The operation has also been very responsible in listening to its customers, bringing in poker and wedding services at the request of its visitors. Lewin’s staff has made more than 500 changes to the casino floor since they opened.
“You have to listen to the customer,” Lewin said. “It all comes down to value for people’s time and money. We believe very strongly that we have to give them value for their money. I don’t want visitors to only come here, but I do want them, when they are thinking about how to spend their entertainment dollars, to use us as an option.”
Business is booming at the resort as well. Lewin has seen a 25 percent increase in business since the year before.
“It’s been building nicely,” he said. “It looks like we’ll have a wonderful summer.”
For information about the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort and other attractions, visit [http://www.discoverniagara.com/fallsviewcasino].