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Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun welcome tourism season

Eager to operate at pre-pandemic levels and reap pre-pandemic revenues, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun nevertheless have proceeded cautiously in preparing for the summer tourism season.

In interviews last week, the top executives at both casinos admitted they’re not entirely sure what to expect. Will customers return in droves, ready to unleash pent-up demand for gaming and entertainment, dining and shopping?

Or, might they be a bit tentative, wary of crowds and close quarters?

“Not everyone woke up confident this morning,” said Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun’s president and general manager. “The feedback we’ve gotten from guests is that they like not having to wear masks, but many still want distancing in place ... People are not going to want to sit on top of each other.”

With that in mind, Mohegan Sun will continue to keep some slot machines turned off and limit the number of seats at table games — changes, Hamilton said, that could remain in place for some time. Mohegan Sun is leaving plexiglass dividers in place and providing plenty of hand sanitizer.

“At least through the summer, we’ll keep evaluating,” Hamilton said. “It’s not like flicking a light switch. Removing everything at once would be a mistake.” 

Foxwoods lifted most COVID-19 protocols in early May, removing plexiglass and social-distancing signage and activating all its slot machines. It was slower to lift mask-wearing protocols, and as of late last week still was requiring employees to wear masks regardless of whether they’d been vaccinated.

“We’ve made no final decision yet,” Jason Guyot, Foxwoods’ president and chief executive officer, said. “Likely, employees will be able to unmask if they’re vaccinated.”

Guyot assumed Foxwoods’ top job amid the pandemic. At the time, the casino was closed for the first time since its 1992 debut, affording Guyot a unique opportunity to reevaluate every aspect of the operation.

“We had a blank slate,” he said. “We looked at everything — staffing, job descriptions, ordering ... We donated all our food to charity and emptied our warehouse. We looked at the history of every restaurant, every outlet.”

Seeking to create a new model, Guyot and his team evaluated every casino venue on the basis of its value as “a profit center.” Decisions about staffing and hours of operation were tied to business volumes rather than to the notion that everything had to be open 24 hours a day. Now, some Foxwoods hotels, restaurants and amenities are only open Thursday through Sunday.

Both casinos have had a hard time finding workers.

Foxwoods, seeking to fill 300 positions, has been offering $200 bonuses to new hires and current employees who refer a job candidate who gets hired. Last year, the casino hiked starting pay above Connecticut’s minimum wage and now is paying $15 an hour for some jobs. All employees got a $100 “thank you” bonus for their service during the pandemic, Guyot said.

Mohegan Sun has hosted a series of job fairs, offering sign-on bonuses of up to $2,000 for some positions and elevating starting pay.

Both casino executives said most workers who had been furloughed or laid off during the casinos’ pandemic-induced shutdowns had been given the opportunity to return.

Mohegan Sun will have more positions available when it reopens its valet service and resumes hosting banquets and conventions as well as a full entertainment schedule in Mohegan Sun Arena.

Among the things not coming back at Mohegan Sun, at least initially, are the Seasons Buffet, part of which will be repurposed as a lounge, and the bus service that brought mostly Asian American gamblers from New York City and Boston.

“I don’t know if they'll ever come back,” Hamilton said of the buses. “That was a very important part of our business, but bus costs have shot up, some bus lines are gone, and the revenues just don’t sustain it.”

Mohegan Sun announced Wednesday it is relaunching shuttle bus service to the casino from the transportation center in New London for people arriving in the city by rail, ferry and bus. The first of seven daily round trips will leave New London at 8:40 a.m.

“Guests in and around New York City, and certainly from Long Island, will now have an easier way to visit Mohegan Sun,” Hamilton said.

While promising Foxwoods will be rolling out new amenities this summer, Guyot said the casino’s Rainmaker Buffet will remain closed. He said he believes it will reopen at some point, though if patrons no longer are willing to share serving utensils and want to be served by waiters, it will be a more costly proposition.

Guyot said Foxwoods plans to reinstate regular bus service from New York City, Boston and other locations in Massachusetts by mid-June, noting that as many as 80 buses a day arrived at the casino during the service’s peak in 2018-19.

After polling patrons, Foxwoods has made some changes to its rewards program, adding “accelerators” that enable program participants to accumulate points faster and to redeem them at the Pequot Outpost gas station. Participants now can earn points on hotel stays.

Both casinos will continue to ban smoking in gaming areas, as they have since reopening amid the pandemic, with Mohegan Sun banning smoking inside the casino. Foxwoods has isolated, indoor smoking areas in its Rainmaker and Grand Pequot casinos. 

For all their focus on the weeks ahead, the casinos are eyeing a late summer date with special anticipation. By the time the Dallas Cowboys open the 2021 NFL season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 9, the casinos expect to have new sportsbooks up and running.

Gov. Ned Lamont last week signed a law legalizing sports wagering and online casino gaming in Connecticut. The only remaining hurdle is the U.S. Department of the Interior’s endorsement of new gaming compacts between the state and the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

Mohegan Sun plans to renovate its existing Race Book to accommodate sports betting while Foxwoods will build DraftKings at Foxwoods in a centrally located space formerly occupied by the Stony Creek Brewery at Foxwoods, a brewpub that had opened in 2018.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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