The Budweiser Clydesdales visit South Point Equestrian Center, Las Vegas. As part of the promotion, casino owner Michael Gaughan, property GM Ryan Growney, a Clydesdale and the Budweiser Dalmation later played a hand of blackjack.
REPORTING FROM LAS VEGAS — Since it opened six years ago, South Point Hotel and Casino has polished its reputation as Vegas Cowboy Central. Now, with $35-million worth of new construction set to open this year and next, it will add professional bowling to its specialties, hosting the U.S. Bowling Congress seven days a week for six months a year.
Michael Gaughan, owner of South Point, is funding the 200,000 sq. ft. of new construction out of cash flow, as he does all improvements to the property. Named the Priefert Pavilion for the title sponsor who manufactures ranch equipment, the addition includes two horse arenas side by side, divided by bleacher seating for 300-400 people per side, on the ground floor.
On the second level, Priefert Pavilion will house 60 professional bowling alleys built to the specifications of the USBC, which is the biggest bowling tournament in the world. It will be booked for other competitive bowling tournaments the rest of the year, such as the NCAA collegiate finals or the military bowling competition. The facility is specifically for professional tournaments. There will be no shoe or ball rentals or bumper lanes, said Ryan Growney, property GM.
The expansion was originally going to be just additional horse arenas, explained Steve Stallworth, arena GM. For several years, the only complaint horse owners had about South Point was the fact it only had one competition venue. The 1,200 stalls were more than adequate for most shows, because they could not put any more classes into any 12-hour day.
The other problem with only one arena was that competition would start at 6 a.m. and go till 11 p.m. Competitors don’t want to sit in a horse arena all day long, especially in Las Vegas, Growney added. With three arenas, they’ll start at 8 a.m. and be done by 6 p.m., with plenty of time to enjoy South Point’s other amenities as well as the rest of Las Vegas. “It’s a vacation as well as a competition to come to Las Vegas,” Growney noted.
The arena solution was in the planning stages when the USBC came calling, looking for a dedicated bowling venue, which resulted in the two-story expansion.
South Point will not get all USBC events. Reno, which also built a dedicated professional bowling alley, has signed a 20-year agreement to host some of their events and other cities are in the rotation. But Las Vegas Events is in the fray on South Point’s side and also has an agreement to bring USBC to town frequently.
“We lost the USBC in 2009; it was the first event I bid for in 2001,” said Pat Christenson, president, Las Vegas Events. USBC brings 70,000 bowlers to town over six months and has a $145 million economic impact. “We went back and bid again and we lost to El Paso. Wait a minute, we lost to El Paso? I said what do we have to do to get this longterm and they said build us a facility,” Christenson recalled. So he put the word out, and Gaughan stepped up, fully funding the custom venue. Las Vegas Events will help sponsor three of the men’s and four of the women’s competitions over the next 10 years.
South Point also has a 64-lane bowling alley for the general public and has been building a reputation locally and nationally with that sport. “The World Series of Bowling, seen on ESPN every Sunday, has filmed here for the last eight weeks,” Growney said. “We built two lanes in our exhibit hall. Now we’ll have built-in TV lanes, with seating, light rigging and a place for the satellite truck in Priefert Pavilion.”
The horse arenas will open in July of this year and the bowling arena will open well before the first July 2015 USBC competition.
South Point was already the premiere equestrian center in the country. “There’s nothing like this in the world – 1,200 stalls connected to a hotel and restaurants. We now do 38-40 weeks of equestrian business,” said Stallworth.
Prime events at South Point include the World Series of Team Roping produced by Denny Gentry, which takes 2,200 rooms at South Point, 12,000-15,000 rooms citywide; and the Indian National Finals Rodeo in November, which hosts two performances Tuesday through Saturday and sells out every one in the 4,800-seat arena.
Stallworth enjoys booking these events, versus chasing touring events as arena managers typically do. Horse shows are sanctioned events held once a year, so his schedule is almost more akin to convention business than arena business, which is perfect for a casino and hotel property. The driver is to fill hotel rooms and casino tables.
Both Growney and Stallworth arrived at the interview in cowboy attire. “Five weeks of the year, the entire property is encouraged to wear cowboy attire — for National Finals Rodeo, Professional Bull Riders, Indian National Finals Rodeo, college finals and barrel racing. All departments except security, housekeeping, valet, but including dealers, bartenders, and front desk personnel dress in cowboy attire,” Growney said, adding it is mostly done to support citywide events.
But that is the image and business segment South Point has cultivated so successfully. “Western people feel comfortable here because we’re Vegas Cowboy Central,” he said, adding that South Point owns the website, vegascowboyscentral.com.
“We’re a casino, but look what else we are. Where else could I show up in coat and tie yesterday and today in boots and spurs and be dressed appropriately for work,” Growney said. “I have a boss who appreciates what we bring to the hotel. It’s part of our brand. We book hotel rooms, at the end of the day that’s what I’m judged on. We make a little on the equestrian center with sponsors, arena rentals, and stall rentals. At the end of the year, we lose a little, make a little, break about even. But if we tied in the hotel revenue and all the spend associated with the guests who attend these events, it would be enormously profitable.”
It’s an unusual formula for a very expensive stretch of real estate, right on Las Vegas Boulevard. The only comparable endeavors would be where cities, counties or states realize what equestrian centers can do for a community and, considering the bidding that went down to try to lure the National Finals Rodeo to Osceola County, Fla., or Dallas, Texas, that is a growing niche nationwide.
“Once the bowling center comes in it will be like a weekend every day around here for six months,” Growney said.
Neither equestrian nor professional bowling events are spectator driven, so the operation plan at South Point is competitor service. “We don’t need butts in seats. We want people in stalls – they’re staying in hotel rooms. They stay here because their horses are here,” Growney said, thus South Point’s other tagline – Stay where you can kiss your horse goodnight.
They also use “Stay where the bulls stay” during PBR. They are unofficially Bull Alcatraz, Stallworth said. Bulls are athletes, subject to doping regulations and even paparazzi. During PBR, South Point houses 462 bulls, each of which is pampered and protected. “There is no other place in Las Vegas that could accommodate that,” he noted.
South Point has gone so far as to internally televise horse shows so that competitors can be in their rooms or elsewhere in the hotel and keep an eye on competition without having to hang around in the arena waiting for their turn. And for big horse shows, they deploy front desk checkin at the barns, so competitors can check in horses with the barn bellman and hotel rooms with the hotel bellman all at the same time.
Growney said South Point hotel occupancy is 79.8 percent, with a goal of 82-83 percent.
As any arena manager knows, animal events tend to be odiferous, which led to the question of odor when touring the facility.
“What is that aroma, you ask?,” Growney responded. “To me it smells like money.”
Interviewed for this story: Steve Stallworth, (702) 797-8005; Ryan Growney, (702) 796-7111; Pat Christenson, (702) 260-8605