Foxwoods' new CEO revels in casino's size, array of amenities
Mashantucket — John James exudes affability.
Ten weeks into his tenure as Foxwoods Resort Casino’s new president and chief executive officer, he was breezy and cheerful in an interview, seemingly unfazed by the challenges facing Foxwoods.
He knows his casino needs to be all things to all people.
“We’ve got tons of niches (to serve),” said James, who was well acquainted with Foxwoods before arriving Aug. 12, less than a month after being named to succeed Felix Rappaport, who died of an apparent heart attack in June 2018.
Without a succession plan in place, the search for Rappaport’s successor stretched beyond a year, a period in which the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, Foxwoods’ owner, relied on Rodney Butler, the tribal chairman, to serve as interim CEO. James, 59, whose more than 25-year career in gaming includes stints in Las Vegas and with tribal casinos in Florida and the West, was chief operating officer of Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, Calif., when he landed the Foxwoods job.
He knew Rappaport well.
“I had visited Foxwoods many times over the years,” said James, who nevertheless has been frequently walking the property, meeting with “pockets of team members” — employees he encounters along the way. Sometimes he’s accompanied by Choo Choo Charlie, his English bulldog, a “people magnet” who likes being pulled around in a Radio Flyer toy wagon. (James, who calls Charlie “the laziest dog in America — and friendliest,” figures Charlie makes friends with more than 50 casino-goers a day.)
James still marvels at Foxwoods’ 9 million square feet of space and the breadth of its offerings — the Tanger Outlets mall; the Monza karting track; the HighFlyer zip line running from the top of The Fox Tower to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center; top-notch Lake of Isles golf course; 2,200 hotel rooms; dozens of restaurants and entertainment venues.
“There’s something for everybody to do here,” he said.
'Fighting the fight'
James drew a comparison with Encore Boston Harbor, the $2.6 billion resort casino Wynn Resorts opened in June in Everett, Mass. After three full months of operation, Encore’s gaming revenues are falling short of projections, results that mirror those of MGM Springfield, the $1 billion facility that debuted a little more than a year ago in western Massachusetts.
“At Encore, there’s not that much to do besides the gambling,” James said, adding that Foxwoods has the “right assets” and must always strive to refine them. “You can’t keep cutting costs forever.”
For Foxwoods and its southeastern Connecticut rival, Mohegan Sun, the competitive impact of the Massachusetts casinos has been less than expected.
“The reason we’re not down as much (as projected) is because we’re fighting the fight,” James said, referring to Foxwoods’ recent efforts to upgrade its array of slot machines as well as its restaurants and other nongaming amenities. Before James’s arrival, with Butler at the helm, Foxwoods “refreshened” 25 percent of its slots mix with the latest machines and refurbished its Rainmaker Casino and Rainmaker Buffet.
James said Encore, which has generated more table-games revenue than slots revenue — an anomaly — has not hurt Foxwoods' table-games traffic. He said Foxwoods is developing new table games that will be “proprietary to Foxwoods” but was unable to elaborate.
Another reason Foxwoods may be weathering the Boston-area casino’s impact, James said, has to do with “price points.”
“At Encore, you have lunch with a couple of cocktails and the tip and you’re at $140,” he said. “That might be good for that market ...”
Foxwoods’ drive to lessen its dependence on gaming revenue has progressed slowly in recent years, with slots and tables still generating three-quarters of its total revenue. In Las Vegas, still the top gaming destination in America, casinos’ nongaming revenues overtook gaming revenues 20 years ago. By 2013, nongaming revenues accounted for two-thirds of total revenue.
'Connecticut should be in the game'
In the last few months, Foxwoods has operated fewer than 3,500 slots. The number of machines had dropped below 5,000 in 2015, having peaked at more than 8,000 in 2008.
The trend reflects the effects of competition but also changing tastes, James pointed out.
“Millennials have a greater propensity to play tables,” he said. “For them, everything’s about convenience, too. It changes the dynamics of things, and we have a lot to offer them — the go-karting, golf simulators. ... The younger people gravitate toward skill games, which is why we’d like to get sports betting.”
The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes are seeking state authorization to provide wagering on sports at their casinos and online as part of a gaming package being negotiated with Gov. Ned Lamont and lawmakers. Information about the status of the talks has been hard to come by.
“We’re ready to go,” James said. “Most people would have to build infrastructure but we’re ready to go as soon as possible. If it was up to me, we’d be there today. From my point of view, Connecticut should be in the game.”
With sports betting now available at casinos in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, the Connecticut casinos are at a distinct disadvantage, James said.
Having come from a market where 22 casinos operated within a 100-mile radius of the one where he worked, James said he’s impressed by the loyalty of Foxwoods’ customers, as well as its 5,200 employees.
“People have been coming here for 25 years,” he said. “They tell you all you could want to know about the place.”
Unlike his recent predecessors, who stayed at the casino, James will live “off campus,” having purchased a condominium on Water Street in Mystic. He said he and his wife, Giselle, are eager to meet their neighbors and become part of the community.
Choo Choo Charlie will join them.