Vegas talent heads West

Apr 23, 2002 8:07 AM

Nevada-based casino execs are taking their game to a new venue ”” Southern California.

Amidst the ongoing expansion and proliferation of Indian gaming in the Golden State, tribes have lured local casino personnel to Palm Springs, San Diego and a host of budding resort towns.

"As our casinos become more Nevada like, we’re seeing more movement,’’ said Ken Kettler, general manager of the Agua Caliente Casino.

Kettler, who worked at Harrah’s Entertainment for 25 years and later with the Resort at Summerlin, says improved salaries and bigger bonuses are attracting Nevada talent across the border.

Frank Cornett, a former GM at the Las Vegas Club, recently made the move to the Coachella Valley, where he’s heading the Augustine Tribe’s casino project. His slot director is Dave Dandiver, who also worked at Southern Nevada properties.

  Paragon Gaming ”” a Las Vegas based company headed by Bill Bennett’s daughter, Diana ”” is expected to serve as Augustine’s management company when the casino opens in July.

"The labor pool has been strained by expansion,’’ Cornett told GamingToday. "There are a lot of opportunities here.’’

Those opportunities have brought several Nevada veterans:

  • Former Harrah’s execs Dan Comiskey and Lisa Rome run both the non-gaming and gaming divisions at Fantasy Springs.

  • Dual Cooper, who opened Bob Snow’s Main Street Station and worked at Bally’s, is ensconced in Temecula, which is also home to Laughlin slot guru Red Wooten.

  • Shaun Cunningham was named CEO of the Table Mountain Casino outside Fresno after serving as president of the Regent at Summerlin.

  • On the construction side, builders Bob Donnels (MGM Mansion) and Don Violick (Green Valley Ranch Station) are helping Kettler ramp up expansion at Agua Caliente.

  The emergence and spread of gaming in Southern California prompted Donald Trump to predict recently, "I think Las Vegas is in serious trouble because of what is happening in California. You’ll have hundreds of these casinos.’’

Trump last month celebrated the expansion of yet another tribe owned gambling hall, the renamed Trump 29 Casino outside Palm Springs. Mark Lefever, GM of the Trump 29, worked at the Desert Inn and once toiled for Steve Wynn.

Nearby, Dominic Tegano is GM of another Agua Caliente property, the Spa Casino in downtown Palm Springs. His three decade long resume includes stints with MGM and Caesars.

"California is beginning to recognize the need for top talent, especially from Las Vegas,’’ says Marc Weiswasser, director of the recruitment firm Navegante Search. "These clubs are making a ton of money.’’

In addition to recruiting Cunningham to Table Mountain, Navegante brought two other Las Vegans north to the Cache Creek Casino outside Sacramento. Bill Drexel, formerly of the Las Vegas Hilton, was named food and beverage director; Sharon Ruesch, players club manager at the Aladdin, took the same post at Cache Creek.

Kettler says more mid-level positions will be opening as Southern California casinos launch more aggressive marketing programs. "Player development is the next phase,’’ he says, noting that competition and more intensive table play will put a premium on Las Vegas expertise.

"We’re taking a locals approach, using Station, Coast and Fiesta as a template,’’ Cornett says. "It’s all about building relationships with customers. Everyone’s a marketer."

Turning up the volume, the Barona, Sycuan and Viejas casinos around San Diego last month announced a $600,000 advertising blitz targeting drive-in customers from Orange County ”” home to 2.1 million adults.

The marketing seems to be clicking as expansion continues. Agua Caliente’s recent addition nearly doubled the size of the gaming floor, and another 15,000 square feet of new space is in the works at the year-old resort. Kettler says about 1,000 workers have been hired thus far.

And Cornett says fears of high housing costs haven’t played out in the Coachella Valley.

"It’s a great time to rent now. There are plenty of developing areas that are nice and affordable. You can get a two-bedroom apartment on the golf course for $700 to $800.’’ He adds that there are 111 golf courses in the region that sits just two hours from the beaches.

And what about those blistering low-desert temperatures that routinely top 115 in the summer?

"Just put a wet towel on your head and deal with it,’’ Cornett laughs.