Casino smoking ban a sign of the times

Five years ago, when Wisconsin enacted a statewide smoke-free policy, tribal casinos remained exempt. So the recent decision by Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison to go smoke-free was a sign of the times, says Daniel Brown, executive manager. “Attitudes are changing. Baby boomers are becoming more health conscious. That was the major impetus.”

In fact, Brown and his staff have been observing smoking trends for quite a while. They saw fewer and fewer customers using smoking areas, smoke-shop sales declining, and visitor comments that increasingly complained about smoke-filled rooms.

“The genesis of this decision came from patron comment cards,” Brown says. “I read them every week and there was a common theme: ‘We love the games, but the place is too smoky.’ I started scratching my head.”

Brown says everything has gone as they predicted. “We gave everyone 45 days notice, and gave our workers on the floor scripts so when the issue came up, they could notate it and let the people speak their peace. In the beginning, the comments were pretty negative. Now the criticism has tapered off.”

A Ho-Chunk first

The Madison casino is one of six gaming venues operated by the Ho-Chunk tribe and primarily draws players from a 50-mile radius. The decision to ban smoking in Madison, a class II (slot machines-only) casino, has no bearing on the decisions made at the other Ho-Chunk facilities, which is an important distinction.

Brown, a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe, acknowledges feeling somewhat conflicted. Tobacco, he explains, has a historic importance to Native Americans. In fact, it is federally protected. “It’s sacred to aboriginal peoples worldwide. It has medicinal and spiritual qualities that have been passed down generation to generation.

“We have an inherent right to tobacco, and believe that when you exhale, your words are sending prayers upward.” So the decision whether or not to ban tobacco in the casino reached beyond commerce, he says. “Tribes have a long history and connection to the plant.”

“To be clear,” Brown emphasizes, “some people think this is an experiment, but I’m committed to this. I think society is truly ready. Having said that, though, if our revenues take a dip, I may have to reconsider.”



Cleaning house

On the night of Friday, July 31, Brown had 11 managers on staff to manage the transition, which was effective August 1. “I had one complaint, but received multitudes of expressions of appreciation,” he says. He didn’t know what to expect in terms of patrons that first weekend, but both nights surpassed the number of visitors compared with the same weekend in 2014. “I don’t know yet if that was because of the smoking ban,” Brown admits, “but I’m hoping that trend continues.”

By the end of that first smoke-free weekend, Brown reported a substantial difference in the air quality. The smoke was gone, but a musty smell still lingered, he says.

Cleanup has since begun, from ductwork down to the carpets, which are shampooed on a nightly basis. Eventually the entire facility will receive a fresh coat of paint. “A few months down the road, we’ll reevaluate. Obviously, we’d love to have that new-car smell,” he laughs. “That’s the goal.”

Smokers, of course, will always be welcomed, but the days of lighting up at the slots are over. The casino is building a glass enclosure near the main entrance designed especially for the smoking crowd. It won’t include any games, but Brown promises a sizeable, temperature-controlled space with good lighting and excellent ventilation.

Just don’t expect a shared wall between the two structures.

“Smoke-free means smoke-free,” Brown insists.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.