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Dover Downs Goes Large

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While Lady Luck usually calls the shots at Dover Downs, the current expansion of its hotel is a carefully considered business decision made by the company’s top executives. The high stakes addition, which includes 268 luxury rooms, a high-end spa and themed specialty suites, will make Dover Downs Hotel & Casino Delaware’s largest hotel by October and help keep its edge in an increasingly competitive gaming market.

The $52 million expansion is actually part of a bigger business strategy. “This expansion is the next step in our plan to make Dover Downs one of the premier gaming destinations on the East Coast,” says Denis McGlynn, chief executive officer of Dover Downs Gaming & Entertainment. He announced the expansion in March 2006.

Dover Downs Hotel & Casino’s 2,700 slot machines attract nearly 3 million visitors a year. It has also presented headline entertainers such as Gladys Knight, Wayne Newton, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. There’s live horse racing November through April and simulcast racing all year long. And there is, of course, the NASCAR events that made Dover famous. The hotel expansion will allow the complex to better serve its public.

“Our goal is to make this a resort destination where people come and stay two to three days,” says George Fiorile, vice president and general manager of Dover Downs Hotel & Casino. To achieve this goal Dover Downs hopes to offer “a totally unique experience that people will talk about months after they leave,” he says.

Already a AAA-rated four-diamond hotel, Dover Downs is taking luxury to an even higher level with this expansion. The expansion will raise Dover Downs’ inventory of rooms to 500. The Spa Suites will each have a theme to appeal to a variety of tastes. There will be the Billiard Suite with a pool table, for example, and a Sony Experience Suite, which will feature state-of-the art audio visual gadgets made famous by Sony. Hardwood floors, marble entrances, hot tubs, fireplaces and plasma screen televisions are featured in the suites. Egyptian sheets and Sleep Number beds that adjust firmness are other extras for the hotel guests’ comfort.

While Dover Downs staffers are still mum on who will operate the 8,000-square-foot spa, they are negotiating with a well-known, high-end spa in Philadelphia. The spacious spa is at the heart of the addition. It will include 12 treatment rooms and a couple’s treatment room and offer amenities such as massages, facials, pedicures manicures and hair services.

To further enhance Dover Down’s meeting and convention marketing strengths, the addition includes more meeting space, with three new multi-purpose breakout rooms.

The original hotel, built in 2002, offers 232 luxury rooms, the 18,000-square-foot multipurpose Rollins Center and an award-winning upscale restaurant, Michele’s Steak and Seafood. Kent Countians greeted the announcement of the project with mixed emotions. There was excitement, skepticism and even fear among area competitors. “People thought it would have a negative impact on area hotels when we originally proposed it,” says Edward J. Sutor, executive vice president for Dover Downs. But as Dover Downs executives predicted, there was enough business to go around. The hotel actually proved to be a marketing boost for Kent County.

Three other new properties are planning hotels for the greater Dover area, according to former Kent County tourism director Mary Skelton.

For that and many other reasons, Kent County Tourism officials welcome the expansions at Dover Downs. It only enhances their efforts to draw visitors to the area. “There’s not another venue in the state of Delaware that entertains and brings in the visitors that Dover Downs does,” Skelton says.

Beyond drawing casino and NASCAR enthusiasts, the hotel expansion will greatly enhance marketing Kent County as a meeting and convention destination, according to Ned Blair, director of convention sales for the Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Most meeting planners are looking for 200 to 300 rooms under one roof, says Blair. “That’s the market we’re trying to go after now, but we’re unable to meet all the needs of that particular niche,” says Blair. In addition to the central location Dover provides, convention planners are looking for the breakout space the expansion will provide, as well as the finer amenities such as the spa and on-site entertainment.

As if the hotel addition weren’t enough to keep people busy at Dover Downs, it recently received approval from the Dover Planning Commission for a 75,000-square-foot casino expansion. Plans include more slot machines, three new restaurants, a casino lounge and up to 4,000 square feet of retail space. The state has authorized Dover Downs to expand from 2,700 slot machines to 4,000, but that will occur in increments, says Sutor.

Looking back 40 years, it’s hard to believe just how big Dover Downs has grown. Founded in 1967 by John Rollins, who built a 5/8-mile horse racing track there. Car racing came to the track in 1969. For the next quarter century, Dover Downs remained somewhat contained, with growth occurring at a moderate pace.

That changed in 1994, when the state legislature passed the Horse Racing Redevelopment Act to help the ailing harness racing industry by bolstering purses through revenue from slot machines.

Dover Downs growth accelerated greatly with the advent of slot machines. The casino opened in 1995 with 500 slot machines (slot machine casinos also opened at Delaware Park in Stanton and Harrington Raceway) and has undergone five expansions since, bringing the number of machines to 2,700. People flocked from neighboring states to try their luck.

In an effort to build upon this growing demand and entice visitors to stay overnight, Dover Downs Hotel and Conference Center was unveiled in 2002. In addition to what one might consider a typical hotel customer, Dover Downs rewards some of its best casino visitors with overnight stays. Customers sign up to participate in the rewards program and are issued a card. Their length of play and how much they wager determine the reward eligibility.

The threat of competition from neighboring states in the gaming industry and its potential effect on Dover Downs has been a subject of discussion for the past few years in Delaware. Several venues have or are prepared to open in Pennsylvania. Maryland also has been debating legalizing slots.

All this—and the existing competition of Atlantic City, New Jersey—keep Dover Downs executives on their toes. “They’re being proactive rather than reactive,” Blair says of Dover Down’s efforts. Fiorile echoes these sentiments. “We have to continue to be creative and reinvent ourselves,” he says.

“It’s fair to say we’re looking beyond this next expansion,” says Sutor. He notes that Dover Motorsports owns an additional 700 acres and Dover Downs Gaming owns 80 acres in the vicinity. “There’s plenty of room on our current campus to be able to do several major expansions,” he says.

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