The Pala Band Of Mission Indians: Top Of Their Game

American Executive 6.24.11
The Pala Band Of Mission Indians: Top Of Their Game

Pala Casino

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the award-winning The Pala Band of Mission Indians, Calif. Owned and operated by the Pala Band of Mission Indians, the casino has allowed the tribe to realize its mission of creating jobs, building financial stability, and protecting its tribal culture and way of life for generations to come. The casino is run by several members of the sovereign Pala tribal government, and two-thirds of all income from the casino and other business ventures goes toward supporting the tribe and its infrastructure.

The Pala Band of Mission Indians has a constitution that governs the tribe of 1,040 members, most of whom live on the Pala reservation. The political body that governs the tribe comprises six elected officials with two-year terms and includes the chairman, vice chairman, treasurer, secretary, and two council persons.

The casino and some of the tribe’s other business ventures like triple net leases are managed by the chairman, the treasurer, and one council person. “We approve all budgets and personnel issues, and we look at all the numbers twice a month. It’s pretty intense, and we also have to run our tribe. I’ve been doing it a long time, and I enjoy it,” said Robert Smith, who has been tribal chairman for the past 21 years.

Roll the dice

Although the decision to open the casino has certainly paid off, it wasn’t exactly a sure bet. “It was a big gamble back then because our budget was $300,000,” explained Smith. “Now it is in the triple digit millions.”

Ten years ago, the casino opened with 190,000 square feet of space, and as the business grew, it also became more elaborate. Today, Pala Casino Spa & Resort has 2,000 slot machines, 15 poker tables, and 87 table games. It includes a 508-room hotel and a 10,000-square-foot, full-service spa and salon that features 14 treatment rooms, a fitness center, and a swimming pool with poolside cabanas. In addition, it has 40,000 square feet of meeting and convention space. Its 10 restaurants include Choices, The Buffet; Mama’s Cucina Italiana; The Oak Room; Noodles; Amigos; Sushi Sake; Pala Café; Promenade Deli; Poolside Café & Bar; and Coffee Amoré.

Business is going strong. According to Smith, the hotel is sold out every weekend, and the valet parking service parks about 8,000 cars a month for the casino and 4,000 a month for the hotel.

Pala Casino Spa & Resort has received a AAA Four-Diamond Award for seven consecutive years. Its state-of-the-art Pala Spa was named the 2009 Best Casino Spa by Spas of America and the 2009 Best Casino Spa by the Southern California Gaming Guide. In addition, the Casino was named to Casino Player’s Best of Gaming 2010 list.

According to Smith, the Casino has received so much praise because of its commitment to service and its high customer satisfaction ratings. “Just like any business, we have a customer base,” he explained. “They’re loyal to us, we treat them right, and the business goes on and grows. We try to accommodate them, we don’t charge a resort fee, and there’s no tax. We’re straightforward, we make money, and the customer is happy.”

The casino measures customer satisfaction through a variety of surveys and customer feedback, and it uses that information to improve its services and amenities. In fact, just in time for the 10th anniversary, the casino completed a $100 million facelift in 2009. Upgrades were made to the entire facility, including installing flat-screen TVs in all of the rooms and suites, replacing carpet, expanding the casino floor, adding a poker room, adding a new 1,500-space garage, and renovating several restaurants. The casino is also celebrating by giving away money through its $1.5 Million Giveaway promotion. Over a 10-month period, the casino will give away a total of $150,000 in cash to players each month.

Past and future

According to Smith, the Pala Band of Mission Indians tribe was created by executive order in 1875 by the federal government.

“The tribe originally comes from Water Springs, Calif., which is 60 miles northeast of Pala,” he said. “In 1903, the government relocated us to Pala. The Louiseños and Cupeños became one tribe, and we’ve been here for more than 100 years.” The Pala Band of Mission Indians is in the process of buying back its ancestral land, the hot springs, spa, and golf resort known as Warner Springs Ranch, which it will run as a business as well.

Today, the tribal government runs all aspects of life on the more than 12,000-acre reservation, which is an entire city. For instance, it includes managing water, sewer, and trash systems, public safety, as well as a library, school, cultural center, and programs for youth and seniors.

The casino’s long-standing success has meant great things for the tribe and its members, including health insurance, life insurance, and mortgage assistance. “It gives us a solid base and creates employment opportunities for everyone who wants to work,” said Smith.

He has learned how to manage the tribe and the business not through business school but by hard work, dedication, and first-hand experience. “I usually get here at 6:30 in the morning and go home at 5:00. I am very interactive,” he explained. “I don’t have an MBA; I just learned the business. I started out at the ground level here at the tribe as a janitor, then worked as an emergency medical technician and delivered babies, and now I am a leader. I started at the bottom, so I know what it’s like to be in those positions.”

Katherine Regnell is a freelance writer based in New York City and can be reached at

Pala Band of Mission Indians

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