“My entire career has been a series of projects around opening hotels, renovating, or helping design and build hotels,” says Tom Allen, the director of hospitality at Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in Coarsegold, California about 20 miles from Yosemite. Allen served in different capacities at over 11 different hotels and casinos all over the country spanned across a 40 year-long career.
Allen made his way into the industry by accident; he started as a front desk agent and quickly advanced to a management position at Bally’s Park Place Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “I suppose that’s what people see when they look at my résumé,” notes the director on why he is routinely sought after for renovations projects. “It intrigues them that I’ve always been on openings; it’s almost always to perform a renovation of some kind.”
Early on in his career, Allen got involved in Native American gaming operations, starting in Foxwoods in 1993. He has now worked with seven different tribes from all different regions in the US. This proximity has allowed Allen to witness how the industry has evolved over the years and has made him cognizant of many of the concerns that different tribes face when it comes to the design of facilities. “In the past, the designs often leaned into the heritage aspects in ways that could uphold stereotypes,” Allen explains. “So when it comes to renovation, it is about trying find a blend of what’s modern and what’s traditional—staying true to the culture without pigeonholing. Each tribe is different and it’s important to be respectful of their sensitivities.”
Allen’s most recent undertaking at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino involved an overhaul of the two hotel towers that make up most of the facility owned by the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians. The initial tower opened in 2003, followed by a second tower that left major style discrepancies between the two sides of the property.
The challenge for Allen and his team was to assimilate the two sides of the resort casino into one cohesive style. “We had a situation of old and new, and the disconnect went beyond the look of the buildings, there was also [operationally] a disconnect internally,” Allen explains. “They had to keep two different attic stock inventories. So one of the driving forces was to convince the tribe that this was the right thing to do, to not have two distinct styles which would cost them more money in the long run.”
Overall, the project involved renovating the meeting rooms and the 402 hotel rooms with 16 different configurations. The goal was to take Chukchansi from a Triple A Three Diamond status to Triple A Four Diamond, which was achieved while staying completely operational. The remodeling featured designs that celebrated the natural beauty of the regions and incorporated symbols that are significant to the Chukchansi tribe.
The property also offers guests roughly 2,000 slot machines and about 50 game tables. Allen’s role while working at Chukchansi included all the aspects of hospitality that were not related to gaming, such as front desk, reservations, housekeeping, valet, retail, uniforms, and salon and spa.
Throughout the pandemic, Chukchansi has been subject to some but not all of the state regulations which allowed it to stay open as a sovereign Tribal Nation. Though this drove its business up, it also required Allen and his team to be hyperaware of all the safety measures that needed to be put into place to keep all guests and employees safe.
“Since the [Native American] casinos are the boutique or standalones, they actually fare better than corporate properties. When you get into corporate, it’s a one-size-fits-all policy whereas we make our own based on our unique needs,” Allen says. “We’re very diligent and recorded how often we’re doing cleaning swipes. We have temperature-taking and did everything necessary according to the CDC.”
Across such an extensive and varied career, Allen has learned that taking on renovations projects means going in all the way and not cutting corners but looking for ways to get the most out of the investment dollars. “If it’s an existing building that you can’t [avoid it], you have to commit to a major investment to alter structure, plumbing, and electricity or else it will just be putting lipstick on the pig,” the director says. “If it’s a new design, it needs to be designed with functionality in mind.” Allen stresses that hotel logistics must be top of mind in the initial design phase in order to ensure that hospitality operations will be able to run efficiently.
Allen’s expert know-how makes him an ideal hire for hotels looking to make a change. His next adventure will take him to the Wind Creek Casino in Wetumpka, Alabama, where he will put his expertise to use in a brand-new hotel renovation.
Editor’s note: At the time of press, Tom Allen was no longer at Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino.