Rows of slot machines blinked their multicolored come-ons. Water lapped at the bases of Romanlike arches bisecting the indoor pool. Vivid portraits of flowers and succulents glowed over massage tables.
But no one was responding to their allure. Instead, workers were swarming over the grounds of Buffalo Thunder Resort & Spa recently, unreeling carpeting, finishing off walls and smoothing earth for a patio, all in feverish preparation for an opening less than a month away.
The resort will be ready, promised Richard A. Ross, director of sales and marketing.
“It’s mind-blowing how quickly things change,” he said, shaking his head in wonder at new work completed since his last walkthrough.
In a rare move in the world of construction, Buffalo Thunder is opening early. The $275-million resort was initially slated for a November opening, Ross said.
Already, more than 30,000 room reservations are either in hand or in final negotiations for this year and next year, with about 50 individual events or conferences represented, he said.
Only time will tell if the resort generates a net increase in the number of people coming to New Mexico, or instead slices the pie more thinly for hotels and convention centers already competing for business in the region.
Buffalo Thunder will offer more meeting space than Santa Fe’s new convention center, slated to open in September with about 40,000 square feet for events. But Santa Fe’s convention center has a bigger ballroom, said Keith Toler, executive director of the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It’s going to be competition, yes,” he said of Buffalo Thunder. But, he added, “I think it’s going to be very good for the city because of the guests they’ll attract.” Ross said Buffalo Thunder will have a shuttle to take its guests into Santa Fe.
Both men noted that the two centers have different appeals, with Buffalo Thunder attracting people who want more of a resort experience with everything in one place, while the city’s hotels and convention center will offer the opportunity for people to step outside their doors and explore Santa Fe.
“Meeting planners in general are looking for new, affordable destinations,” said Tim Booth, Buffalo Thunder’s general manager. “How many times can you go to New York or Las Vegas?”
Santa Fe is an attractive destination, he said, but the city “hasn’t had the ability to host meetings of this size under one roof. They were splitting people among six hotels and four venues.”
Buffalo Thunder’s operators are looking beyond competing with just Santa Fe. They hope people will see the resort as an alternative to Las Vegas, “without the heat and without the sensationalism,” according to Ross.
Besides the casino, the resort will feature entertainment, with Gladys Knight booked for the opening and the Guy Lombardo Orchestra for New Year’s Eve, he said. Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Don Rickles and Terry Fator, a singing ventriloquist and winner of the second season of America’s Got Talent, are also on the schedule, he said.
“The potential for regional jet traffic (at the Santa Fe airport) is something we’re hoping and waiting for,” Booth said. “It would give us another measure of visibility and access.”
In answer to anyone who would argue that Pojoaque is too remote to attract major business, he added, “I spent less time driving here from Albuquerque than I did from our Chicago hotel to O’Hare.”
Buffalo Thunder is a business development of Pojoaque Pueblo in partnership with Hilton Hotels Corporation. It’s the first tribal partnership Hilton has undertaken, according to Ross. “It’s a blend of what’s most current in comfort with the great heritage of the Pueblo,” he said.
Great care was taken to use traditional designs throughout the development, to give people quiet reminders that they are on Indian land. The exterior’s balconies and stepped design give the feel of historic native dwellings and the lobby’s circular design is reminiscent of a kiva. Other touches that reflect pueblo culture abound, from basket designs covering the lights in the buffet, petroglyph-style designs decorating light sconces and walls and large claylike pots disguising the lightning rods on the roof.
At the main entrance, visitors will be greeted by a 15-foot sculpture of a buffalo dancer designed by Pojoaque Gov. George Rivera.
Resort officials huddled to design a signature scent — Ross said they tried to come close to the smell of the desert after rain (“wood tones, evergreens, but some florals”) — and sounds to pipe throughout the resort. He wouldn’t detail the sounds they settled on, other than to note it would be logical that Native American flutes and drums would be incorporated.
One soundscape isn’t a secret: The casino will include a “Thunder Alley,” where the sounds of a storm will signal a special promotion for some lucky winner.
“We want people to leave Buffalo Thunder having captured a sensory memory of what they have done here, something that addresses all the senses,” Ross said. The sense of taste will be tickled with almost a dozen food and beverage outlets scattered throughout the resort, ranging from a grill at the outdoor pool to the highend Red Sage Restaurant, developed by chef Mark Miller of Coyote Café fame. The food offerings could be a lure for local residents, he noted.
“We can draw people from Los Alamos to Red Sage,” Ross said. “But any day, at a low price, there are a lot of great options just within the buffet.” The Blue Tower Lounge, with entertainment and drinks, and the Turquoise Trail Bar & Grill, designed in the style of an old-time Route 66 café, will have a “big local attraction,” he predicted.
Another element — a children’s activity area that includes games, a small theater and a computer center — is intended to appeal to the current trend to combine recreation and business, according to Ross. People traveling to a destination for a business conference Monday through Thursday may stay Friday to Sunday to enjoy the area with their families, he said.
The children’s activity center offers a spot for kids to have fun, with some supervision, while their parents play golf, gamble or get a spa treatment, he said. Overall, more than 700 people will be employed at the resort, Ross said, adding last week that “we’re about 75 percent of the way there” in hiring them all.