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Gary Trask

Gary  Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has worked as a writer and editor more than 25 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee.

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Scarlet Pearl Casino CEO’s big gamble is paying off

27 Feb 2023

By Gary Trask
LuAnn Pappas

LuAnn Pappas

In gambling terms, the risky wager LuAnn Pappas made on herself back in 2014 was a longshot.

Even Pappas herself admits she was probably a heavy underdog after she made the bold move to pack her bags and leave Atlantic City and a 30-year career with Caesars Entertainment (formerly Harrah’s Entertainment) to run a new casino resort in little-known D'Iberville, Mississippi. Not only was Pappas departing one of the largest gaming markets in the country and an executive position with one of the most renowned operators in the world, but she was in her mid-50s and suddenly hitching her wagon to a family business that had zero experience running a casino.

Oh, there was one more small caution sign: She had just suffered a massive heart attack.

“My cardiologist said to me, ‘Have you lost your mind?’” said Pappas with a laugh when recalling her precarious decision to become CEO of the new Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort, just after her cardiac arrest on Labor Day Weekend of 2014. “Everyone said we'd go bankrupt. People told me that I was making the dumbest move of my career. There was no one that believed we would succeed.”

Nonetheless, the $290 million Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort opened its doors to the public on 9 December 2015, just over a year after Pappas officially accepted the CEO title. Fast forward to 2023 and it’s clear that all of those “people” were wrong.

Yes, Pappas’ miraculous gamble paid off.

Today, Scarlet Pearl, an impressive 68,000 square-foot, boutique property that sits just north of Biloxi with staggering, panoramic views of the Back Bay and Mississippi Gulf Coast, is thriving under the direction of Pappas and a dedicated, privately held, family ownership. And, more importantly, Pappas’ ticker is doing just fine. In fact, she is as healthy and happy as she has ever been during her illustrious career in the gaming industry that began in 1985 when she answered a newspaper ad to work the graveyard shift in the gift shop at Harrah’s Atlantic City.

“I look back today and say, ‘Wow, there must have been a guardian angel looking over me,’” says Pappas, who was born and raised in the Cape May area of New Jersey.

But like Pappas’ ascent from working behind a cash register at the Harrah’s gift shop to high-level casino executive, Scarlet Pearl’s road to success has not been without trials and tribulations.

During the first two years, Scarlet Pearl did indeed lose money as it attempted to gain its footing amidst a competitive Mississippi Gulf Coast casino market that boasts a dozen other casino resorts, most of which are backed by huge corporations like MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment, and boast recognizable names quite familiar to gamblers in the region, like Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino - Biloxi, and Golden Nugget - Biloxi.

“Those early years were a tough go, no doubt about it,” admitted Pappas. “We had to really work hard to create a database and a brand. It wasn’t easy and everyone involved knew what we were up against.

“But then we turned the corner and when we did, we were going 150 miles-per-hour because all of a sudden everything got traction and it just grew and grew and grew into something that none of us believed could possibly happen in such a short period of time.”

The reasons why Scarlet Pearl has been able to not only survive, but also prosper are many. But none are more vital than its owners, Bob and Dolores Granieri.

“I attribute our success to the fact that this is truly a family business,” said Pappas. “When you work for a large corporation in any industry, you have shareholders. When you work for a single family and you want to get something done, you don't have to ask 15 different people in 25 different departments and wait three months to get an answer. You can make a decision that morning and you’re moving on it by that afternoon.”

It’s also been essential that the Granieris are gamblers themselves and they run their casino from that standpoint.

“Our owners understand gambling from the customer perspective,” added Pappas. “That makes it really easy for us to do the right thing for the customers. They understand what it is like to be a gambler and what a gambler wants.”

As a result, Scarlet Pearl has become widely known for its world-class customer service. For proof, look no further than the lavish Orchid Room, which opened in 2020 as part of a $4 million upgrade and features private gaming, personal TVs, feet warmers, chair massages and phone chargers at every machine, warm-scented hand towels and a dedicated player service counter. Instead of labeling the space as a “high-limit area” and alienating those who may not play large amounts, the Orchid Room is considered an “elevated experience” and is open to any player who is a member of Pearl Rewards, the casino’s loyalty program.

Scarlet Pearl; however, has become a haven for those high-rollers players, due to its VIP Room, which is exclusive to E.I.P. and Scarlet Tier players and opened shortly after the Orchid Room.

The space has a chic, luxurious design. The opulence hits you as soon as you walk through the doors, with velvet oversized sofas and paintings on the wall that can turn into TVs when a big game is on. There’s also a private dining section with tufted chairs and black linens, in addition to a lively center bar area.

But while the VIP experience has allowed Scarlet Pearl to attract high rollers, the casino is just as popular with the locals. From the very beginning, the Granieris wanted to create a family atmosphere in their casino and they have followed through on that promise.

“It’s like Cheers; everybody knows your name and most Friday and Saturday nights, myself, Mr. Bob and Dolores will be eating in one of our restaurants or sitting at the bar,” said Pappas. “This is a totally different experience than what you would see in Atlantic City or Las Vegas in that our regular guests come in, on average, about 14 times a month. That’s unheard of in a bigger market. But to our credit, we keep giving them a reason to come back.”

Indeed. The property’s chic design and attention to detail is off the charts – from the gorgeous main lobby area to the newly renovated bank of luxury suites on the 18th floor. The design also intentionally features plenty of natural light with bright colors and fresh flowers. Updates and enhancements are a regular occurrence. Two state-of-the-art miniature golf courses were built outside at the Lava Links Golf Club, which is surrounded by gardens and waterfalls and an erupting volcano.

When regulated sports betting in Mississippi officially launched, Scarlet Pearl partnered with DraftKings, opened a new sportsbook, and made national headlines during the 2019 World Series when it accepted a $3.5 million bet from the notorious Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, on the Houston Astros. At the time, it marked the largest single bet in Mississippi sportsbook history, which, by the way, ended up as a win for the house when the Washington Nationals beat the Astros in an epic Game 7.

A parking garage was completed shortly after the grand opening and the casino offers a wide variety of F&B options. Scarlet's Steak & Seafood, which has regular live entertainment and a Jazz Brunch on Sundays, has been honored with the Best Seafood Award for three-straight years in Casino Player Magazine's Best of Dining and Nightlife on the Mississippi Gulf Coast issue. In 2019, the resort added Ami Pizza? and a coffee shop called Lounge Nocherie. Late last year, the modish Under the Oak Café, located just off the main lobby, was renovated and added 50 seats, bring its capacity to 180.

Also last year, the casino carpeting was replaced and by the end of this year all 300 guest rooms will be renovated with a new “coastal decor,” even though the property is less than 10 years old.

“From 2019 forward, we haven't stopped in terms of capital investment in the property,” said Pappas. “Last year alone we put $10 million into the property. During COVID and the shutdown we didn’t sit still. That’s when we completed the Orchid Room and then shortly thereafter, the VIP rooms.”

Scarlet Pearl’s “everybody-knows-your-name” vibe extends beyond the guest experience as its employees are also treated like family. Pappas said in her nearly 40 years in the gaming industry she has never seen a more consistent level of high “satisfaction rates” from employees as she has at Scarlet Pearl, and for good reason.

Case in point: Early last year, the casino implemented UKG Wallet, a financial wellness mobile application that allows its more than 1,000 employees immediate access to a portion of their already earned, but unpaid wages.

“When 76% of the people surveyed say they enjoy working at Scarlet Pearl and you hear them refer us to their friends and family all of time, you know we’re doing something right,” said Pappas proudly. “I still can't get over the benchmark of satisfaction and that number just goes up every single year.”

What’s more, Scarlet Pearl is very active in the community. The Scarlet Pearl Cares initiative serves the local community and partners with over a dozen non-profit organizations. This has led to a number of awards for both Pappas and the casino as a whole. Last year, Pappas became the first executive from a Mississippi property to be named a finalist for 2022 “American Executive of the Year” at the Global Gaming Awards in the nine-year history of the event and Scarlet Pearl became the first resort on the Gulf Coast to be a finalist for “North American Property of the Year.” Pappas was also honored as the recipient of the 2021 Annette O’Keefe Humanitarian Award, the 2019 Humanitarian Award from the American Red Cross, and she garnered New Orleans Magazine “Steel Magnolia” honors for her accomplishments in philanthropy and business.

“The bottom line is that this is what Mr. Bob and Dolores envisioned from the very beginning and that’s the reason I felt in my heart that coming here was the right move, as crazy as it seemed at the time,” said Pappas. “It’s been a wild ride, but I wouldn’t change anything. I love the area. I love the property and I love the people I work with. Not many people can say that so strongly, so I feel very fortunate.”

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