NIGA in San Diego
Because I don’t normally pay much attention to the number of attendees at conferences, guessing at how impressive the number of people, more than 5000, who attended the 2012 Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention in San Diego April 1st through 4th is just that, a guess. But I would wager that 5000 attendees at any conference in Indian Country has to be considered quite successful.
My guess is also that the annual NIGA Conference probably rivals National Congress of American Indians conventions for yearly attendance, which only makes sense because gaming has become so intertwined with tribes nationally. But whereas NCAI usually shifts conference locations across the country, giving different tribal regions opportunities to share their stories and culture, NIGA, at least in the marquee annual convention, opts for sunnier and warmer climes, the last three years alternating between San Diego and Phoenix. Good golf weather, both places.
If NCAI is the old guard, then NIGA is the up-and-coming star. Everything about the 2012 NIGA Convention was slick, from the admittedly really cool Gaslamp District where the tradeshow was held, to the designer suits worn by a host of attendees, to the aircraft carrier that hosted the first night’s reception (which I missed, alas), to the official convention guide whose quality in look and feel could have passed for a magazine, to the private party for Tribal leaders at the Hard Rock Cafe. Slickest of all, in a geeky kind of way, was the 2012 NIGA Tradeshow & Convention app, to better keep track of conference events. I couldn’t figure out how the app worked, and am really not sure anybody else did too, but still applaud the effort. If the goal of the NIGA Convention was what some marketers call “the wow factor”, then they definitely got a “wow” out of me.
NIGA is where two important facets of Indian Country intersect, gaming and governance, which explains why many of those people attending appeared to work either in Tribal government or gaming operations, a pattern subsequently reflected in many of the workshops and breakout sessions. Granted, governance and gaming include many issues, but unlike conferences that are a broader forum like NCAI or ATNI, a tribal employee who worked in say natural resources or early childhood education would have found very little useful information here.
The conference guide smartly broke the convention down into two sections: Networking and education. Networking appeared to be going on constantly in the hallways and probably the bars as well, but there were formal opportunities, such as when several of us took a cruise around Coronado Island hosted by a company hoping to make contacts. There was also the different daily lunches and receptions, one which due to a late flight I regrettably missed aboard the nearby aircraft carrier USS Midway.
A number of the workshops were incredibly specific, such as “How to Stop Your Pit from Becoming a Slot Bank: Customer Service Survival Guide for Table Games” or “Cloud Computing and Back Office Performance Improvement– Leveraging the Latest Technologies and Lean Six Sigma to Increase Efficiency and Improve Back Office (Accounting) Operations”. Others were quite general, like “History of Indian Gaming”, or “Tax Issues for Tribes and Their Members”. Above all, they were numerous, maybe even too much so, as at one point I counted 15 different workshops going on concurrently. If one was uncertain, then the official guide broke down the sessions by topic and/or target audience, or “tracks”. Finance, Tribal Leaders, Marketing, and Regulatory comprised most of the tracks. Interestingly, every day featured at least one workshop on the Social Media Track.
The various workshops and panels all took place on the second floor of the convention center, while down below the entire floor was occupied by the actual tradeshow itself, more or less an exposition on every possible detail of the tribal gaming industry, from slot machines to bed linens to food items to brands of vodka. If the meetings were meant to be exercise for the brain, then the tradeshow was for the senses. Samples of everything abounded–pens, pads, magnets, lanyards, candy, beef jerky, DVD’s, even small tastes of different types of liquor. In what must be a sign that Las Vegas is catching on, a number of booths and stalls were staffed by young attractive women, several so friendly a guy might have felt he was being hit on. The workshops were quiet, usually pensive times. The tradeshow was, for lack of a better word, a celebration.
Truly, there was never a dull moment.
I sat through one of the long workshops that ran nearly two and half hours, titled “Handling the Tough Issues of Accountability and Performance– How do you successfully do it?” This was to be one of two presented by Jim Munoa, the President of Munoa Training and Development, who was both a Pechanga Tribal member and former leader. I have been to Pechanga, and had no idea that property was the largest casino west of the Mississippi. The tribe is known not only for their gaming operation, but also for some of their political situations that have made news in Indian Country. Munoa had plenty of anecdotes and experience to share.
The Pechanga now have 17 Council members, and from what I gathered this was not always how they have been. Having that many in the governing body, Munoa told us, gave more power to smaller families because as throughout the country there is a family dynamic prevalent in tribal politics. Overall I found much of Munoa’s presentation to be refreshing because he was so candid, speaking to those things we think but do not say, like family voting blocks, Elders using their positions as respected community members to “play politics with Tribal Council”, and the “secret plans” that political players, often elected officials, engage in. He mentioned how non-Tribal employees tend to get beat up for not producing results, and how as a Tribal leader he lost votes when they had to cut per capita. His was one of two workshops that made a point of using the Foxwoods and Pequots as an example of a cautionary tale.
He was quite skilled in illustrating his points, and had a diagram or some other visual illustration for almost everything. One that stuck out was his “Corporate Cycle” which consisted of four stages. The first was abundance and growth, when an organization or business is one the rise. Second was culture development, that exciting time of success and achievements, when people want to get involved (Munoa did warn that “first time success” can be dangerous). The third was the plateau and scarcity phase, when fixed beliefs and behaviors prevail. Last, and most lamentable, was that time of failure and no achievements, when there is low productivity, players are passive, reactive, concerned primarily with themselves, people want to leave, and there is a sense of entitlement. This could make for animated discussion in our own Tribe as to where we are at presently, at the very least colorful Facebook dialog.
How do we avoid running the gauntlet of the corporate cycle? According to Munoa, maintaining a balance of the three major Tribal structures, political, business, and family. By balance he meant as little intermingling as possible. But also by engaging in what he called the “crucial confrontations”, those proverbial meetings when players lay their cards on the table.
“Most organizational failures, team disasters, and family break-ups occur because confrontation either never happened or was handled poorly”, to which I thought “without a doubt”. He then showed us several videos that illustrated this point, one of which included footage of a young boy, maybe seven or eight years-old, who in what appeared to be a mall would blatantly and almost cut in line at food outlets. Of course, nobody said anything, but the close-ups of their facial expressions was hilarious. As I am sure was intended, they provided a textbook case of avoiding the crucial confrontation.
I was very surprised at the sparse attendance of one workshop the following day, “Social Media Storytelling: Using Social Media to Take Control of Your Tribal Image”. But as one of the presenters explained, Facebook has snuck up on Indian Country especially the past two years, which to me seemed about right. While titled “Social Media”, the two young presenters were honest up front that the term now refers to Facebook, Twitter, and newly, Pinterest. Much of their presentation consisted of examples of how tribes used their Facebook pages to combat negative situations, in particular the Ho-Chunks. They also recommended that a tribe not limit themselves to one Facebook page, and even consider implementing pages on different departments. They specifically mentioned the idea of having one devoted to tribal leaders/council.
A tribal leader behind me muttered that awkward question which to best of my recollection was something like “What if you have sites that just bash people and spread rumors and are full of misinformation?” I looked over my shoulder and half-jokingly asked her “You only have one?” The presenters, after chuckling, recommended going on to the sites and addressing these issues head-on, but then as I and others explained in more detail some of our struggles, such as insults, being accused of lying, etc., they were at a loss. This was not new to them, but as stated before, social media seems to have “exploded” (their words) on tribes, and our concerns today weren’t unusual. Really, there is no blueprint for dealing with it.
The last workshop I attended was more of a refresher course, “The History of Indian Gaming”. Because it was only several hours before my flight home, sitting through the whole session was impossible, but at the very least I got a copy of the booklet. I do not know whether the instructor actually wrote the book or not, but whoever authored it presented a new idea, one which I never encountered until now. And that idea is simply that the success of Indian Gaming is all due to one person, Ronald Reagan. I always thought it was the Supreme Court’s decision in the California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians case which paved the way for Indian gaming and subsequently IGRA, but you learn something new every day.
What I noticed in several workshops was that we were presented with powerpoints, but there were not always companion printouts, meaning one’s note-taking abilities were severely tested. That was by design I learned, and some of my co-workers had similar experiences. Many facilitators wanted you to contact them directly for copies of the presentations, my guess is because we could all be potential clients. One instructor explained point blank he had issues with his material being used and not being given credit, or worse yet being passed off as the ideas of somebody else.
The final instructor did present an analogy which sticks with me: Indian gaming is the “new buffalo”. Buffalo provided meat, hides, bones for tools, and were virtual one-stop-shops for natives fortunate to have been around them. Which on second thought is actually a really good comparison.