The Catskills, Once America’s Entertainment Capital, Are Finally Roaring Back

Published on July 30, 2019

Decades ago, the Catskills were the number one summertime entertainment destination for New Yorkers, before there was air conditioning in every home and before you could jump on a flight to anywhere for little money. Dozens of great comedians and singers got their start in the legendary Catskill resorts like Grossinger’s, the Concord, and Kutscher’s.

The list includes Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Seinfeld, Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Buddy Hackett, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Lewis.

And then times and tastes changed, and the Catskills ceased to be the entertainment powerhouse and top-of-the-mind resort it had been in the past.

The region is making a massive comeback, however, with the advent of Resorts World Casino, a shiny new casino/spa/resort project that opened less than two years ago on the site of the former Concord Hotel. Its opening night performer? Jerry Seinfeld, coming full circle to his Catskills roots.

RWC was almost 20 years in the making, as New York State considered and reexamined its approach to casino gambling. Pretty much all of the big gaming players, including MGM, Wynn, and various Indian casino groups, vied for the location where Resorts World Catskills was built. Resorts World somehow beat out the big boys to land the coveted spot.

So it was never a question of retrofitting an older casino to make it relevant for a new generation of high rollers, the challenge facing legacy properties in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Instead, the planners took the proverbial blank sheet of paper and asking, “What would make the high roller experience perfect?” and then RWC spared no expense to get that done.

There’s more to life than gambling, even for high rollers. So let’s talk about the amenities on the property. Resorts World Catskills offers the Crystal Life Spa”, which comes from the Asia-based Crystal Cruise Line and comes with the same high standards as one might expect on Crystal’s ultra-luxurious ships. This is the only Crystal Cruise spa on dry land, for that matter.

Two other properties on the “campus” include the Alder Hotel, which includes the first TopGolf Swing Suite in New York State, and the Kartrite Resort and Indoor Waterpark, a massive indoor water park to occupy the kids while mom and dad are playing baccarat or pai gow.

The hotel/casino caters to its international visitors. New York is home to a massive Asian population, and of course New York is a popular travel destination for individuals, couples, and families visiting from all over Asia. To that end, Resorts World Catskills offers two Asian restaurants with authentic menu items along with fusion items that appeal to a Westernized palette as well. Indeed, 30% of the casino floor is dedicated to Asian casino games, including the only location anywhere in the northeastern United States where people can play pai gow tiles.

The resort partners with three nearby landmarks, and can provide personal transportation to each. The first is the Woodbury Commons outlet mall, widely regarded as the top mega-brand outlet mall shopping experience in the United States. The resort can arrange personal shoppers and other unique shopping experiences at Woodbury Commons. Next is Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a nearby outdoor concert venue created on the original site of the Woodstock festival, which attracts such performers as James Taylor, and the Eagles and Jackson Browne.

The third is unique –Monticello Motor Club, a private motorsports country club with a  4.1 mile road track, off-road course and go-karting track. Here, you can race Ferraris on the track at over 100 mph, and you can even drive tanks, smashing through old cars and anything else that gets in the way. Obviously the casino wants you to stick around and gamble, but management recognizes that if you extend your trip for another day or two in order to accommodate the shopping and Ferrari racing, that means you’ll spend another evening or two at the casino.

When it comes to audiences, most casinos try to be all things to all people, providing the same level of attention to the “bus and buffet” crowd to the high rollers. Unfortunately, in practice, this means that the high rollers only get, say, a small segregated area off the main gambling floor or just a few high minimum tables right on the floor. True high rollers value discretion, which is why once you come into the complex, you’re not rubbing shoulders with the folks who are putting quarters into slots. You are essentially on your own entertainment planet and that’s how management wants it.

The food in most ways is everything you would expect from a top-flight casino hotel. I say “in most ways” because there’s no buffet, a conscious decision by management indicating what sort of casino resort they intended. There’s nothing wrong with folks who come up by bus to play the slots and grab a big meal at the buffet, and indeed RWC has plenty of buses coming from Manhattan and other nearby points for slots-loving day-trippers. But there’s something about a buffet that signals, “We are really not about the high roller.”

The economic impact of the Resorts World Catskills campus on the surrounding community cannot be underestimated. With 1,600 employees, the casino is by far the largest provider of jobs in the county and one of the biggest employers anywhere north of New York City. The staff therefore exudes a combination of high-touch, five-star resort service along with a small-town feeling, because most of the people that work at the casino at any level reside in the small towns adjacent to the campus. It’s a friendly, low-key feeling that “big city” casinos are simply unable to match. Add in the golf course currently under construction, the sportsbook that’s about to open, the nature trails, the horseback riding, and the overall beauty of the region, and you have a vacation destination that’s never really been on the radar of international travelers and is experiencing a resurgence with New Yorkers as well.

One surprise about RWC – there’s no buffet. The message: we love our day players but we’re really about the high rollers. The resort offers a range of dining opportunities including  Scott Conant’s Cellaio, a top-flight restaurant where weekend reservations must be made weeks in advance, and an Asian fusion restaurant, Lotus, catering to American as well as traditional Asian palettes.

Finally, the entire complex is non-smoking. This may not seem like a big deal, but one of the least pleasant aspects of going to a casino is the dirty recycled air. Casinos which permit smoking which is pretty much all of them in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and around the United States, spend fortunes on air filtration systems which do a decent job of cleaning the second-hand smoke out of the air but can never really get the environment 100% clean. Even smokers visiting Resorts World Catskills remark on how nice and clean the air is and how they don’t mind going outside to smoke, all in the name of having a more pleasant experience inside the buildings.

From management’s perspective, the nonsmoking rule means that they don’t have to spend nearly as much money cleaning out rooms, replacing furniture and bedsheets that reek of smoke, and so on. The nonsmoking rule contributes to a sense of cleanliness, brightness and even cheerfulness that one typically does not associate with big-time casinos.

How do high rollers discover Resorts World Catskills? Management hired away some of the top casino hosts in the United States, and they brought many of their “whales” with them. And then those guests told their friends, and those friends told their friends, with the result that 18 months since the opening, the hotel is jam-packed on weekends and getting more and more full-on weekdays as well. A weekend evening dinner reservation at Cellaio typically requires one to two weeks notice.

In short, if you’re looking to have a unique high roller experience in a beautiful part of the world you might never have seen, while shopping America’s top brands with a personal shopper and delighting your kids with a huge indoor water park, and then going off to race Ferraris, and drive a real-live a tank, look no further than Monticello, New York. The Catskill Mountains are reclaiming their rightful position as the entertainment capital of the Northeastern United States, and Resorts World Catskills is leading the way.

Michael Levin is a News Columnist at Grit Daily.

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