JON LUCAS, PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER OF THE IP CASINO RESORT & SPA

By: Nancy Marchbanks

Jon Lucas began in the casino business in 1984 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He worked for the Hollywood Casino Corporation at the Sands Hotel Casino for 11 1/2 years. He first held the position of Director of Administration and steadily climbed the corporate ladder. Upon leaving their employ, he developed and opened a riverboat casino in Iowa for Ameristar. Next came a move to Las Vegas, where he stayed for 4 1/2 years with Primadonna Resorts. The company was bought out by MGM Mirage, and Jon took a job with Caesars Entertainment which lead him to Mississippi. He was the President of the Tunica region for Caesars which encompassed three properties; The Grand, Bally’s and the Sheraton. When another change ensued, and they were bought out by Harrah’s. Jon then took over at the IP Casino Resort Spa and has been there for almost 6 years. He moved to the Coast just 2 months before hurricane Katrina.
A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jon also lived in New Jersey and worked in New York City following college. He attended the University of Tennessee (and is a die hard Tennessee Volunteer). Never a fan of the cold weather, Jon hoped to move south one day and had intended to go to the University of Florida. Sadly, his mother was seriously ill when it came time for him to begin college and it was decided that he needed to be closer to home. When Jon wound up in Tennessee, he fell in love with the area and knew that he wanted to live in the southern part of the United States. The city of Memphis was home while working in Tunica.  Jon married his lovely wife Michelle, one year ago on Valentine’s day. He has three grown children from his first marriage, one grandchild and a second grandchild due to be born any moment!  Michelle has two children as well.
When Jon arrived in south Mississippi, he never imagined he would be faced with such a remarkable set of circumstances as was the result of hurricane Katrina. “It was an amazing challenge. I have a very competitive spirit, an intense drive and fire that began when I was an athlete. The situation was not something I looked forward to but I was determined to be successful. The IP was the first casino up and running after the storm,” he said. The first order of business upon Jon’s arrival was to begin the process of repositioning and re branding the property.
When the owner of the Imperial Palace passed away several years ago, the property became governed by a Board of Trustees of a Charitable Trust that is based in Las Vegas. The trustees noted that the property was not performing well and there was a myriad of problems that had to be addressed and corrected as soon as possible.  Jon was hired to reposition and re brand the property, in an effort to turn things around. It was expected that it would take 3 or 4 years to accomplish this but due to Katrina, Jon was able to expedite the plan. “The worst natural disaster in the United States actually provided us with a silver lining, oddly enough. We were able to begin the repositioning and re branding more quickly because of the damage,” Lucas said.
A plan was put in place right away, but it was not readily accepted by the trustees. “It took some prodding and persuasion to make them see that this was the way to go. We had three goals; reposition ourselves with the employees, customers and the community,” Lucas said.  There were huge challenges but with 1,088 hotel rooms on property, it was a very desirable situation as well. Changing the name to the IP made a big difference. The property was no longer confused with the Palace casino and it also erased the perception of the Imperial Palace by calling the property by it’s new name. Lucas completely refashioned the IP and turned it into one of the top casino properties on the Coast. He set out to make the IP a place where the associates and employees would be proud to work. “No one thought it could be done, but I have the proof through the employee survey we do each year. At the top of the list they always say how proud they are to work here,” Lucas said. Jon is also extremely proud of the fact that customers never fail to compliment his employees. They are always courteous, polite and eager to do whatever they can to enhance your visit.
The many restaurants at the IP have an outstanding reputation for being best on the Coast. “We have worked very hard to earn this distinction. Not everyone who visits a casino will gamble, but most everyone will eat and drink. We use our food and beverage products as marketing tools, to get them to come here, rather than go somewhere else,” Jon said.  The drinks and cocktails are first rate, with a wide variety of places to enjoy them. There is a great Sports bar for the sports enthusiasts, a lounge called Thirty-Two which has a quieter and more relaxed vibe with live entertainment, as well as the Chill Ultra Lounge in the lobby where people can enjoy live music 7 days a week. The Quench pool bar and restaurant provides a great outdoor setting, the perfect spot to unwind and relax in the warmer months. “We provide a lot of different alternatives on the beverage and restaurant side, as well as a state-of-the-art Spa that provides the ultimate in luxury,” Jon said.
In 2009, the showroom was remodeled to increase the seating and attract bigger stars. The IP was now competitive in the another realm of adult entertainment. Today, the IP rivals any other theater/concert offerings on the Coast, with the biggest names in comedy and music. “We are particularly proud of the diversity we offer our customers. Everything from R&B, to old time Country, to Classic Rock and Alternative and New Rock, we have Urban artists, and the biggest comedians out there from Larry the Cable Guy to Mike Epps. We make it a point to have something for everybody,” Jon said.
Having so many wonderful amenities, with an exemplary staff and the best employees is what sets the IP apart. Jon Lucas has completely turned this property around, and it is THE place to be. Gaming is the same wherever you go; slots, table games, roulette, baccarat, etc. but the non-gaming forms of entertainment are what makes a casino property extra special and even more desirable to the outside world. “People have a lot of choices in this particular market, they can go anywhere, but it pleases me immensely that they are choosing to come here,” Jon said.
This year, the IP will undergo renovations of the 350 standard guest rooms, and 26 of the junior suites. The ballroom will also be remodeled. In the not too distant future, Jon Lucas plans to add another tower and an additional swimming pool, as well as a convention space with an additional parking garage. “The more we grow the property, the better it will be. We would like to explore retail opportunities with other developers with the additional land that surrounds us. As the economy recovers and the market rebounds, we have a lot of ideas that we hope to implement,” Jon said. The IP owns another 10 acres that surround the existing property.
The IP is perhaps the most charity driven casino on the Coast. The original owner, multi-millionaire and real estate magnate, Ralph Engelstad was an extremely philanthropic individual. He was very giving to many charitable organizations and causes. When Engelstad passed away in 2002, he left the company to a Charitable Trust. The trustees continued his mission and vision of giving back. Jon Lucas was honored to “pick up the ball and run with it” when he became President of the IP. It supports a large number of charities monetarily but the associates are also very active volunteers. The senior management serves on numerous boards, and they provide their great leadership abilities and business skills to these various organizations as well. “The spirit here is just amazing. I make it a point to surround myself with great people – the best. They have the same pride and passion as I do from the top to the bottom, and through the guidance and direction of the trustees, we have been allowed to continue with the charitable giving as well as repositioning the property,” Jon said.
A most prestigious award was bestowed upon Jon Lucas recently. He was given the Pat Santucci Spirit of the Gulf Coast Award. Jon was completely taken aback by the presentation ceremony, and was moved beyond words. “For someone who has only been here a short time, I was incredibly honored to have been recognized for my business achievements, leadership and contributions here on the Coast.  I could not have gotten the award without the support and cooperation from the trustees of the IP and the incredible team that works with me. The IP is one of the largest employers on the Coast and it is important that we help to lead the way in every way possible. I have been welcomed and embraced here, and this area is like no other,” Jon said.
Jon Lucas has no doubt that the Coast will one day be a premiere destination. “The area has so much to offer, and is so unique between the boating, the fishing and the water, in addition to the casinos and the great golf courses. There are wonderful museums and so many cultural things to explore that are continuing to expand. We desperately need a hotel or headquarters hotel at the convention center, and they are working diligently on that as we speak. There are still pieces that need to fall into place; Hwy 90 must be redeveloped and the area needs more attractions and activities. But I truly believe that if we can do all these things this will most definitely be a premiere resort destination. Tourism is the economic engine of the Gulf Coast,” he said.  Jon Lucas is very active through the Business Council on committees that are working toward this goal. He continued, “One of the concepts is to market the Coast as one, and not all these different entities marketing independently. People coming here are not looking at where Biloxi begins and where it ends. They are looking at the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a whole. We need to work together to make this happen and everyone will benefit.
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