A path cleared before Ernie Stevens Jr. as his hulking frame entered the tradeshow floor. At over six feet and nearly 300 pounds – a fact he announced to the assembled masses at the previous day’s luncheon – the Chairman of the Indian Gaming Association (IGA – formerly the National Indian Gaming Association) is a man whose very presence commands respect, if not awe. “His rings are the size of a regular man’s bracelets,” said one joshing commentator at the same lunch. Stevens, who is of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is in his twenty-first year at the helm of IGA. As he walked across the floor that morning, he held a microphone to his mouth and announced the return of the Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention (April 19-22, 2022, Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, California). Dressed in black, a line of braided hair falling down his back, he towered over most of his retinue, with the possible exception of legendary Dallas Cowboy defensive end and old friend, Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones.
Relief and rejoice were the notes struck in his words. Relief that the pandemic was subsiding; rejoice that the industry was once again openly convening. The 2021 NIGA convention was one in which smiles were hidden by blue masks, and its size paled in comparison to this year’s; the 2020 convention, of course, had been cancelled. But now people were no longer afraid. Science and human ingenuity had allowed us to overcome the crisis posed by Covid-19, and the industry was ready to get back to work.
“It feels wonderful,” said Conference Chair Victor Rocha. “Walking through those front doors, it feels like the pandemic never happened. Business is back. The booths are packed. It was a surprise that I almost didn’t expect. It’s almost emotional. We’ve been out of business for almost two years, we’ve been struggling, and this feels like we’re back.”
Indicative of the tribal sector’s longer-term success even through the pandemic, Rocha went on to note that attendance had, in fact, grown over the last few years: “Attendance will be above pre-pandemic levels. Everyone is just starved to get back to business, and here we are. I think we’re all over the pandemic.”
Walking around the tradeshow floor, one could find this refrain constantly repeated. The good vibes abounded. But first, education.
Tuesday and Wednesday – the first two days of the festivities – saw no fewer than 54 panels informing attendees about a range of subjects related to the tribal sector. From these, I was able to learn (among other things): about the rise of tribal involvement in commercial operations as a way for economic portfolios to be diversified; about the debate surrounding cashless payments running through the industry, of how everyone wants to go cashless while maximizing profit but that there is disagreement about how to get there;
I heard seasoned experts discussing the prospect of mobile sports betting coming to California, where it is on the ballot in November, and where the tribal stance on the issue is firmly in conflict with that of commercial operators; finally, there were panels covering issues tangential to gaming but important to tribes, such as the rise of the cannabis industry (which tribes, with their degree of reservation autonomy, are primed to exploit).
Thursday we walked the floor. I had my microphone in hand, my colleague was close behind with camera. We were there to interview the exhibitioners. And what interesting products – presented by some fabulous people – did we find…
Brooke Fiumara of OPTX told us how good it felt to be back: “The show so far has been absolutely amazing. People are in great spirits. They’re excited to be here. You see people bringing their families, which is awesome, and you see people just wanting to connect. So, it’s a fabulous show.”
Jean Venneman of Gaming Arts LLC told us that her company’s products had been well-received: “We have a cabinet that we launched at the end of 2021 called the VertX Grand Cabinet. That’s really been a focal point at this show. We have a couple of themes that we haven’t seen before. In other words, we have a world-debut going on here.”
And then I asked Chris Wieners at Velvix what he hopes to get out of the show: “What we’re trying to understand is where gaming is headed from a tribal perspective here in the US. Post-Covid, obviously, there has been a lot of misconstrued information about where things are going. As a result, we hope to meet, not only with our peers and introduce our new products, but really we hope to get a better idea of what the future of tribal gaming holds, here in California and across the United States.”
That night were the parties, where people got liquid and galivanted effusively. It was a nice capstone to a good week, especially as the fireworks display exploded over Disneyland.
The show came full circle for me later on Friday, as things were dying down and I saw him again: Ernest Stevens Jr. on the floor surrounded by his retinue. Now, instead of ‘Too Tall’ Jones, he was next to the equally formidable Laker great, A.C. Green. Despite his aura of intimidation, I did not hesitate. He assented and, five seconds into the interview, I could tell that he was a warm, big-hearted man.
“I think that we’re getting back on our feet, and I think we’re doing it better than expected. We estimated last year that the overall sector was down 50%, which is a huge, huge hit on our industry. That we came out of this thing last summer at about 28% down was a major success on behalf of the operators, the businesses, the regulators and, most importantly, the tribal leadership… We’re still recovering, but we’re doing good, we’re strong and we’re excited. I’m excited that we can get back to work, get back to spending money, and get back to playing our games.”
In the below video you can see some of the highlights from the expo floor.