As a recent transplant of Hot Springs and vice president of marketing for one of the top five thoroughbred tracks in the country and the No. 1 commercial tourist attraction in the state, Joan Botts considers herself lucky to be a part of the "amazing change" happening at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
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In her position with Oaklawn, Botts directs all marketing initiatives for racing, casino and resort including brand marketing, advertising, agency relations, promotions, events, VIP, entertainment and much more. Just a few short months ago in April, Oaklawn officially opened its new luxury hotel, spa and event center while drastically expanding the casino and creating more than 400 new jobs in the Spa City.
"Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of amazing change at this property," said Botts in her office. "The likes of which, we haven't had ever or in a very long time. Of course, at the forefront of that change would be the resort -- our beautiful, new hotel which opened recently, the brand-new Astral Spa. The hotel lobby is amazing. Just the lobby, I mean, people walk into the lobby and they're like, 'Wow, OK, this is not just like any other hotel.'"
Botts noted that when people hear them speak on a new level of luxury, they truly put their money where their mouth is. She said when visitors see the lobby and all the new amenities -- the expanded casino, The Buglar restaurant, the patio lounge bar, The First Turn high-limit area of the casino and, of course, the new Astral Spa -- they literally make people say "wow."
"Visually, we are redefining the luxury experience -- certainly in Hot Springs and I would say definitely regionally -- as a hotel casino resort that also features thoroughbred racing," she said. "I believe that Oaklawn is truly superior to a lot of other products out there and that comes from my working in the casino industry since 1995, for casinos big and small, publicly held and privately owned. And I will tell you that Oaklawn really stands out above a lot of those properties."
Born outside of Chicago, Botts spent her time growing up in both Wilmington, Del., and Memphis, Tenn., before moving to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California where she graduated with a degree in public relations in 1990. After living in Los Angeles a few years, Botts soon returned to Memphis where she would begin a 25-plus year career in the casino gaming industry. Working as a senior marketer in various gaming markets, which included Mississippi, Missouri, and most recently Louisiana, before joining Oaklawn in August of 2018.
"We moved here from Shreveport, so not that far away," she said. "But while lived in Shreveport, ironically, we hardly ever came to Hot Springs. Even though it's very close, we didn't come here very often. I did not know a lot about Oaklawn. I knew they had a racetrack -- that was about it. So for me coming here as the vice president of marketing, and Shreveport/Bossier City being a fairly close feeder market for Hot Springs and Oaklawn, that was kind of a challenge on me to better educate surrounding markets in the region about what we had to offer."
Botts noted that just over three years ago, while Oaklawn had racing and gaming, nobody was even using the word casino.
"So it was amazing when I first got here to not only learn about Oaklawn and Arkansas -- Hot Springs in particular with its unique history -- and then really kind of diving into getting educated about racing and thoroughbreds and, 'What, really, does it mean to be a part of the Oaklawn family?'" she said. "You know, going all the way back to 1904, understanding the history of Oaklawn and its importance, not only to the city and state as it relates to tourism, but also understanding how important Oaklawn is in the sport of thoroughbred racing and the role that we play there."
Botts explained that she and her family had lived in Shreveport for 14 years and never really thought they would ever leave after becoming so settled.
"At that time in 2018, my daughter was in the middle of her time at LSU and so she wasn't even living at home," she said. "She wasn't near us, we knew she wouldn't stay in Baton Rouge after she graduated, and so my husband and I were empty-nesters at the time, and we were bored, quite honestly, and decided that we wanted to do something different. And both of us fell in love with Hot Springs pretty quickly."
Not only does Botts, who serves on the city's Parks and Trails Advisory Committee, get to act as sort of an ambassador for Hot Springs tourism with her position, she gets to live it and experience it firsthand as well. She and her husband, Wade, who is also a part of the Oaklawn family, wasted no time taking to the natural outdoor activities Hot Springs has to offer. While Botts' mother also makes Hot Springs her home, her daughter, Chelsea, now works as an interpreter at the Memphis Zoo after obtaining her degree in Wildlife Ecology from LSU in 2019. Botts' stepson, Gage, just finished up high school in Shreveport and is about to head off to college himself, Botts noted.
"My husband is an avid angler, or fisherman," she said. "He loves being on the lake fishing. Loves it. He's not retired yet but if he could fish seven days a week, he would."
In addition to taking advantage of the numerous lakes, Botts and her husband also enjoy hitting the local links for a couple rounds of golf or taking to the mountainous trails throughout the state.
"Hot Springs Village and all the golf courses in the Village are another amazing amenity to this part of the state," she said. "I mean, of course, you have the country club and you have the course at DeGray and other courses that are closer, but just even in the Village, having that concentration of all those great courses has been nice for us as well. We started hiking when we got here (too). We started discovering the hiking trails. I mean, I would say every time we had time off, we were on the road; We were going to Petit Jean. Through the Leadership Arkansas program, I got to go all over the state, so being able to go to northwest Arkansas, El Dorado, West Memphis, you know, all these different parts of Arkansas. ... But he and I have been on the road quite a bit, even if it's Pinnacle Mountain, you know, near Little Rock, just trying to experience. We, not too long ago, did Hawksbill Crag, which was a big deal for me."
Botts said that her husband, Wade, by working on the track side, has provided her a unique perspective in her overall scope as VP of marketing for Oaklawn. Though currently working with the track's maintenance team this summer, he has worked in such other areas as the sportsbook and as a table games dealer.
"He's been able to experience Oaklawn in a lot of different ways on the racing side," she said. "He was in the money room and got to see that side of it. ... And just being able to hear his perspective of what it takes to not only get the track ready every year for live racing and how many months that takes. ... We don't let those horses get on the same dirt that they were on last year, so, they're completely taking up all that dirt, you know, remixing it, and laying it back down, as well as every year we're doing improvements on the track side or in the barns or to the infrastructure there. So it's, again, it's nice for me to be able to understand my side of it -- the administrative side, marketing, kind of the executive management side -- as well as his perspective from things happening on the track side."
Among Botts' long list of accomplishments on her resume, which includes serving as the marketing and public relations committee chairperson for the Miss USA/Miss Teen USA Pageant in 2018, she was also part of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Arkansas program in 2019 and 2020. She noted the significance of its role in really helping acquaint her to the great state.
"That program allowed me to network and become friends with over 60 other executives from around the state, many different industries," she said. "But even at that time, I'd only been here about a year. So it was a great way for me to dive into understanding Arkansas. Not only politics, but also Arkansas culture, industry, trade, commerce -- the things that are important for our state -- and how to keep things moving in a positive direction. So from a tourism standpoint, I was glad to be there representing Oaklawn given that we are such a huge piece of the tourism in the state."
Botts said that among the many changes that have come about with the resort and the overall infrastructure is their focus on service.
"I can tell you from being a member of the senior management team that the expectations of our senior management team, and, of course, our general manager, Wayne Smith, are very high," she said. "And what we expect from our team members in terms of the overall customer experience is just a level of excellence that really does exceed the norm. So we work tirelessly every day to try to make that happen, whether someone is coming to watch a race, or whether someone is playing in the casino or just coming to enjoy a massage or a great meal, we want to be sure that they leave here singing our praises.
"You know, it's funny because when I first got here we did not have a hotel and so many people were asking, 'When is Oaklawn going to build a hotel?' Even me, 'When is Oaklawn going to build a hotel?' And I had only been here a few months when we made the big announcement. It was November of 2018 that we were going to be building a resort. So it was perfect timing for me to know that, you know, that I'd be a part of that change. But along the way we did go from gaming to a casino which allowed us to bring in live blackjack, live craps, live roulette, live table games. Prior to that, all the table games were electronic or dealer-assisted electronic table games. But with changes in legislation we were able to become a real casino and as a result, we went from Oaklawn Racing and Gaming and became Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, which we thought was highly appropriate given that we had started construction and were planning to do what we have now opened today."
Botts spoke about the new sportsbook, as well.
"We also brought a sportsbook to Arkansas -- the first sportsbook," she said. "And if you see our sportsbook, it's a great room with tons of comfortable seating and obviously tons of TVs and we're showing sports 24 hours now, which is another recent change. So a lot of changes along the way on the racing front -- increasing purse sizes and, you know, adding huge races that weren't there before."
Botts said perhaps the most monumental change they've made is changing the racing dates.
"Which for the longest time, live racing was January to the Kentucky Derby," she said. "And this year we will start racing Dec. 3 and that's huge for us to have live racing in December is huge for the industry. And then we will actually race through the day after the Kentucky Derby where usually we end live racing on Kentucky Derby Day. So typically, for the longest time, we've had live racing Thursday through Sunday. For the most part this year, it'll be Friday through Sunday. But that'll be big for us. And again, more change, you know, because now we have to look at how are we going to change calendars and promotions and this and that to accommodate ... The great thing is we have a huge parking lot now. We should be able to accommodate everyone where we had limited parking in the past. Of course, it'll be interesting now to have a live racing season with a hotel. Last year we just had a very small number of rooms open between Arkansas Derby and the end of live racing, so this year that'll be very different."
One very exciting change coming about before the year is up will be headline entertainment in the brand-new event center. The event center encompasses a main ballroom that can accommodate about 1,400 people for a concert and up to 1,000 for a sit-down banquet. In addition, it hosts breakout meeting rooms, an executive board room and a video wall with a stage. Behind the stage are dressing rooms along with hospitality and green rooms.
"So we've really built that space for headline entertainment," she said. "But the main ballroom breaks out into three separate spaces for smaller groups -- conventions, meetings, weddings, receptions, reunions -- so that area has really started getting momentum just over the past couple of months, you know, we really just opened it in May with our first event being a team member banquet. But we are starting to prepare for headline entertainment and for us to be able to bring headline concert entertainment here, live music on a whole other level like they do in Little Rock, we will be bringing that to Hot Springs later this summer. And now the area that is so well known for tourism will be able to boast headline entertainment. And we are confident that adding that as yet another Oaklawn amenity will be hugely beneficial to everyone in the city."
Botts, as a Korean American and currently the only woman on Oaklawn's senior management team, noted the tremendous amount of diversity on the team and how she feels that has led to much success.
"For a senior team of nine people, we are able to bring to the table a lot of different experience and expertise," she said. "If I think in my mind and go around the room to everyone at that table, I mean, the number of years ... I mean, I've been working in and around gaming since '95 and if I think of somebody around the table that have a vast casino resort gaming experience. ... And when I say gaming, I don't just mean casino, but hotel hospitality and everything that goes along with a casino resort. But then you have a nice mixture of people who've -- their main experience has been at Oaklawn. And, I mean, they've done a little bit outside of Oaklawn but they've been here for a long, long, long time. And they've kind of gone up through the ranks at Oaklawn, so they're able to represent for us the history, the legacy, and always kind of helping all of us keep perspective that racing is first.
"And our president, Louis Cella, who, of course, his whole family is Oaklawn, is always saying 'racing first.' And we believe that and in everything we do we think about how does this impact our brand, our reputation, our legacy, and the tradition of racing. Even though we only have live racing for a certain number of months out of the year, we know that at the end of the day it's our brand and it's who we stand for and we wouldn't be here without it. So we have a good representation of that on our senior management team just in terms of those who have been here for a much longer time than I have. And then we have plenty of experience representing the casino industry, resort hospitality industry, so we have a great team. We have a strong team and I'm very proud of the people who represent Oaklawn on that team."
Botts said she is very excited about the resort and all the new amenities they have to offer, and hopes Hot Springs will continue to support all the exciting things they have going on, noting -- "We're not finished building or growing. You will see more amenities probably before the end of the year. And I would say the next big exciting thing on the forefront is: headline entertainment is coming soon. So that'll add another twist to tourism in Hot Springs, so we're excited."