What We’ve Learned

Tribal casinos share their most positive strategies and insights from the pandemic

Last month TG&H checked in with several of our friends across the country and asked them about what strategy, process or insight they adopted due to the pandemic that was a positive and would stay implemented.

Photo courtesy of Doug Walker Photography: https://www.walkerphoto.com/

Angel of the Winds Casino Resort, Arlington, Washington

MOST POSITIVE COVID-19 STRATEGY: Staying 100 Percent Smoke-Free

Mary Jewett, Director of Marketing

As the first casino to reopen in Washington state during the COVID-19 pandemic, Angel of the Winds Casino Resort decided to go 100 percent smoke-free, a bold statement that shows how we hold the health of our guests, team members and community in high regard. Going smoke-free was something that had been on our minds for a while, and with the pandemic, it felt like the right time to implement this change, as we were rolling out several other health and safety precautions. Guest and team member health should be a priority, not just during a pandemic. As research has shown, cigarette smoke and especially secondhand smoke exposure can lead to many negative health issues. A small section on the casino floor “dedicated” to non-smoking is not good enough anymore. It is time for the industry to catch up with the times and realize that enjoying your time in a casino doesn’t have to involve smoke.

Since reopening, we have seen an influx of positive reviews from guests, team members, organizations and the greater community; we have seen the positive impact of being smoke-free, and we will continue to operate this way as everything begins to return to normal, post-pandemic. It is a new way of operating, but we won’t forget our guests who choose to smoke; we are currently building a new Xterior Smoking Lounge complete with fire pits, gaming, bar access and more. We are proud to be the first completely smoke-free property in Washington, and we look forward to continuing to be Seattle’s cleanest casino and encouraging others to follow the smoke-free trend.

Comanche Nation Entertainment, Oklahoma

MOST POSITIVE COVID-19 STRATEGY: Advanced Systems Upgrades

Mia Tahdooahnippah, CEO

Last year was challenging for properties in Oklahoma and across the country, including our four properties and travel plazas, which were closed for an average of 86 days. While the temporary closures introduced unforeseen hardships, we used that time as an opportunity to make significant health and safety improvements throughout each of our properties.

We invested more than one million dollars into numerous advanced systems that went above and beyond all state and CDC recommendations, including the installment of a highly innovative sanitization system at each property. The new system completely disinfects all hard surfaces for 24 hours, making it one of the most advanced cleaning systems that was put into place by any company in Southwest Oklahoma. Along with the new sanitization system, we also upgraded each casino with a state-of-the-art HVAC system. Each HVAC went through a phase of intensive cleaning and sanitization, and they were also installed with UV-C Lights. UV lights are regularly used in the healthcare system and are a proven technology that destroys bacteria and viruses that come through the air.

Throughout this time, we continued serving our community and kept our team members at the top of our priority list. We paid our team members and their benefits throughout the closures. We offered complimentary meals for our workers, hosted on-site blood drives and distributed hundreds of toy donations to Oklahoma children during the holiday season. We also reopened our properties as fully non-smoking facilities with designated smoking rooms. We are now fully operational again and have already broken ground on two new properties in Oklahoma, our first new developments since 2014.

FireKeepers Casino Hotel, Battle Creek, Michigan

MOST POSITIVE COVID-19 STRATEGY: Flexibility in Everything

Kathy George, CEO

Watch previous interview here

On the most significant change to our organization …

Flexibility. Flexibility in everything, including scheduling, hiring, hours of operation, departmental policies and marketing initiatives … Like many, staffing has been a challenge. A challenge that the team is continuing to work on is keeping creativity flowing to continually increase recruitment and retention efforts while boosting morale. Our team members have been working full-tilt due to increased business levels while being short-staffed for the last 12-plus months, and we look forward to these efforts continuing to pay off.

Our main goal has been to keep everyone, guests and team members, safe, while not negatively impacting revenues and EBIDA. We have become more flexible in allowing team members to work full-time, part-time and even on-call, to accommodate schedules for schooling and day care, or whatever the needs may be. We’ve changed policies to allow team members to work secondary and even tertiary positions within the property. We’ve adapted promotions, allowing multiple days for gift redemption and need-not-be-present-to-win giveaways. These changes have proven to be great successes for us, and we look forward to the flexibility continuing and proving this theory again.

Our most important asset has always been our 1,800 team members. To keep taking care of them, we’re re-evaluating wages, benefits and policies, and adding increased longevity awards to prove our appreciation and respect. These are just a few of the ways that we honor the Seven Grandfather Teachings and look out for future generations of team members, guests and the community as a whole.

Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, Arizona & New Mexico

MOST POSITIVE COVID-19 STRATEGY: Create Better Balance Between Our Home and Work Lives

Brian D. Parrish, Interim Chief Executive Officer

Watch previous interview here

Many will recall the Great Recession of 2008 and its impact on the gaming and hospitality industry in terms of tumbling revenues and patron visits, as well as the ripple effect on staffing. Depending upon your enterprise’s market, capital structure, debt service and cash reserves, some companies were in a better position to weather the storm and work through crisis while many were unprepared.

Recall, heading into the Great Recession, discretionary consumer spending had been very robust and folks felt flush with cash. As a result, many gaming companies continued to develop and open larger facilities in one phase. The predominant thinking was “build bigger” – you don’t need time to grow into a new market or significantly expand an existing asset. The additional capacity would easily be absorbed. But the Great Recession changed that way of thinking …

The Great Recession brought immediate financial pressure on gaming operations to “bend and flex” to adjust to sharply declining revenues of 25 percent or more. Those management teams that were more heavily burdened with debt and had little cash in reserve had to become very “short-sighted” and focused daily on reducing expenses, preserving cash and making debt service payments. The restructuring of debt, creating greater flexibility in capital structures, securing liquidity revolvers and taking a multi-phase approach to new asset development became prevalent and essential if companies were going to avoid similar hardships in the future.

Some of the lessons learned from the Great Recession carried over and did help prepare some larger businesses for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, the dramatic difference was that COVID-19 took family, friends, colleagues and jobs from nearly everyone and forced people into isolation. The emotional and physical suffering inflicted on individuals, families and children have been overwhelming. School and business closures fueled a nationwide need for relief funding during the pandemic, which has been nothing short of a full-on frontal assault of the human spirit and our ability to endure and overcome.

As the percentage of Americans who have been vaccinated against the virus continues to rise and the nation edges closer to achieving “herd immunity,” the move toward spending on recovery and rebuilding businesses while reducing near-term relief payments for food and medical care inspires less opposition.

From the pandemic, we are learning to take better care of ourselves and create better balance between our home and work lives. We can all benefit from making these adjustments.

Indigo Sky Casino & Resort, Wyandotte, Oklahoma

MOST POSITIVE COVID-19 STRATEGY: Cultural and Leadership

Melanie Chase Heskett, General Manager

Watch previous interview here

The most significant change that we made was cultural and leadership, as many of us encountered adverse situations throughout this last year. None of these could have been tackled and successful if we had not made this shift. Many times you find that cultural change is difficult to implement as there is always the mentality of “this is the way it has always been done.” We worked on the plan during the closure and as our teams filtered back into the property, and we implemented the changes at that time.

We were already in the process of transitioning into a more robust leadership team in order to change our culture. With these changes we feel that our team members are proud of the work that was done during the most trying of times, and with that we can all give them a greater sense of ownership in their roles.

The biggest hurdle that we faced was the imminent threat of illness within our ranks and how we had to work hard at opening up lines of communication between management, safety and human resources to determine who was sick, why they were sick and if they were able to come to work. Oftentimes quarantining team members led to multiple people being out in one department. Frontline staffing was a priority coming in and we focused on allocating our labor dollars to those departments, but still found that we sometimes did not have enough team members to operate or open departments. We created a department that is trained in many different areas so that we can plug them in for any reason that we were not staffed appropriately. This has allowed us to keep venues open and operational.

Marketing was at the forefront of the reopening plan as we knew that this was the opportunity we needed to restructure programs that no longer fit. We knew that our guests would react strongly to these programs looking different upon their return, but found that the increased revenues and the reduction in expenses were some of the biggest takeaways from all of this.

Working with Tribal leaders, the legal and human resources teams, as well as collaborating with our vendors and partners helped us navigate in this new world. Communication and planning with professional resources, such as healthcare, security and financial teams, will be vital to ensuring business continuity.

Do not wait to implement changes if you feel that they need to happen. Tribal casinos were quick to make the best of the situation and took advantage of it to introduce changes, but we should not wait for a disaster to make those items the top priorities.

Christine Faria 29 Articles