Forty-million dollar renovation, new sports book and a clear vision for 2020
Isleta Resort & Casino, just outside of Albuquerque, NM, has been in operation since 1986. The Pueblo of Isleta is one of the larger 19 pueblos within New Mexico and was established in the 1300s. As far as competition goes, there are five casinos in the Albuquerque market, with a total of 29 casinos and pari-mutuel facilities throughout the state. In popular culture, you may recognize Isleta in Breaking Bad scenes, through an upcoming PBS series by Laurence Fishburne or their iconic Jar Spa.
Isleta faces challenges that are common in the tribal gaming industry today: it’s not the largest casino in the neighborhood, doesn’t have as many hotel rooms as the competition down the street, faces a tight labor market, has a property that is nearing 30 years old and sports betting is now a reality. Sound familiar?
In a recent interview, we asked Harold Baugus, Isleta’s CEO since 2015, about the many changes and improvements that he and his leadership team have been working on. A note about Harold: he grew up driving a custom combine at 12 years old in his family’s agricultural business before starting his first job in casino security over 24 years ago. Blame it all on his roots: he’s open and candid, and he believes that simple and consistent is the best approach in his leadership role. He doesn’t hesitate to give credit to his incredible team and the many accomplishments they’ve celebrated recently. And they’re just getting started. Here’s just a few:
Reinvestment in a 30-year-old property
In its history, the property has seen two major reinvestment projects, the last one was in 2012 after the Pueblo of Isleta dropped its affiliation with the Hard Rock brand. The newest renovation project, valued at $40 million, was launched in 2017 and was completed in Fall 2019 with a new bingo venue, new entertainment showroom, new poker room, new non-smoking gaming area, new grand entrance, the Triple Sevens sports and dance bar and a sports betting lounge. It also now boasts many firsts: the first Fatburger location in New Mexico, the only Panda Express located inside a casino in New Mexico, and the only casino with a food court in New Mexico.
Isleta’s Sports Book opened August 15, the third casino in the state after Santa Ana Star. Developed in partnership with USBookmaking, the Sports Book takes wagers on local teams, pro baseball, pro football, English Premiere League, UFC, NBA, WNBA, PGA Golf, NASCAR and more. Baugus adds, “I got beat up in the media because I allowed in-state colleges to bet. Here’s the deal. First, no major league professional sports teams are based in New Mexico. Second, you want to bring transparency into it, and we have the means to monitor that. If you see some games that are getting really sideways, there is a mechanism in place. If you keep all that stuff underground with the bookies where no one sees it, then that’s where your problems begin. They’re already betting on the games and they’re illegal. That was my philosophy from what I learned, and we’re the only ones who do it.” Interestingly enough, Harold was surprised that there wasn’t more betting on the college teams. “UNM and NM State, the two major colleges in New Mexico, have played already and the bets were really low. We didn’t get a whole lot of action on them. Now, basketball might be another story.”
According to Harold, the move was the right one. Cross-play, new guests, the volume of bets and the revenue have been “phenomenal.” One of the things his team implemented was that you cannot place a bet there unless you have a players club card.
The preparation was a long one, making sure that the Tribe understood the implications and legalities of what they were stepping into. That included a personal education, as well as training his frontline team members. “We went to UNLV and we were educated, because if I don’t know, I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell going to find out. We found out about risk management and how that information flows. You can tell that there’s a lot of people coming in and not really knowing what to do. We started looking at the service providers and chose USBookmaking. We also sent all of our frontline people to training to make sure that they can tell people how to bet, show them how to bet and help them,” Baugus said.
Isleta is a destination experience: “It’s not about adding more slot product”
Isleta might not be the largest property in the area, but it is banking on a couple major initiatives moving forward to keep it the most popular one in the area. “We have the Isleta Lakes, the RV park, the golf course, the hotel and the spa. We have the Fun Connection, we have entertainment (and our improved showroom), and I don’t think anybody in the Southwest has that complete of an amenity package as we have. It’s more about entertainment than it has been in the past. As I said, I don’t need any more slot machines.” A big part of creating the Isleta experience will be rewarding fishermen, bingo players, spa guests and gamblers alike, recognizing and rewarding their true value through a one-card system that they’re exploring now, and plan to roll out by the second quarter of 2020.
Retaining team members in a tight labor market
“In the Albuquerque market, there are 17,000 hotel rooms. People don’t realize, but it’s a major hub, so we all fight for service-level team members,” Baugus shared. With large employers (such as Facebook and Amazon) and state minimum wage increases, competition for team members is tough. He adds, “When Facebook came in, it depleted my security team.”
So how are Harold and his team attracting and retaining his team members? He added, “People don’t always stay for the money. They’ll stay for the people too, so we do our very, very best to try and create a good working environment for our team members. We have recognition programs, we have town hall meetings and we have a good benefits package.” In the last year, they launched a fully executed guest service program while expanding their orientation program, wherein all of Isleta’s management takes a turn working with new team members.
Baugus concluded, “One of the things that I learned is to keep guest service simple and consistent. My first job working graveyard was opening the front door at a casino, greeting people and then driving the cart up to the front in a tent. So I just worked my way up. I remember how I and those other guys felt when they came to work there, at the entry-level position. You don’t forget it. You shouldn’t forget it. I also realize how valuable they are today. We pay them a fair wage, but it also is more about how we treat them.”