Cathy Walker became president and CEO of Seneca Gaming in July. Before taking the top position, Walker was appointed the COO of the organization in 2008, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company. Prior to joining Seneca Gaming, she held executive positions with Trump Entertainment and Player’s Island Casino. She started her career as assistant general counsel for the New Jersey Casino Control Commission for 13 years. At Seneca, Walker operates a company with three casinos in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area of New York. She talks about the economic and political challenges of operating in New York, as well as operational concerns. She spoke with Global Gaming Business Publisher Roger Gros from her office in Niagara Falls in September. To hear a full podcast of this interview, visit www.ggbnews.com/podcasts.
GGB: There have been a lot of changes in the gaming operations of the Seneca Nation recently. How are you dealing with that?
Walker: It is really an exciting time for Seneca Gaming Corporation. Everyone got hit a bit by this economic recession, but Seneca Gaming has come through it well, and I think that our focus on continuing to enhance the customer experience, particularly in terms of driving increased patron loyalty, has really paid off for our company and also for our owners, the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Seneca Gaming has three very different operations. Describe them for us.
We have our flagship property in Niagara Falls, and we are about three blocks from the falls—our hotel overlooks the falls. We have a four-diamond, 602-room hotel facility, with a casino, three fine-dining restaurants, buffet, snack bars and lounges. We are fortunate to be in one of those wonderful locations that everyone wants to visit.
We also have, down in the Allegany foothills, our Seneca Allegany property. We’re about 45 minutes to an hour from the Pennsylvania border. That is really our gem, among the most beautiful scenery that you can imagine on the East Coast. Nestled in the Allegany Mountains, that property is a true destination experience. We have 212 rooms, a casino, two fine-dining restaurants, buffet, coffee shop, pool and spa. It really is the wonderful place to get away in the beautiful mountains. We are located close to ski resorts, so for those who like to take in the winter sports—skiing, snowmobiling, that sort of thing—we offer a wonderful opportunity to pack a lot into a weekend.
Then, in Buffalo, we have our Buffalo Creek facility. There, we have a smaller facility which is 450 slot machines, right in downtown Buffalo. It is a great location with great customer service, and we look forward to some opportunities that we may have with that property going forward.
Seneca Niagara seems to be your most successful casino, but ironically it’s the one with the most competition—you’ve got two Canadian casinos across the river. How do you market your property against those competitors?
Well, it adds a little different dimension when you have border crossings involved in your marketing strategies. That’s one of the things we work on: trying to make it a little easier for our customers to come back and forth. But, in addition to being at a great destination like Niagara Falls, we’re fortunate to have the Hamilton and Toronto markets within an hour or an hour and a half of our property. But we have two competitors right across the river from us on the Canadian side, so it adds a little bit to the competitive experience.
You’ve had big plans in Buffalo that were short-circuited by the economy, and some other things. Where do those plans stand now, and do you hope to implement them anytime soon?
We are, as many other gaming operators are now, taking a look at our plans and trying to sort out our options. In the past two and a half years, the customer experience has changed, and what the customer is looking for has changed significantly, not only for this market, but for many markets in the United States. So we’re taking a look and re-evaluating our options with our Buffalo Creek property right now.
How has the economy impacted your operations?
The economy is what all operators worry about. Right now, it’s a difficult time with the recession, and you continue see some tax increases, you continue to see governments having to cut back. Not knowing whether we’re going into a double-dip recession here or not is weighing heavily on everyone’s mind, so I think our consumers are a little more cautious. They are thinking about their gambling dollar, or their entertainment dollar, and how they’re going to spend it to get the most out of it.
You have something like 3,500 employees in all three properties. How do you train them on customer service issues?
The one thing you would find if you were visiting western New York is that the people here are exceptional, and our employees are the outstanding of the exceptional. They really understand the importance of making sure that they give great customer service, they are kind, they are generous and they are a group that anyone would be proud to work with because of their devotion to their jobs. They make it so very easy for all of us.
How important is the Seneca Nation to the economic well being of an area like Buffalo?
One thing that people sometimes miss is that the Seneca Nation has $1.2 billion in assets in the Seneca Gaming Corporation alone. And that’s not including all of their other businesses. The nation is a significant player from an economic perspective in this region, and certainly they have great relationships with the other community leaders here. So everyone’s working together to try and move the whole region forward; they play a big part of it.