Michael Donovan comes from Cincinnati. Dad worked for a hotel development company. Mom worked for Procter & Gamble, headquartered in Cinci. He never gave gaming a thought as a career. “As a kid I always thought I would do brand marketing for Tide or something to that effect,” he says.
It’s amazing how life can change when you least expect it.
Armed with a degree from the University of Kentucky, Donovan headed west to ski and enjoy his post-graduate days while he figured out what’s next. What’s next found him. He took a summer job as a blackjack dealer in Lake Tahoe at the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa, part of Tropicana Entertainment at the time.
There are worse places to flex your post-grad muscles.
“I enjoyed the excitement of the business and saw that the company had a casino management training program,” Donovan says. He applied, was accepted and his career began. He worked in slots, players club, cage, hotel, finance, and eventually, marketing.
This was 2008 during the financial crisis. They were challenging times, and companies were making decisions to right-size their businesses. When the dust settled, there were only a few people left in the marketing department, so they had to wear a lot of hats, he says.
“Eventually, I moved up to a marketing manager, then director of marketing, but the experience that I gained in my first few years has shaped my career and certainly taught me a lot about the business.”
Donovan spent time in other Tropicana resorts in Baton Rouge, St. Louis and Atlantic City. He took on a variety of roles: property marketing, corporate marketing, hotel and operations, all of it invaluable in figuring out what influences customer behavior, he says.
Every city is unique, Donovan says. “I certainly appreciate the perspective that I’ve gained by living in every region of the country.”
His time in Atlantic City really affected his views on marketing. “That aggressive style of targeted database marketing seemed to be highly effective in regional markets, and has served me well throughout my career,” Donovan says.
Donovan had great mentors in the city: Eric Fiocco (Affinity Gaming), Tony Rodio (Former CEO, Caesars), and Phil Juliano (Bally’s). “I was given a masterclass in the industry, strategies and tactics, where to focus your time and energy, what it means to lead,” he says.
Donovan was at Ocean Casino Resort when the casino went from unprofitable to profitable in three months, from last in revenue to second in the market. While it was tough to leave Ocean, he found his career has been so much more fulfilling because he got a chance to continue to push boundaries. “I was given an incredible opportunity to transition to an operations role as a general manager at Bally’s, and more recently regional vice president and general manager of the Midwest.”
Five years from now, Donovan doesn’t see the landscape flooded with iGaming and online sports betting.
“As much as that has transformed the business, retail casinos will still play a huge role in the gaming landscape moving forward,” he says. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people enjoy other people. There’s no substitute for in-person entertainment and travel.
“As for me, I really enjoy what I’m doing today. Leading the strategic outcomes for three properties and over 1,000 team members is very rewarding. There’s no greater sense of accomplishment than the success of a busy night well done.”
As for new leaders entering the industry, mentorship is so important, he says.
“If you find someone who you think is a great leader, be flexible and be teachable,” Donovan says. “It’s helped me tremendously throughout my career, to learn from others, to have an opinion yet at the same time understand that there are always better ways to accomplish goals. I could not be a bigger champion of the mentorship model.”