The Sycuan Casino in San Diego started as a small bingo hall in 1983. Since then, it has become an integral part of the community, but with competition coming in the Jamul tribe’s Hollywood Casino, slated to open next year, it was time for a change. Interim General Manager John Dinius has been working at Sycuan for 22 years, and explains how leadership changes at both the casino and the tribe, including his own promotion, inspired a new look at Sycuan’s experience and the future of the casino. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros from his offices at the Sycuan in August. A full podcast of this interview can be heard at GGBmagazine.com.
GGB: Why did Sycuan choose to rebrand at this time?
Dinius: Late in 2014, Sycuan experienced some significant changes in senior leadership. We took that as an opportunity to redefine what the Sycuan experience means for both our guests and our team members. Ultimately, we set out to regain a strong position in the market, as well as prepare for new competition that is coming into our area in mid-2016. We wanted to look at everything we were doing on a daily basis to make sure we were executing and achieving the goals that we had set.
What are some of the elements of the rebrand?
We broke our strategic plan into three separate elements: environment, loyalty and branding. The branding focused on the experience the guests have when they come into the Sycuan casino. We faced some challenges over the years, primarily with our air quality. That was our No. 1 complaint. We expanded our non-smoking area, so now we offer the largest non-smoking area in San Diego. We also revamped our entire loyalty program, which makes us the best loyalty program in San Diego. We’ve added live entertainment throughout the casino, a new promotional stage, and a revamped Primrose Room so we can really cater to the high end and Asian customers.
How did you revamp your loyalty program?
We commissioned a couple of feasibility studies and market-assessment studies to gain a true understanding of where we stand in the market. We were able to identify a tremendous number of values that drive players to choose one casino over another. And then our management team created goals and tactics to support those value statements from our players. We feel like this is a very thoughtful and deliberate new brand, and we’re already realizing some of the benefits.
You’ve been working at Sycuan for almost your entire career. What special perspective does that give you on the rebrand?
I have been working at Sycuan for 22 years. During that time, I’ve seen a number of changes both inside and outside the organization. I’m a San Diego native and feel more connected to the community than I feel most do. This is one of the reasons I’m so proud of the community efforts Sycuan has been well-known for over the past 32 years.
Being here for so long, I’ve had the opportunity to develop some longstanding relationships with many of our Sycuan team members. With that, I’ve garnered a lot support and enthusiasm from team members. And adding to that, we operate in a “bottom-up” philosophy, changing the traditional paradigm of top-down management.
We implement focus groups from every department to better understand the challenges they face and consider tools they may need to take their service excellence to a new level. By doing that, we gained a tremendous amount of insight from our team members. We implemented those changes not only to make their experience better but also their delivery of excellent customer service for our players.
The team has been phenomenal. They are very supportive, and there’s a lot of excitement out here.
With competition coming into your primary market, how to you plan to maintain player loyalty?
We acknowledge that everyone is going to want to go and check it out. But we have an experience that exceeds anything that anyone could bring in without knowing the players. Everything we’re doing today is more than just preparing for Jamul. It’s about taking our rightful spot in the marketplace back again.
Where does Sycuan stand on iPoker in California?
This is a very dynamic and complex issue, to say the least. We continue to keep our eye on the ball with the iPoker regulation. While we’re doing due diligence behind the scenes, we’re sitting on the sidelines right now. We haven’t taken an active or formal stance. It’s probably dead for this year from a political perspective, but we’re always looking for new businesses, so we’ll continue to keep our eye on it.
Tell us about the commitment of the new tribal chairman, Cody Martinez, and the tribal council to the campaign.
This has really been an incredible experience. Chairman Martinez and the entire tribal council have been more engaged and more involved than any tribal council I’ve seen or even heard of. If you’re going to try to do something as cutting edge as we have attempted, you have to have that tribal commitment and buy-in. This is a very young group, they’re very creative and the ideas are free-flowing. They’ve been tremendously supportive.
We had four meetings with our 1,700 team members, and all members of the tribal council were present for every meeting. They said some words that truly conveyed the commitment they have not only to the organization but also the team members and the community. It was a demonstration of their total commitment to what we’re doing, and I’m very excited about the future.