In this month’s issue, a sidebar to the story about John Acres highlights the Barona Casino Resort in California. I had been to Barona many years ago, and was impressed by the property even then. But Acres had suggested I visit the property as a customer, not a journalist, to experience the full impact of the special kind of customer service they offer there. And, as usual, he was correct. I was astonished to experience the kind of service that I hadn’t seen in many years. And the technology for which Barona is so rightfully recognized had nothing to do with it.
Barona is known for introducing the most cutting-edge technology, whether it be systems or the latest slot games. But after talking to Barona GM Rick Salinas, I?realized that great technology is largely unimportant to him and almost invisible to his employees. The powerful image of hand-paid jackpots combined with players enjoying a meal while playing their favorite slot makes the technology seem irrelevant. But of course, it isn’t, and is used to make this kind of personal service possible.
Before and after my stay at Barona, I visited several other Southern California tribal casinos. And while I didn’t approach those visits as a customer, I was very impressed with the quality of the properties. At Pechanga, which I first visited when it was just a series of trailers lashed together with slot machines packed into every square inch, it is now a first-class integrated resort equal to anything in Las Vegas or Macau—with yet another addition under way.
Down the road, the Morongo casino towers over I-40, and it was busier than any casino in Las Vegas on a Saturday night—on Tuesday afternoon. COO John James proudly showed me the new “ME Bar,” a watering hole dedicated to social media, which has proven to be a huge hit. At Sycuan down by San Diego, looming competition from the new Hollywood Jamul casino has spurred plans for another addition, including its first hotel rooms.
The Southern California casinos reminded me of the benefits of ownership of a single casino, whether it be tribal or commercial. On the Las Vegas Strip, the transformation of Treasure Island after it was sold to Phil Ruffin by MGM Resorts has been been remarkable.
On the Gulf Coast, the opening of singly owned Scarlet Pearl in D’Iberville, Mississippi, has expanded the market.
Now, we all know that the modern casino industry really emerged in the 1980s when big corporations began building new and buying existing casinos. Financing was approved by
reputable banks instead of questionable union pension funds. Social and corporate responsibility became a hallmark of the industry.
But corporations also bring problems. The buttoned-up standard operating procedures make innovation difficult. The quarterly focus on revenues puts pressure on every casino general manager to make their numbers or else, no matter what the business environment during that period. And huge debts often cut capital improvement budgets so their casinos can be
prioritized with the ones at the bottom of the ladder suffering disproportionately.
The casino owned by a single entity is often more nimble, better maintained, and more focused. Take Barona, for example. If the tribe had another casino closer and more convenient to a major metropolitan area, the existing facility would suffer, customer service would lag, and the attention of the top executives would be turned toward the more profitable property.
But that’s not the case. Barona and the other Southern California tribal casinos are the gems of their owners. They dare not let quality or service decline or customers will find someplace else to play.
Now, not all corporate ownership is problematic. I can tick off a dozen companies that own multiple casinos that have maintained the pride and attention at each property. The Seminole tribe, Boyd Gaming, Landry’s, Eldorado Resorts, Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, Jack Gaming and Rush Street Gaming are only a few multiple-casino owners that seem to have dodged the corporate malaise.
So, that attention to every property, to every activity and, most importantly, to every customer is what sets apart a superior casino experience. It’s the secret to success, and the larger companies need to pay attention.