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4 Female Atlantic City Casino-Resort Leaders Discuss the Road Ahead

December 1, 2020
Atlantic City skyline, New Jersey

From hurricanes and downturns to COVID-19, Atlantic City is no stranger to changing tides and changing times.

For industry veteran Larry Sieg, who became president and CEO of Meet AC in July, “the ability to adapt to these constantly changing environments” is a unique leadership requirement for this storied seaside destination.

Another cornerstone is trust.

“When COVID hit, I reinforced with our team how much I believe in their knowledge, skills and opinions,” said Meet AC Vice President of Sales Sandi Harvey, who brings nearly 40 years of local experience to the role. “Playing to their strengths is how we get through.”

Heading into 2021 on level footing after investing heavily in health and safety protocols, Atlantic City has another compelling attribute in place—women now lead four of the nine casino-resorts.

That’s the highest percentage of any gaming jurisdiction, and speaks volumes about Atlantic City’s embrace of diverse and inclusive talent as competitive imperatives in today’s evolving workforce.

Convening for a virtual roundtable, Ocean Resort Casino CEO Terry Glebocki, Tropicana Atlantic City SVP and GM Jacqueline Grace, Bally’s Atlantic City SVP and GM Karie Hall, and Borgata President and COO Melonie Johnson talked about leading in the pandemic, the talent pipeline, reimagined strategies and their confidence in the road ahead.

What has shaped your leadership style?

Jacqueline Grace: I joined this industry after a decade on Wall Street because I wanted to lead and to serve people. (Pictured: Jacqueline GraceJacqueline GraceThat drives my purpose-driven management approach in the relationship-driven world of hospitality and gaming.

My primary focus is on creating an environment where team members feel supported and valued, can develop their careers, and believe that they have the resources to do their jobs effectively. Great service brings customers back, so I always prioritize employee engagement and empowerment.

Terry Glebocki: Gaming has many facets, so industry knowledge is critical. Spending my entire 30-plus-year career in the competitive Atlantic City market has taught me so much and provided invaluable experience for this role. Fundamentals include being a good listener. I value input from both our guests and from our team members. I am also detail oriented. People joke that I don’t miss a trick. In hospitality, the details can mean the difference between an average stay and an exceptional one.

Melonie Johnson: Following early work experiences in the energy, banking and theme park fields, I have devoted my career to the gaming industry. (Pictured: Melonie Johnson) Melonie JohnsonBefore Atlantic City, I was in Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, West Virginia and Maryland.

Operating in these multiple gaming jurisdictions gave me invaluable insight into the unique characteristics of properties, workforces and customers in different markets. This multiangled perspective on diverse ideas and strategies is a defining aspect of the leadership I bring to the table at Borgata. 

Karie Hall: My parents were both in gaming, so you could say that I grew up in the industry! My formal career spans 25 years, including two decades in Las Vegas and the last four years in Atlantic City. The evolution from gaming to the total customer experience in Vegas directly informs my leadership style. Curious by nature, I collaboratively engage with all people and personalities, both employees and customers, and bring their diverse interests and viewpoints into inclusively expanding those experiences.

How has the pandemic redefined your leadership?

Karie: I have closed and reopened buildings before, but this was my heaviest lift ever. (Pictured: Karie Hall) Karie HallResilient and determined, my team answered the call. From engaging with them daily, they know my story and what I stand for. I have credibility and respect not as a woman, but as the GM of the house.

Having under a week to reopen before a holiday weekend was a steep challenge, but from training on the protocols to going the extra mile, they soared. We opened safely without incident—it was one of my proudest moments.   

Melonie: One of the best aspects of this job and this industry is connecting with people. For me, the crisis has provided the opportunity to be more visible and engaged than ever. Whether walking the floor or dining with employees, I stay closely informed about what is working and what is not. I attended the retraining sessions for our seven-point health and safety plan when we brought our staff back. It’s about leading by example, giving encouragement and instilling confidence.

Terry: Reducing our team from 3,000 members to 100 when we closed Ocean for COVID-19 was incredibly sad. (Pictured: Terry Glebocki) Terry Glebocki

Since reopening, we have re-employed much of our team. It feels great to see our hallways bustling with team members again. While the bottom line remains a key metric, the thanks that I get from our employees for bringing them back represents a singular measure of success for me in the current context. It is truly gratifying.

Jacqueline: Having led the reopening of Caesars Entertainment’s Horseshoe Baltimore Casino before arriving in Tropicana Atlantic City this September, I was prepared. With many similar operating protocols in place, I was able to concentrate on motivating the team for the long run of getting beyond the pandemic. That meant striking a balance between being optimistic and being pragmatic about taking efficient operational steps to come out in a good place.

How are you positioned to re-emerge from the pandemic?

Melonie: Heading into 2021, our strategy will be driven by the continuing presence of COVID-19. Priority one is constantly evolving our protocols to ensure employee and guest safety while maintaining our market leadership. How we communicate with and listen to our guests is also critical. Adhering to the current 25% occupancy requirements means a balancing act around managing visitor volume, the programming calendar and other considerations.

Karie: The biggest takeaway for us is how to move the needle forward with technology and become less transactional and more relationship driven. Face-to-face interaction and live events cannot be virtualized. As the pandemic has forced us to creatively rethink our business, though, I see the continuing acceleration of cashless, contactless and other technology-enabled solutions that enhance the customer experience.

Jacqueline: I am optimistic because I have to be. I believe that as an industry, we have reliably demonstrated that we can operate our different businesses safely, meetings included. Going into 2021, what can we do differently? For instance, before dining was allowed back inside, we had to make creative use of our outdoor spaces. Based on the positive customer response, we are looking at ways to elevate outdoor programming from necessary adaptations to exceptional experiences.

Terry: I proudly lead the team that took a property that had failed under two former owners and made it profitable. With eight straight months of double-digit year-over-year growth, we had strong momentum heading into 2020. Since COVID-19 hit, our executive team has worked harder than ever to creatively rethink the business. Since reopening, Ocean has been the only Atlantic City property to post year-over-year increases through September. Looking ahead, we are excited to build upon our pre- and post-pandemic success.

How do you view the rise of women leaders in America’s second-largest gaming market?

Melonie: This is my third time being the first Black American female property president in a casino market, following Gold Strike in Tunica, Mississippi and National Harbor in Maryland. Four women leaders here in Atlantic City is a first, though. We have come far in proving that we can lead. I faced much adversity back when the industry fit everyone in one box. But that’s the past. My focus is on today and tomorrow, and continuing to mentor and develop diverse young talent and future leaders.

Jacqueline: This moment shows young women what is possible. Seeing someone who looks like you achieve what you want to achieve gives people hope and determination. Women have always aspired and worked toward these roles. Now, more women can raise their hand and ask for opportunities to rise. Then it will be incumbent on me and other senior women to assist them as mentors and sponsors. Helping others realize their goals and fullest potential is ingrained in my purposeful leadership.

Terry: I’ve been fortunate to work for some wonderful bosses, most of them men. Their recognition of my professional capabilities, not my gender, allowed me to advance in my career. I believe that the best-qualified person should get these challenging leadership positions, male or female. That is all I ever wanted and what I think most women want. That said, the many gracious comments from guests that are happy to see a woman in this role has been humbling.

Karie: Seeing more younger women and people of color rightfully elevated into leadership roles, I feel positive about our pipeline at Caesars Entertainment and in the wider industry. There is more openness to developing diverse talent. Atlantic City is at the forefront—no other market has at least 50% female leadership. You are always watching the competition, and along with Terry, Melonie and Jackie, our visibility sends a strong message to other organizations to examine their approach to talent. As we continue to progress, I look forward to when women becoming leaders stops being a big story.


From the VP’s Desk: Q&A with Shelley Williams, Vice President of Sales, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City

 

What are the unique business and professional requirements of the gaming-resort industry, and in the Atlantic City market specifically?

Being open minded yet sensitive to a gaming and hospitality marketing mix mindset, in addition to understanding what drives the gaming customer and what opportunities exist to drive new customer loyalty. (Pictured: Shelley Williams)Shelley Williams It is also crucial to understand customer displacement for the best financial performance, such as determining when it make sense to layer in group and leisure business to enhance performance and balance the resort gaming offerings.

It is important to find understanding and collaboration between teams that traditionally have worked in silos. Since Atlantic City is much more of a local market than other gaming markets, that means being creative with programming and offers yet being balanced in new customer trials and unique amenities. Leisure marketing and the leisure guests can drive increased gaming spend while also supporting the integrated resort strategy that the gaming guest enjoys.

What skills and professional qualities do you bring to the table?

I believe my talents are around transparency and collaboration. As a woman, being vocal is important, yet collaboration is paramount. Just because you have an idea does not always mean that it is the right idea for the time or that it’s going to work for all divisions of the business. I find that it is important to keep an open mind and allow for collaboration.

Personally, I have high-risk tolerance for new ideas. Being in sales, I am open to more “opportunity pitches” and fun ideas. I am keen on driving new opportunities from existing relationships that can align well with existing programs for financial enhancements. I also like to enhance the process for a less transactional or frictionless feel. In our gaming world, we are often tied to antiquated processes or transactional barriers due to size, scale and regulations. An open mind, technology and process review can sometimes be helpful.

How do you measure success for yourself and for Hard Rock?

By adding valuable insight to all areas of the business and becoming better every day. Our group customers understand they are a piece of the integrated resort matrix. Yet, we continually need to recognize and demonstrate their value within our messages and offerings, particularly when the group or leisure customers are only a fraction of the customer base.

When my desk is full of new initiatives, and our band members are engaged with new ideas, I feel that it is a progressive benchmark for my professional attitude and personal success. You continually want to improve, enhance and exceed expectations not only for yourself but for others. Additionally, being open to allow feedback yet confident enough to be vocal about the results is rare for women. With so many talented women in our field, though, the tide is rising. I recognize the tide is rising for me personally when I see improved customer service scores, look at financial success and year-over-year gains. And, of course seeing more and more people who love and enjoy the Hard Rock property.

Looking back on 2020 and ahead to 2021, what stands out for you in terms of what you accomplished, learned, and will apply going forward? 

Being empathetic, flexible and understanding will define the dawn of this new era. It is not really about gender. It is about the shared experiences we all endured through 2020, which I hope will allow us to support and trust each other with new ideas. There are still things we do not know and being truthful about the old adage “you don’t know what you don’t know” is humbling. I felt fear for the first time in a long time about our industry, and I believe that we have a higher responsibility to respond and be accountable to ensure trust from our customers. 

We will need to demonstrate and communicate that we have become the safe place they expect from us. I hope our industry can collectively come together safely, act in the proper measures and get back to serving our customers with what they miss most—human connections in entertaining environments.

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About the author
Jeff Heilman | Senior Contributor

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based independent journalist Jeff Heilman has been a Meetings Today contributor since 2004, including writing our annual Texas and Las Vegas supplements since inception. Jeff is also an accomplished ghostwriter specializing in legal, business and Diversity & Inclusion content.