Executive View Q & A
Executive View Q & A
Q & A with Larry Close, general manager, The Mill Casino & Hotel
Larry Close is general manager of The Mill Casino & Hotel in North Bend, Ore. With almost 40 years of gaming and hotel/resort experience, as well as Indian gaming experience, Close's extensive background gives him the ability to analyze property performance, make appropriate changes to maximize profits, turn troubled properties around, and create successful customer service programs. Currently he is overseeing a $40-million expansion to The Mill. Close took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Casino Journal contributing writer Regina Lafay about the project and how he's able to achieve maximum results in such endeavors.
Despite not being in a major commercial or tribal gaming market, The Mill Casino has made a name for itself among its patrons, as well as garnered recognition from industry peers and observers for its customer-centric approach. As general manager, what would you say is the most important element of how you approach your operations?
We approach it from our guest's perspective. Our operations are driven by the feedback we get from our guests: telephone calls, letters, guest comment forms, direct conversations and focus groups. We then take this information and use it to develop our marketing programs, guest service training and the type of new amenities we introduce to our property. Given the opportunity, guests are more than happy to tell you how you're doing. And they are not afraid to let you know if they don't like something. We take their comments and criticism very seriously, and this has helped us grow revenues consistently each year.
The property mid-last year began a significant, $40-million expansion. What does this expansion entail?
When completed, it will have a positive affect on how we do business. Our expansion is influenced by what our guests have been telling us for the past several years. They told us: "We want more slots, a poker room, and a bigger entertainment lounge, a place to enjoy a beverage and conversation that is smoke-free, expanded food service and more hotel rooms closer to the casino." We promised to address those issues, and when we are finished, they will see that we did.
Our construction began in late-September, and by the end of December we opened Whitecaps, an intimate, smoke-free cocktail lounge looking out over Coos Bay. We enlarged our high-limit slots area, and we expanded our gaming area to allow for 170 more slot machines and a new poker room. By this April we will open a new 150-seat entertainment lounge that will feature nightly entertainment, dancing and have the ability to offer special closed-circuit televised events. Our 24-hour Timbers Cafe will open with more seating and expanded menus. The new retail store, Ko-Kwel Gifts, will be located adjacent to an expanded hotel lobby and will feature Coquille Tribal artwork and handcrafted items for purchase.
Meanwhile, construction continues on our new 92-room hotel tower that is next to our current 115-room, three-story hotel. The new hotel will include 12 additional suites, including a large corporation suite on the top floor. The second floor will feature several break-out meeting rooms for conferences in addition to our current convention space that increased 2,000 square feet during our gaming floor expansion. The new hotel tower will open prior to the summer of 2008, and rooms will have a view looking down on Coos Bay next to where our entire property sits.
We don't need to create artificial volcanoes and water features here-ours are real and much more spectacular.
What are the demographics of The Mill Casino's customers? Are they predominately local, regional, or do you get a significant amount of tourist business as well?
Our local market is made up of two counties, Coos and Curry (about 70,000 population), while the regional market or, as we prefer to call it, an intermediate non-local market (made up of four counties of about 550,000 people), is served by another tribal casino closer to that population. While our regional market accounts for a greater number of individual players coming to The Mill Casino, the local market contributes a significantly greater proportion of individual trips. These two markets make up a little more than half of the total number of players, but because of the proximity of these two markets to The Mill Casino (less than a two-hour drive) this creates more frequent visits and accounts for 81 percent of overall play. Since we are located right on Highway 101, we experience a high level of summer tourist traffic traveling both north and south. The average age range of our guests is 41 to 80, with younger players (21 to 50) making up a larger segment in our local market.
You have a lot of recreational features at your location as well. How important is something like that to your customers, and how does the property integrate that with the casino and hotel operations?
Yes, we are located on the beautiful Oregon coast; right on Coos Bay and just a few minutes drive to the Pacific Ocean. One of the reasons we recently opened our 102-site waterfront RV park is because of the numerous recreational activities so prevalent in our region. Hotel and RV park guests can watch seals and seabirds on the bay and enjoy the coming and going of large ocean vessels from the comfort of their rooms or from the boardwalk that extends along the bay. There are attractions such as whale watching, riding dune buggies, crabbing and ocean or river fishing, and of course, golf at the world-renowned Bandon Dunes Golf Complex featuring three of the best courses in the United States. These attractions provide destination interest, and we market them because they produce extended stays. Golfers fly in from all over the United States, many in private jets, to play at Bandon during the day, and we entertain them at night at the gaming tables.
What's your take on the overall outlook for Oregon gaming tribes and the state's tribal gaming economy?
It appears strong. Not only are we expanding our operation, but other tribal gaming operations (there are a total of nine in Oregon) have also announced ambitious plans to build hotel rooms and expand their gaming facilities. Economic studies show that about 9 million people visit Oregon tribal casinos each year, and these casinos generate more than a half a billion dollars in gaming and hospitality revenues while paying almost $150 million in wages. These economic benchmarks have been growing each year.
How competitive are Oregon's gaming tribes, and what does The Mill Casino do to separate itself from other properties?
Oregon gaming tribes are competitive. For one, we all compete with the Oregon Lottery that dominates the state market and accounts for 57.6 percent of all gaming done in the state. Within each individual market, tribes compete for a share of the entertainment and hospitality dollar. And each property has developed its own unique identity; some with amenities such as golf courses; some with big name entertainment; and some with promotions and giveaways. What we all have in common is our gaming devices. Players can go to any of the nine properties and find a similar game or type of slot machine. We try to differentiate ourselves by providing the guest with a memorable experience, starting from the time they arrive until the time they leave. We have worked hard and continuously to embrace a solid and sincere guest service program. Every employee, from the general manager on down, knows what his or her job is: guest service. It's the first thing required in every job position job description. I personally address the importance of service excellence to every new hire when they attend our "Fish!(c)" class. We promote the principles of the popular "Fish! Philosophy," a guest service training program that is used among successful corporations and companies throughout the United States.
The Mill Casino has been lauded for some of its creative marketing efforts, including letting players design their own club cards. What are some other unique marketing efforts you've helped foster at the property?
We have an extremely creative marketing department that is always looking for new ways to promote our property. I started my gaming career in marketing, so I am their toughest critic, but they never cease to amaze me with some of their ideas. They approached me one day and said they wanted to give away my wallet! With skepticism, I agreed. Guests brought in a special postcard and were offered a chance to choose one of my "award wallets." Not only did they get to keep the wallet, they also got some cash in it-and if they picked the right one, they received $1,000. I would go down to the floor and get patted on my rear pocket by some of our senior ladies asking if they could check out my wallet. They all greeted me with a mischievous smile. I didn't know we had so many playful pick pockets. But I enjoyed it.
On New Year's weekend we introduced the first IGT "Wheel of Fortune Special Edition Super Spin" progressive penny slot machine to be placed in an Oregon casino. There are fewer than 100 of these huge slots units in the world presently. The unit features eight machines arranged in a huge circle topped by a futuristic dome. It looks like a flying saucer and needs some floor space. Players can sit with a friend or spouse on double-wide seats to watch Pat Sajak and Vanna White talk them into exciting bonus rounds that earn a spin on the giant horizontal wheel. The right symbol combination earns the winner a growing $2 million progressive jackpot. We are tying in several standalone promotions around this huge attraction. Our first is "Win A Fortune," and it entitles players to attend a special game show at the casino where they can win up to $50,000.
Explain the benefits that gaming has provided for the Coquille Indian Tribe.
The Coquille Indian Tribe is descended from people who once lived in the watershed of the Coquille River system and the south shores of Coos Bay on the Oregon coast. In the 1850's the tribe signed treaties with the U.S. Government which ceded 700,000 acres of territory to them, but the treaties were never ratified by Congress. They were denied their permanent homeland. The Eisenhower administration terminated the tribe in 1954, but the tribe renewed efforts to get recognized, and after a long and hard effort, they were finally able to get Congress to restore their rights in June 1989. They struggled to acquire several land parcels, including an 11-acre parcel from the Weyerhaeuser lumber company located on Coos Bay. In 1995 they opened The Mill Casino in a portion of the renovated mill site. Success didn't come instantly, but after a couple of years, they finally began receiving financial rewards. They have used these gaming revenues to provide healthcare, education and housing services to tribal members. Gaming revenues have also allowed the tribe to diversify its business opportunities. In addition to the casino hotel operation, the tribe, under the Coquille Economic Development Corporation (CEDCO), owns and operates Heritage Place, an assisted living and Alzheimer care facility in Bandon; organic cranberry farms; ORCA Communications, which provides high-speed fiber-wire service in the Coos Bay/North Bend area and is working to develop more than 40 adjacent acres of land recently purchased next to The Mill Casino and Highway 101. They have accomplished all of this from virtually nothing in just 10 years. It is a remarkable success story.
What, if any, regulatory or political roadblocks are there to continued growth and success in Oregon? Is there anything you'd ultimately like to see changed or done differently that would help the property and the tribe?
The potential of federal, state regulators and political pressure to adversely affect gaming operations, in any state for that matter, are always out there. There will always be people who, for religious and other reasons, oppose all types of gambling. They proclaim unsupported "facts" that the gaming industry destroys communities and creates addictive gambling patterns. But in reality, the true facts belie most of the more hysterical claims. In fact, the ability to offer gaming under strict regulations and qualified conditions has provided Indian tribes the wherewithal to become less dependant on federal government subsidies and become self reliant. It has provided jobs for their people and members of their communities, who in turn contribute to the overall economic benefit. Strong regulations and strict oversight will ensure success for tribal gaming. I have been in gaming most of my life, and Indian gaming is one of the most highly regulated. In addition to the federal and state regulators, each tribe has its own Tribal Gaming Commission that is on property and oversees regulations of its gaming operations on a daily basis. These are good controls and protect the integrity of the industry. I would not like to see it change.
How would you describe your leadership style? Are you hands-on? Do you prefer to let employees do their jobs without involvement? Do you interact with customers on a daily basis?
I have been in gaming for almost 40 years, and I've seen a lot of different styles of management. You learn from both bad management experiences as well as the good. From my experience of how I progressed in the business, I have been able to learn from the successful and not-so successful leaders I have worked for and translate some of the best styles to our operation. While I enjoy getting into the nuts and bolts of the operation, I do not believe in micromanaging. If you hire the right people, respect them and allow them to participate in operational decisions, you will have a successful business. My role is to share with them my years of mistakes and achievements and provide the necessary tools to allow them to be successful. I learn something every day from my team that can make us better. Guest contact is very important. I spend some time on the casino floor each day, but it should be more. I really enjoy hearing comments from them about how we're doing, even if it's negative. These are the most helpful comments because it allows us to tweak our operation to further enhance the guest experience. I personally answer every telephone call from a guest and respond to each letter I receive with an original reply. I abhor form letters and e-mail replies. They tell the customer you don't care about them or you were too busy to address their specific problem. A personal letter is a powerful tool. Those in the business should use it more often.
For the benefit of our readers, can you provide your background-where you began, how you got into the gaming industry, and the path that ultimately led you to your position today?
Prior to getting into the business, I had no desire or even thoughts of working for a casino. I had only gambled a few times at Lake Tahoe and Reno, and that was on the nickel mechanical slot machines when you actually got a workout cranking those spring-load handles. I was a sports writer and editor at several East Bay Area newspapers, and was working as the sports information director at San Jose State University when I heard about an opening in Las Vegas in 1969 at the Sahara Hotel. Although I had no prior casino experience, I was hired by John Romero to work with him as publicity director. The same day I landed in Vegas, we landed on the moon. A former sports writer himself, John told me: "If you can write, you can do anything." John Romero, who still writes direct marketing pieces for several gaming companies, is respected as the dean of Las Vegas media promotional experts. He also proved clairvoyant in my case. I stayed with the Del Webb organization, owners of the Sahara, for 20 years, and managed three of their properties as vice president and general manager, including the High Sierra (now Horizon) Resort at Lake Tahoe. I served in similar key license capacities in Colorado, in Illinois and Deadwood, S.D. I have been general manager at The Mill Casino Hotel in North Bend, Ore. for the past eight years. It's been a great ride and certainly beats the stress of getting all the sports scores in before deadline.