You’re a veteran Atlantic City operator who, just over two years ago, moved out West to join Fantasy Springs as its general manager. How have you enjoyed the change?
It’s been quite a change and I think that there are a lot of cultural differences between the East Coast and the West Coast. The East Coast is certainly more European in its roots than the West Coast and the weather is bit different, but I think people are people wherever you go. I certainly enjoy California, the weather is really beautiful, but most of the people I work with are from New Jersey so it’s really been more of a change of climate than a change of people.
Tell us some of the things you’re going to be doing at the property…
One of the things we did when we first came out here was we looked at the property and we really felt it needed an identity and more importantly it needed to really find who its customer was and get really focused on who that customer was. So we went out and did a couple of studies. We did a zip code study to find out where are current customers were coming from. We also did a market analysis of all of our competitors and who their customers were. When it was all said and done we looked at ourselves and agreed that this was a niche we could fill and really create a brand that would be unique to Fantasy Springs. So we really started to really put that vision forward with an entertainment program that was geared towards a demographic that was probably 40 to 60 years old. So we started booking headliner acts that really appeal to that group. What we’ve learned over time is that It’s basically classic rock-n-roll, certain southern rock acts … but one of the things we found interesting was our best success has been with female superstars. We’ve had Diana Ross, Stevie Nicks, and Reba McEntire, and really find that that is what fits our property the best.
When I first came out I was joined by Linda Powers who had been a marketing executive in Atlantic City for a long time. She came out with me two and half years ago. We put this concept together called The Rock Yard where we decided we would put on free concerts in an outdoor setting and really take advantage of the fact that the resort has this beautiful college campus type of layout. In Southern California we really don’t have weather. Our weather is just whether it’s windy or not. It really lends itself to having an outdoor venue. After we opened The Rock Yard we went to the top of the building, the roof, and we created a nightclub we call Velvet Top. We opened it with celebrity DJs from the Los Angeles area and we’ve also done quite a few exciting celebrity events. Our version of an L.A. celebrity party. It’s really become probably the most exciting nightclub destination in our market. The marketing studies said that there was a belief that Palm Springs was a place were people would play golf, have dinner and then go to bed early. But that really isn’t the case. There is a cross section of a more traditional American population here that were looking for things to do at night. So we just kept adding to the facility. We now like to look at ourselves as the only full service facility in this market.
What are some of the major changes coming in the future?
We brought in an East Coast architectural firm, SOSH, and we asked them to build a master-planned facility. We have a lot of real estate on our reservation and we wanted to be sure we were looking out for our future. We have developed a pretty comprehensive master plan that includes room inventory increases, but also includes the development of a lifestyle center that we are going to build on a 100-acre parcel that we have contiguous to the resort. Our first project in the expansion will be what we’re calling the Casita Village. Casitas are small villa type homes in this part of the country. It will all be very high-end suite product on our golf course.
How different are the demographics between the Atlantic City area and the Palm Springs area?
I really think there are more similarities than differences. The Palm Springs area, like Atlantic City, is a regional buy. For the first 10 to 15 years in Atlantic City all of us operators were desperate to create this destination resort and it hit us like a ton of bricks one day - there’s nothing wrong with being regional destination and you can make a lot of money at it. A lot of operators became very successful recognizing that a regional buy and a local buy is not necessarily a bad thing. Here in Palm Springs we have a similar situation going on. We have a growing population of growing business, we have a regional market which is in the San Bernardino, Riverside area, and we have that destination customer who is coming down from the Pacific Northwest. So it has a lot of similarities to Atlantic City. It’s really a question of identifying those segments and marketing to those segments and trying to complement you’re business with both regional and destination customers.
What about retooling with the actual casino itself?
That’s another area we are currently addressing. That’s another job we hired (public relations firm) Masterpiece to help us with. They compared various players club programs and based on the analysis we are launching a new program which we expect to be active by July where were changing to a three card tier system and changing around a lot of our points and credits. Southern California is a market where promo costs are actually less than they are in other jurisdictions. You can’t tout alcoholic beverages in California, which saves us money and as an operator is probably a good thing anyway. Our reinvestment rate is significantly less than it was when I was working it Atlantic City.
What is the most critical element in succeeding with a property?
I’ve always felt the most important element is being aware of what the actual experience is to your customers and that you can think like the customer. The best operators I’ve worked with throughout my career were the people that thought like the customer. I’m still waiting for the day that a customer sends me a letter that says, “You’ve got a really great filing system,” but that’s just never going to happen. And if you’re focused in on the experience and you’re really sure what you’re offering the public is exciting and what the customer is looking to buy. That’s first and foremost the most important thing. You can be greatest well-oiled business machine in the world but if you don’t have any revenue to deal with it’s not really going to matter. Our business is one where the entrepreneur is the one who I’ve always respected the most. I think in our business there are some operators that we can all agree has good vision and an entrepreneurial spirit. And then there are operators who are worried about every little expense line. So for me personally it’s been more about the customer experience.
In the last year Fantasy Springs has really stepped up its efforts on both environmental and charitable events as well.
We’ve been sponsoring on the cable company out here, Time Warner Cable, we’ve been sponsoring a lot of green messages and we’ve developed commercials that run pretty heavily reminding people that they can do things that would make them more responsible to the environment. This is an issue that is very important to my owners, Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. They’re very dedicated to these kinds of efforts and to always think green. They’ve had this land for thousands and thousands of years and culturally they have a deep respect for it and they want to be sure everyone else is too. As far as charitable organizations, we feel that we are a big part of the community and that we need to give back. We do it in a lot of ways. We support most of the organizations and causes in the area. We feel it is a part of being responsible member of the community.
Who are some heroes and mentors you’ve worked with?
I worked with Paul Patay for 14 years. He was a phenomenally talented executive and what I learned form him can’t be measured. Merv Griffin was a fantastic experience for me. I learned from Merv Griffin that good guys can finish first and that was an important lesson for me to learn when I was in my late-30s. I spent a lot of years working side by side with Merv. He loved hotel operations and all the things we did in the hotel side of the business. He loved the marketing with John Belisle but he loved the hotel just as much. I was fortunate to spend time with him. I would also put John Belisle in this category. I think that John is one of the most, if not the most, dynamic guy that ever worked in Atlantic City, at least in my experience and I was there 30 years. He was just one of those people that was larger than life and very charismatic. I also had a fantastic eight-year relationship with Mark Brown. When I mentioned that the best operators think like customers, that’s Mark Brown. He has natural instincts as to what a customer wants. It’s a gift that he has and I feel very lucky that I was able to spend those years with him. It’s funny but since I’ve moved to California I’ve developed an even greater respect for Mark because I’ve been given the time to reflect back on how difficult those years were for the Trump organization and how he was able to keep that company strong and get it financially restructured. I don’t know if he really gets the credit he deserves or not.
How would you describe your own management style?
I grew up in the business as a dishwasher then busboy then a waiter then a manager … so I’ve had a career where every step of the way I’ve been very involved in details. I think my personality and the nature of who I am is a very detailed person. But in working with other managers I also believe that a manager has to be given the right to manage. That’s something that you learn over time and you learn it through experience. I believe as I’ve gotten further along in my career that I need to surround myself with people who are more talented at what they do than I am at what they do.
That was transformation that took place with me when I became vice president of hotel operations. In all my years in food and beverage I could do every job and that sort of gives you a certain level of confidence. When I transferred it was very obvious that I was dependent on people for the skills that they brought to the table. Whether it was telephone services for the front desk, sales and marketing - you really have to respect the department head’s ability to run their area.
In the two-plus years you’ve been with Fantasy Springs, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
We’ve had a lot of challenges and obstacles and I have to say that I was very impressed with the work ethic. Everyone really dug in and worked together. That was a great find. I guess I’ll just call it great ownership. It’s very nice to work for a company with great ownership. Another thing is the employees in this part of the country seem to have a natural tendency for personality that fits in well with the hospitality industry. I never fail to be impressed by the people who live here and work here. It’s very difficult when you have a market where people have a lot of skills but lack the personality. It’s much easier to teach nice people skills than it is to teach not-so-nice people to be nice. The staff here is great and it’s really refreshing.