The modern gaming industry receives a lot of plaudits when it comes to job creation, and this praise is well deserved. According to research conducted by the American Gaming Association and Oxford Economics, the gaming industry generates 1.7 million jobs and nearly $74 billion in income for these workers and their families, and is expected to create an additional 62,000 well-paying jobs over the next decade.

Perhaps equally as important as the number of jobs created is who is filling these positions—staffs at casinos and other wagering facilities are very diverse, with over 45 percent of the combined workforce comprised of minorities and 48 percent of women, both higher than the national average.

The casino marketplace has also been very forward-thinking when it comes to hiring and grooming women for leadership roles. One operator that has led the charge in this area is Seneca Gaming Corporation (SGC), a wholly-owned, tribally-chartered corporation of the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI) that operates the nation’s New York-based Class III casino gaming properties—Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls, Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in Salamanca and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo. All told, these properties employee 4,000 people, with many of the executive and leadership roles held by women. According to information provided by SGC, 65 women hold leadership positions within the company—40 as managers, 17 as directors and eight as vice presidents. Enterprise-wide, women currently occupy 38 percent of all management positions as SGC, which is surely a noteworthy achievement even for the very diverse casino industry.

Why have so many women risen to executive roles at SGC? To start, the company is attractive to women seeking to get ahead, offering benefits such as paid training, tuition reimbursement and other programs designed to foster worker advancement.  Also important is the fact that the Seneca tribe is historically matrilineal; women holding position of influence and power is both accepted and encouraged.

In recognition of SGC’s continued leadership role in the hiring and promotion of women executives, Casino Journal Associate Editor Joan Mantini recently conducted a roundtable interview with five female SGC decision makers: Lisa Chan, vice president of Asian marketing, Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino; Melissa Free, senior vice president of marketing, SGC; Linda Hitchcock, vice president of F&B and resort operation, Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino; Joanne Israel, general manager, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino; and Kirstin Lowry Sommers, senior vice president and general counsel, SGC. This exchange touched on how these women became involved in gaming and some of the obstacles they overcame to secure leadership positions within the casino industry. Below are some excerpts from this conversation:

How did you get started in the casino industry? What is your background in the industry?

Chan: I volunteered for an executive position at Miss Greater Chinatown New York Beauty Pageant… I was 19 years old and my title was chief operating officer. We held our first pageant in the Claridge Casino in Atlantic City.  Claridge casino executives saw my potential, especially with the connections I had in New York City, and I received a couple of offers to work for the casino in the marketing department. Since that time, I have focused primarily on marketing; more specifically, Asian marketing.

Free: I think I was born in to it. I am a native Las Vegan and both parents worked in table games. My first job when I was 18 was at a hotel/casino my dad was managing. I was a PBX operator but the property was so small I was able to learn all about the front office—reservations, bells, front desk, housekeeping, etc., and from there, I fell in love with the industry. I worked many different positions and landed in marketing where I have stayed for the past 20 plus years.

Hitchcock: I started my time in the casino industry in May 2010 in the food and beverage area. Before coming to work here, I was a director of school food service for 10 years or so. I really don’t have any background in the casino industry; most of my background is in the F&B industry.

Israel: I started my career in the casino industry in 2011 as a senior accountant with Seneca Gaming Corporation. I was then promoted to casino controller in 2012 and to corporate director of finance operations in 2013. I have a predominant finance background, as I worked in this field for 10 years. By working in the finance field, I was able to create efficiencies and work hand-in-hand with all operational departments to position me myself into a general manager role.

Lowry Sommers: I began my legal career working for various sized law firms. Throughout these years my primary focus was on Native American law, Native American business issues, as well as Native American rights of sovereignty and self-determination. 

This background provided a natural segue into the Seneca Gaming Corporation. My legal background in laws and regulations promulgated by the Seneca Nation, the federal government, as well as state and local governments, prepared me for the natural progression into “tribal gaming,” which itself is a highly-regulated industry and subject to multiple layers of law described above. I find this particular sector rewarding because it gives me the opportunity to preserve, protect and advance Native American interests, rights and sovereignty at various levels.

What were some of the changes that you made to your department when you entered your current leadership role?

Chan: I began by working hand-in-hand with the property operations team on changes that would appeals to Asian clientele—putting in a noodle bar, hiring an Asian room chef, redoing part of the casual menu and adding an authentic Asian food menu.  We also transformed the high-end pit into a upscale Las Vegas-style luxury high-end pit; and worked with table game executives to get the games we needed to drive and attract gamers, whether the gamers were new or returning.  I developed a whole Asian marketing team and changed the culture of viewing Asian gaming from an operations and players perspective.

Free: The marketing management team was fairly new so we all jumped in together. By the time I arrived, we were in the middle of revamping our reinvestment strategy so that was a big focus for all of us. We also needed to build our identity so we are rolling out a new brand campaign and loyalty club in 2017. We have a very strong marketing team in place and I’m excited for the future of Seneca Gaming.

Hitchcock: Basically working with a bunch of team members who never worked in the gaming industry, we all kind of learned together to become familiar with our roles. I mentor/teach and work side-by-side with all of my team members.

Israel: Once in my new role, I started to build a management team to prepare for expansion. I have been working on developing shift managers and managers into leaders to help our casino expand successfully. I have also spent a large amount of time on our customer service program. We have instituted many employee recognition programs to help improve scores.

Lowry Sommers: When I assumed my position, I was fortunate enough to already have an incredibly talented team. My goal was to improve morale, retain the work force and increase workplace productivity. I called a staff meeting and shared with them my vision for them and our workplace, which was to make “each of them shine” and foster an environment where each person truly felt “this is the best place I have worked.” I let them know that each member of our legal team is valued for his/her individual talents, skills and preferences in terms of substantive work.

Our division is managed on that basis with a goal of ensuring that each team member is professionally challenged, valued and finds both personal and professional satisfaction in their work. Work assignments are made on this basis. As a result, internal team member and client satisfaction scores have increased substantially. 

We have incredible collegiality and stability. Most importantly, we have a single-minded team of professionals who focus on performance, supporting the greater goal and we all experience outstanding success.

What obstacles do you feel you had to overcome being a woman in the gaming industry?

Chan: My challenge is not just being a woman in the gaming industry, but also a young female of Asian descent.  For people to recognize me, I have had to prove myself by working a hundred times harder and smarter.

Free: I started in 1990 and back then it was mostly male executives. I was fortunate to have strong women mentors who helped push for more women in leadership roles. I learned from them (and the men as well) and it gave me the knowledge to move up in the business. A lot has changed since the 1990s and we now see more women in senior positions—more but not enough.

Hitchcock: Mostly proving that I can do the job that I set out to do every day; as a team member, I’ve had a lot of obstacles to overcome just because I’ve never worked in the gaming industry. I’ve gone through many hours, months and years of training and have worked on all three of our properties. I’ve helped open an area in all three of our casinos in F&B and hotel areas.

Israel: Seneca Gaming Corporation has a huge contingency of successful women in executive leadership roles. They have helped pave the way for individuals such as myself. Obstacles for women are few at SGC, but the major one I’ve worked through is breaking into the “gaming boys club.” Our gaming department heads are predominately men, and learning from them and earning their respect has been one of my major focuses.

Lowry Sommers: None. I don’t view myself as relegated to, or having to overcome, any specific challenges due to my gender. I come to work in every context (gaming or non-gaming) as one committed to serving the larger interest: my client. Every single context is comprised of different personalities and dynamics. To focus on gender (as a benefit or a hindrance) is to lose focus. My objective is to focus less on the potential underlying bias, and to focus 100 percent on identifying a solution that speaks to the opposing party’s proclivities.

How does the Seneca Nation and its culture value women’s rights and equality as compared to mainstream culture and workplaces?

Hitchcock: I believe that we have a strong voice for women’s rights; we certainly have a good share of women in top positions who have worked their way up.

Israel: The Seneca Nation has a very strong voice for women’s rights. Our executive team with Seneca Gaming is proud to be 50 percent female. It’s a huge accomplishment and that resonates across the entire state.

Lowry Sommers: As a matrilineal society, the Seneca Nation has always revered and respected women’s voices and places in leadership.

Are you a member of Global Gaming Women?  If so, what are your personal goals in being a part of the organization?

Free: Yes, I am a member and find value in networking and supporting women in gaming.

Hitchcock: I like the educational opportunities GGW offers.  Additionally, it is great to be a part of women supporting and encouraging other women in the gaming industry.

Israel:  Being a member of Global Gaming Women provides a unique opportunity to network with other women in the industry and share experiences and ideas that have been successful for us in our respective regions. 

Technically speaking…

The Pulse Arena at Seneca NiagaraRenita DiStefano is something of a rarity in the gaming industry—a female chief information officer for a major casino operator. As CIO and vice president of information technology for Seneca Gaming Corporation (SGC), DiStefano oversees the strategic technology needs of three New York-based gaming enterprises: Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls, Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in Salamanca and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo. She recently took some time to answer a few questions regarding the technology difficulties operators must face and overcome.

DiStefanoWhat is the biggest technology challenge facing Seneca and what steps are you taking to meet it?

DiStefano:The biggest technology challenge facing Seneca falls under the category of enterprise architecture, and boils down to adopting an architecture strategy that strikes the right balance between business demand and technology. We have to be agile enough and prepared enough to bring on new systems quickly, but also be able to support them long-term.

Casinos across the U.S. are attempting to become more attractive to Gen X and Millennial generations. From a technology standpoint, what is Seneca doing to make the resort experience more attractive to these generations?

DiStefano:Gen X and Millennials require a different kind of customer experience; they’re used to technology being a part of their everyday lives. In fact, they require it; they embrace it. The way that they connect and get information is through text messaging, SnapChat and other forms of social media. They are early adopters of technology and the ability to get answers and information instantly has to be at their fingertips. This kind of customer experience is being built into our mobile application, our websites and in the ways that we communicate with our customers. The biggest leap in gaming technology for this customer segment came with the opening of Pulse Arena at our Seneca Niagara location which introduced a completely unique interactive multi-sensory gaming and entertainment experience. Our Pulse Arena is the first of its kind in North America and it brings social media components such as Twitter, SnapChat and Facebook to the gaming floor. The all new Pulse Arena allows gamers to interact socially with other gamers within the arena and share their posts on our 43-foot video wall while also sharing their experience with their online social network all while enjoying signature cocktails and live music. It brings many facets of technology into one space for this customer segment.

The continuing evolution of mobile communication is impacting all aspects of the resort enterprise. How is Seneca modernizing to meet this market change?

DiStefano:Our mobility strategy centers squarely around our customer/guest experiences. Seneca’s mobility road map included implementation of a real-time slot dispatch service system to improve slot employee efficiency, reduce service response times and increase guest satisfaction. We’ve also added mobile player enrollment functionality to facilitate swift player’s club registration and to expand our carded play which allows us greater insight to our customer. We have integrated mobile technology in the area of workforce management and scheduling. Curb-side hotel guest check-in and pay-at-the-table restaurant payment solutions are also “on the table,” and a number of mobile marketing solutions are being looked at to transform how we communicate with our customers.

Leading Women

Leading Women

Here is a partial list of women holding leadership positions within the Seneca Gaming Corporation enterprise:

  • Director of Catering & Special Events: Karen Jo Nordaby
  • Director of Career Development: Julie Farner
  • Director of F&B: Cheryl Ann Wienckowski
  • Director of Hospitality: Chama Hall
  • Director of Human Resources: Meghan Smith
  • Director of Marketing Services: Rita Farrell
  • Director of Retail Operations: Stephanie Culligan
  • Director of Training: Claudia Jimerson
  • Executive Director of Advertising & Communication: Tonia Lewis
  • Executive Director of Finance-Financial Operations: Colleen Pittner
  • Executive Director of Hotel Operations: Joy Redeye
  • Executive Director of Marketing: Mimi Williams
  • Executive Director of Marketing: Bethany Nephew
  • Executive Director of Marketing Services: Linda Hughes-McCarthy
  • Executive Director of Risk Management: Amy Sheridan
  • Senior Executive Director of Loyalty Marketing: Valerie Harlan
  • Vice President of Asian Marketing: Lisa Chan
  • Vice President F&B and Resorts: Linda Hitchcock
  • Vice President of Information Technology & CIO: Renita DiStefano
  • General Manager: Joanne Israel
  • Senior Vice President & General Counsel: Kirstin Lowry Sommers
  • Senior Vice President of Marketing: Melissa Free