Imagine a modern-day casino resort where every drive-in or walk-in entrance is staffed 24 hours a day with someone whose main role is to warmly wave a greeting or personally say “Welcome Home.”

A property that has no resort or ATM fees, where dozens of management staff daily hand out thousands of dollars in “Lucky 20s” to thank players for being there, or to help change their luck or wish them a happy birthday, or well, just because. Where food is served gameside to any slot or table player, from any casino restaurant, any time of the day or night. Where 20x Cash Back Points are given (until midnight on the day after sign-up) to all new players (earn $20 in Cash Back, get $400!).  Where good players earn status as Gold, Platinum or Diamond players on their first visit, instead of having to jump through hoops and wait six months for that status.  Where Party People (yes, that’s a real job title) roam the casino floor daily and play games and celebrate special occasions, also giving away thousands of promotional dollars to players.

Well imagine no more and say hello to Barona Resort and Casino, the “Happiest Casino on Earth” and the jewel of the Barona Band of Mission Indians that dominates the San Diego casino market. For nine years running, Barona has been voted “Best Casino,” “Loosest Slots” and “Best Casino Buffet” in the San Diego area in the Best of Readers’ Poll conducted by the San Diego Union-Tribune, and in 2019 it was also voted Best Casino Outside of Las Vegas in USA Today’s Annual Readers’ Poll (although there is no doubt in my mind Barona would have won if Las Vegas casinos had also been included in the survey). Barona is the clear leader by any measure in the San Diego area’s competitive casino market, with arguably the most challenging location (drive up Wildcat Canyon Road to get to Barona and you’ll know what I mean).  Yet 71 percent of Barona’s players drive past at least one other more convenient casino to get to Barona, and many of those drive past multiple casinos.

I’ll admit to being Barona’s biggest fan since I first came upon this marvel of “Player Worship” some 25 years ago. And in the more than one hundred days I have spent there over that time, becoming something of an “insider outsider,” my admiration for this unique and powerful formula, and the people that so deftly and consistently execute it, has only continued to grow.  Greatly.

Readers of my Casino Journal columns and features over the last 25 years, would expect me at this point to give my candid, “down and dirty” thoughts about what makes Barona so successful, along with some pointed (but fair) “barbs” at the “rest of the casino industry.” I could easily do that, and probably would discuss the long and uncommonly close relationship between the Barona Tribe and all of its management.  I would mention the powerful HR formula that gives Barona an 11 percent staff turnover rate (it’s 25-30 percent at most casinos), 63 percent of whom have been with Barona for more than 10 years, and 50 percent of whom are original staff from the old Barona “Big Top” sprung structure, and still remain after 25 years. I would talk about the loyalty-building benefit of providing more value to players, instead of less, like most casinos now do. I would certainly talk about the simple power of hiring staff to “be nice,” create friendships and “make fun happen.” But if I have learned anything in my 45-year gaming career, it is that there are times that you step back and let the “real experts” speak.  And in this case, those experts are Barona’s marvelous staff and its incredibly loyal players. And Jean Scott.
 

GREAT SCOTT

Scott is an octogenarian, former Indianapolis schoolteacher, and a longtime friend, who in her decades of a “second career” became an advantage player/comp hustler, author and advocate for the everyday casino player.  She is best known for her book The Frugal Gambler, offering gambling advice to novice gamblers on how to get the best casino comps and discounts.  She also wrote More Frugal Gambling, Tax Help for Gamblers and the Frugal Gambler Casino Guide. Scott recently retired from this “gambling career” and moved from Las Vegas to Georgia to be with her family and grandkids. This is what she said in her farewell to Casino Land:

“Many casinos are squeezing players so much that gambling just isn’t fun anymore. The people who are running the casinos don’t seem to understand the gambler. In the last two years it’s become just a catastrophe. It seems like every other day there’s some new cutback. Gambling is the most personalized business there is. You are separating a man (or woman) from their money without giving them a product or service. You had better at least give them a kiss.”

Scott wasn’t talking about Barona; since she loves Barona and I’m about to show you why.
 

STAFF OF LIFE

I have chatted with hundreds of Barona staff over the years, and I have not met a more amazing group of people in any casino in any jurisdiction in my 45 years in the casino business. For this feature, I interviewed nine of these memory-making staff members from among the 3,000-plus employees at Barona. I assure you I could have chatted with hundreds more at Barona and gotten the same level of warm, thoughtful, candid feedback.

The staff interviewed ranged from two to 25 years of tenure at Barona, with seven of them being there from 13 to 25 years. Their positions ranged from the very front line to the very senior staff level, with all of them having each taken their own unique path to success within the Barona organization. I asked them all about those careers, how they might execute their roles differently than counterparts at other casinos, what they thought makes Barona what it is, and how many Barona players they know personally, by name.  

Meet this group of elite relationship builders that make fun happen every day at the Happiest Casino on Earth
 

Christian Sarmiento 
Title: Assistant Pit Manager, Table Games
Years at Barona: 17 

Sarmiento started at Club Barona full-time as a host who quickly became a lead host. He jumped to table games first as a dealer, then to supervisor, backup manager and assistant shift manager.  He knows “thousands” of Barona players by name and credits his ability to listen, and to “not sweat the tough situations” as keys to his career success. As for what makes Barona, Barona, Sarmiento believes it involves hiring people that are nice and kind, and then giving them “freedom to be themselves, he said. “The way our staff is treated leads to loyal staff, and loyal staff leads to loyal players. Plus, we never let up in trying to be better.”
 

Eddie Quallen
Title: Executive Host
Years at Barona: 10

Quallen has an interesting Barona background, first as a Diamond (top tier) Barona player, when he worked in San Diego for IBM in his previous career.  His experience as a player made him want to become a staff member at Barona, just as many staff have told me over the years. Quallen also started in Club Barona as a host, quickly advanced to VIP host and recently was promoted to executive host, where he now serves some of the players he used to gamble with.  He also knows “thousands” of Barona players by name and believes his ability to go “above and beyond” for players, with help from an extremely supportive management, is what has made him successful.  “I ask myself if each player I serve was my mother, what would I do? Plus, having been a player, I know what it’s like to be treated special.”

Quallen said that “Family really means something at Barona.” As proof, he spends most of his personal holidays with his players. “At Barona,” he said “you will get amazing service from staff that truly care about what they do, and accessible managers that really help them do it.  The bottom line is, if you make real relationships with players, everything else will fall into place.”


John Phan
Title: Director of Asian Gaming
Years at Barona: 14 

Phan is one of the very few Barona staff who actually worked for another casino before coming to Barona—he was a dealer at a San Diego-area casino and came over to Barona after its first major expansion. He credits mentorship from Mike Patterson, vice president, table game operations, with his ascent from dealer to floor supervisor to director of Asian gaming. He believes his ability to go into the Asian communities where both new and old players reside (plus the thousands of Barona players he knows by name) has been key to his success.  He too credits “staff” and “service” for Barona being what it is.  “At Barona, we want to become your friend,” he said. “At no other casino do I see the general manager, routinely and often, stop by just to say hello to players; just like friends would.” 
 

Erika Enciso
Title: Buffet Hostess
Years at Barona: 17

Enciso states unequivocally that “I love what I do,” which explains why she has been a buffet hostess for her entire Barona career. It also is a family affair (as it is for many staff at Barona), with her husband working there as a dealer and her daughter as a Club Barona host. “I try to keep myself informed and I don’t view my job as ‘just’ being a hostess or a cashier,” Enciso said. “And I love learning names of players (she knows hundreds).  My favorite is Alcee, we sing to her on her birthday, and she gives us birthday and holiday cards.”  She further states.

“They treat us really good at Barona,” Enciso added. “The money is good. It feels truly like ‘home’ where I work. In some companies, you can’t usually talk to management, but here I’m always saying ‘hi’ to the GM and high-fiving with the assistant GM. Even the overhead music is good. And we pride ourselves on no players ever going home hungry!”
 

Cynthia Hickey
Title: Slot Cashier
Years at Barona: 16

Barona has no ticket redemption kiosks, as it prefers its large, super-friendly group of slot cashiers making change and redeeming slot tickets, rather than machines. Hickey first started at the old Barona Bingo Hall doing a summer job and has now been a slot cashier for 16 years. She estimates knowing 300-500 players by name. “I have regulars, I can build a rapport and I can read players, those that want to chat and those that want to be left alone to gamble,” she said. 

Hickey also credits the willingness to go “above and beyond” for players and management’s support and open-mindedness for Barona’s continued success. She mentions the Barona staff perks as well: the free soda and coffee, the generous and reliable bonuses, the benefits, the PTO policy…all of it.  “They treat us so well, it’s unmatched in any other industry,” Hickey said. “It is not only a great job, but a great company. I am proud to say I work at Barona.”
 

Cori Cerveny
Title: VIP Host
Years at Barona: 13

Cerveny started as a buffet server at Barona before moving to Club Barona and quickly becoming a VIP host. As to what makes her different and successful, she said “I try to make it more personal and learn players’ names (she estimates knowing 400-500 Barona players by name). I have a ‘people personality,’ smile a lot and know how and when to make jokes. I have also learned to focus on the player right in front of you.” She too mentions the player focus, Barona staff and support from upper management as the keys to Barona’s success.  “It is a special property,” Cerveny said.  “We don’t do traditional TV and radio advertising and don’t need it. Player ‘word of mouth’ does a lot of it for us.”
 

Danielle Turner
Title: Club Barona Assistant Manager
Years at Barona: 5

Turner is a Barona Tribal member who first worked at Barona as a teenager in the old “Big Top” sprung structure as a buffet waitress and a coffee cart server. She came back to Barona almost five years ago as a Club Barona host and quickly became a VIP host and then an assistant manager. “I think the way I manage has helped me succeed,” Turner said. “I make sure we work as a team and I communicate with other Barona departments a lot.”  

As to the DNA of Barona, Turner offers “what you see today was our culture right from the beginning, not just at the original bingo hall or casino, but with the Barona Tribe on the reservation. We may be a huge casino, but we are a family place. It starts with staff and the management.  We all ‘smile, wave and greet,’ even on the reservation, and we all try to create ‘remarkable experiences to remember’ for our players.


Isen Al-kapa 
Title: Bathroom Attendant
Years at Barona: 2

Perhaps my most interesting staff interview was with Al-kapa, a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Iraq who is learning English and preparing to take his U.S. Citizenship test. Al-kapa does not have a glamorous role and does not have occasion (yet) to learn many player names, but “I do know faces and personalities and how to approach different players,” he said. “And when I give good ‘Wrap Around Service,’ I know it creates good energy with others. I have eight hours here each day and I know it has to be clean and it is the same way for me as when I was helping my mom clean at home with my brothers and sisters.”  Besides mentioning Barona’s treatment of staff and players as success factors, Al-kapa also shares that, “they allow you the opportunity to do other things at Barona if you work hard. You can always do something you like.”

 

WHAT PLAYERS SAY

No feature on Barona would be complete without the thoughts of Barona’s players—the very people around whom the whole formula was built. I’ve chatted with hundreds of them over the years and heard the comments of hundreds more. Their comments are very different from what I have heard from most other casino players around the world and center on a couple of key elements.

  • Greetings and welcomes: Expressions of greeting and welcome to every Barona Player are a bedrock of the Barona formula, and noticed and appreciated by countless players. 

    “Every time I come to Barona, I’m genuinely greeted with a smile, from the guys at the valet to the people at the hotel front desk,” said Cynthia, a Barona player since 2003. “Everywhere I go I feel like I know each and every one of the Barona staff.” 

    Judy, a Barona player since 2016, shared a specific story.  “So, I came in one day to Barona and met a staff member named Tom,” she said. “He’s standing at the front door dancing. Well, he grabs my hand and twirls me around and starts dancing with me. I love to dance!”
     
  • Creating special Barona Moments: Over the years, Barona has called it “Barona Moments,” “Making Fun Happen,” “Remarkable Experiences to Remember,” “Being Nice,” “Wrap Around Service” and a variety of other names that refer to special people creating special memories in a special setting.  

    “When they [Barona staff] come over and take time out of their day to talk to me and find out things about me… that is so special,” said Darcy, a Barona player since 2015. “I can’t even list one of them because there are so many that are such great people and always take time for me.”

    “I had mentioned to the room service people that were bringing the carts out, that, ‘gee, those flowers on the carts are so pretty’—and as is the Barona custom, they smiled and said, ‘Oh here, take the flowers with you and put them in your room,’” said Betty, a Barona player since 2003. “So, I took the vase of flowers and put them in my room. Since that day, when I get to Barona, check in and open the door to my room, there’s the same little vase of flowers in there. Barona is my home and my home is filled with love, and that’s because of all the Barona staff.”
     
  • Generosity to players:  As mentioned, Barona focuses on players, and those players experience numerous examples of genuine Barona generosity in ways both big and small.  

    “I’ve never been to any other casino where someone comes by, who works at the casino, and puts money in your slot machine for you to play,” said Maggie, a Barona player since 2007.  “That to me is amazing!”  

    Huu, a Barona player from Los Angeles since 2007, shed some insight into why Barona “owns” the business of players with disabilities or physical challenges.  “My legs were hurting, and the supervisor, Trang, asked me, ‘Do you need any help?’” she said. “When I said that my legs hurt and I can’t walk, Trang sent a scooter for me. I was grateful that Barona treated me like family. The other casinos will charge $40 a day for scooters, but at Barona it is always free. Everyone here treats me so nice and like family, and that is the reason I come to Barona.”
     

SEEING IS BELIEVING

I have described a casino that is unlike the hundreds that I have worked with, and the hundreds more that I have played in. I have sometimes been accused of “being over-the-top” about my affection for the Barona formula over the decades, and that I may not be giving enough credit to other quality, player-pleasing casino operations. True, there are several of those; but I do know that there is only one Barona and it exemplifies so fully and so clearly what is best, or what can be best, about our casino industry. If the options are “to squeeze” or “to please,” I know what choice that I and the countless other casino players would make.

But don’t take my word for it, when you are next in San Diego, take the drive up Wildcat Canyon Road and experience Barona for yourself. Experience the waves and the welcomes, and the 20x Cash Back Points, and the Fun Bites, and the Party People, and the free ATMs and the casino promotions, and the casino staff, and everything else that is Barona. And I’ll bet that you’ll agree that this is the Happiest Casino on Earth.  Really.