First Impressions of a San Diego Casino

Welcome Home and Lemonade Stand at a Casino!

While visiting sunny San Diego recently my husband and I visited one of their newly renovated Casinos – Barona Resort and Casino, just a 45 minute drive from Downtown San Diego.  I had been told that their “customer service” was amazing by one of my long-term clients who had recently visited.

When visiting casinos outside of the Las Vegas strip or in others states such as Oklahoma it has always been with a group. We usually travel by a private vehicle, however, this visit to Barona was by myself so I used public transport.  I may say, it was certainly eye opening and I was very pleased that my husband accompanied me on the trip.

The first impression of Barona was from the transit station where their courtesy bus left, and it was at this point that I began to wonder what the end destination was going to be like.

After travelling for close on an hour by trolley (similar to Sydney’s Light Rail) we disembarked at El Cajon-Sycuan. The transit station was under renovation and after stepping around yellow taped areas we crossed the road to the compound where the private buses left for Barona and Viejas Casinos.  This was my first impression of the casino and it was not a positive impression.

The small seating area inside of the building looked “well used” along with the small mixed business attached.  The bitumen area appeared to be an area where a number of the homeless community loitered making me feel uncomfortable.  San Diego has a high number of homeless due to the mild weather, the majority would mean no harm. However, there are areas (just like anywhere else in the world) where the locals advised me that there were pockets where they begged for money and were very aggressive if you were not forth coming. Being way out of my comfort zone I was very happy to see the bus turning into the allotted area after 10 minutes.

Looking from the prospective of the guest I began to judge the casino on this first encounter. This area certainly wasn’t shown on their website. Having the bus was a great service but it was only for ‘casino members’. We had to explain our situation that we were visiting and were intending to become members just to get on the bus.  The bus was also transportation for their employees, yes at times maybe it would be full but seriously we didn’t feel welcome as visitors.  Now don’t get me wrong, the bus driver was pleasant, but he made it very clear that if we didn’t become members we couldn’t get back on the bus. Yes, we both had to become members.

What is the first impression of your venue?  Especially when it is off site – is it your courtesy bus, roadside signage? Are they well maintained?  Too often it becomes out of sight out of mind.

The trip to the casino was close to another 45 minutes, passing through the reservation of the Kumeyaay Indians sometimes known as the Mission Indians on which the Barona Casino and Resort was located.  I didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised when we pulled into the long driveway that the casino was the shape of a large farm building. The exterior appearing to be a working farm with bales of hay and ploughing equipment, which fitted into the open fields and rolling hills in the distance.

When alighting from the bus we climbed the stairs and noticed the banner across the front “Welcome Home”. Upon entering, there was a make shift “Lemonade Stand” with a staff member standing to greet us. However, the greeting was lack lustre as she was just “doing her job” with no smile and was not able to provide clear directions on where we had to go to become members. Language appeared to be a barrier, she just looked like she didn’t want to be there. I thought to myself does she know the WHY behind her role? Without the WHY people don’t understand the purpose.

When arriving at the membership desk we were abruptly asked for ID. Fortunately Cody began to warm up during the membership process, however I began to wonder if I was in the right casino as so far this was not the experience I had expected when being recommended to come here.

As the membership process came to an end, we were given a very large badge each to wear that had the number 1 and our name clearly identifying this was our first time at the Barona. Cody asked would we like a tour of the casino which we promptly said “yes” and at this point the whole experience changed and so did our “first impression”.

Cameron appeared at our side and warmly greeted us. He then proceeded to show us every aspect of the casino including the multi dining area offering a variety of choices such as Vietnamese, Chinese, American, Pizzas as well as the buffet, Sage restaurant and the recent addition of a separate coffee shop and an expanded non-smoking gaming area.

With close to 5,000 slot machines, tables, poker rooms and massive screens showing multiple sports this casino prided itself on its offering and its cleanliness.  The new area was non-smoking so the air was fresh and even the smoking area had excellent ventilation.  What struck me most was the space. There was great access through the gaming floor where machines were clustered into small banks or 3 around a column. Comfortable chairs and efficient friendly service made playing the machines a great and comfortable experience.

Cameron shared with us his personal story of commencing employment 3 years prior as a Kitchen Hand. Here he was now providing service on the gaming floor as well as guests tours of the casino, hotel, golf course, club house and the beautiful lake and rose garden.  What “oozed” from Cameron was his pride in working for Barona. He was so proud in showing us around and shared with us his soon to be “first time father status”.  As we walked past the gardener he stopped and introduced us, we were greeted with a hearty hello and a welcoming smile.  For each of the team members that we passed, they all stopped to say hello.

We asked Cameron about the “welcome home” banner. He shared with us that they wanted all their members to feel that they were coming home and would feel welcomed as they spent their time at the casino.  The “lemonade stand” was also part of this homely feel as they were coming out of their Summer and the lemonade stand represented the homely feel.  Cameron shared with us the importance that customer service and the experience was critical in repeat business, building the connection between people in a world where everyone was looking into their phones.  Through conversation they wanted to connect in a caring and welcoming manner.  He was so proud of the role he and all his team played in creating a venue that people returned and recommended others.

Does your venue have a person(s) like Cameron who is proud of where they work and the importance of the customer experience?

Do you have the right people in the right roles?

Too often my OOPS team when undertaking visits have experienced some memorable experiences both positive and negative. However, it is the lack of consistency in service, incorrect information, lack of training and leadership that increases the breakdown of the customer experience.

When Cameron left us to enjoy our time he gave us a hug because of the connection we all felt.  WOW! My husband is not a hugger and even he felt the genuineness from Cameron. Now you may be saying he is just one employee. However, as we played the slots, visited the dining areas all team members welcomed us with big smiles. They chatted with us about our choices and we even experienced two senior managers passing us by obviously noticing our badges who stopped briefly to say hello and welcomed us to Barona.

WOW the difference the team members made to our initial impression of the Casino back at the car lot had certainly been flipped. Team members like Cameron who were hard working and passionate about their role and were committed to members on the frontline and the leadership team was evident in the experience he provided us.

Over the past two decades I have always said “it doesn’t matter what your venue looks like or the facilities it offers, it is the people, your team who make the difference between guests returning and recommending”.

How do you and your team represent your venue?