Bill Bembenek remembers a time, not long ago, when the biggest challenge facing Pala Casino Spa & Resort was keeping up with demand.
The casino will celebrate its 10th anniversary beginning this month, and for the first seven years or so, growth was explosive and guests were flocking to the northern San Diego County casino and resort, owned by the Pala tribe.
“For the first seven years, the challenge was just keeping up with the business that was coming through the doors,” says Bembenek, the facility’s CEO. “We were experiencing tremendous growth in what I now believe was an overstimulated market.”
As the later years of the decade progressed, Pala began to feel the effects of a deepening recession. Customer traffic dwindled as more area residents opted for cheaper entertainment options instead of a weekend away. The revenue bubble that had carried Pala’s growth since its opening burst, and Bembenek was left searching for answers to the problem of how to stimulate business under difficult economic circumstances.
“As the economy slowed, we quickly came to the conclusion that the companies that would come out of the recession were the companies that took this as an opportunity to capitalize on the future,” he says. “Guests have a decision to make when they come to a property like ours. They spend disposable income that they don’t have to spend, so we as an organization have to be prepared not only through the recession but after the recession. We needed to capitalize on the idea that when a person makes a decision to spend disposable income, Pala is at the top of their mind.”
The way to make Pala stand out, Bembenek decided, was to focus on delivering an exceptional customer experience. And the way to make customers remember their experience at Pala was to create happy, loyal employees to interface with those customers. It required a cultural shift for the entire 2,000-employee organization.
“All the casino properties in California have nice facilities, slot machines, blackjack tables and good food,” he says. “But service was the impetus for our cultural direction. The most sound position we could put ourselves in was with an emphasis on service, and that starts with our team members.”Serve your employees
From his experience in the hospitality industry, Bembenek says businesses generally have one of two approaches to service customer-centric or employee-centric.
Customer-centric companies focus directly on the customer experience, regardless of who is delivering that experience. Employee-centric companies are primarily concerned with enabling and supporting the people who interact with the customers each business day the workers who put a human face on the company for all customers.
“Both of those approaches can be effective, but what we believe is that the most effective approach is to be employee-centric,” Bembenek says. “That means you treat team members the way you’d like them to treat your guests. If you do that, you have a much better opportunity to succeed. That’s why we developed a philosophy to make sure our team members are supported, empowered and appreciated. We want them to have a high sense of security in the company they work for. That makes all the other efforts related to our guest experience easier.”
To roll out an employee-focused culture, Bembenek had to send his communication strategy to the weight room. It needed more strength, more size and more power.
Above all else, it needed more layers.
“In order for a culture to change, it needs to be embraced by all levels of the company,” he says. “At each level, you want to take the time to ensure that there is a consistent message and everyone is pointed in the right direction.”
Bembenek and his leadership team began working on messages aimed at reaching out to employees at all levels of the organization, creating a dialogue that would educate employees on Pala’s new direction, stimulate feedback and empower employees to take initiative on enhancing customer service.
Bembenek first worked with his direct reports on the senior leadership team. Once everyone in upper management was aligned, the new cultural principles were cascaded to middle management, then to the floor supervisor level. Once every manager in the company had achieved alignment, then Bembenek rolled the message out to the employees working the front desk, restaurants, casino floor and any place where customers spend their money.
“Each step took more and more time, as we made sure that we had buy-in from larger and larger groups,” he says. “Only after all that was completed did we roll the message out to our team members.”
Bembenek wanted to have each management layer of Pala engaged successively because of the organization’s size and large number of customer interface areas. The most effective way for any large organization to communicate is from supervisor to subordinate.
“This isn’t something that can be accomplished by one person with one singular message,” he says. “It has to be reinforced and encouraged through all layers of an organization.”
But that doesn’t mean upper management stays detached from everyone outside of the executive office wing. Though Bembenek can’t personally reinforce Pala’s culture to every employee all the time, he and his upper management team still take the opportunity to make an impression on employees.
He has small group meetings like many business leaders have. They are effective in stimulating dialogue and keeping employees informed. But in true casino fashion, Bembenek and his management team like to put a little jolt of electricity into larger meetings, to keep things interesting for employees.
“We created a new position in the company, and the responsibility of that person is to be creative and come up with new ways to engage team members,” Bembenek says. “We develop meetings that try to be both informative and entertaining. We’ll show YouTube videos or some kind of video that conveys, in a comedic way, a service issue that we feel is important to the company.
“We just try to mix it up from group size to format to creativity levels, so that a team member can come to six different meetings over the course of a year and each one will feel different. We don’t want to be in a position where people are walking into a meeting with a preconceived notion of what they will experience. You need to inject some enthusiasm into the way you communicate, because when you’re doing the same job for seven or eight years, doing the same tasks repetitiously, the job kind of becomes mundane. That’s why one of the things we try to accomplish with our communication is to keep our team members excited about the environment they’re working in.”Listen to your employees
Along with opening multiple avenues for management to communicate with employees, Bembenek also wanted to establish different platforms for employees to reach various levels of management with feedback. Without feedback channels and employees who feel enabled to use them, you won’t get an accurate read on how your cultural shift is taking root. You also won’t be able to open yourself to ideas and suggestions from your team.
“Some people are comfortable speaking directly with their supervisors,” Bembenek says. “Those are the people who are very open with their ideas and thoughts. Other people aren’t so open and want to offer feedback on an anonymous basis. We have the typical suggestion boxes and open-door policy for all levels of management, and we always open the floor to questions at every meeting. But sometimes people are still inhibited.”
To overcome shyness, apprehension and any other potential roadblock to employee feedback, Bembenek and his management team took an added step, turning feedback into a contest of sorts.
“If anyone suggests anything that we end up implementing in the company, we give that team member $50,” he says. “We’ve had suggestions of all kinds, from serving a certain type of food in our staff dining room to suggestions that have changed policies within the company.”
The leaders of Pala make feedback a money-earning proposition for employees because some of the most candid feedback and best ideas can come from the lowest rungs of an organization’s rank and file.
“Those are the people who interact with hundreds of our guests each day,” Bembenek says. “On the ground level, those are the people in a company who are going to be the most in tune with customers, as opposed to most of the executives, who don’t have the opportunity to rub elbows with customers as frequently.”
Listening to your employees is, by extension, listening to your customers. You can’t serve customers well without first engaging and empowering the employees who directly serve your customers. It’s the entire basis of Pala’s new culture, and it’s something that Bembenek tries to personally reinforce whenever his schedule allows.
Bembenek and his leadership team rely a great deal on cascading communication and the relationship between employees and their supervisors. But even though he is a CEO with the accompanying workload, Bembenek still sees value in blocking off time to informally interact with people at all levels of his organization.
The “informal” part is important.
“The informal interaction that you can initiate with employees is where you’re going to get some of your best information,” he says. “If you talk to a team member in a more formal capacity, as something is going on related to work, their response can sometimes be very restricted to the immediacy of the situation. But if you can engage someone in general conversation at a more relaxed point in time, you start to get a better picture of who they are, and they start to open up about some of the things they’ve heard from guests. That type of interaction can generate some of the best dialogue and information.”
With everything else on your extremely full plate, the only way you can ensure that you have time to simply get out and talk with your people is to make it happen. You have to clear time on your calendar just like you would for a meeting or any other appointment.
“You actually go into your calendar and make the time,” Bembenek says. “I insisted on that several years ago with my management team. I know how a day can fill up quickly, yet we always find time to make it to the meetings on our calendar. That’s how it kind of tripped in my mind that you have to treat your interaction time with employees like it’s a meeting on your calendar.”
Bembenek’s employee-centric approach to business has yielded results, despite the sluggish economy. Though customers aren’t spending like they did several years ago, Pala is experiencing record visitation to the casino and resort, which has helped to offset the drop in spending per guest. The company has not had layoffs.
As Pala moves into its second decade of operation, Bembenek proceeds with the knowledge that his company will be swimming upstream against the economy for the foreseeable future, but it will be doing so with an empowered work force that has the support of management.
“There is simply no way you can achieve the goal of having the best service without having team members that feel appreciated,” he says. “That’s it in a nutshell. At the end of the day, it’s all about that interaction between employees and customers.”
How to reach: Pala Casino Spa & Resort, (877) 946-7252 or www.palacasino.com