How Wendy Hamilton sustained the momentum of a successful opening at SugarHouse Casino Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2012
Wendy Hamilton Wendy Hamilton

When SugarHouse Casino opened its doors to the public in September 2010, the buzz was palpable throughout the region. Located on the Delaware River, it is Philadelphia’s first casino, and its debut came with a full royal fanfare: media headlines, applicants clamoring to apply for jobs and a leadership team assembled from a pool of experienced gaming industry experts from around the country.

At the center was Wendy Hamilton, the casino’s general manager. Like everyone else associated with SugarHouse, she basked in the glow of the casino’s debut. But she also knew the spotlight wouldn’t always be this bright.

“It was all new, novel and exciting,” says Hamilton, now in her second year running the casino. “We were all making decisions every day that were going to determine who we are and how we would do business for the rest of our lives here. It was really a high energy and exciting time for everyone. But now, it’s not so new anymore and it is not as exciting. The media isn’t as interested in everything we do. So the challenge has become about how we ensure this is still a great place to work, ensure people still enjoy coming to work every day when it isn’t so novel anymore.”

It happens to virtually any business that opens to a heaping helping of pomp and circumstance: At the outset, it’s an event. After some time passes, it becomes a job. Even if the Phillies are in first place this month, by now home games have become a matter-of-fact part of summertime life. The buzz surrounding Opening Day is a distant memory.

Replace the crack of the bat with the ringing of slot machines, and you have Hamilton’s predicament over the past year-plus.

“It is something that the leadership team here thinks about every day,” she says. “We are always looking for new ways to keep the team engaged, ways to get everybody on board with what we are doing.”

Plug yourself in

Maintaining a high level of engagement with your employees comes down to how you communicate. That is the simply stated version of the solution. What Hamilton has discovered is that you need to choose your interaction points for the best possible impact.

In an organization like SugarHouse, which employs just more than 1,000, you can build communication touch points through a variety of mediums. The tried-and-true methods include newsletters, e-mail blasts, speeches and videoconferences.

But what works best for Hamilton and her leadership team, and what she emphasizes, is relationship-building through informal interaction. Hamilton walks the casino floor, visits the employee lunchroom, chats with cashiers during a lull in business, so she can learn what they are learning. Hamilton says it is critical to develop a sense of familiarity between the casino’s executive team and the employees working the floor, because those employees talk to customers every day. They find out what customers like and don’t like about their experiences at the casino, and can help the executive team to identify issues at ground level before they become major problems.

“We are in a very consumer-oriented business, in a very high-touch industry,” Hamilton says. “For example, we do a lot of giveaways to certain customers who are worth a certain dollar level to us. They are usually invited to the casino at a specific day and time to pick up their gift. Let’s say it is a set of pots and pans, which is a gift that creates some logistical concerns. A set of pots and pans is not easily handed over to a customer and carried around the casino for the rest of their visit.

“So what might happen is an employee relays a suggestion from a customer about doing the pot and pan giveaway at the end of the visit, so they can just pull up to the valet stand, put the package in the car and drive away. On the executive level, it might make more sense to us if we give the package away at the promotions center, but the people at ground level will have a better feel for the details of the situation.”

Through their daily observations, employees can formulate common-sense suggestions that can have wide-ranging positive results over the long term. But if you don’t put in the time and effort to connect with them and develop a sense of familiarity, they won’t feel engaged, their enthusiasm for the job will wane and they won’t come to you with their ideas.

“I like knowing people’s names, knowing what part of the casino they work in, and even knowing a little bit about them personally,” Hamilton says. “If you can keep it casual and informal, it’s not a big deal to run into them somewhere and ask them to help you out with something. You can comfortably ask them about a new potential policy and how it might impact them in their area of work. It keeps the communication very quick, easy and efficient.”

You won’t be able to use every single idea that an employee brings forward. But even when you have to reject an idea, or table it for a while, you can still use that as an opportunity for connection, engagement and motivation.

“When you can’t use an idea, there ought to be a reason,” Hamilton says. “Either it is a good idea for your purposes or it isn’t. If it is a good idea, you use it. If it isn’t, you need to explain to the person why it won’t work. If it is a regulatory reason or something along that line, just tell them that. More often than not, it’s going to be a situation where you like the idea but you just can’t use it right now. It might be something you can do a couple of months from now. If that is the case, you have to tell them it is a great idea and there is a better chance of it happening in a few months. But it all comes back to how you communicate with the person in that situation.”

Though you can’t often develop the same level of familiarity with customers that you can with employees, you can take some of the same informal communication principles and apply it to how you interact with customers.

“I find that the little tidbit you get from a five-minute conversation with a customer is as valuable as the customer surveys we send out,” Hamilton says. “It’s a lot of being around the operation, being there while they are playing or while they are having dinner. You just ask them what is going good about their experience and how their experience could be better. I would say it is difficult sometimes in a business setting to really get a group of executives used to just being there and having those kinds of conversations – the type of conversations you would have around your own water cooler in the executive offices. You need to be able to talk like that to your customers and your employees because that is where you are going to get the real information.”

Build your team

If you’re going to keep your employees engaged over the long haul, your communication philosophy has to become a fundamental building block of your culture. Putting words on a piece of paper, or stating it to your work force, is only the first step, however. You need to promote your communication philosophy, and you need to have a leadership team that fully buys in to your plan and can implement your communication strategy.

At SugarHouse, Hamilton had the advantage of building her own leadership team from scratch, and doing so months before the casino opened its doors.

“We were very lucky here, because at the time we were hiring, this industry was experiencing some turbulence in other markets like Atlantic City and Las Vegas,” she says. “What it meant was, people who were some of the experts in this business, people who had been in a certain field for quite a while and might have turned us down under other circumstances, were willing to take the risk and come here. The field was kind of open to us.”

After Hamilton made the first couple of management hires, a chain reaction developed as those hires then started recruiting via their own professional connections.

“Once I had one or two people on board, those people did the same things, helping me by recruiting some of their own peers to fill out their own teams,” Hamilton says. “We also hired a number of people who applied to us cold, but it helps to have connections through somebody that you are working with, and you’re able to reach out and recruit through those connections.”

As Hamilton was recruiting to build her leadership team, and her team was recruiting to build their departmental teams, she emphasized three overarching traits that all management-level team members needed to possess.

“They needed to be smart, like any executive would, and they need to be a bit clever about solving problems,” she says. “Beyond that, they also need to be people who can interact in a social setting. If they are people who can function in their neighborhood or in their kid’s school, it’s largely the same thing. Sometimes you have to train people to have those informal conversations at work, because it’s not how they were coached previously. But anybody who is smart and fairly social can pull it off once the main idea is introduced.”

When building a team that can stimulate dialogue and engage employees, you need to consider your culture first. If you want to build a management team that can promote open communication, that concept first needs to be a part of your organization’s core values. If you can’t define your values accurately, you won’t be able to hire to fit your values.

Through her professional connections, Hamilton knew of many people in the gaming and casino industry with a high level of technical competency in their areas of specialization. But by getting to know those people over the years, she developed a sense of who would fit the culture at SugarHouse and who wouldn’t.

“I can name a couple of good finance folks, but I knew right away the one who would fit perfectly into the culture we wanted to build here,” she says. “You really have to be committed to making sure that you don’t have someone who might be very strong on the technical side but won’t add anything to the culture. But while you want everybody to identify with your culture and values, you don’t want to hire people who are all the same. So I don’t like to use the word ‘fit’ when it comes to culture. You don’t want to end up with 10 vice presidents who all have the same type of personality.”

Good team-building falls under the heading of “chemistry.” It’s a nebulous word when it comes to social interaction and what it means to have everybody working together. But somehow, the issue of chemistry must be addressed if you’re going to have a unified management team, and in turn, a unified, engaged and motivated company at large.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make the call about whether a person is a good cultural fit or whether they simply bring the technical skills,” Hamilton says. “You could have the best people, but if they don’t fit with the culture and won’t get along with certain people, it weakens the team.

“You want to create a team that likes being together, a team that will look out for each other and have each other’s backs. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and if you build a team that is complementary, the job gets done, everybody plays a part and nothing falls apart because of a conflict or somebody’s weakness.”

How to reach: SugarHouse Casino, (877) 477-3715 or www.sugarhousecasino.com

The Hamilton file

Born: Philadelphia

Education: Degree in biology from Duke University; MBA in finance from St. Joseph’s University

First job: I sold saltwater taffy on the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J. when I was 14 years old.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Don’t take it personally. Let me define that a bit. On one hand, people do their jobs well because they take it personally. However, some days you just can’t get a hit. And when things aren’t going your way, that is when you have to be careful to not lose enthusiasm. Sometimes, things are going to get tough and something is not going to go right. But especially in a leadership role, you can’t let it affect your energy and enthusiasm. You still have to project a positive attitude, because people are going to look up to you.

What is your definition of success?

Obviously, you need to be producing a quality end product. But for me personally, I want to be able to assume those things are happening. It sounds ridiculously simple, but success is when you as the leader have the people around you fulfilled and your employees are happy. You want an environment where people enjoy coming to work. That, to me, is when you can say you are successful in your role.