Those of you who have followed my columns over the decades know that I love Barona, which I strongly believe is the best-run and player-friendliest casino in the world. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Barona, I’m referring to Barona Resort and Casino, the clear leader in the San Diego market. It’s the jewel of the Barona Band of Mission Indians, which operates it with its longtime consulting partner, VCAT.
My most recent article on Barona was more than two years ago in a cover feature for Casino Journal (email me to my address below with the message “Send Me Barona” and I’d be glad to send you the article). In that story, I described many of the things that make Barona so successful and unique. They touch on a powerful formula that almost no casinos would dare emulate. But in this column, I want to take a deep dive, not into the magic of Barona, but the guiding principles of Barona’s magical strategy.
A few disclaimers first. Barona has been a client and admired casino operator of mine at several points over the last 25 years. Most recently, over a two-and half-year period, I spent three to four days a month at Barona. My consulting assignment? “Come down and have fun with our players and staff” (I’m not kidding). That wasn’t hard to do at the Happiest Casino on Earth. And it made clear how the simple but powerful Barona formula created a magic that I’ve seen at no other casino.
So I won’t spend this column writing about Barona’s free ATMs, or greeters at every point of entry, or food served all day on the casino floor from any restaurant, or casino managers handing out free-play vouchers to players while they play. No, those are only tactics (and Barona has scores of them). Today, I want to highlight the simple and incomparable underpinnings of Barona’s magical strategy. And I’m sure the folks at Barona don’t mind me sharing these thoughts; they’re confident that few, if any, casinos would dare copy the “Barona Way.”
The Guiding Principles of Barona’s Strategy
• If You Put People First, Profits Will Follow: I believe that this principle underscores all of the others for Barona. Whether those people are staff, players, tribal members, vendors, or anybody, Barona believes that honesty, depth, generosity, and length of its relationships with people are way more important than the transactions you have with them.
• Speak Your Own Language and Never Sweat the Competition: At Barona, “customers” are called “players.” “Employees” are called, simply, “Staff.” The Employee Dining Room is called “Family Dining.” “Graveyard” is the “early-bird” shift. Numerous other unique language phrases invoke luck, players, generosity, family, welcome, fun, and other elements of the Barona core.
• Keep Your Vision and Mission Simple: I’ve seen countless mission statements for casino companies. I’ve never seen one as simple and powerful as Barona’s “CLEAN. POLITE. HONEST.” (Actually, I understand that since COVID, it is now “ALWAYS CLEAN. POLITE. HONEST.”) Do you think Barona staff could recite their mission statement for you? How about your staff? Could they recite yours?
• Shape Your Business around Your Most Profitable Players: Everyone in the casino industry knows that gamblers are the most profitable segment, with the highest margins. Yet most casino operators try to maximize yield in every aspect of the casino-resort, as if all visitors were relatively equal. Not at Barona. They have a golf course, but don’t look for golfers who’ll pay a hefty greens fee; rather, they look for gamblers who like to golf and let them golf at a steeply discounted or full comp rate. The same with the hotel, restaurants, and spa. Those amenities are mainly for real players who like them. Barona knows where (and with whom) it makes its money and doesn’t try to squeeze players at every cash register just so they can have “acceptable business margins.”
• Minimize Bureaucracy: At Barona, you see almost no managers who have offices and rarely see meetings. You’ll never see volumes of information shuffled among staff that doesn’t need it or doesn’t care enough to read it. What you will see at Barona are senior executives who spend the vast majority of their time in the “office” of the casino floor, continuously interacting with players and staff. Five-minute “pop-up meetings” take place in a corner of the slot floor or in a closed table-game pit with managers who need to discuss something important. Need-to-know information is shared only with staff that needs to know it. Reports about business results are simple and clear and important metrics clearly explain what is really happening in the business and doesn’t make eyes glaze over.
• Lead the Pack, Take Risks, and Innovate Only When It Makes Sense: Barona pioneered the very first Ticket In Ticket Out system decades ago. They had one of the first fully functioning CRM systems. They were the first to stop charging ATM fees on the property, which is a huge financial decision. They pioneered true Gameside Dining, where players can eat right at their slot or table game. They took out ticket-redemption kiosks when other casinos were all installing them. And most recently, during COVID, Barona became another trendsetter by going to a 100% non-smoking casino and hotel. Does Barona initiate these policies just to say they were first? Hardly. They do so because they make sense to improve the experience of their people.
• Provide Careers, Not Just Jobs: Some casinos say they hire and promote from within. Barona actually does it. And not only that, if a staff member has the skills and desire, there is no department someone can’t be transferred or promoted into. This policy, plus the people-focused fun working environment, plus the continuous recognition and generous rewarding of staff, plus the intense culture of caring, goes a long way in explaining why Barona has the lowest employee-turnover rate in the casino industry.
• Have a Player Development Culture That Really Knows Your Best Players and Offers Them Uncommon Value: Barona knows their best players, not just from some player-tracking report or customer research,” but because dozens of their staff get to know them personally. Barona also doesn’t wait to bestow Diamond or Platinum status (its top-two player tiers) on valuable new players. They don’t make them wait three visits or six months to tell them “we love you”; they likely give them preferred status in a day. Some promotions are for Diamond and Platinum players only and reward lots of them. And the promotions always have loads of winners and are never cheap, because Barona knows real players hate cheapness and can instantly see it a mile away.
• It’s the Little Things: Barona has the cleanest casino floor in the world, not because it has an army of EVS staff (it has plenty), but because every staff member, from frontline to executive management, knows “ALWAYS CLEAN. POLITE. HONEST.” They know it’s better for players to have straightened slot stools and a trash-free floor. At Barona, it’s the little things, which is why they hand out free bottles of water everywhere, why they always greet you with “Welcome Home” no matter what entrance you come in, why they give you a small wrapped chocolate or two in your room or when presenting you your check in the restaurant, why they have more than 100 free scooters on property for players who are mobility challenged. And a hundred other little things, which if you add them all up, make one spectacular Barona “big thing.” Which is that they care. And that’s not something you can fake.
I could go on and on about Barona and the magic of its strategy. But rather than hear me gush eloquently about Barona, I encourage you to take a few hundred bucks, get to San Diego, drive up Wildcat Canyon Drive, and spend a few days at Barona experiencing for yourself what I’ve tried, probably inadequately, to describe. I think you’ll see a formula that’s so simple, though surely not easy to execute. And I hope you’ll see what I’ve seen in my decades visiting Barona, that someone has figured out, “Hey let’s just go out every day, no matter what our job is, and make friends.” Now that’s a magical strategy.
Dennis Conrad is a long time executive consultant who works exclusively with select gaming clients who truly care about being customer and employee focused. He can be reached at Dennis@conradworks.com.
Earlier posts by Dennis: