How a Washington Casino is Using The Good Jobs Strategy to Invest in Guest Experience
Q&A with Lucky Eagle Casino & Hotel CEO JaNessa Bumgarner and Hotel Director Ben Scholl
Owned and operated by the Chehalis Tribe, Lucky Eagle Casino & Hotel offers gaming, dining, and hotel services to guests at their location outside of Rochester, Washington. Lucky Eagle employs around 450 staff, from slots attendants to clean team to security to chefs, with more than 1000 slot machines.
Inspired by the Good Jobs Strategy, Lucky Eagle CEO JaNessa Bumgarner and Hotel Director Ben Scholl initiated a strategic change in 2021 to invest in employees and service quality. Part of that journey included a leadership workshop with the Good Jobs Institute in September 2021.
Still early in their journey, Amanda Silver at the Good Jobs Institute spoke with Bumgarner and Scholl at the end of 2021 to discuss their decision to improve guest experience and jobs at Lucky Eagle, progress and challenges so far. The interviews have been edited for length.
Amanda Silver: Tell us about how you first became interested in bringing the Good Jobs Strategy (GJS) to Lucky Eagle.
JaNessa Bumgarner: Back in February 2021, everyone was dealing with the labor shortage. We knew something was wrong, and we didn’t know exactly what it was.
I took my aunt to her doctor’s appointment and was waiting outside in the car for her and listening to Adam Grant’s podcast. He was talking to [Zeynep] about good jobs, how people can’t make decisions [because of financial stress] and about the living wage. I was just so interested, I got the book and I said, this is it, this is how we change things.
We shouldn’t be offering less than a stimulus check. We should have people who are committed to us. I knew we could do better. I went to [our Hotel Director] Ben, and said to check this out, here’s how we’re going to change the world.
AS: So, you read the book, and decided to apply it to Lucky Eagle. What did you have to believe in to make this commitment?
JB: When people are struggling at home, trying to pay their rent or their phone bill, it’s hard to come to work because you’re always thinking about that. [The Good Jobs Strategy] mentions Trader Joe’s and Costco, so I started shopping there more and seeing the difference in service between them other companies. I believe in the people, but I also believe in what Trader Joe’s and Costco are doing.
I just knew deep down that this was the right direction to go, because the tribe has always wanted to be a good partner in the community. The best way to be a good partner in the community is to provide jobs that are economy boosters. Many of our team live in the three counties that we are surrounded by, and if we want to be a good partner, we have to make sure that our people are able to contribute to the communities they live in.
I just knew deep down that this was the right direction to go, because the tribe has always wanted to be a good partner in the community.
AS: An important part of investing in people is providing a career path. You have some personal experience with that. How does frontline work experience affect how you think about the work?
JB: I started as a busser, cleaning tables. Jobs on the frontline are not easy jobs. Cleaning tables is a disgusting job. You’re dealing with people, germs, cups, and the whole-time people are expecting the frontline to provide amazing service.
I think that time in my life has made it a lot easier for me to understand the frontline, because that’s exactly where I started and I’m very happy that I started there. The frontline is where we need to put our resources, because they have the most touchpoints with our guests.
And during the pandemic, we all became aware of how comfortable or uncomfortable our team members were. If you had an office to go sit in or could even work from home, well the frontline didn’t have that opportunity. They’re doing all this great work for us, and we get to sit in an office. It was so clear that this was the route to go. Some are very fortunate to just go straight to college and end up in these positions. I’m very fortunate that I had that experience to work on the frontline.
AS: In our Good Jobs Institute (GJI) workshop, we talk a lot about strategic focus and making hard tradeoffs. Tell us, what does Lucky Eagle want to be best at? What types of tradeoffs is Lucky Eagle making to be best at that?
JB: We want to be known as the friendliest casino and among the employers of choice. Which means we’ve had to make some concessions around things that we’re going to offer and the hours that they’re offered. Food variety will go down, but if it makes it easier for the team to serve the guest, then we’re willing to accept that for faster, better service. So, the food menu is going to be limited, but I know it’s going to be good, and I’ll get it fast. In the hotel, we don’t offer stay-over [cleaning] service, so we can make sure that our team can focus on getting guests into their rooms faster.
Tradeoffs can be difficult though, we have some people who don’t want to give things up because they’re attached to them, they helped build them, there’s sunk cost bias. But we just have to move forward.
AS: What are your biggest wins so far in introducing GJS at Lucky Eagle?
JB: One of our biggest wins was our first round of raises back in July. That went over very well, and we got approval from our Business Committee, who I report to and is the representative of the tribe, to do $2,000 retention bonuses, which around 80% of the organization qualified for.
Recently we had a big thank you party with everyone to kickoff more of the initiatives, which was meaningful for us. We bought all of our gifts from Costco and Trader Joe’s and even Mud Bay, the pet supply retailer. These are companies that are inspiring to us, so we made it a point to support companies like them.
I wrote personal notes to our team, the Chairman of our Business Committee wrote a note. It was great time to celebrate and kickoff the focus on our team.
AS: While we’re on the topic of wages, Lucky Eagle has committed to increasing pay, getting to a living wage and ultimately a “thrive wage.” Why did pay come first? How were you able to justify the increases?
JB: We started with pay for a few reasons. We wanted to make sure that our team knew that we were fully committed to them through this process. And we know people respond well to raises.
But we also wanted to stabilize our team, so that they can stabilize at home. It’s not easy, childcare is ridiculous, schools have been challenging, prices are going up. We hadn’t had a pay increase in the last 3 years, so we knew we had to take care of team.
Things were going well at the casino, so we didn’t receive pushback for that first round of raises. But moving forward, we’re trying to get up to a really great wage, which means we have to find the savings along the way, which requires a lot of changes. We made some models where we divided up the type of work people do at Lucky Eagle — people at minimum wage, above it, people who have admin jobs, who is on the frontline. We knew that we had a low supply with our frontline jobs, so we needed to take care of them first and have a phased approach to everything else. We ran scenarios, like increasing everyone by 15% or starting with one group first. We’re still going through this process and continuing to refine it.
An added challenge is that the casino’s money provides support to the tribe for other resources, like Head Start early education programs, so we have to be careful. The tribe also depends on this, so if we go too fast, we could take away resources tied to the community.
But we also wanted to stabilize our team, so that they can stabilize at home.
AS: What advice would you offer to leaders who are interested in a Good Jobs journey?
JB: Definitely that it’s a journey, it’s not a sprint. But if you know about Good Jobs, then you’re already on the right path. You just need to follow through, which isn’t easy. But it’s quite rewarding, and I already feel good about the way things are going.
As a CEO, I’m very fortunate and lucky to be in this position, to implement the next vision for the casino, and I hope other casinos will take note. I’m very fortunate to have this experience.
As a CEO, I’m very fortunate and lucky to be in this position, to implement the next vision for the casino, and I hope other casinos will take note.
Amanda Silver: Let’s start by setting the stage. How did you think about who should be involved in implementing the Good Jobs Strategy at Lucky Eagle?
Ben Scholl: Early in the process, JaNessa and I realized that people from different parts of the organization would have different perspectives on the barriers and elements of a Good Jobs Strategy implementation. We wanted to find like-minded people who would be passionate about the work and believers in the strategy but could help us compile those different perspectives from the different corners of the organization.
In the casino world, it’s very different viewing the operation from the hotel perspective or a finance perspective. So, we identified folks in each of the areas of the organization who we thought would be good advocates and ambassadors for the strategy. By the time we were in contact with the Good Jobs Institute, we had the group assembled.
We wanted to find like-minded people who would be passionate about the work and believers in the strategy but could help us compile those different perspectives from the different corners of the organization.
AS: We were excited by how much progress you all had made before we had even met with you. What were your biggest takeaways from the GJI workshop?
BS: The workshop was really a culmination of a lot of discussions. We were at the stabilization phase of the Good Jobs Strategy implementation, so that was about Focus & Simplify projects and some investments in people projects that we walked away with. I think those actionable steps had the biggest impact. We had so many conversations earlier in July, and folks were just really excited about having something specific they could move forward with.
AS: Stabilizing work often requires removing and reducing non-value add tasks. Now I know you’ve added some focus around your promotions and marketing strategy. Tell us more about these changes and how they’re connected to day-to-day operations.
BS: We’ve added some filters on promotions and events that didn’t exist before. We ask, how does this promotion and event impact the team members? And is this promotion and event really adding value to the customers? We recently went through a budget retreat, and in the past, we would normally budget for several types of concerts. But this time we were saying it really doesn’t add enough value to the customer to be worth the amount of burden it has on our operations.
The incremental value of that event is not as high as one might think. And on the operations and people side, there’s teams that have to set up all the chairs in our facility, they need to coordinate with the folks at security, there will be overtime coverage for security, then there’s the ticket sales process.
It’s really a burden and complicates the operations just to execute a one-hour long show. I think the strategy is really going to shift long term. Every casino is having concerts. It’s not that it’s completely non-value add, but we’re not in the concert business, we’re in the gaming business. We have to go back to our core business and execute that really well.
You only have so much energy to execute, and if you’re going to do it well, you have to focus that energy on the things that add the most value for your customers. And some of those promotional things are just done because it’s what you’ve always done, as opposed to adding value to customer.
The incremental value of that event is not as high as one might think. It’s really a burden and complicates the operations just to execute a one-hour long show.
AS: Great to hear about this focus on delivering the best experience and factoring in your team’s workload into those decisions. What other Focus & Simplify projects has Lucky Eagle introduced? What have been the early results?
BS: The biggest win has been seeing leadership shift their mindset around what our role is. Before, we always started with the financial. Now it’s about seeing our role as taking care of the employee, so they can take care of the guest.
There have also been financial wins. We have already completed our playing card destruction project. We used to drill holes in every card, and it would take hours. Now we use an incinerator, so our team members don’t have to spend all that time doing something so simple. It saves us a lot of resources and time. When stripping sheets off of the bed, the hotel team would put the sheets into a bin, from the bin to a shoot, then another bin. It was a huge burden to move the sheets 3 times, so we looked into how to make the process simpler and really focus on what we’re trying to do. There hadn’t been conversations at the frontline about what they are doing, and what doesn’t make sense to you. It was one of those barriers that frustrates them every day.
The initial stabilize phase has been about getting the ball rolling around the idea of being a little simpler, a little more focused about what adds value to the customers and stripping away what doesn’t add value.
The biggest win has been seeing leadership shift their mindset around what our role is. Before, we always started with the financial. Now it’s about seeing our role as taking care of the employee, so they can take care of the guest.
AS: I love that you’re using a bed stripping example to talk about stripping away non-value add tasks! Let’s talk a little bit about Standardize & Empower, the second operational choice. Could you give us an example of how you have introduced empowerment?
BS: Back when I started at the hotel, the comp structure was designed so that a manager or the Director had to sign off any time a guest gets compensation. In practice, this means someone is calling me at any time of day, saying, Mr. Smith is upset because the hotel water is out, and what should I do? I could say to give him $50 for dinner. But maybe he just wanted a coffee. Because I’m not involved in the conversation, or I’m doing other things, I just throw something out there to make a decision.
The challenge of course was that I wasn’t giving the guest what they actually needed. And the team members were frustrated because they weren’t always able to reach me.
So we gave supervisors and other folks empowerment to handle it on their own. I don’t get bothered anymore, it’s not wasting my time or their time, which is great. And on top of that, our comp costs have gown down, because they’re generally giving folks less. Team members feel more comfortable and can give the customer what they actually need. And our guest service scores on the hotel side have been higher than they’ve ever been.
I don’t get bothered anymore, it’s not wasting my time or their time, which is great. And on top of that, our comp costs have gown down, because they’re generally giving folks less.
AS: Introducing the GJS is not always a linear process. What has been the most challenging part of this journey so far? What gives you conviction that these changes will work and are worth it?
BS: There’s generally large buy-in on the actual end goal. Most of the resistance along the path has been about the process. Like, I want to get to this goal, but don’t change my process.
I’m very excited about the impact we can make on the broader community, on the lives of our internal customers — our team members — and having a better service product because of the how our team members feel. At the end of the day, people are at the heart of everything we do at Lucky Eagle, whether that’s a member of the community or the customer. People are our business. We don’t manufacture things. We serve. And because of that, if we change how people feel about what they do, it’s going to have a big impact on our business.
Good Jobs Institute is a 501(C)(3) non-profit founded in 2017. Our mission is to help companies thrive by creating good jobs. Our President and Co-Founder Zeynep Ton is a leading retail and service operations expert, Professor of the Practice at MIT Sloan, and author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.