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Golden Opportunities: An interview with Cindy O’Keefe of Golden Nugget Las Vegas
Golden Nugget Hotels and Casinos operates five locations in the U.S., including the top casino destination Las Vegas. In addition to running a complex operation successfully, they also have amazing entertainment and restaurant offerings, making them an attractive option for customers from different age groups all anticipating to find different experiences at the Golden Nugget.
As complicated as it sounds, the whole operation looks like a walk in the park at the Golden Nugget Las Vegas, all thanks to Cindy O’Keefe, VP of Operations. She is a well-seasoned hotelier with over 36 years of operational experience under her belt. She not only ensures smooth running of all operational aspects of the business but she also constantly challenges herself and her team to be innovative and stay in touch with ever-changing trends in hospitality. The successful operation at the Golden Nugget Las Vegas is proof that she is a strong leader who loves what she does.
We spoke with Cindy about the current state of casino hotels and what hoteliers in this segment can expect in the coming years.
Travel Tripper: Thank you Cindy for joining us today.
Cindy O’Keefe: Absolutely, thank you for this opportunity.
TT: Could you please tell us how you started your successful career in hospitality?
CO: I began my career in food & beverage and moved up the ladder to become a Director of Convention Services. In 1994, I moved to Las Vegas, where I became more and more involved with the operations. Having experienced different aspects of hospitality at different organizations and having witnessed huge changes throughout the industry, I think what defines my career is being open to change and innovation. Back when I first started, people didn’t even think of having quality assurance teams, but lucky for me, I was able to work with great mentors who were visionaries for their time. A lot of what I try to achieve today is rooted in what I learned from them when I first started.
TT: That’s very inspiring! Let’s dive right into operations then. What are some of the challenges facing the casino segment today?
CO: I would say it’s managing increased level of guest expectations in such a competitive market, which is not necessarily a challenge, but a good way to push ourselves and our hotels further to consistently meet and exceed those expectations.
Guests are very well educated compared to a few years ago. They have endless online resources to do their research and they always use them before they make a decision. Sometimes, their detailed research results in the buildup of expectations before they even arrive at the hotel. Online reviews are critical because guests look at them before they look at anything else. They almost matter more than a friend’s recommendations.
One key practice for any hotel is to enable open communication at all levels of the operation from front line team to customers. I think our level of success strongly correlates to how much we listen to our customers and our line staff. Such communication allows us to not lose sight of what we have to do everyday.
TT: Has digital technology’s advancement in hospitality altered your guest’s expectations in any way?
CO: Oh yes, absolutely. Digital has exploded in hospitality, that’s the best way I can describe it! From in-room wifi speed to iPad offerings, guest expectations have completely been transformed in terms of digital.
Basic wifi isn’t acceptable anymore or having a state-of-the-art TV in the room alone doesn’t make guests satisfied. You have to have the capabilities for guests to connect their on-the-go accounts to the TV and music systems in rooms.
What used to make guests happy 10 or 20 years ago isn’t enough anymore. Today’s guests live surrounded by high-tech tools at home and they expect the same or even better level of services in their hotel rooms. Every guest, from young adults to parents or even grandparents, arrive at the hotel equipped with their smartphones and tablets in hand and they want to make the most of their gadgets in the room.
TT: How about the Millennials? Are they as interested in gambling as the prior generations are or do they prefer to splurge more on entertainment and dining?
CO: Every generation will be slightly different than the previous one. Millennial needs and wants are certainly different than prior generations. They make us work harder for sure! They ask more questions, they do their homework better before they spend money, and maybe most important difference about them is that they taught us to always think ahead and anticipate what the next major trends will be. Now we’re in the mindset of what is coming after the Millennials. This is great. Hoteliers know that they cannot stay static and we mostly owe that to Millennials.
Also, I think storytelling of your brand has become big with this generation of consumers. All social media platforms from Facebook to Snapchat are important in creating an online voice for your brand. Your investment in these platforms today will carry your business into the future. With this in mind, we hold social media training seminars for our employees. We try to teach the importance of storytelling because dry pictures are not what social media is all about and they certainly won’t attract customers. We aim to be smart and unique with our message.
TT: How do you overcome new supply in a condensed environment like Las Vegas, where every new hotel in town promises to be the biggest, shiniest, and the most exciting place to be?
CO: Competition is fierce especially in Las Vegas. There is always going to be a new hotel who claims to be the best at everything. As a hotelier, you just have to keep doing what you do best. For instance, 2008 was a great example of how fragile this industry could be. That was when the bottom fell out, overthrowing those who struggled to stay true to their core identity.
If X is what defines you as a brand, then you had better be the best in X. You need to identify what it is about your brand that you want to use to draw customers and stick to it.
TT: What is that one constant about Golden Nugget that you would never compromise on?
CO: We are absolutely consistent on the high level of service we provide, whether it is in the rooms or our casinos or restaurants. That’s our number one priority.
TT: What should be top-of-mind for every casino-hotel operator with regards to marketing and distribution?
CO: Service specifically with regards to online customer experience. As hoteliers, it is critical for us to always ask questions and get customer feedback. That’s the only way we can be aware of what can be improved and ensure the best experience possible. Once you have enough feedback on a certain topic, it is easy to see trends and make necessary changes that are in line with your brand vision. Ultimately this process is what allows to stay relevant with times and satisfy ever-changing guest expectations.
A good example for this is the in-room telephones. They used to be an absolute must-have but now they are irrelevant to guest needs. Today, guests want to be able to stream their Netflix or Amazon accounts on the TV in their room.
TT: Do you think this trend will increase in the future of traditional casino accommodations?
CO: Oh, absolutely! We are already looking into Google and Amazon Echo options for in-room services. Always being the leaders in innovation, Las Vegas hotels have already begun crunching numbers on how to make this a possibility. Once we figure it out, every guest will have a personal in-room butler. AI will have moved into our hotel rooms. How cool is that?!
TT: Very cool. Other than the digital personal butler in every room, what do you think will be the next big change in casinos and gambling tourism in upcoming years?
CO: I think partnerships matter the most. They are important today and they will continue to be so in the coming years. Hotels will allocate more capital funds to vendor partnerships. OTAs are a good example for this. As a hotelier, I think it is important that we embrace OTAs and their digital marketing power. They have far-reaching, deep pockets to influence guest decisions and hotels can still make business-savvy and smart decisions in how they manage their partnerships with OTAs. They do what they do well and we do our job better than anyone else. There is no reason why we cannot cooperate and make them only a part of our overall business plan.
TT: Absolutely true. Would you be able to share with us your market segmentation percentage for OTAs?
CO: Sure. This is just off the top of my head and not set in stone at all, but in general, about 20% of our business comes from OTAs. Like I said, they are only a part of the big picture and we are hard at work to improve our direct business segment, specifically our website. We are a big hotel with 2,420 rooms and we pay attention to maximizing every segment to its full potential, but our direct business segment is priority of course.
As I mentioned earlier, partnerships matter the most for us. In this case, we value our partnership with Travel Tripper a lot to increase direct business from our website. You are the experts in seamless booking experience. You know very well what jumps out on the booking engine with regards to influencing guest decision-making and you allow us to stay competitive in this market. You help bring us the direct customers and we make sure they leave happy and ready to come back again!
TT: We certainly love that partnership model! Thank you so much Cindy for sharing your experiences and insights with us. We wish you a very successful year at the Golden Nugget Las Vegas.
CO: Thank you!
Key takeaways from Cindy O’Keefe on casino hotel operations:
1. Every generation will be different and will bring new challenges to solve for hoteliers. What is important is to anticipate what they might be and proactively solve them.
2. Listening to your customers and your employees is key in ensuring guest satisfaction efforts remain centered in what really matters to guests.
3. Thanks to hotels that are leaders in innovation, we can soon expect to see in-room digital butlers.
4. Storytelling is very important for a brand’s social media efforts. It is an identity and is not as simple as online images. Employees at every level of the organization need to be trained on this topic.
5. Partnerships that help increase direct bookings are critical for the success of a hotel. In the future, hotels will further increase their capital fund allocations to partners such as Travel Tripper, who enable direct bookings.
We want to extend a special thanks to Cindy O’Keefe for sharing her valuable insights and experiences with Travel Tripper. To book your next stay at Golden Nugget Las Vegas or their other four properties in Lake Charles, Laughlin, Biloxi, and Atlantic City, visit www.goldennugget.com.
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