Almost half a year after her appointment as CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, Laura Penney was undoubtedly facing the greatest challenge of her career: leading the property through a global pandemic.
When states issued a stay-at-home order in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, 989 casinos nationwide closed, including the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, which has 850 to 1,100 employees at its hotel, depending on the season employed. Casino, spa, restaurants and golf course.
Under Penney’s leadership, the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel was the first in the country to reopen in May after pandemic closings. In doing so, it set the standard for stringent health and safety measures applied by casinos across the country.
Penney was among the top three players to attend a virtual opening event at the American Gaming Association’s Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in October. The three panelists shared how they successfully and responsibly reopened their properties during the pandemic.
“We wanted to open the event and give the industry the opportunity to learn lessons and optimism from local people,” said Cait DeBaun, senior director of strategic communications and responsibility for the American Gaming Association. “Laura, like many of the leading companies in our industry, had to lead her employees through a global pandemic and became the first on health and safety protocols. Obviously being the first casino in the US to have a leadership role that we wanted to introduce to our audience. “
Planning for the future
Penney is from Idaho and has worked at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel since it opened nearly 28 years ago.
Penney, who had a bachelor’s degree in commercial recreation management and leisure services from Eastern Washington University, became director of planning for the Coeur d’Alene tribe in 1991. She was part of a planning and development committee examining the possibility of a gaming facility on the Coeur d’Alene reservation.
The Indian Gambling Regulation Act was introduced by the federal government in 1988 to allow the tribes to gamble on their land.
“That was the priority of the tribes that could play,” said Penney. “It was actually a violation of our sovereignty because we should be able to do whatever was good for the tribe and also be included in the community. But this federal law was passed and it was something that some tribes used effectively. “
The idea for a gaming house was sparked further after the committee visited the Oneida Nation reservation, which had a destination resort and casino near Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“They had what we have today 20 years ago,” said Penney. “We inspected your reservation. They were able to offer senior housing and day care for their children. They had an outlet mall, a spa, and they’d just done amazing things with their game dollars. We came back and said, “We have to do this.” ”
The Coeur d’Alene tribe negotiated a gaming pact with the state of Idaho in 1991 and opened a bingo hall in 1993. In the game pact, the tribe stated that they wanted to use 5% of the winnings for education. To date, the Coeur d’Alene tribe has allocated $ 33 million in education, Penney said.
Since its inception as a bingo hall, the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, located four miles north of Worley, has expanded to include a 300-room hotel, seven restaurants, 100,000 square feet of gaming space, a luxury spa, and the Circular Raven Golf Club.
Penney has held a variety of senior positions at the resort throughout her career, including director of marketing, public relations and cultural tourism and assistant director of the casino.
As Marketing Director, Penney developed promotional strategies to bring the casino into profit, and as Tourism Director, she helped launch several Native American cultural activities at the resort.
“I was fortunate to have a thorough understanding of why we are here, why we have this surgery, and the importance of what gambling means to our tribe and community,” said Penney. “We are one of the top employers in this community. We’re not just a commercial casino or tribal development, we’re a government operation where we care for our people. We provide money to keep law enforcement going, for social services, for tribal programs, for education, and to really look after the next generations. “
Perseverance pays off
Penney had been striving to become the property’s CEO for some time after applying for the position four times.
When Penney asked why she was being passed over to the position of CEO, she was told that she needed a Masters degree in Business Administration.
“It was quite a challenge to go back to school and make that commitment,” she said, referring to the decision to get a master’s degree. “At the time, my daughter was still in her early school years. I was a single mother at the time and it was very difficult. But I was determined to become CEO. “
Penney graduated from the University of Idaho with a Masters degree in Business Administration in 2014. When the position of CEO reopened, Penney applied and was handed over for the job over a third time.
“I was disappointed. But then I really had to do a gut check and said, ‘You know, it’s not my time,” Penney said. “I think it’s always important that you, whatever you do, wherever You just have to do the best job you can and that you have to make yourself valuable. “
Penney’s persistence paid off.
In October 2019, she was appointed CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, the first woman to hold this position.
“Laura’s story of growing the casino to become CEO is a tremendous one and it’s obviously great to see female leaders,” said DeBaun. “I think their growth story is one that will resonate across the industry and in what we offer for gaming careers across the country.”
Path to reopening
When COVID-19 took hold in the region in mid-March, Penney decided to close the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel a few days before Idaho enacted a stay-home regulation.
“We have been concerned about the safety and wellbeing of our customers, employees and the community since Day 1, and we have closed,” she said. “That was a big decision… it was very worrying to see an empty casino floor and parking lot. I knew in my heart that we were doing the right thing, but it was very worrying.
“I knew immediately that we had to work on a plan to open up. But we knew we had to do it safely. “
The Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel established a task force comprised of members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, Directors of the Tribal Divisions, casino executives, medical professionals and the Marimn Health leadership team to develop guidelines for the gradual reopening of the to create COVID-based properties -19 trends and data.
The task force reviewed the Centers for Disease Control’s health and safety guidelines and a 37-page document of logs from the Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas.
Penney contacted other tribal casino CEOs in the area to ask how they are dealing with the pandemic.
“We all broke down the barriers and took off our competitive hats and we communicated. It was just amazing, ”she said. “We all supported each other and what we are doing in our endeavors. We all got it because tribal gaming was a powerful tool to feed us as a tribal people and look after the next generation. “
The task force also communicated with casino staff and guests about the property’s security protocols prior to the April 27 reopening. Marimn Health officials conducted a tour of the property and assisted in making minutes.
Security measures include reducing capacity, temperature checks, the requirement of face masks, providing multiple hand sanitizing stations, and installing plexiglass barriers and floor markings for social distancing.
The property implemented improved cleaning practices, including disinfecting hard-to-touch areas several times a day and closing the property between 3am and 7am daily for thorough cleaning.
The property paid wages and benefits to employees during its five-week temporary shutdown, and most workers chose to return to work after the casino reopened, Penney said.
“When we had our official opening on May 1st, it was only historical in terms of the number of people and the revenue generated,” said Penney.
The Circling Raven Golf Club also had a successful reopening as it provided visitors with ample space for social distancing in over 620 acres, Penney said.
The task force continues to meet weekly to evaluate the COVID-19 data, Penney said.
“We did well because I think we made it possible to escape safely. Our spa is doing really well. Golf ended with an amazing, record breaking year and game. Ironically, we have fewer customers, but their gaming spending has increased, ”Penney said, attributing the increase in gaming revenue in part to fewer travelers during the pandemic.
Plans for an expansion
Penney’s goal this year is to foster collaboration among employees, maximize efficiency, and take advantage of the property’s offerings to generate revenue.
The casino is starting a project to replace its buffet area with fast food outlets and a high-end gaming lounge with host offices. The former entrance to the buffet is being converted into a patio with seating that is expected to open in the summer, Penney said.
There are also possible plans to add an RV park to the property, Penney said.
Penney in particular takes great care that guests enjoy visiting the property.
“You are like our family. We have what we call traditional tribal hospitality and as tribal people, when people come to our home, we open our doors, provide them with food, and try to make them comfortable and feel at home be, ”she said. “We have adopted the same value system and integrated it into the resort here. That is why we have the slogan “Welcome home”. When you walk through our doors we want you to feel comfortable, to feel welcome, and to make this your home. “