Coast Casinos veteran says value key to surviving economic times

The first casino Kerrie Burke visited when she came to Las Vegas was the Gold Coast.

Twenty-three years later, Burke is managing the 711-room resort for Boyd Gaming Corp.

“It had only been open for a couple of days,” Burke said. “Some locals told me where to go. Locals are very discerning customers. That’s something we’re very mindful of over here.”

Burke has been the Gold Coast general manager for two years. Her career with Michael Gaughan’s Coast Casinos began in 1990 handling room reservations at the former Barbary Coast on the Strip. Since then, Burke has held several different hotel and operations positions with Gaughan’s casinos, which were purchased in 2004 by Boyd Gaming for $1.3 billion. She also served as general manager of the Barbary Coast and Suncoast.

Unlike most hotel-casino managers, Burke comes from the hotel side of the operation.

“Obviously, having worked for Coast and Boyd, I have worked with some of the best gamers in the business, and that includes Michael Gaughan and (Boyd Gaming Executive Chairman) Bill Boyd,” Burke said. “The culture here is to promote from within. If you work hard and diligently, and you do a good job, they will give you an opportunity. I’m living proof of that.”

The Gold Coast, while competing for the locals customer base, also draws the Las Vegas visitor. It became the second casino to operate west of Interstate 15 when it opened on West Flamingo Road in December 1986.

Like many of the properties that offer low-cost hotel rooms, the Gold Coast has been forced to cut rates, following the actions of many of the Strip’s major resorts.

That move, coupled with the sagging local and national economy, has presented Burke and the Gold Coast’s management team with its most significant challenge in the past two decades. Customers don’t have the same amount of discretionary dollars to spend on gambling, dining out and other entertainment options that they had in the past.

“We’re refining our business and looking at things a different way.” Burke said. “We’re thinking outside of the box, trying to come up with new ideas to get people to come to your place. In the end, when the economy picks up, it will be even more fruitful for Las Vegas.”

Question: What brought you to Las Vegas?

Answer: I was living in St. Louis and I was a big basketball fan. I saw snippets about the University of Nevada, Las Vegas during their games when they were on TV and I thought that would be a good school. I graduated the year we won the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

Question: What do you enjoy about the hotel business?

Answer: I believe in constant change and our business in general is constantly evolving and changing. When the economy started to go sour last year, we all had to take a different approach. You have to constantly refine your business. I’m one of those people who embrace change and that’s why I’ve jumped around from property to property.

Question: Who are the Gold Coast’s customers?

Answer: We’re in a unique situation because we can take advantage of our neighborhood. Clearly, we are a locals place because of the density around us. We speak to a number of different ZIP codes. There are also 3,700 rooms surrounding around us with destination customers. We can offer an alternative. When a concert lets out, we have amenities for those customers who are value-driven.

Question: Where do the Gold Coast’s destination customers come from?

Answer: We see a good amount of business from Europe, such as German bus groups. The Canadian market has always been strong for us. Despite everything we’re still running about 90 percent occupancy. Our customers look for value.

Question: What has the Gold Coast done to capitalize on the nearby Asian business?

Answer: We made a lot of changes in the casino that speaks to the Asian community, in both our table games and our slot machines and from a food standpoint. We opened a large Asian-themed pit with a large baccarat area. We have expanded pai gow. We have the No. 1 Asian restaurant, Ping Pang Pong, and we opened a Noodle Exchange. It’s a very nice niche and we do a lot of events with the Asian community. We are truly a melting pot of various people.

Question: How has the economy affected the Gold Coast?

Answer: We’re getting as many people walking into our place as we have before, but with less to spend. That’s OK. Our philosophy is value and that works well for us. Our nongaming spending is down only 5 or 10 percent while it’s been down 13 to 18 percent in the city. We opened a T.G.I. Friday’s and they are offering a value message and they are doing things they don’t do nationally. They understand our customers.

We’re set up for this economy to some extent. If you build customers now, they will stick around. We value our relationships with our customers and our employees. If we do it right, a customer today will be loyal to us in the future.

Question: How do you answer the concerns of Gold Coast employees during these turbulent economic times?

Answer: It’s being on the floor amongst them and understanding their sense of security may not be there. I come from their same background. I’ve made beds, cleared tables, washed dishes and vacuumed floors. It’s interacting with employees and making them feel important. We let them know they make a difference when they have the right attitude when customers come through our doors.

Question: What are the differences between operating on and off the Strip?

Answer: At the Barbary Coast, people walk past your doors. As long as you get them in and keep them, you are in good shape. Las Vegas people are savvy. They look for the best value. They will go around and find the best deal.

Question: Do you have a favorite Coast property?

Answer: I’ve loved every property I’ve worked at because they are all unique in different ways. At the Barbary, which was my first time as a general manager, we had our best year in 27 years; not because I was there, but because the team had a different way of thinking and believing. The Barbary was near and dear to my heart. But I also helped open The Orleans. I was there when it was just dirt.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz @reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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