Nearly six months after becoming CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, Laura Penney was faced with undoubtedly the greatest challenge of her career: leading the property through a global pandemic.
As states enacted stay-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19 in March, some 989 casinos closed nationwide, including the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, which employs 850 to 1,100 people – depending on the season – in its hotel, 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 following pandemic-related closures, setting the standard for strict health and safety measures used by casinos nationwide.
Penney was among three gaming leaders who participated in a virtual opening keynote event at the American Gaming Association’s Global Gaming Expo, or G2E, in October. The three panelists shared how they successfully and responsibly reopened their properties during the pandemic.
“We wanted to open up the event, providing the industry an opportunity to hear lessons learned and optimism from folks on the ground,” said Cait DeBaun, senior director of strategic communications and responsibility at the American Gaming Association. “Laura had to navigate her staff through a global pandemic like many of the leaders in our industry and became first in health and safety protocols. Being the first casino to reopen in the U.S., obviously there’s leadership there that we wanted to introduce to our audience.”
Planning for the future
An Idaho native, Penney has been employed by the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel since it opened nearly 28 years ago.
Penney, who graduated from Eastern Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in commercial recreation management and leisure services, became planning director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in 1991. She was part of a planning and development committee that evaluated the possibility of a gaming establishment on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was established by the federal government in 1988, allowing tribes to conduct gaming on their lands.
“That was the precedence of tribes being able to have gaming,” Penney said. “It actually was an infringement of our sovereignty, because we should have been able to do anything that was good for the tribe and also be encompassed in the community. But this federal act passed and it was something that some tribes were effectively utilizing.”
The idea for a gaming establishment was further sparked after the committee visited the Oneida Nation’s reservation, which had a destination resort and casino near Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“They had what we have today 20 years ago,” Penney said. “We toured their reservation. They were able to provide senior housing and a day care for their children. They had an outlet mall, a wellness center and they just had done amazing things with their gaming dollars. We came back and said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ ”
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe negotiated a gaming compact with the state of Idaho in 1991 and opened a bingo hall in 1993. In the gaming compact, the tribe specified it wanted to put 5% of gaming profits toward education. To date, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has provided $33 million for education, Penney said.
Since its beginning as a bingo hall, the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, which is about 4 miles north of Worley, has expanded to include a hotel with 300 rooms, seven restaurants, 100,000 square feet of gaming space, a luxury spa and Circling Raven Golf Club.
Penney has served in a number of leadership roles throughout her career with the resort, including director of marketing, public relations and cultural tourism, and acting director of the casino.
As marketing director, Penney developed promotional strategies to bring the casino into profitability, and as tourism director, she assisted with launching several Native American cultural activities at the resort.
“I’ve been fortunate to thoroughly understand why we’re here, why we have this operation and the importance of what gaming has provided for our tribe and our community,” Penney said. “We’re one of the top employers within this community. We’re not just a commercial casino or a tribal development, we’re a government operation where we’re providing for our people. We’re providing money to sustain the law enforcement, for social services, for tribal programs, for education, and truly looking out for next generations to come.”
Persistence pays off
Penney had aspired to become CEO of the property for quite some time, having applied for the position four times.
When Penney asked why she was passed over for the CEO position, she was told she needed a master’s degree in business administration.
“That was quite a challenge to go back to school and make that commitment,” she said, referring to the decision to pursue a master’s degree. “At the time, my daughter was still in early years of high school. I was a single mother at the time and it was very difficult. But I was determined that I wanted to be CEO.”
Penney graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Idaho in 2014. When the CEO position opened up again, Penney applied and was passed over a third time for the job.
“I was disappointed. But then I truly had to do a gut check, and I said, ‘You know, it’s not my time,’ ” Penney said. “I think it’s always important that whatever you do, wherever you are, you just need to do the best job you can do and that you need to make yourself valuable.”
Penney’s persistence paid off.
She was named CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel in October 2019, becoming the first woman to hold the position.
“Laura’s story of growing with the casino to become the CEO is a tremendous story, and it’s obviously great to see female leadership,” DeBaun said. “I think her story of growth is one that resonates across the industry and what we provide in gaming careers across the country.”
Road to reopening
When COVID-19 took hold in the region in mid-March, Penney made the decision to close down the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel several days before Idaho enacted a stay-home order.
“Since Day 1, we’ve always been concerned the safety and well-being of our customers, employees and the community, and we shut down,” she said. “That was a big decision … it was very concerning to see an empty casino floor and an empty parking lot. I knew in my heart that we were doing the right thing, but it was very concerning.
“I knew immediately we had to start working on a plan as to how we can open. But we knew we had to do it in a safe way.”
The Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel established a task force consisting of Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council members, directors of tribal departments, casino executives, medical professionals and Marimn Health’s leadership team to create guidelines for a phased reopening of the property based on COVID-19 trends and data.
The task force reviewed health and safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and a 37-page document of protocols from Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas.
Penney contacted other tribal casino CEOs in the region to ask how they were navigating the pandemic.
“We all just kind of took 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 efforts. We all understood, because tribal gaming has served as an effective tool in being able to provide for ourselves as tribal people and our effort of taking care of ourselves for the next generation.”
The task force also communicated with casino employees and guests about the property’s safety protocols prior to its soft reopening April 27. Marimn Health officials conducted a property walk-through and assisted with establishing protocols.
Some of the safety measures include reducing capacity, temperature checks, requiring face masks, providing several hand sanitizing stations and installing Plexiglas barriers and floor markings for social distancing, among other things.
The property implemented enhanced cleaning procedures, including sanitizing high-touch areas multiple times a day and closing the property 3-7 a.m. daily for deep cleaning.
The property paid wages and benefits to employees during its five-week temporary closure and most workers chose to come back to work when the casino reopened, Penney said.
“When we had our official opening, which was May 1, it was just historical in regards to the number of people and the revenue that was generated,” Penney said.
Circling Raven Golf Club also had a successful reopening because, at more than 620 acres, it provided visitors ample space for social distancing, Penney said.
The task force continues to meet weekly to evaluate COVID-19 data, Penney said.
“We’ve done well because I think that we have provided a safe escape. Our spa is doing really well. Golf closed out with an amazing, record-breaking year and gaming, ironically, we have less patrons, but their gaming spend has gone up,” Penney said, attributing the increase in gaming revenue partly to fewer people traveling during the pandemic.
Plans for expansion
Penney’s goals this year are to foster collaboration among employees, maximize efficiency and capitalize on the property’s offerings to generate revenue.
The casino is embarking on a project to replace its buffet area with fast-food venues and a high-end gaming lounge with host offices. The buffet’s former admission area will be transformed into a patio with seating, which is expected to be open in the summer, Penney said.
There are also potential plans to add an RV park to the property, Penney said.
Most of all, Penney’s priority is ensuring guests enjoy visiting the property.
“They 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 door, we provide them food, and try to make them comfortable and make them feel at home,” she said. “We’ve taken that same value system and incorporated it here within the resort. That’s why we have this slogan, ‘Welcome home.’ When you walk through our doors, we want you to feel comfortable, we want you to feel welcome and to feel like this is your home.”
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