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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Nevadan At Work: Three-Casino Juggling Act No Easy Task for Executive

30 January 2006

Marilyn Winn didn't follow the usual track to the presidency of a Strip casino, but the direction she took led her to the leadership of three Las Vegas resorts.

Rather than working her way up the casino ranks, Winn was the top official in Harrah's Entertainment's corporate human resources department when she was selected to oversee Harrah's and the Rio in Las Vegas in January 2004.

Following completion of the company's $9 billion purchase of Caesars Entertainment in June, the restructuring took Harrah's from her purview, but gave her Bally's and Paris Las Vegas (which operate under one gaming license) in addition to the Rio.

Winn is one of two female Strip casino presidents -- Renee West is president of the MGM Mirage-owned Excalibur -- but she doesn't consider herself a trailblazer.

She reserves that title for longtime gaming executive Claudine Williams, who opened Harrah's Las Vegas in 1973, known back then as the Holiday Casino. Winn considers Williams a friend and mentor.

Overseeing three properties -- which combined have 275,000 square feet of casino space and almost 8,300 hotel rooms -- is no easy task. Winn is also responsible for 11,000 employees at the resorts, which is where a human resources background comes in handy.

"I think it's a huge advantage," Winn said.

Winn didn't come into the job without any casino experience, however. She spent two years as the director of slot operations at Harrah's Las Vegas before transferring to Shreveport, La., to spend 20 months as the general manager of Harrah's Shreveport.

During her time at the casino, which has since been sold to Boyd Gaming Corp., she oversaw construction of the property's 500 hotel rooms.

Winn viewed Shreveport as a way of gaining the necessary experience that would help her advance toward managing a Strip resort.

"It's hard to break in on the Las Vegas Strip as the head person," Winn said. "(Shreveport) was a great opportunity to hone some skills and learn more about the marketing side of the casino to ensure that I understood the customer piece of puzzle."

While she didn't land in the casino immediately upon her return to Las Vegas, spending almost five years as the senior vice president of corporate human resources, Winn eventually made it to the Strip.

Question: Why did you want to return to the casino from the human resources side?

Answer: I love the casino. I love the energy and the variety. Every day you learn something new. To me, this is an opportunity to learn in school without paying tuition.

Question: Do you look at yourself as a trend setter or role model for female gaming executives?

Answer: I don't. My personal experience is that businesses treat professionals the way professionals want to be treated. There are so many great opportunities in the gaming industry that if you work hard and you're in the right place at the right time, you will rise. I never experienced the glass ceiling or I've never recognized it.

Other women who are in significant position in mostly male-dominated industries are more likely to reach out to me to see what it's like running a casino.

Question: What advice have you received from Claudine Williams?

Answer: We had dinner the other night and she told me to keep doing what I have to do. Not a month passes where we don't have some sort of conversation. What's great about Claudine is her dignity and her integrity.

Question: How does a casino-hotel president manage three properties?

Answer: You have to work a lot of hours at this job. I have a set schedule; on Wednesdays I'm at Bally's-Paris and Thursdays I'm at the Rio. On the other days, I alternate between both places so you will see my little blue car whipping by on Flamingo (Road). I have two offices and two executive assistants, so it's a challenge. About 30 executives have my same schedule between the three properties.

Question: Where does your human resources background assist you as a casino president?

Answer: My job as president of three properties is to guide a very talented team of professionals to get to the finish line. For us, the finish line is customer satisfaction. We want people to come back over and over again.

I can't get involved in the nitty-gritty because I don't have enough time. But I have to be sure that great people are leading the different teams and the results are very measurable.

Running the slot department at Harrah's Las Vegas was very helpful because it helped me clearly understand how the money is made on the floor.

Question: Right after the Caesars buyout, rumors were flying that Bally's was going to be closed and imploded. How did you manage the misinformation?

Answer: Our goal is to return Bally's to its status as a great casino. We dealt with our employees very honestly. In my opinion, Bally's is the most valuable piece of real estate on Strip, but we saw items outside the front door that don't add to customer value, and that's something we need to improve. I doubt this building is coming down any time soon.

We presented the facts and right now, we have a corporate master-planning committee looking at all our properties on the Strip, from Harrah's to Paris. We're looking at the wisest way to deploy capital.

Question: How are Bally's, Rio and Paris different?

Answer: There are different cultures at all three properties. The Rio has a fabulous tradition as being a bit of a wilder and sexier property, and we're focused on keeping this brand distinct.

Bally's employees have gone through so many different mergers, they are looking for someone to embrace them and help them grow and develop.

Paris was top of echelon of Park Place Entertainment, but after Caesars Palace came aboard, it was taken down a notch.

At Paris, the challenge is how to infuse a lively energetic gaming environment. Right now, it has a lot of convention and free and independent travelers.

Question: How does the Rio compete being located off the Strip?

Answer: The Rio is coming off its most successful year in history and the challenge is, how do you keep that momentum going? We like to say at the Rio that we're safe in our mischief. People come to Las Vegas because they want to misbehave a little bit but I think the demographics of the Palms and Hard Rock might be a little uncomfortable for our core customers.

Question: Has the Rio hosting the World Series of Poker been a success?

Answer: (The event) exceeded out expectations (in 2005) and we're looking forward to hosting the finals this year. The property had a great energy during the tournament and that was enormously successful during the summer months, when it's not really your best time.

We are very active in offering incentives for customers but what was amazing was the amount of customers (without incentives) that came to the casino.

Nevadan At Work: Three-Casino Juggling Act No Easy Task for Executive is republished from