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Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort continues to thrive after leading the reopening charge

13 July 2020

The northern Idaho casino resort was one of the first gaming properties to reopen back in May.

The northern Idaho casino resort was one of the first gaming properties to reopen back in May. (photo by PJ Koenig)

Laura Stensgar is a member of the Coeur d'Alene's, the Native American Tribe that owns and operates Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel in the Idaho panhandle, approximately 45 minutes from Spokane Airport in eastern Washington. The casino was one of the first, if not first, to reopen in the U.S. after closing temporarily due to COVID-19.

Stensgar has spent the past 27 years working at CDA Casino, becoming CEO in late 2019. Dealing with a global pandemic is challenging enough on a personal level; simultaneously managing a thriving casino resort as the new CEO is downright daunting, requiring incredible vision, communication, and resilient strategic leadership.

Casino City Times spoke with Stensgar to learn how she, the tribe, and the resort worked through the many hurdles that sprung up due to the pandemic, to successfully resume operation.

Casino City Times: What went into the decision to reopen the casino?

Laura Stensgar: Gaming operations are essential to our tribe. Our CFO, tribal council and I met almost daily to plan how to reopen. We understood that it had to be done safely, which would be intricate, and that we needed to get health officials involved. Our tribal council developed a task force that was composed of Marimn Health & Wellness Center officials, including doctors.

Fortunately, we have a beautiful community health center that is nationally renowned. We sat down with them and let them know that we needed to consult on how best to open our doors and what that would take. This task force did a walkthrough at the resort and identified areas where we needed to add markings for six-foot distancing; went through the restaurant and identified how best to go about spatial seating; helped us with regard to supplies of masks; showed us how to take temperatures; and advised on extra measures that we could take to safeguard our employees and customers.

We tried to identify phases, reviewed the CDC and federal guidelines, and also referenced the Wynn Las Vegas Health & Sanitation program guidelines. We looked at all of these protocols and modified them according to our property.

We also looked at local and regional data and saw that the COVID-19 numbers were very low in our rural area compared to hot spots such as Seattle and other highly populated, metropolitan areas with much higher case numbers. We understood that we had to be careful and make a data-driven decision with regard to the number of cases, hospitalizations and recoveries. With those numbers, we felt justified that we could open if we put safety protocols in place. We established a phased opening for the reservation because as a sovereign nation, we deemed gaming as essential, which is why we opened our doors. This was an important message to convey to the community, employees and tribal membership. We established a soft opening for April 27 and a re-grand opening for May 1.

What changes were made at the property prior to reopening to keep your guests and employees safe?

It is a different operation; we made major changes. We decided that we would not open our buffet, which is now closed indefinitely. We also closed our off-track betting, because that was located in one of our restaurants where we are now offering more spatial seating. We also closed the casino daily from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. for deep cleaning, which was a change of business and operation for us.

We have implemented social distancing at the property; are installing plexiglass in between our machines; and have plexiglass in front of our cashiers, rewards club, at our convenience store and our hotel front desk. Masks are required for both guests and employees at all times, and we're doing temperature checks for employees and guests. We also continue cleaning all day. In fact, I’ve asked executives to take a half hour out of their regular work schedules to get out on the floor and clean machines.

It is all of our responsibility to keep a safe environment for everyone. It’s been very effective, both with our guests and employees. They appreciate it. The customers appreciate that they see us out there actively cleaning. The employees appreciate the fact that higher management is committed, and they're standing right there alongside following through with providing a safe environment.

How have your guests responded?

Our guests were chomping at the bit – they wanted to game. There were some pent-up gamers out there calling and asking, ‘When are you going to open? When are you going to open?’ And posting ‘I miss you,’ on social media. Our players were saying that they wanted to game.

When we opened, we had our local health officials right there at the door for the first week. We were all there as employees excited to open our doors. As a 27-year employee here since Day 1, it was a bit like when we opened our first day so many years ago. It was very similar as far as the uncertainty and excitement. As guests came to the door, they thanked us. And employees said, ‘I feel safe coming back to work, but with these safety protocols that you put in place, I feel safer . . . I need to come to work and thank you for providing the employment.’ I think the fact that we paid their wages and benefits while we were closed down also built loyalty and trust.

For guests, there was some form of normalcy to be able to come to an establishment and sit down and start playing a favorite game and go into a restaurant and get served. That Monday, we held our soft-opening, and as far as numbers, it was comparable to the year before. Then the next day, the numbers went up. Each day, the numbers went up. We knew by Friday, our re-grand opening, that we were going to be swamped – and we were.

It was good that we had a soft opening first because we did have to work through the kinks as far as getting the guests and employees adjusted to the protocols. We had to move machines around to allow for additional spacing. We were ready by Friday, but we had a line outside the door. We had to go out and extend our distancing tape further. That Friday, it was swamped. Guests were lined up at six, seven in the morning. I got a phone call that said, ‘There's about 60 people out here.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh. Are we ready? Do we have the temperature checks ready? Do we have the masks ready?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Open the doors.’ In they came, and we were busy all day and at capacity by 2:30 p.m.

I thought we wouldn't be at capacity until prime time around 8 pm. We had numbers that we've never seen before in the existence of this property. It was amazing. Since then our patronage has leveled off, but we still are double the revenue from what we had the previous year, and this was the best May we've ever had as far as numbers.

It would be so nice if we didn't have any competition, but of course that's impossible. We’ve been able to see trends when the other casinos have opened. Our neighbor just across
the state line in Washington opened and we saw a little drop in patronage. And then as the state has started opening up, there are now other things to do, we have seen a small drop from that as well. It's been interesting to look at the numbers and tendencies. We're definitely tracking and monitoring all of that and trying to gather data to utilize, because we're going to definitely need it.

We're going to have to be smart and efficient in our marketing as well as our overall operation. Right now, we're riding on pent up gamers. People have had stimulus checks and some tax money, but things are going to level out. There are a lot of people who are not employed, and some businesses were lost. The economy is going to be strained for a while. We will recover, but it may take a little while. We need to be prepared for that. We need to be very efficient in what we do and how we continue to operate.

What percent of your staff have you been able to bring back to the workforce?

About 85%. When you look at it – for anyone who makes under $15, it was almost more beneficial for them just to stay at home and get that extra check. That was concerning. But as
I said, we really did build some loyalty as far as taking care of our employees during the time we were closed. Many people just wanted to get back to work – it’s not many peoples’ natural tendency to sit at home and not do anything. Fortunately, we had quite a few that did come back. Others had health conditions and were vulnerable health-wise, so it was best that they
not come back to work.

What have you learned in the reopening process that you could share with other casinos?

I did not know masks would be such an obstacle or a concern. They're very challenging, even to this day. It's challenging to wear the masks while you're playing a machine or working. When we first opened, we ran out of the masks and it has been difficult to keep up with that inventory. The masks are a big concern, and it's important to make sure that you are well supplied.

Additionally, you need to have a plan. This has all been a fluid situation. Just when you think you understand things, something comes up and changes. You need to be fluid and be able to plan for the worst but hope for the better. Plan ahead. ‘What are we going to do if we're at capacity?’ That communication needs to be clear and communicated. It is important employees understand what is expected from them as far as protocol, and as far as enforcing that with the customer as well. The greater community also needs to understand what you're doing, why you're doing it and how you're doing it.

Can you talk a little bit about how Circling Raven and CDA have given back to the community during these challenging times?

Circling Raven was the first golf course to open in our area. We had our safety protocols in place of course, and offered a $55 locals’ rate, knowing that the other golf courses were closed.

Because we were open when everyone else was closed, we could have capitalized on that and had a higher rate, but because we always want to be community-oriented and good neighbors, we knew that the lower locals’ rate was appropriate and players appreciated it.

Golfers have said, ‘This is just so awesome to be out here swinging the club. I've been stuck in that house and it's been driving me crazy. Just to get out here and swing the club and have some sense of normalcy has been so nice.’ The tribe has always been very giving since day one. In our gaming compact, we have 5% of our net profits that go towards education, and to date that has amounted to $33 million. We've always had that value system within our operation. We've donated resources to feeding the homeless and with helping build homes for less fortunate families. We recently had a Pay it Forward program where we went out in our community and paid for people's fuel, take-out orders, coffee and groceries.

The award-winning Circling Raven Golf Club at CDA Casino Resort offered a special locals rate upon reopening in May.

The award-winning Circling Raven Golf Club at CDA Casino Resort offered a special locals rate upon reopening in May. (photo by PJ Koenig)

Now we're running a promotion where people can call into the radio station and explain, ‘Hey, we want to help this family that is in great need.’ Or they may have great need themselves, and so they're rewarded with a $250 gift card. We knew it was important to get back out there in the community and to give back and pay it forward. During this time, we are all struggling with trying to get back on our feet. It’s important to understand there are some people who aren’t able to work at this time. We've wanted to give back because it’s the right thing to do. We also wanted to get up and running to support our employees with jobs, give back to our communities, and sustain our tribal social services programs.

Are there any new technologies that are particularly interesting to you at this time?

Yes. We have ordered disinfectant fogger machines and infrared temperature checkers. I hear that the plexiglass is getting fancy with regard to disinfecting on its own and the ability to
add logos, which we are also looking at.

What plans does CDA have for the future of the property?

I started in the CEO position in October, so it has been about nine months now. Coming into the position, I thought it was important to stabilize the properties and operation, get grounded and clearly understand who we are, what we're about and what our niche is.

Then this pandemic happened. The focus then became, ‘When are we going to open our doors? How are we going to open our doors?’ Now that we are open, it is about, ‘What can we do to recover?’ In order to recover, we need to be efficient. We need to be smart. This year we are going to put a lot of capital expenditures aside until next year, except for high priority items, and just focus on being open and being smart and efficient with our money. I do think the gaming floor will stay somewhat spaced out.

We postponed our events but did have one on July 2; and we have a few others in August, which will be interesting. As with everything else, we are going to play it by ear. By next year, we hope to be able to pick back up on some of those capital expenditures in our plan. One thing that has been a positive from this pandemic is the partnerships formed. I've been in communication with our competitors and with other tribes.

We all took off our competitive hats and consulted with each other, confided in each other, and supported one another. That has been very helpful. We’ve all exchanged information and I want to maintain that camaraderie. Internally, from our tribal council, local clinic and property divisions, this pandemic has forced us to really come together as a team, work together and empathize with each other. We understand the importance of this to our tribe and to the community.

For more information about Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, visit

This interview was originally published in the June issue of Indian Gaming Magazine

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