If you ask Michael Kintner, the senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, the key to a successful operation lies within its people.
“When you get down to it, the most important parts of our operation are our employees and our customers,” Kintner said. “We believe in making sure that our employees have a wonderful place to work with opportunities to advance and, of course, keeping it fun.”
It’s a constant effort, Kintner said. A big focus is creating multiple avenues for communication between management and employees.
“We’re in the midst right now of an employee opinion survey,” Kintner said. “We like to get their feedback anonymously to understand what we’re doing well and what we could do better, so we can act on that information and continue to make it a great place to work.”
Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino is the only casino property in Arizona affiliated with Caesars Entertainment, which operates more than 50 sites. And for that matter, it’s the only tribal casino in the state of Arizona to be affiliated with an international management company of any sort.
Kintner said Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino employees are some of the highest performing in the Caesars organization.
“I’m proud to say in the past years, we have been in the top 5-10% of the company,” Kintner said. “We really have a wonderful culture here, as driven by our employees.
“And when you take care of your employees, your most valuable asset, they give great customer service and take care of your guests.”
Kintner said the culture at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino is about going the extra step.
“They know customers’ names,” Kintner said. “They know their preferences, what they like to do, what they like to play. Where they like to eat. They know about their families and build strong relationships and that keeps customers coming back.
“It’s a cycle that feeds on itself.”
Looking back at the pandemic
For most businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges — from shutdowns in 2020 to the supply chain disruptions and employment shortages that persist through today.
But, to fully understand the culture at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, you must look at what happened during those trying times.
The pandemic forced the — Maricopa’s largest employer with 811 employees — to close for two months in the spring of 2020 when the public health crisis was at its worst. Leaders from the Ak-Chin Indian Community, which owns the hotel/casino, responded in a big way for employees.
“I’ve talked about how this place is like family, and the Ak-Chin Tribal Council understood how scary this was for our employees, not only from a health perspective, but financially,” Kintner said. “They stepped up in a very meaningful way and paid our employees their full salary and benefits (while) they were away for eight weeks.”
Kintner pointed out that Ak-Chin leaders thought of everyone and even made up the difference for tipped employees.
“They looked at the average of the previous eight weeks of their tips and kept them whole, during that time period,” Kintner said. “It was extremely significant. Our employees created an hour-long video thanking the Ak-Chin Tribal Council and Ak-Chin Community.”
As elsewhere, worker shortages persist at Harrah’s Ak-Chin, but Kintner said progress in hiring is being made.
“A few months ago, we were looking to fill 150 positions,” Kintner said. “We’ve got that down to around 100 positions now.
“I joke with people that, if you can make a grilled cheese sandwich and not even a good one, we’ll get you in here and we’ll train you up on how we like to do things.”
Like many casinos throughout the country, Harrah’s Ak-Chin closed its buffet due to the high level of staffing it requires.
Two other big changes included reductions in housekeeping services for hotel guests and the elimination of valet service.
“When the pandemic hit, for obvious reasons, no one wanted to get in other peoples’ cars, and people didn’t want strangers driving their cars, so it made sense to cut that service,” Kintner said.
To Kintner, the valet change was particularly informative.
“We never heard anyone complain about not having valet,” he said. “Our customers didn’t seem to miss it at all. We learned something there.”
Providing a way forward
Kintner said a big corporate focus is to attract good people and to keep them in the organization for the long haul.
One big incentive is the organization’s desire to promote from within and allow employees to grow professionally.
“We want to create a culture where employees know that they can build a career with us,” Kintner said. “That’s important for morale.”
As the casino’s general manager, Kintner has walked the path of which he speaks. He’s been with Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino since 2005 and held three other positions in the organization.
Kintner’s first interaction with Harrah’s came in the early 2000s. He was recruited to interview as assistant director of marketing at Harrah’s Southern California.
“I didn’t get the job because they promoted from within and we like to do the same thing here,” Kintner said.
“I liked them, and they liked me,” he continued. “At the time, I got to tell you, I was a little disappointed, but they said to stick with it. Something will line up.”
A few years later, in 2005, an opportunity with Harrah’s Ak-Chin came along.
“My wife and I really wanted to get back to Arizona and a casino marketing manager position opened,” he said.
Once Kintner got through the door, it wasn’t long before he moved up the chain.
“I did the casino marketing manager job for about two years, and I was promoted to a system director of marketing for about 18 months, and I was director of marketing and did that for about 12 years,” he said.
And at the same time, Kintner prepared himself for growth.
“I went back to graduate school at the University of Arizona, at their Scottsdale campus. At the time, I got my MBA from the Eller School of Business at University of Arizona,” Kintner said.
That decision to further his education helped Kintner improve his resume and put him in a position to take on more responsibilities with Harrah’s.
“I tell this story to all our new hire classes, and I like to say congratulations to the people that get to join our team because the hardest part is getting in,” Kintner said.
Other programs at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino help employees find a career path both locally and beyond.
The Harrah’s Development System (HDS) helps develop leaders within the Ak-Chin Indian Community. Members can pick up on-the-job training in many different aspects of the gaming industry and develop skills to qualify for management or other key positions.
“The goal is to get Ak-Chin Community members to work in all aspects and areas of the business,” Kintner said. “They can work in food and beverage, front of house, back of house, casino operations.”
Kintner said that participants work in all departments, including housekeeping, event marketing, finance and human resources.
“When they graduate, they’re able to pick where they’d like to do an internship in their area of choice,” Kintner said. “And if they’d like to continue on, they can get a job in that area and then the idea is for them to work their way up into management of the casino.”
One initiative, titled SAVVY, focuses on the empowerment, support and advancement of women within the company. Another, titled SALUTE, actively seeks to bring together team members who are military veterans and veteran allies who embrace the core values of duty, honor and selfless service.
This story was first published in the June edition of InMaricopa magazine.