Access4Success | Desert Diamond GM | Don Ayers
Last week Don Ayers together with his team and the Tohono O’odham Nation opened the $400 million, 1.2 million-square-foot class III casino – the new Desert Diamond West Valley Casino in Glendale, Arizona.
What strikes me the most during my time with Don is his “aura of serenity” and calm demeanor, I can’t imagine him ever losing his cool! Using only three words I’d describe him as:
♦️ Serene ♦️ Kind ♦️ Wise
Here are some priceless words of wisdom from this seasoned professional who started his career at the Dunes Hotel (Bellagio) and the MGM Grand 35 years ago.
Haydee: You have been working in slots most of your career. How did you obtain your overall casino background experience in order to reach GM level?
Don: You have to be REALLY good at what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a slots or a table games person – you have to be really good at one main thing. Nobody could live long enough to be good at every part of a casino operation. It might take you 10 or 12 years to be really good at one part and then another for food beverage and another for table games etc. You don’t have that long. You have to know your part beyond a doubt, because that will allow you the freedom to learn how all the rest of the business operates.
So, once I had the slot part down then I had the capacity to learn how other departments operated. For example, there were times when I worked in a casino where somebody left and there was a vacancy in player development or another department. This is when I’d put up my hand and say, “If you need me until we get somebody new, I’ll come and help you.”
I didn’t feel I had to know how to make a dry martini stirred, deal Baccarat or cook a Spanish omelette, but I needed to know how food and beverage works. I needed to know how it fits into the fabric of a casino.
What has been your biggest challenge leading up to the opening of your expansion?
Onboarding. The unemployment is the lowest it’s been in 50 years, so finding great staff is very competitive A major challenge is that there are a lot of positions that have to be licensed. This can take a few weeks, so it is sometimes hard for people that are unemployed to wait around for this to happen. Our recruiting is stringent, and we only want the best people. On average we go through 18 -20 people, to hire one.
What is the main thing that you would give credit to Desert Diamond’s success?
The resilience and the unwavering commitment of the gaming enterprise and the Tohono O’odham Nation, to say we are going to do what’s right. We are not going to compromise ourselves. We are going to keep our integrity through this whole process. They fought for what was right. They won all the lawsuits. When we opened, our competitors said it’s not going to be good and told their guests we were doing this and that wrong, and all of those kinds of things to try to protect their business. We said, we have to make sure that when people come in here, they can say that’s not true. So, we paid attention and made the guest experience our priority. The Tohono O’odham nation also gives back to the communities here in Arizona, their philosophy of giving back is something I admire and align with.
I’ve asked many GM’s in gaming “What is your property’s differentiating factor?” Time and again I hear the same answer – the guest experience. What do you feel the secret of Desert Diamond’s Success is?
It’s a recipe. The guest experience is the cake. It relies on a lot of ingredients that make it up. you still need to have the right amount of sugar and flour – the right amount of everything that will make for a delicious cake. This includes your internal guest experience. If your team members don’t feel part of the buy in of what you are trying to do, they will not have passion for where they work. You need to start with the recruitment of the people that are going to work there and ensure that you are training the culture and values correctly. You have to take care of your team members, they must feel valued and appreciated.
How do you influence and impact your teams? What is it that you do that makes them respect you?
Talk to them, visit them in their departments and don’t have them freak out that the general manager or the director is there. They have to be able to say “Hi, how are you?” and feel comfortable with somebody walking in at any time. I want them to say, the GM came and saw us, and it was cool, my visit should not send them into fear mode. This only happens if you spend time and cultivate that.
What is your most effective marketing tool to attract customers?
Whatever gets them off their couch and into our property. Whether they see an ad on TV or a billboard driving home from work. But then we have to deliver. From the minute your front wheels hit the property to when your back wheels leave the property. If we don’t deliver what we are promising in our advertising, customers will stop listening to our ads. If we put up a slick advert that draws customers in, but their experience is not what was portrayed, they are going to feel lied to.
What do you feel are some of the critical mistakes emerging/ young leaders make?
When leaders are younger, they have a lot of bravado, as success comes their way. They have to learn how to be and remain humble. You get people in a leadership position, that have the attitude of, I AM THE BOSS. Meanwhile, you are not actually the boss, somebody owns the place, that’s the owner, and he is the boss. You are here to carry out your particular role in a responsible fashion. Leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of the people that are in your charge.
Yes, I reached out when I was younger, to people in different departments, from my peer group and asked if we could have lunch. I would ask them questions, and they would ask them of me, and we would get to know each other’s competencies. From there I would start building my awareness of how the other parts of the casino worked and go and seek that knowledge. I also knew there was so much more that I didn’t know. I wanted to work out how I could integrate what I knew with what they knew and become better.
With you being in tribal gaming, so much more so, your “bosses” are actually the tribal members.
Right. That’s one of the things that made me fall in love with tribal gaming. Especially where I work now. Before, in corporate gaming, if you did a great job, the owners bought another property or “adventure”. When they did well their stock prices went up and that was great for them. But now, if I do my job very well, in a tribal organization, especially at Desert Diamond Casinos, which is a large tribe with 30,000 tribal members, the people immediately benefit. Not just one person or the shareholders.
Many people will have better healthcare, can go to college and get an education. From here the next great scientist or political leader that makes revolutionary changes can emerge. You don’t know where the next anybody’s going to come from. We can help tribal members that would not have had the ability to reach those goals. To become self-sufficient, and have their kids have a generational shift from where they came from. That giving back part makes me feel better about my role as a leader.
What do you feel is necessary to grow better leaders in Tribal Gaming?
I have been very fortunate in my career and with that comes a responsibility to share knowledge and to help others in our industry.
I believe all of us who have been fortunate to have achieved success and work in tribal gaming have a responsibly to share our knowledge to responsibly mentor tribal members who want to become tribal leaders in this industry.
Certain tribal casinos have people that have only worked and lived there. There is no gaining of new experiences or skill sets. This makes it hard for them to grow and become more competitive with other places that have employees that have a broader experience. It’s essential to be open to the different ways of doing things from the outside. Setting that culture of, we have to be current is so important. It’s important for our tribal leaders to have a planned career path that gives them the right skill to do the job and the time to hone those skill to be competitively sharp..
From sending them to gaming school in Vegas to finding them an internship forum in Atlantic City to draw from different, rather than just the homegrown experiences, is key.
If you had to have lunch with a famous icon, dead or alive, who would it be?
On a leadership basis – Steve Jobs, he had a great vision and stuck to it. Colonel Sanders is another. Even though no one saw his vision and he was knocked down so many times, he didn’t get discouraged. He had true resilience to keep going and become successful. I love those stories.
What leadership quote do you live by?
“You won’t succeed unless they do”. If your team is not successful in their roles, and you don’t support them, it will never work.
Inspiring words by a true gentleman and leader, who will elevate Desert Diamond to new success levels!