September 14, 2021 Land Based

Walking the Walk


Resilience and empathy work hand in hand for Melonie Johnson, Borgata president and COO. From her response to the pandemic to a minor power outage at the property, how she manages challenges of every shape and description is steeped in her career and upbringing in the Gulf Coast.

During a recent power outage at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Melonie Johnson was reminded of the importance of being surrounded by a supportive team. The Borgata president and COO sat at her desk, made one call to check on surveillance and a few more strategic calls to get the power up and running. Without even having to leave her place, the Borgata team got power back on in 33 minutes.

“You could hear the guests do a round of applause,” Johnson says proudly.

Compared to what else Johnson has dealt with over the last year as president of one of Atlantic City’s largest casinos, a half-hour power outage doesn’t chart very high on the scale of emergencies. It was, however, a chance for her to reflect on her leadership skills, which have been put to the test by Covid-19 and the ongoing transition to an eventual post-pandemic world.

“On the gaming floor, it’s managing by allowing your leaders to do what they do best versus wreaking havoc,” she says. “It’s staying calm, setting the pace, and allowing them to know that I trust in their ability to execute.”

Johnson’s first days managing Borgata were anything but ordinary. She joined the casino in August 2020 after nearly four years at MGM National Harbor in Maryland. When she arrived to her new home, Borgata was just a month removed from being the last Atlantic City casino to reopen from the pandemic. Johnson says the casino’s fourth-month closure between March and July of last year was “very eerie.” More than a year later, Johnson is feeling more comfortable as Borgata returns to full operations.

“Having all of our restaurants open, having all of our table  games open, having all of our slot machines open, not having  to have polycarbonate barriers to protect guests and employees,  it feels good; it feels liberating,” she says. “It’s a sense of normalcy that I think all Americans have been waiting for.”

Borgata has brought back live entertainment including music and comedy shows as well. The casino is back to booking headliners for its event center, and the return of Borgata’s staple Gypsy Bar has guests feeling like it’s old times even as the property debuts new venues and amenities. The biggest change in the Borgata guest experience over the last year is the arrival of mobile check-in and cashless gaming transactions.

“Mobile check-in gives the customer the option to check in and get their room key via their cell phone and not have to go  to the front desk or touch anything, and it’s something very new,  it’s exciting,” Johnson says. “We just had a major floor conversion with our slot machines and the rest of our casino management system, and we’re building our platform for cashless transactions in the future.”

Still, Borgata continues having hand washing stations throughout the casino, and restaurants also use digital codes on menus. Recently the property began testing a new digital ordering system from the pool area where a customer can place a drink or food order on their cell phone and the order is delivered directly to the guest.

As a result of the difficulties of last year, the Borgata has been forced to depend more on digital business since the pandemic, and nowhere is that exemplified more than the property’s initiative for online sports betting, casino and poker.

As the first Atlantic City casino to launch sports betting in June 2018, Borgata and sportsbook partner BetMGM have built one of the region’s most trusted brands.

Borgata’s online casino, meanwhile, consistently brings in more than $30m in revenue per month. Since March 2021, Borgata has knocked off rival Golden Nugget as the top igaming provider in the state. The casino’s online poker platform has seen tremendous success too, so much so that BetMGM recently expanded Borgata Poker to neighboring Pennsylvania.

The growth in sports betting and online casino play helped Borgata turn a first quarter 2021 operating profit of more than $29m, a 28% improvement from the same period in 2020.

“It’s a combination of online gaming and sports betting that’s truly helping,” Johnson says. “What has it done for us? It’s allowed us to open our database to a broader group of individuals who may not have been brick-and-mortar casino players, so right now it’s an acquisition for us. This is what we’re looking forward to. We’re having new people involved in gaming and wanting to come and visit our establishments. If it’s not just Borgata, it’s one of the other MGM properties.”

Amid the excitement of bringing back entertainment and popular venues, plus adding new enhancements, Borgata is one of several Atlantic City casinos dealing with worker shortage.

“We’re having the same problem that the rest of America is having about getting team members back to work,” Johnson says. “We’re doing everything humanly possible to offer employment to our employees to get them back on board, but in Atlantic City every gaming establishment is having the same problems that we’re having. We’re having to write down our business in order to take care of the customers with the number of employees that we have, so we’re making sure that we only sell what we can take care of.”

Johnson understands that employees have suffered a tumultuous last 18 months. Borgata had to lay off more than 2,000 last September as casino capacity restrictions held down revenue. Now that the casino is rehiring for some of those same positions that were eliminated, Johnson empathizes with workers who are trying to get back on their feet.

“I believe in walking in shoes and understanding the employee journey, understanding the guest journey and listening,” Johnson says. “Listening is first and foremost for me. I want to hear what you’ve got to say, I want to understand what you have to say, and we make decisions based upon that. I don’t believe in coming in, and it has to be my way. It’s a team effort and it’s a collective. When you get individuals to buy in, you have much more success.”

Johnson’s empathy-driven leadership style is grounded in her experiences growing up and working in the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When Hurricane Katrina struck the region in 2005, she experienced how quickly normalcy can be turned on its head. Johnson has come to rely on the lessons learned in that period of her life as she guides Borgata out of the pandemic.

“With Hurricane Katrina, you were in this closed pocket whereas the rest of the United States was open, you could travel, and you could do whatever you wanted; you still had  that freedom,” Johnson says. “But with Covid-19, it pretty much shut the world down. That was a very humbling experience for me. Where I thought Hurricane Katrina was devastating, we maneuvered and worked our way through that and recovered, but going through Covid-19, everyone was on the same platform. So that just made me think very differently about how I manage myself, how I manage the property, how to manage customers, how to manage employees,  and have more empathy.”