CEO Special: Foxwoods Resort Casino's President & CEO Jason Guyot - the human element

September 19, 2023
By

Foxwoods Resort Casino's Jason Guyot speaks to Tim Poole about the joys – and challenges – of running a Tribal property. Not just any property, mind you – but a 9 million square-foot casino resort owned by the very Mashantucket Pequot Tribe Guyot is a member of.

A CEO, naturally, needs a well-rounded skill set. There are financial responsibilities, public relations responsibilities, operational responsibilities – and no shortage of crisis management responsibilities. But, arguably above all else, a CEO must deal with the human element of any organization. And that is perhaps no more apt than at a Tribal casino property, where players and employees alike can be considered family, and where the success of the business is intrinsically linked to the welfare of the Tribe.

For Jason Guyot, Foxwoods Resort Casino President & CEO, the human touch is more applicable than for most. Guyot’s background to over 20 years at Foxwoods in Connecticut is a HR one. Starting out with the property in March 2003, Guyot’s journey since has focused heavily on people – to the point where the CEO concludes that “team members are the most important aspect of our business.” He tells Gaming America, “It's interesting when I talk to a lot of CEOs about their careers. We tend to always end up in the operation somewhere, whether you start out as a frontline cook, as a host or as a front desk agent. When you start in HR, I think it's that drive and interest. I was always so intrigued with every aspect of the business. While I was in HR early in my career, I did a lot of research on different departments, to help with recruitment and understanding their policies and procedures; understanding that bridge between HR function, employment and the longer-term success of the operation.

“I do think it helps me a lot. I don’t know if it necessarily gives me a leg up on any CEOs, because they’ve all been cut from different aspects of the business. But I definitely value that time in my career. It has allowed me much more of a focus on the team members, specifically the employment process, retention and, really, just the way I want our team members to feel while they’re here at Foxwoods. I always say I want the team to feel comfortable, valued and important every day they walk through these doors. That’s still something I started early in my career and it drives me to this day. If we’re not accomplishing that, from a senior executive level or from a morale perspective, then we need to take a hard look at what we’re doing.”

 

20 years in 20 minutes

Geographically speaking, although Guyot’s journey has seen so much progression since he joined Foxwoods in 2003, he did not actually start out very far from the casino. In fact, during its grand opening in 1992, Guyot lived only 20 minutes away – in a small nearby town. Indeed, he grew up in the local area and is himself a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. Having attended the grand opening, Guyot grew up “very aware” of the casino. Even at a young age, he says he always had interest in that type of business, working as a bellhop as a teenager – gaining a summer’s experience as a “first real opportunity to understand what hospitality was.” It was a summer job Guyot “really loved” – an experience that influenced his thinking upon graduation. Completing a degree in behavioral science at Mitchell College in New London, the question that now faced him was: what should he do next?

Guyot initially thought he would go into social work or something similar. But, after a thorough job search, the HR department at Foxwoods came calling – and he felt “fortunate” to secure a role managing employment and diversity at the casino resort. This was his entry point to the business and the start of an upward trajectory, one that saw him first rise to Director of Employment and then embark on his next opportunity during a grand expansion at the property. The opening of the Fox Tower – which included around 800 hotel rooms, five restaurants, a 4,000-seat theater and a 60,000 square-foot gaming floor – saw heavy involvement from Guyot. Here, he took the chance to move from human resources to become Director of Operations and Shared Services in late 2007, overseeing the whole development.

 

The only way is up

Guyot tells Gaming America that the Fox Tower opening “really thrust me directly into operations and pre-opening. At that time, I had oversight of the HR functions at the Fox Tower along with several other operational front line departments, including oversight of the final stages of construction,” he continues. “We were working with Tutor Perini and Bertino & Associates. So, like I said, it thrust me right into pre-opening and operations – and I loved it. I had always wanted to get into operations, but never knew when that opportunity was going to present itself. In the end, it did just by circumstance; I actually went to Las Vegas to do a review of policies and procedures for one of our partners. At the time, we were opening that side of the resort and I went with the General Manager we had hired to open the Fox Tower.”

That General Manager was Gillian Murphy, someone Guyot explains ended up becoming one of his mentors; not least because, upon their return, Murphy offered Guyot a position to work directly for her. “You never know” when such opportunities present themselves, so the exec “obviously jumped” at the chance. For a Tribe of 1,000 members, Guyot was pleasantly surprised to know someone within that Tribe who was equally passionate about the business and able to help him progress. “If you compare it to a family-run business, how often do the children or other people in the family take over that business? It’s kind of rare but definitely something I enjoyed. That allowed me that first opportunity to dive into operations and really set my career on track to end up where I am now, several years later.”

 

Long-term Restructuring

When Guyot was eventually named Foxwoods Resort Casino CEO – on an interim basis at first, in April 2020 – the executive was faced with a rather unusual first few months on the job. Much like for Mary Cheeks and Jonathan Jossel, the other interviewees in our CEO Special who lead individual properties, those months saw no customers, no hospitality and no gaming. Instead, while Foxwoods was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Guyot’s focus was on restructuring the “entire organization” to build for the long term – and ensure the property could spring back into action as soon as it was allowed to reopen for business. Indeed, when Guyot was asked to step in as Interim President and CEO, it was the first time in its history that the Foxwoods resort had ever been closed – a “challenge in itself.”

That closure lasted just over three months, affecting 5,000 employees and ensuring Guyot’s every decision as Interim CEO had to focus on the future. Unprecedented scenarios for a Foxwoods CEO included figuring out how to bring back the property’s best team members and calculating ways to operate more efficiently. For Guyot, though, the pandemic was not the only consideration. On top of Covid-19, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe knew it was going to face another challenge in the shape of new competition, with gaming in nearby Massachusetts – among other states – seeing a greater range of options for players.

These factors threw Guyot in at the deep end, as the CEO role already brings with it “a lot of added pressure.” But for someone who had already been at the property for almost two decades, and himself a member of the Tribe, Guyot was determined to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. “I already had a lot of responsibility at that time as SVP of Resort Operations and overseeing development,” he explains. “I had strong relationships and knew how the operation functioned. We had an idea of where we felt challenges were, and so we were able to jump right in with those relationships and understanding. Obviously, there was a lot of added responsibility and we were being looked up to by the team to provide answers. So that was definitely a change but one that we welcomed.”

Guyot is eager to add that the “seasoned team” at Foxwoods – one the property continues to have – was a great help. “This is not an organization where any one individual can make that change. It takes a team effort. And I think the relationships I had, and how quickly we got the team on board with our new direction, really helped that transition. It's all about inspiring the team, making decisions that are in the best interest of the Tribe and for the future. I think we’ve got everyone on board and continue to try to do that on a day-to-day basis.”

 

Renovating to innovate

That spirit of change did not cease after Guyot’s debut at the helm. In March 2021, he was named President & CEO on a permanent basis and, to this day, redevelopments at Foxwoods Resort Casino persist. The pandemic period of closure allowed Guyot and the wider Foxwoods team to “take a hard look” at their overall property footprint. At over nine million square feet, the CEO points out that it is one of the planet’s largest casinos. In growing so quickly, however, and as the result of a “fast-paced rush to expand in 1992 and moving through the mid-2000s,” the resort was “disjointed in places.” Some difficult reflection was required as to how Foxwoods could be so large in size but so challenging to operate profitably over the years.

“How can we really look to somewhat condense the footprint but expand the amenities within that operating footprint?” Guyot asks out loud. Finding the answer to that question has been one of his primary focuses ever since, driving the many resort updates and modernizations that have followed. “We look at the competition that’s come in,” he says. “In 1992 we were one of three jurisdictions with gaming. It was Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Foxwoods. Now we’re surrounded by four states that all have major gaming players and they’re all opening with similar amenities. They have slots, table games, restaurants, entertainment and basically the same amenities. But what we have here to leverage is the square footage. We have our location directly between New York and Boston – there are over 30 million people there. So how can we compete in the future?”

Turning those nine million square feet into a fully integrated resort destination became a key focus – particularly for the past 18-24 months (2021-2023). Guyot says $80m and counting has been invested back into the property. Projects have included opening a new high-stakes bingo arena, bringing in celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, opening a new player lounge and updating the property’s Asian food offering with the Golden Dragon – all with the aim of creating a “dynamic hub of activity.” Many projects are still upcoming, and most recently Foxwoods opened the new Pequot Woodlands Casino adjacent to Gordon Ramsay Hell's Kitchen, alongside a new high-limit area, more table games and a greater volume of slot machines – all at the center of the property.

 

Family first

Guyot also singles out a “landmark deal” struck with Great Wolf Lodge, a chain of indoor water parks that is opening a brand new lodge in March 2025. It will bring to Mashantucket (adjacent to Foxwoods) a 90-square-foot indoor water park, a 60,000-foot indoor family entertainment center and an additional 550 hotel rooms. Guyot describes it as a “game changer” for driving new demographics to the property and evolving Foxwoods in its quest to become the “greatest integrated resort destination in the Northeast.”

And that family theme is not just restricted to Foxwoods customers. When Gaming America asks Guyot about the differences between running a Tribal property and an equivalent job in commercial gaming, the CEO is keen to discuss the “family-run” nature of the organization. “I think it’s unique for me,” he says, “being the first Tribal member to become CEO here at Foxwoods. That’s unique in itself and this is a family-owned business. It is much different to a lot of corporations and other, better-known regional corporate gaming entities.”

Foxwoods’ Tribal heritage does, though, bring with it added weight in other areas. The Tribe will “always be here.” As Guyot explains, “This is our reservation and we’re never going to leave.” Even if there is expansion, Foxwoods in Mashantucket Pequot will always remain – the driving force behind so many decisions the Tribe makes on a daily basis. This, however, adds “a lot more thought and pressure to some of our decision,” Guyot admits. “This is my home and this is our Tribe. So anything we decide to do is not based on a short-term return. It’s going to be based on long-term results.”

At the same time, Guyot believes working for a Tribal-owned business allows for a far quicker decision-making process. The President & CEO reports to a seven-member Tribal Council – one he feels is “very supportive.” The Council meets on a regular basis and is the final decision maker for Guyot and Foxwoods’ senior team. “So if we have plans to renovate or enhance areas of the property,  we can go directly into our Council, state our case and why we feel like it’s a good way to spend our capital dollars; we can get immediate buy in or feedback. And I think that’s not something you see in a lot of larger organizations – the ability to move that quickly. We would say this Council have been extremely supportive through the most challenging times in our history, going through a Covid-19 shutdown, not knowing what the future was going to be, not knowing if we were even going to open again. Getting through that with our Council and our team has really forged a bond, and a level of trust that’s hard to duplicate. I still appreciate that to this day, as does the rest of our senior team.”

 

“Connecticut’s success is our success”

Away from the boardroom, and away from the playing tables at Foxwoods, Guyot is heavily involved with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and local community. He sits on several Boards, such as the Connecticut Restaurant Association, the Special Olympics Connecticut and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. Guyot is also part of the Board at his alma mater, Mitchell College, as well as the Connecticut Office of Tourism. “I try to make sure I’m involved in all of these different areas, not only for Foxwoods and the future of the Tribe, but also the future success of Connecticut,” he says. “Because Connecticut’s success is our success, and I think it’s going to remain a very important piece of what we do here and what’s important to me.”

This is a message and mentality Guyot spreads to his senior team, with several of them following suit and joining various Boards to increase their involvement with the community. “I just don’t think you could ever do enough. Me sitting on five or six Boards is a lot and it adds a lot of time. But there are a lot of positives that come from that and understanding the challenges of other businesses. For example, understanding opportunities on the restaurant side, understanding how we can drive more tourism to Connecticut and bolster the economy, which will only benefit Foxwoods and the Tribe longer term. Those are probably what take up most of my time outside the property. And I feel like I get the most value out of just meeting with other business owners and discussing ways we can improve our business, and improve the economy.”

 

Back to the future

As our conversation with Guyot draws to a close, the CEO’s passion for developing the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe in a sustainable fashion returns to the fore. He wants Foxwoods to form a “long-term foundation” for future generations and Tribal members that are relying on the property as a source of economic stability. Although, as Guyot has already explained, that “weighs a little bit heavier,” the executive still places a high value on having “great morale” and “treating team members right.” These goals are aided by the many developments currently in progress at Foxwoods – such as the aforementioned Great Wolf Lodge, the Lake of Isles golf course and further potential opportunities at the 1,200 acres of land that surround Foxwoods. With all this in mind, Guyot believes Foxwoods is on its way to achieving his goal of creating the Northeast’s greatest integrated resort destination – but he knows “a lot more” work remains.

To attain that success – and create the optimum conditions for the work that will get Foxwoods there – Guyot emphasizes the “stability” of the property’s team members. “When we talk about how unstable the economy has been, I think team members in all businesses, specifically hospitality, have been hit extremely hard,” Guyot states. “Thinking about the way they feel and how they can live their lives and really flourish, given those challenges, is something that occupies me. I talk to our executive team all the time about what changes we can implement to make it a more enjoyable place for our team to work – so that they can raise their families and have an enjoyable life.”

It is perhaps fair to say Guyot’s roots in human resources come into play one last time, as the executive concludes, “We always talk about all of our team being part of a larger Foxwoods family and part of the Tribe. So those are things that keep me up, thinking about how I can provide stability, and balance that with revenues and the profitability of the resort.”

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