From Adversity Comes Opportunity: COVID-19 Re-opening Changes and Suggestions

“It’s a brave new world. The old rule book has been thrown out.”most of us

With the closure of all casinos and most restaurants it certainly can be said that the hospitality industry is in a period of adversity. Most understand that things will be different, and in most cases never go back to the way things were before, referred to by many as the “new normal”. This is not all bad news.

Four thoughts are commonly shared by many regarding the “new normal”

Anxiety is real. It may be a long time until your customers and staff are comfortable being in proximity to other people. Social distancing will prevail and will provide a challenge in all areas for operators including gaming, dining, and special events. Cleanliness, sanitation, and environmental safety are critically important in making casino customers feel comfortable enough to return to restaurants and casinos.

Most customers will have less available expendable income for entertainment. The challenge for casino operators will be to provide an entertainment experience that feels like a great value for customers above other competing entertainment options that they have available. This is a time for providing more value to casino customers, not less. Food and Beverage will be become an even a stronger value as a reward for gaming.

The need to get out of the house initially will be strong for customers.  After being separated from activities and places, people will want to go places and do things. This will be balanced against their concerns of distancing and reduced expendable income.

The “new normal” is constantly changing and evolving. Whatever today’s normal is will likely not be next week’s normal. Flexibility of operators and staff will be crucial. Plan for contingencies and various “what if” situations. Be prepared.

New Opportunities Abound

There are new rules which will be constantly changing. Operators should view their concepts as starting from scratch. The old rules are gone. Everything is available for consideration, reinvention and reset. There is no better time to review all aspects of concept, product, guest service and systems.

  • New opportunities will exist to connect and talk to all customers and staff. This constant communication is vital as the business environment and landscape will be changing every day.
  • It is time to streamline. Simplification is the new way. Smaller, more flexible menus.
  • It is time to correct pricing. Correct the past underpricing in full-service outlet menus that in many cases, were almost the same as carry out prices.
  • Realize and embrace the new opportunities for more carry out business as players are leaving the casino at the end of their visit. Many may choose initially to avoid sitting for an extended period of time in a dining room.
  • Embrace new opportunities to add technology to create streamlined processes, offer more customization, remove physical “touch points” and go greener. Most customers have cell phones and smart devices which can be used for interaction. Both the customers and operators will be constantly “re-training” each other.
  • Emphasize the benefits of more flexibility of the hours of operations. In the past typically slower days and hours were dreaded by operators, now they may be more attractive for some customers allowing for less contact with other people.

New Realities of Casino Food and Beverage

Distancing: Commonly referred to as “social distancing” this is truly a misnomer. The true term should be “physical distancing”.  Casinos are social operations for the customers and staff. People may have stayed at home and practiced physical distancing using social media and technology but still had many opportunities to be socially engaged on a remote basis with friends, family, co-workers, and work. Casino operators will seek to physically distance players and staff for their sense of safety while still providing a socially connected and engaging environment. The level of trust and safety created by the casino with its players can become a point of differentiation from other competitors.

Customers and staff will have an initial level of tolerance for the new guidelines, changes, and practices. Everyone’s level of tolerance will change over time and likely at different rates. The only way to understand and gauge people’s feelings is to constantly communicate with them.  Your customers may be comfortable with the new safeguards when initially reopening along with the procedures provided by the casino. Your customers may actually be more wary for their safety from contact with other customers. The casino staff may even have greater anxiety over their safety than your customers do themselves. Consider reassigning concerned staff members work positions that may improve their level of comfort. Some front of the house staff may be more comfortable working in the back of the house initially. Your entire staff will benefit on a long-term basis from this cross training and temporary reassignments as skill levels will expand and staff will better understand what the daily reality is of another staff member’s position.

The Buffet: Your buffet should not reopen if possible.  If this is unavoidable reduce capacity and use staff to dish up food to guests or provide individual portions at stations. Every item must have sneeze guards to protect staff in addition to food products. Many operators have been losing considerable profits operating buffets in the past and have been challenged with poor food quality during slow business periods. This is the time to re-concept the buffet into other outlets. There will never be a time with less resistance to this change. The old buffet comp rewards for players can become other discounts and free offers to other food and beverage outlets.  Players love choices and seniors love to be able to scale the amount of food they consume in areas other than “all you can eat”.

Which Outlets to Open First: If phasing the reopening of food and beverage outlets, open the quick serve/grab and go outlets first. Install online ordering and touchless payment. If it is not possible to add this technology allow phone in orders. Spread out spacing in pick up areas.

Opening Menus: When gradually reopening outlets revise and slim down menus to the previous top 20 menu items and feature daily specials to compensate for a smaller menu.  A smaller simpler menu will help staff. Many guests will appreciate being able to quickly select an item and order from a smaller list. Rotate favorite past menu items that are not on the new menu as daily specials.

Scheduling: Use demand-based scheduling not fixed guaranteed schedules. Install software that automates the scheduling against sales volumes. Volumes will be a daily guessing game, but technology can help track efforts. Simplify prep and cooking processes in the back of the house kitchen including purchasing some prepared items from outside suppliers. Consider have specific prepared food items duplicated by suppliers to follow exact recipes. Whether made fresh onsite or offsite the products can be the same utilizing less back of the house staff and reducing congestion in these areas. Staffing requirements of customer facing service positions, who are now tasked with performing the new sanitation protocols, will be increased, and can be balanced against reduced kitchen staffing in prep and production areas.

The New Casino Food and Beverage Customer: Players will be happy to have new options to cooking at home. They may not see value in paying menu prices and prioritize the use of their expendable income for entertainment including gaming over food and beverage purchases. They may also choose to take their meal to go with them at the end of their visit.

Continuous Training and Communication will be Critical: Practices and procedures will be constantly changing along with new processes and operational requirements. It will be especially important to train each shift. Clearly communicate new safety practices to guests via website, emails, and signage along with your pledge of insured compliance. This can significantly provide your guests with a feeling of confidence and trust.

Health Considerations: Health officials and guidelines will determine direct practices at each casino. The following agencies have issued reopening guidelines: National Restaurant Association, Food and Drug Administration, CDC, and local/Regional/State health agencies. Most concur on their recommendations with different levels of depth of materials. Operators will be constantly inventing and adjusting strategies as time goes along.

Connection with Customers and Community: Now is the best time to connect closely with customers: Talk with them to understand their feelings. As the re-invention process evolves, customers will become your advocates and promote your business when they have a voice in new direction. Many properties have done amazing things during the closure to support the community and organizations. Now is the best time to continue these activities and communicate this to your players. Emphasize the unique differences of your operation: As the new directions are charted it is important to accentuate the new and continuing unique elements that separate the casino and outlets from the competition.

COVID-19 Reopening Guidance

These are some of the key industry guidelines including suggestions from government agencies. Each property will have additional items.

Food Safety

All food safety practices from pre-COVID times will be in place with the addition of additional standards.

Where salad bars and buffets are permitted by local/state officials, they must have sneeze guards in place. Change, wash and sanitize utensils frequently and place appropriate barriers in open areas.

Supervisors should be SERVSafe certified and their certification should be up to date. Provide food handler refresher training for all employees.

Cleaning and Sanitizing

Continuously Detail-clean and Sanitize the Entire Facility. Focus on high-contact areas that would be touched by both employees and guests. Implement standards and procedures that dictate strict timing rules for how often surfaces are cleaned and sanitized in the dining room and back-of house.

Between Seatings, Clean and Sanitize table condiments, digital ordering devices, check presenters, self-service areas, tabletops, seats, and common touch areas. Single-use items should be discarded.

Provide Single Use Disposable Menus or Clean and Sanitize Laminated Reusable Menus between each use. Provide a link to your mobile app with the menu available to allow viewing on the guest’s device. This can be a great way to minimizing physical menu use.

Dining Room Table Condiments: No condiments should be left on tabletops. Convert to portion-controlled condiments. Sanitized condiments must be delivered by the server, specific to what is ordered by the guests and removed after the guests leave.

Table Presets: The tabletop should be empty when guests are seated. Use rolled silverware in sanitary plastic bags.

Self-Service Beverage Stations: Provide a staff member to take and fill beverage orders to avoid the necessity of self service.Remove condiments, sweeteners, creamers, lemons, and unwrapped straws from self-service drink stations.

Bar Service: At this time consideration should be given to using all disposable beverage serviceware on the casino floor. Additional sanitized cocktail service trays should be stocked in each service station allowing a new sanitized tray to be used by servers for each delivery trip. Servers should maintain a minimum number of items on their trays.

Bar Garnish: all bar condiments and garnishes must be stored in covered containers behind the bar and be dispensed by bartender or barback.

Hand Sanitizer for Customers: Make hand sanitizer readily available to guests. Consider touchless hand sanitizing solutions.

Restrooms: Check restrooms regularly and clean and sanitize them based on frequency of use.

Employee Health Monitoring and Personal Hygiene

Staff members who are sick may not work or enter the workplace. Per existing FDA Food Code requirements, employees who are sick should remain at home.

Temperature Checks. The CDC has not mandated taking an employee’s temperature. Any operator who chooses to do or is directed to do so by health officials must follow their policies aligned with proper procedures. CDC guidance states the minimum temperature that indicates a fever is 100°F. This should be grounds for further investigation.

Staff Members who become ill while working. If an employee becomes ill or presents signs of illness, the operator should identify the signs during a pre-work screening and follow the business’s established policies. Follow CDC guidelines regarding reporting, self-isolation and return to work.   

Face Coverings: In some states and local jurisdictions, face coverings are required by government officials. Where face coverings are not mandated, consider requiring waitstaff to wear face coverings if they have direct contact with guests. This can help the customers and staff feel more comfortable.

Handwashing and Hand Sanitizers: Train all employees on the importance of frequent hand washing following the proper procedures outlined by health officials. Staff must avoid touching hands to face, mouth and nose.

Consider the Emotional Health of Staff Members: These are frightening times for staff members. Many have been self-isolated at home and are returning into an active physical interaction space. Parents may have considerable concern for their children who may be back in a childcare environment during staff work hours. Talk frequently both one-on-one and in small groups. Other staff members can be tremendous assets of hope and support to other staff members. Encourage staff to reach out to EAP for help.

Social Distancing/Physical Distancing

Dining Room Seating Spacing: Update floor plans for common dining areas, redesigning seating arrangements to ensure at least six feet of separation between guests. Physically remove dining room furniture: When possible, temporarily remove some of the tables and chairs from the dining room and place them in storage. This will create more space between customers. Remove tables between closely spaced booths and banquettes. Limit party size at tables to no more than the established “maximums approved” as recommended by CDC or approved by local and state government. Where practical, especially in booth seating, physical barriers are acceptable. All social distancing seating capacity measurements and calculations should be based upon square footage including service areas as well as guest areas.

Cashier Stations: If practical, physical barriers such as partitions or plexiglas barriers at registers are acceptable. Use contactless payment options when possible. Credit card/debit card readers should be self-service for the customers. Provide sanitizer wipes for customer cards after use. Sanitize reader touch pads frequently. Follow device manufacturer guidelines for sanitizing these devices to avoid damaging them.

Use Technology Solutions Where Possible to reduce person-to-person interaction: Consider mobile ordering and menu tablets; text on arrival for seating; contactless payment options.

Customer Waiting Areas and Lines: Do not to allow guests to congregate in waiting areas or bar areas. Design a process to ensure guests stay separate while waiting to be seated. The process can include floor markings, outdoor distancing, waiting in cars, etc. If a call system is not in place, start using a customer paging system, preferably using guest cell phones to eliminate lines and queuing. Consider a reservations-only business model or call-ahead seating to better space diners in full-service outlets.

Entrances and Exits: Consider an exit from the facility separate from the entrance.

Staff Workstations: Where possible, workstations should be staggered so employees avoid standing directly opposite one another or next to each other. Where six feet of separation is not possible, consider other options (e.g., face coverings) and increase the frequency of surface cleaning and sanitizing. Limit the number of employees allowed simultaneously in break rooms. With larger staffs, use communication boards, videos to or digital messaging to convey pre-shift meeting information

Flexibility will prevail: Eliminate the “Can’t Dos” and Think “Far Outside the Box”

The best operators will work in an environment of flexibility and continuous change to accommodate customers and staff in the areas of safety, guest service, player experience and continuous business success. There will never be a better time for change, adoption and streamlining processes.

Think Creatively. Here are some ideas:

Consider cashless operations by converting to a single players card with cash loaded onto it by the player. When used touchless at gaming positions, winnings and points go onto the card. Cash can remain on the card between visits or be redeemed at a kiosk. Cash/currency would be eliminated from slots and table games. Tremendous data will be available with the merging of operations onto a single card or mobile app. Biometrics or QR codes issued on the player’s mobile device while logged in could be used for identification and 2-step verification security. Note: the conversion to loading cash onto a player’s card will require revision of applicable gaming regulations specific to each casino’s oversight.

Use cash validator/dispensing systems at cashier stations similar to ATM or self-service grocery check-out stations to minimize or eliminate staff and customers handling cash. The patron puts cash payment into the machine and receives sanitized change this way.

Eliminate coins. Round up or round down odd change amounts.  Convert to quarters only if coins are deemed necessary. Provide an option to donate odd change amount differences to local charities or a food bank similar to a wishing well

Concentrate on cloud-based software verses hardware and short-term rental/lease versus purchasing and owning systems that may be quickly become obsolete. Think new technology, this will be constantly evolving.

Test new UV Light based sanitation systems. Not only are there scanner-based devices but new partitions that can be programmed to self-sterilize. Reduce the use of chemicals and wiping with technology. Any processes that eliminate or minimize liquids contacting electronics are beneficial.

Never Stop Reading and Researching.  This will be a rapidly evolving marketplace filled with creative minds, who now have new careers due to displacement from their previous job by COVID-19.

The hospitality industry is comprised of survivors. As with any challenge things will change and certainly be different. The strongest and most creative operators will lead the industry in figuring out how to best use this time for the benefit of customers, staff, the business, and ownership.

Read the Original Article in the June 2020 Issue of Indian Gaming Magazine:

From Adversity Comes Opportunity: COVID-19 Reopening Changes and Suggestions

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