“High Stakes: Talking Pennsylvania Gambling With the Power Players” is an ongoing series by PlayPennsylvania featuring interviews with people who are shaping the PA casino and sports betting industry. In May 2021, total gaming revenue in PA was $413.2 million and the state collected about $170 million in taxes.
Kathy McCracken was announced as Wind Creek Casino’s new Executive Vice President and General Manager on Feb. 24 2020. She stepped into the role after Brian Carr left the organization. It was also about ten months after Las Vegas Sands‘ $1.3 billion sale to Wind Creek Hospitality became official.
McCracken, who most recently served as the Executive Vice President of Marketing and Operations, stepped into the new role with plans to lead the property’s expansion and enhance Wind Creek’s position in the region.
However, Wind Creek Casino and every casino in the country faced the biggest challenge in the history of the gambling industry. In mid-March, casinos in PA closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. What was at first supposed to be a two-week closure turned into three months.
In an interview with PlayPennsylvania, McCracken, a veteran of the gaming industry, talks about what she learned during the shutdown, reopening, increased competition, and building brand recognition for Wind Creek.
“Always something new”
What attracted and kept you in the gambling industry?
“I really do love the hospitality industry. You have administrative duties, strategy and marketing. But there is always a casino floor to walk and customers and team members to interact with. I enjoy being able to strategize the marketing plans and I’ve always worked with great, collaborative teams. There is always something new.”
Leadership and learning in a pandemic
During the time Wind Creek Casino was closed, what did you learn about yourself as a leader?
“The thing I noticed the most was the total support of the leadership team in Bethlehem. I truly benefit by collaborating with smart people. The team here (in Bethlehem) and the team in Alabama (Wind Creek Hospitality’s headquarters) collaborated really well. I felt totally supported in a brand new role. Of course closing the casino made me nervous. You don’t want your legacy to be that you shut down and people got laid off.”
Wind Creek paid employees until May 31 during the first shutdown. After they reopened in June, they were forced to make permanent layoffs. McCracken says Wind Creek currently employees about 1,500 people.
A massive effort and hiring challenges remain
Pennsylvania casinos started reopening in June 2020. One year later, PA casinos including Wind Creek are operating at nearly-full capacity, masks are not required for vaccinated guests and the plexiglass has been removed.
How would you describe the effort to get from March 2020 to now?
“It was a massive effort. The communication has been the key. Through the process you don’t get everything right. It’s still a massive effort because it’s difficult to hire people. I don’t think any of us thought that by the time we reopened to 100% capacity we would have difficulty hiring. The team members who have contributed through all of it, they are now being asked to work harder and smarter because we can’t get enough employees to go to 100% capacity. They are a strong team who cares about each other and the guests.”
Increased competition for PA casinos
There is more competition than ever for Pennsylvania casinos. There are fourteen online casinos. Live! Casino Philadelphia opened in February 2021 and a mini-casino, Live! Casino Pittsburgh, opened in the fall of 2020.
How do you stay competitive and keep customers engaged?
“We’ve always carefully thought out our marketing programs. We do a good job making sure our customers are rewarded and they feel they can escape here whether it’s for an hour or a weekend. When we reopened, all of our efforts were on guest and employee safety.”
Hopefully, we are on the “other side” of the pandemic. What are you looking forward to?
“Operating the building and working with the team on any improvements we can make whether its marketing or guest experience. It’s going to be nice getting back to some normalcy and seeing the success we can have running the building.”
Introducing Wind Creek Casino…again
There are still people who refer to Wind Creek Casino as Sands Bethlehem. McCracken admitted she isn’t completely pleased with the brand awareness of Wind Creek in PA and thinks their efforts were hampered by the pandemic.
“We didn’t get to fully introduce Wind Creek before we shut down. We had a Grand Opening in Oct. 2019 and had plans for more in the spring of 2020. Hopefully, we are able to give Wind Creek the introduction for the hospitality company it is and deserves.”
Some plans to re-introduce Wind Creek include a new commercial and planned events and giveaways during the summer. Currently, Wind Creek Casino has a $30,000 jackpot winners sweepstakes and a $2 million “Escape to Winning” slot sweepstakes.
FAQs about Wind Creek Casino
Will the buffet come back?
“I do see a time when the buffet returns.”
Have bus trips from New York to Wind Creek returned?
McCracken said that Wind Creek started the bus program after restrictions were lifted on out-of-state travel.
“We are running buses but it is a much different program than it was before. It is not as large and I don’t think it will ever be as large as it once was.”
Has drink service returned to Wind Creek?
“We’ve totally seen the change now that drink service has returned. You want to be a property that is a little bit of something for everyone. If you are watching the game at a sportsbook and want to have a drink or playing table games and want a beer, now you can do it. It’s made a huge difference.”
Does Wind Creek have a poker room?
The poker room at Wind Creek is reopening in the fall.
Does Wind Creek have an online casino?
Yes. Wind Creek’s online casino has about 90 slots and nine table games.
Is there a sportsbook at Wind Creek Casino?
The Betfred Sportsbook opened at Wind Creek Casino in late Nov. 2020. The 3,420-square-foot retail sportsbook has two state-of-the-art video walls. There are also 31 individual TVs, three betting windows and eight self-service betting kiosks.
Sports bettors can also place wagers at Betfred PA online sportsbook.
Help wanted at Wind Creek
Since reopening in January and increasing capacity, all PA casinos, like many other businesses, have been on the hunt for employees.
“I’ve seen such a big shortage of workers. We would have never thought that when we were hopefully on the other side that the next concern would be getting enough employees to serve our guests. I feel bad for the current workers who are diligently working knowing we are short-staffed. Our recruitment team is trying everything. We are in the same boat as people inside and outside of the industry.