As Executive Director of Hotel Operations for Ocean Casino Resort, Ryan Burch had an unbelievable year. As we emerge on the other side of an unprecedented pandemic, Burch and I sat down and reflected on not just the challenges that he overcame, but on the work that is yet to come (as well as the game-changing differences made to the property this past year)!
Michael Cook: How did you find yourself in the hospitality world to begin with?
Ryan Burch: I actually got into hospitality in high school. We hosted charity events around the school, and I had a class that involved coordinating those events. I had already worked in restaurants at sixteen, so I had some service in my background. I realized in high school how much I enjoyed it and decided that it was finally time to buckle down and make something of myself in college; that is when I started focusing on hospitality and going in that direction.
MC: The last year has been the definition of change, especially for the casino business. What has it been like to be one of the people that has been essentially steering the ship during this past year?
RB: It is quite a challenge. I was lucky enough to not be furloughed during this time period, so when things were ramping up and we were at the height of the pandemic, I was still in the trenches and got to experience it. I was able to watch as people came back to work and when that initial anxiety happened, I saw it first-hand. That was the biggest challenge, finding a way to make customers and team members comfortable with the fact that they were in a new environment; all of the rules had changed. Your interactions had to be different, your behaviors had to be different. Finding a way to navigate those rough seas at that point was really the biggest challenge that we faced.
MC: What do you think the biggest challenge that the Ocean Casino Resort faced during this past fifteen months and how do you think you have come out on the other side?
RB: Coming out on the other side, Ocean is set up in a unique way in this industry. We have a large property featuring some sprawling spaces, and a beautiful layout; it really lends itself to “comfortability” and helps people feel more relaxed with the property itself because you are not packed into small spaces together. Ocean gives you the ability to roam and explore. I think being outside this year is going to be very important to people because they are going to feel a lot safer. We have amazing outdoor spaces that rival any resort in Atlantic City. We have a park area located on the lobby-level that is just under two acres and it is gorgeous. You can go outside, enjoy the fresh air, and feel safe and healthy.
MC: Tell me a little bit about the park and how it has been taken to the next level during this time…
RB: The first thing that we did prior to reopening The Park was to landscape and resod the entire space. We have revised and enhanced the sense of arrival, adding an additional entry point so you can enter directly from the main lobby. We have added signage and cut down concrete barriers to make it easier for customers to flow in and out of the area. I think this property is at its best when customers can explore at their leisure. You can grab a drink in the Lobby Bar, walk through The Park, go through the skywalk, and make your way to our beautifully restored cabanas. Ocean is meant to be open and limitless and there were some barriers that were preventing that process. Tearing those things down was a really big step.
MC: What do you think you are most proud of during this past year?
RB: We have made some amazing physical changes to the property over the past year. We just completed a terrific pool renovation, adding to the overall aesthetic of that area; we updated much of our high-end hotel product, including our Presidential suite; and our cabanas have gotten a complete refresh and look phenomenal. Moving forward, I want to focus on the service portion of hospitality. I am working to partner with a company that is going to help the front desk be more mobile and thus nimbler, so we can meet and interact with customers and think about their needs first instead of following the old paradigm of how a front desk works.
MC: What do you think sets Ocean Casino Resort apart and what really brings customers through the front doors more than at any other property?
RB: I think what wowed me and what I hear and see on a day-to-day basis is the love that our customers have for the property. The feeling that they get when they are at Ocean is different from other casinos. There is a certain energy when you walk through the massive floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby or stroll through The Park. You almost forget you are at a casino when you are in certain areas. I think that is what differentiates us from other Atlantic City properties and it is why our guests find Ocean to be such a special place.
MC: What do you impart to your employees as a leader to help them elevate their performance and take it to the next level?
RB: I like to lean on the fact of first principles and going back to look at the first thing customers see & what stands in the way of meeting their expectations. A lot of us tend to deal with business by analogy; we look at other properties and see what they are doing, and we start doing the same thing because it is an established practice. I want people to start thinking about what we can do and what the customer wants and then we walk backwards through that process to see what stands in our way and how to work around that. For me, it is getting them to report back with the struggles that the customer is having, then we can work our way backwards through that problem and reverse engineer it to a solution that will work better for everyone.
MC: As someone who is in leadership in the hotel industry, what do you particularly look for when you check into a hotel on your own?
RB: The first things I look for when I walk into a hotel room are the glass and the door handle. Having worked in housekeeping earlier in my career those are the things that resonate with me as they are often overlooked. I have had instances where family members have refused to check into their hotel room until they waited for me to give it a once-over (laughs).