Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria

Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman
Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria

Graton Casino & Resort in Rohnert Park, CA

CHALLENGES/OPPORTUNITIES: The challenges have been to work closely with local and state officials to be consistent with COVID-19 safety requirements. The opportunities are largely in the area of increased guest services, food and hotel accommodations, and slot and table options.

One of the challenges while we were closed due to the pandemic was to make sure that we could keep the salaries and benefits for our team members. We have the Kaiser ‘gold Cadillac’ health insurance plan whereby employees who work 20 hours or more a week pay nothing out of their paycheck for full coverage. Plus, they receive dental and vision on top of that. People were very happy that during the three months we were completely closed, we were able to continue to pay for their benefits, so they were covered.

The challenge upon reopening was to have enough team members to do so. We also needed to invest in safety measures so that we could reopen and be compliant with the safety requirements of the state and of the county. That resulted in us having to put in plexiglass between all of our machines, plexiglass at all the seats at the table games and thermal machines at the doors. We took the extra step of hiring a completely new team of what we called ‘safety ambassadors,’ who did nothing more than walk around and check to make sure that everybody had their masks on and were compliant with our safety measures.

KEY TO SUCCESS: The key has been working closely with the operation’s management to ensure safety, certainly. But also, we’ve had a major increase in wages for our team members that has proven to be, without a doubt, a huge success. We are among the highest, if not the highest-paying wage payer of casinos in this country. Starting pay for a tipped position is $17.50 an hour. Starting pay for a non-tipped position is $18.50 an hour. And we raised everybody’s salaries accordingly. What that resulted in was an appreciative workforce that came back to work and are very happy, which in turn, provides a greater experience for our guests. We’ve created a model environment that shows that by paying people well and doing the right thing, you get your returns 100-fold in terms of business and profit.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENT: For our initial build, we borrowed nearly a billion dollars, and I am very happy to tell you that a few months back, we paid off that debt. It was one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive Indian casinos in the country, and in just seven-and-a-half years, we paid that off.

In the near future, we want to enlarge our hotel and build at least 200 more rooms. We’re also looking to significantly expand our gaming floor. Those things are in the works. The hotel we already have a design for and what has held us up is the COVID-19 situation, so we are just waiting to see. I want to be very careful about having to borrow money and make sure that we are solvent when we go into these significant expansion plans.