The CTUIR and Wildhorse leadership had a vision and that vision has steadily become a reality
By Lori Kimbel
When Capital Gaming out of New Jersey first flew over the bare piece of land that would one day become Wildhorse Resort and Casino, they asked themselves, “who would ever come here?” However, there was a select group of people who had a shared vision of what this particular piece of land could look like with a lot of hard work and perseverance.
It has been more than 20 years since that flight took place and Wildhorse Resort and Casino, like a phoenix, has risen from those dusty fields to become the most popular destination in northeast Oregon.
Capital Gaming was hired by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) to help launch a successful casino. Four double wide buildings were brought in and soon there were 100 slot machines, a snack bar, and a money cage. That temporary casino opened on November 5, 1994 and would serve as a training facility for some hands-on experience for the very first employees of Wildhorse Resort and Casino.
Capital Gaming’s management of Wildhorse, however, was short lived. Within a few months after the opening of the permanent casino in March of 1995, most of the management were being filled and operated by CTUIR members. “It was a sink or swim situation,” said Al Tovey, general manager of Wildhorse Resort and Casino. “And fear is a great motivator.”
Nine of the original 78 are still employed at the casino to this day.
Tovey, who grew up in Malad City, Idaho, started his career at Wildhorse as the marketing manager. “Marketing is a lot more complicated now. I thought I would work at an ad agency in Portland or Seattle, but I absolutely love it here. It has really grown on me. This feels like where I come from, a bunch of small communities with their own unique identities. People are good here and I have never regretted coming here.”
Many of the improvements that have been incorporated over the years have come about because of guests comment card suggestions. Wildhorse has also implement a program through InfoSearch, that allows guest to fill out a survey if they have left an e-mail upon check-in at the hotel. Wildhorse receives approximately 7,000 comments through InfoSearch each year. Staff also pays close attention to comments made through Trip Advisor, as well as Yelp.
“You always have to change and always have to improve,” said Tovey, who reads every single comment card they receive.
Next on the improvement agenda is to create a quiet bar near the hotel lobby in the space where the coffee shop is now located. The coffee shop will go into the gift shop, which will move to a larger retail space, also near the hotel lobby.
“They have always been very forward thinking,” said Community Relations Manager, Tiah DeGrofft, of the management of Wildhorse. “They have always had a five year and a ten year plan.”
Future plans tentatively include another hotel tower and possible a convention center.
The management of Wildhorse Resort and Casino have put a lot of effort into making their quest’s experience unique and ever-changing, and they realize that they could not do it without their staff of 800.
According to DeGrofft, employees attend customer service training events, and are also welcome to participate in Wildhorse’s Wings of Flight training, a one year program that helps employees understand all of the many departments within the resort. Completion of this program improves their chances for career advancement within the resort.
“It gives them a good solid idea of what happens in each department. It is a really good resume builder,” said DeGrofft. “They empower their employees and help them open doors to their own future. It is really top-down leadership,” said DeGrofft, who has been an employee of Wildhorse for 5 years. “I think the good thing about Wildhorse is the small town ideals with a big town feel. Everybody does their part when you live in a small town, and I think the small town hospitality comes across when you visit Wildhorse.”
“It is how you treat your employees and your customers,” said Tovey. “It is all about relationships and we are fortunate that we have been able to develop those relationships over the last 20 years.”