May 11, 2021

Kevin Thorstenson — Hotel General Manager at WinStar World Hotel

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #37

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Kevin Thorstenson, the Hotel General Manager at WinStar World Hotel. WinStar, which is located in Thackerville, Oklahoma near the Oklahoma-Texas border, is the biggest casino in America. It has over 500,000 square feet of gaming space and more games than any other casino in the world. WinStar is also renowned for hosting huge events — from MMA to theatrical entertainment, and even golf competitions. The WinStar World Hotel employs nearly 500 people, so Kevin has a wealth of experience managing huge teams. He has more than 30 years of experience in hotel management at properties across the country. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Kevin sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci and talked about everything from why communication is so important, to what it takes to be a great manager who knows how to make learning stick.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Kevin shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Without good communication, you fail at everything.”
  • “Telling is not teaching. Telling is not training. Showing someone how to do it and consistency is the key.”
  • “Employees will leave if they don’t feel like they’re learning anything new, so to keep them you need to keep teaching them new things.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: Can you share a little bit more about your background? How’d you start in the hotel management industry? 

Kevin: Started out as a busboy in Boston, Massachusetts working in a Jewish Deli that was owned by Bill Donahue and Alan Dershowitz. They are two of the partners and that was back in 1988. I worked my way up in the industry coming up through the food and beverage and eventually into sales and then into operations. I’ve worked in the gaming industry, the convention hotels, the luxury hotels, the resort, hotels, tennis, golf resort, and motels. I’ve worked all over the United States, Southern California, Northern California, Vegas, Utah, Texas, Virginia, a number of different places. It’s a great industry that impacts a lot of people. I mentioned earlier, one out of nine jobs is based on hospitality, service is in my blood and I love it and it’s a lot of fun, but there are those days where it’s not as fun. It’s not all fun and games all the time, but it is great to talk with people all the time and take your interest in the personal lives of people. 

Sam: I want to talk to leaders in the hospitality industry, because I think they have a very unique perspective on a service experience. To you what defines a great service experience?

Kevin: Guests come to a hotel or resort or casino with an expectation. Interestingly enough, every person that walks into that door has a different expectation. It’s kind of like when you get a steak. You can get it rare, medium-rare, medium, medium well, well, or the person says, I want it black and I don’t want it moving. It’s the same thing in the hotel industry. Some people want to come and they just want to not be bothered and read a book and get away. There are some who want everybody doting on them. There are some people that don’t want you to talk to them or ask them any questions, they just want to get away from life. There are other people who want to be with friends and there are other people who just want to have a quiet night out. Every person’s different and you have to meet the needs of all those people. That’s challenging and that’s the best part, to meet that challenge and identify what they want.

Sam: You have to coach and develop a lot of team members around service quality. Can you teach somebody to deliver great service or do you feel like that’s more innate? 

Kevin: That’s a question that hasn’t been answered yet in life. I think with most people it’s innate. I’ve found that your upbringing has a lot to do with that, your parents, and how they raised you up. A lot of those things are common sense to people, but with other people, it’s not common information and that’s why we came here to talk about how we can communicate what our expectation is because my expectation ultimately is what the guest expects. I was describing to you earlier, there are so many different approaches to that because the guests have different expectations so we try to train our staff to take care of those guests so that everybody can walk away happy, but we have to be able to have a form of communication. That’s why we came to 1Huddle, to get that communication so that we can all be on the same page and have the same level of service that our guests expect to have so they can go home happy. 

Sam: Obviously the hotel and hospitality sector has been hit hard over the last year. What are some of the things you’ve learned during the experience of guiding your team and your property kind of through the storm? 

Kevin: That’s a big question. I found there’s a lot of people that don’t want to wear a mask. I think information is the key to success. You think about communication in life. No matter where it is, whether it’s school or work or friends or relationships. Communication is so imperative because, without good communication, you fail on everything. Having a way to communicate with everybody so that people understand. In my industry, we work with a lot of salt of the earth people. Not everybody has a Ph.D. but as with most people, learning about 85%, 80 to 85% of it is visual. If you had a visual, it’s much easier in my industry for people to visually see what they need to do versus you telling them. Telling is not teaching, telling us not training. Showing somebody how to do it and consistency is key to success in my industry so that we have a consistent same service every single time. We have people that come here on a weekly basis and they have the same expectation of great service from the week before and the week before that. We have to provide a consistent level of service and to do so, we have to be able to communicate with our employees and they need to be able to move back and reference that communication so they can make sure they’re on the same page that management is and management needs to do that so they can be on the same page as the guest.

Sam: Is there any difference between, or more specifically, what is the difference between developing frontline team members on the property and their managers? I hear a lot of companies talking about the challenge of how do you develop the next wave of leaders that are coaching and developing people? What do you think about that?

Kevin: That’s a great question. You always have to have a succession plan with your employees. A lot of times they’ll leave if they don’t feel like they’re learning. You have to make sure in order to keep your employees there and keep them interested that you constantly are teaching them something new. Whether that’s accounting or purchasing or personal relations or, in our case hospitality, law, or whatever it may be. If they keep learning, the turnover we have found is lower. As they keep learning, then they can be promoted up. My first job when I was in Massachusetts, the first day I worked, I made $20 in tips and my waiter made a hundred dollars and took home a hundred dollars. I thought, well, that’s not bad. But then I thought, well, that guy made a hundred dollars, and what he was doing, wasn’t rocket science. So I thought, well, I’m just going to learn to do what that guy does. I did that for all the different waiters I worked for, and two weeks later they had somebody leave and they said, Hey, would you like to take a job as a server? I said, sure. So that first night I had a 500% increase in pay because I walked home with a hundred dollars instead of 20 bucks. With my management team, it’s the same thing. We train them so they can move up that ladder of life and that’s where the real satisfaction comes in management. I think anywhere you work, seeing somebody progress up that ladder of life and provide a better income for themselves, for their family and increase their quality of life is great. 

Sam: I just imagine your property where frontline workers really have an opportunity to move from maybe a back-of-house role to the front of the house. There’s so much not like other companies, but just so much more visual in a local location like yours, where you can see the way you can move up the workforce and everything is geographical, not so far from each other.

Kevin: It is an opportunity that’s always there and you’re always seeking those people who want to learn. Let me give you an example,  with your product I’m able to do it myself, I’m able to do some video training and we do digital video training, and then we have the questions and it’s easy for me to do it that way because in the past I had a guy, he was a dishwasher. He was the lowest of the low. He wanted to move up. He was a relocation local resident that had relocated from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and moved to San Antonio. He wanted to be a server instead of being a dishwasher and he didn’t have much of an education or anything. I really wanted to see him move up. I wanted to put my time and effort into him to help him move up that ladder of life but I didn’t have any training like you’re talking about like your system provides. I spent time with him. One-on-one in the evenings in my banquet room, training him on how to become a banquet server. I also provided opportunities down the road for supervisor and manager and so on and so forth. I could only communicate with one person while I was with him One-on-one but with your system, I can take what my thoughts are of how to do something. Whether it’s serving a cocktail, whether it’s serving food, whether it’s doing turndown in a room, whether it’s doing the accounting correctly or a bill run or checking somebody and checking somebody out and we can get that consistency of service, but they can also go back and reference it. For me, when I retire from this industry, I’m going to look back and say, who did I help up that ladder? And where were my successes? I’m not going to care about the rate I charge and how many people checked in and checked out and how big the hotels were or how luxurious they were. It’s going to be about serving others. This is how I get my satisfaction. Serving other people by helping them and I’m able to contact more people by using your system versus just going one-on-one with the person in the banquet room, by myself. 

Sam: I was going to ask you Kevin, and I think that you said it in that last statement about legacy, we’re going to ask what your hope was for the future of work but I feel like I got it in there, but I gotta ask it anyway. Do you have anything that you want to expand on? As a leader and someone who is training, developing, and caring about so many people in your community, what is your hope for the future of work?

Kevin: I hope people want to go back to work. First of all, that’s one of the challenges right now. A lot of the things that are set up right now are retailing people who want to go back to work. So I hope that people want to go back to work. But when they do go back to work I want to have people be happy because they’re happy, they stay. The company makes more money. I make more money. Everybody’s happy. This industry has high turnover. If you go and work at Amazon,  the person doesn’t want to unload boxes all day or you go to Walmart to a distribution center, they’re the same thing. They don’t want her to be packing boxes all day long. They want to do something better. They want to improve their lives and I think that’s common in the world. A lot of industries are moving away from the person that has a college education versus the person that’s willing to do the work and learn. There’s a lot of learning that goes on that’s hands-on in the industry they’re in. For my industry, it’s to keep them learning, keep them interested and as they do that, they make a career out of it because not everybody goes to college and gets a degree in today’s world. Look at Mike Rowe and he’ll tell you all about the dirty jobs and how many of those jobs don’t need a degree. But yet there’s a lot of successful people that he’s had on his shows that learned from the ground up.

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Management, Future Of Work, Hospitality, Hotel Management

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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