When you think of casinos, gambling, cigars, “Boardwalk Empire” characters and suits are usually the identifying features of the gaming industry, which is typically a field dominated by men. However, one Atlantic City casino president was recently appointed, and her new position will be trading in the masculine persona for a new era of change.
Melonie Johnson was appointed President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City just last year. Over her 25 years in the industry, the Louisiana native has worked in leadership roles at major properties throughout the United States as Assistant General Manager at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia, CFO/Interim General Manager at Hollywood Casino Aurora in Illinois and as Regional Vice President of Operations and Vice President of Finance for Caesars Entertainment Corporation, among other roles. Before heading to the shore town of New Jersey, Johnson most recently served as President & COO of MGM National Harbor in Maryland and prior to that, Gold Strike Casino Resort in Mississippi.
“I love working in the gaming industry,” says Johnson. “It’s entertainment, it’s fun and it’s exciting. I love the conversations with employees and with customers. The only constant in this industry is change, so it’s constantly evolving and I truly love that—that’s the industry for me, where I’m bound to adapt. We’ve got fine dining and the spa experience and the pool experience, everything that you would need under one roof, and it’s just so exciting.”
Being the first Black female Atlantic City casino president required the mother of six to forge her path a bit differently.
“My journey was a little different being a woman, and it took me longer to get to where I am. But based upon my contribution to the industry and the foundation I have and established relationships, I’m now the president of Borgata,” Johnson says.
Johnson was called into the new role in May of 2020—right at the height of the global pandemic. With COVID-19, challenges that presented obstacles before now required a whole other level of problem-solving and planning for a future that simply couldn’t be constructed in such a high-contact industry.
“I looked at it as another challenge. Was it scary? Yes. This has probably been the toughest transition in my years considering the unknowns with COVID-19 and the unknowns on the property with numerous leaders no longer there,” continues Johnson. “So, here comes this new person in the MGM family to Borgata taking the helm and getting to know the existing team members who were there and trying to then understand the organization and manage through how do we protect our employees and then our customers when we open? I’m fortunate to have an exceptional team who executed on the outdoor dining experience flawlessly. From food and beverage, to marketing, to security, to surveillance.”
Part of the transition also included safety measures to help keep staff and customers safe. The resort has revamped its HVAC system so there are exchanges with outdoor air at the casino every hour. There’s also thermal screening upon entry. Guests are required to wear masks. Custom built hand-washing stations are available on the floor. A clean team goes through the casino to sanitize high touch areas, and there’s a 35 % occupancy cap and poly-carbonate areas for poker, which the Borgata was also the first to do. Johnson says this is all part of an evolving process to make it a pleasant experience and provide an experience that represents Borgata.
“Once we can get through COVID-19, it’s learning the Atlantic City gaming market. Right now, we’ve had a new competitor who entered the market in Pennsylvania [the new Live! Casino opening this weekend], and that’s going to hurt the market in AC, but with the power of the brand of MGM International, there’s so much we can do with cross property efforts bringing in gamers who have never experienced the Atlantic City market or the Borgata, because the Borgata is a fully integrated resort,” says Johnson. “This is a resort where a customer can arrive on a Friday and leave on a Monday without ever having to leave the property, because of the dining experience, entertainment, hotel, spa—just everything we’ve got to offer.”
With an impressive resume, a list of accolades and a new position, does Johnson feel the effects of being the first Black female casino president in Atlantic City?
“I look at it as I’m an American who just happens to be Black and a female, that’s how I approached it,” explains Johnson.
Leadership is not a foreign concept to the entrepreneur, having stepped into roles as a property president in Mississippi and for MGM National Harbor as well. “I didn’t come out here feeling that it was a first for me, maybe for Atlantic City, but this is something that I have done.”
Johnson does have some advice for others who are looking to climb the corporate ladder, and there’s one word that can work for any gender, color or nationality.
“Patience,” she says. “Having patience and understanding. Things don’t necessarily come together immediately, or you can’t look for that immediate gratification. You’ve got to make sure you have the proper foundation and surround yourself with people with the proper skill set and you’ve got to be open to very transparent and courageous conversations. All of that requires patience. There’s not a light switch that you flip on and everything is utopia and there’s a perfect world. There’s going to be hurtles and you’ve got to be able to survive it and you’ve got to be able to recover in style and forge forward. So, I always say patience.”
To learn more about the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, visit theborgata.com