The sounds of Frank Sinatra music or sultry Peggy Lee tunes in the Encore Boston Harbor resort had been off since March until this past week – as employees began to return for training in the run up to last Sunday’s reopening.
It was music to everyone’s ears.
There had been only a handful of people in the casino for months, no restaurants, no vibe, and no fun, said President Eric Gullbrants during a tour of the resort last Thursday, prior to Sunday’s opening.
“There were no flowers in here at all,” said Gullbrants. “It was very quiet and lifeless and it’s coming back to life. There was no music here. We just put that back on. It was definitely quiet because there was no music and no employees and the most important thing – no people. It was just a few of us really. The resort is being brought back to life now. I feel the heart and soul of our company coming back to life.”
Encore had been shuttered since late March when they voluntarily closed just ahead of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) vote to close casinos, which was only lifted this month. Some 5,000 employees at Encore were not able to return to work in that time, though the company did continue to pay them into June. Two weeks ago, the company announced they would likely have to furlough 3,000 employees, but that has already been dialed back.
By opening on Sunday, 2,700 employees had been called back, and more could be brought back if things continue to go well.
“Our team members were elated and so happy to be back,” Gullbrants said. “I would say we’re more appreciative of them than they are of us. I know we paid everyone in the interim, but I’m just grateful they are coming back. They didn’t have to stay around, but they did. We have a really tremendous staff. Very few people have left…If demand is high and we can open additional areas, we will. That will only be when it’s safe. I have to say the week has been like a homecoming for us.”
On Sunday, there were a steady flow of guests and everyone was ready to get out and enjoy the resort again – yet another homecoming for guests who had not been able to visit the resort.
A spokesman confirmed they had a great opening without any issues.
“Other than telling a handful of people to push their mask up to cover their nose, there really weren’t any issues,” said Spokesman Eric Kraus. “People enjoyed the experience. Some guests actually enjoyed the Plexiglas barrier being up better than the way it used to be. People were great and they enjoyed themselves.”
That was the object of the preparations for the opening all last week, with Encore taking several pages from their sister resorts in Macau and Las Vegas – which have already re-opened. They submitted a very detailed opening plan with the help of consultants from Johns Hopkins and Georgetown in May, but it has been refined over and over again in the weeks since.
Things are certainly different, and it’s not the Encore of last summer, but it’s slowly returning.
They have lost nearly 50 percent of their gaming stations, going from 4,540 stations to 2,449 at opening. There are no Craps, Roulette or poker games, and of the lost gaming stations, that includes 1,000 slot machines closed due to social distancing. All of the card game tables have extensive Plexiglas barriers between the dealer andz the players, and players are no longer allowed to touch the cards.
“We flip the cards for them now and that’s for the safety of the guest and our employees,” said Gullbrants. “We followed the regulations to a tee with the barriers. It wasn’t hard, but it was expensive. We did it in house, but it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and some blood, sweat and tears.”
Gullbrants said the cards are disposed of immediately if a guest touches them, and they are disposed of every night as part of their plan anyhow.
The Poker Room has been repurposed to have more Blackjack, Video Poker and Dynasty Games. Additionally, Gullbrants said they are working on a prototype with a plastics maker to help them be able to maybe get Poker safely up and running, if the MGC approves of it.
“We hope they will approve it in the next couple of weeks as we prove we can safely deal the current games,” he said.
There is now only one entrance – at the waterfront side of the building, and only one exit as well. Anyone walking in the entrance will be scanned with a thermal imaging camera, which detects an elevated body temperature – or fever. Anyone showing an elevated temperature will be further screened. Masks are required at all times, and the hotel is actually only being used minimally.
The hotel tower is only open to guests Thursday to Sunday, and closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. That is simply because demand isn’t yet back.
“That type of demand is gone in the short term,” he said. “When it returns, we’ll introduce the 24/7 operations. However, there isn’t enough demand to fill the hotel Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday here.”
Restaurants are perhaps the trickiest situation as they strive to institute greater and greater protections, while still giving everyone a top-notch experience. At this point, those open include Rare Steakhouse, Red 8, Fratelli, Mystique, On Deck Burger Bar, Encore Cantina, Lucky Dogs (new hot dog cart), Garden Cocktail Lounge, Bru, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Gullbrants said a great deal of thought has been put into the dining experience, and detailed the protocols. Diners who prefer not to have a menu can call up the offerings with their cell phone using a QR Code. Then, when they enter the restaurant, they will sanitize, and everything will be cleaned and disinfected before they sit down. The silverware is rolled up and the glass is brought straight from the kitchen to ensure it’s sanitized. There is even a “mask coaster” that people can place their masks on while dining – a tweak developed in Macau after they opened in March.
There is also no bar seating, but they are taking advantage of the ample outdoor patio spaces.
“We spread out every restaurant, but we’re probably a little over 50 percent of capacity,” he said. “That varies, but every restaurant has eliminated seats for safety. If it’s busy, this will be as busy as it will ever be … We feel the long-term implications of health and safety are paramount and supersede everything. If we’re not safe, we have no business.”
Gullbrants said after spending months at home with his family – like most everyone else – he believes people are ready to come out and have fun in a safe environment.
“The last thing I want to do is open a casino with no amenities,” he said. “It might be fun to play at the casino a little bit, but you want to have drinks and a Chinese Restaurant, Rare and a great dining experience…I think the customers are starving for that experience. I can tell you sitting in my home with my family for weeks and months on end; it was time to get back. We developed a plan that allows us to deliver that experience in a safe manner. I think we’ve achieved that.”