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General manager Letisha Peterson poses for a portrait in the lobby of Legends Casino and Hotel in Toppenish, Wash. 

In February, Letisha Peterson will mark four years as general manager of Legends Casino Hotel. She was at the helm when Legends opened its 200-room hotel in 2017.

Peterson, 42, worked for Legends Casino for nearly a dozen years. Prior to that, she held several different positions at Yakama Forest Products.

In this month’s Checking In, she talks about the impact of COVID-19 on the hotel and casino, how Legends has fared when it finally was able to resume business several months ago, and what impact the pandemic has had on the tribal casino and hotel industry.

What was the biggest financial impact of COVID-19 for the hotel and casino?

Legends Casino Hotel closed in mid-March as the spread of COVID-19 increased. In conjunction with the Yakama Nation, we worked closely with health officials after that point not only to assess a reopening date but to develop a comprehensive reopening plan that put the health and safety of our team members and our guests first.

As a private entity, we do not share financial information, but I can tell you there has been a loss. We closed the property in mid-March, and we did not reopen until Aug. 13. Additionally, we chose to reopen at 50% capacity, and we will continue to operate at that level for the foreseeable future.

That said, we’re proud of the steps we’ve been able to take through this process to support our staff. When we had to take the step in April to place team members on standby, we used that specific measure to allow them to collect unemployment during the extended closure, maintain their health insurance benefits with us, and use their PTO time to supplement.

Of the close to 800 team members we employ, half returned with the reopening, and we will continue to work to bring the remaining team members back.

How do you feel you’ve grown professionally as you’ve navigated hotel and casino operations through the pandemic?

Any time you take on a new challenge, you grow professionally, and in the best circumstances, you have the opportunity to learn from those around you as well. While COVID-19 is a particularly unique challenge, I work with an amazing team at Legends Casino Hotel, and we started by reevaluating the priorities for both our patrons and our team.

Then, we found new channels — web meetings, group phone calls, private Facebook groups and so much more — to communicate with our team members. That was the beginning, and we’re continuing to grow and use these channels to operate more effectively.

How has Legends Casino Hotel fared since reopening? What adjustments, if any, have been made over time as you’re responded to customer and employee feedback?

We developed a comprehensive plan for reopening, then set about implementing that vision, including training for our team members. Our guests have overwhelmingly been pleased with the result. We even received an email from a couple recently who brought their family to the property because they watched our efforts over the last seven months and felt safe making that choice.

We’ve made adjustments, and we will continue to do so as we move through this process. Small changes like providing each guest checking in at the hotel with a list of available amenities helps guests understand — or maybe be reminded — of changes required due to COVID-19.

When we reopened on Aug. 13, our buffet remained closed. We’ve reopened it now with takeout options, and our team even found a way to give our seafood lovers what they’ve been craving again. They launched a Crab Boil special in September, and the response has been fantastic from guests.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the tribal casino and hotel industry in general?

For the casino and hotel industry, we’ve canceled events and conferences until 2021, most operate at a reduced capacity, and we have additional costs — like so many other businesses — for PPE.

The impact of COVID-19 to tourism as a whole is being felt globally. People are changing their habits, taking precautions and finding the best path forward. Our job right now is to be transparent and consistent with how we are implementing precautions to make potential guests comfortable visiting our property.

What do you think will be key in instilling confidence in visitors to resume visiting the casino and/or staying at the hotel over time?

The lines to enter the property during our peak weekend hours definitely signal that we’ve made the right steps so far in the reopening process. We still evaluate the operations and the COVID-19 situation daily, though.

We remain diligent with our efforts since our reopening — nothing has relaxed. We continue to maintain our sanitation protocols with a dedicated cleaning team. That’s the best way for us to continue our commitment to the health and safety of both our team members and our guests.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang