Melonie Johnson is finally getting the chance to meet Borgata employees and customers.
Yes, the new president and chief operating officer of Atlantic City’s top-grossing casino has been on the job since late May.
But when she arrived in town, nobody else was around.
Atlantic City casinos closed March 16 as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.
When Borgata held its July 26 public reopening (after being closed for 100-plus days), Johnson was obviously happy about finally seeing operations running.
Granted, it’s only at 25% capacity, but something is better than nothing.
Play NJ spoke exclusively with Johnson about her new role and how Borgata is adjusting to what can best be described as the new normal.
As far as being back in business goes, Johnson said “it feels great.”
“It’s an understatement to say how happy we feel opening the doors to welcome our guests back at the Borgata,” she said.
Coming to Atlantic City during a pandemic
When it comes to the casino industry, Johnson has an extensive background.
This includes working with MGM Resorts since 2015, most recently serving as president and COO of MGM National Harbor in Maryland. She held the same role at Gold Strike Casino Resort in Mississippi.
And as far as New Jersey goes, she is the first Black woman to run an Atlantic City casino.
But it’s the current times that make Johnson’s story even more unique. Reopening and operating a casino during a global pandemic is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Seriously, how often does somebody step into a new role while their entire industry is shut down?
When asked about arriving in town while COVID-19 had NJ residents in quarantine, Johnson said, “That’s probably been the most challenging experience in my career, to be quite honest with you.”
“All casinos [were] closed, not just Borgata and not just MGM Resorts International casinos. The vast majority of the employees were furloughed. Only essential employees [were] left on board.”
Johnson then went on to list some of the challenges that she faced upon her arrival in Atlantic City. For instance, her first home was the Borgata hotel. And she was the only one staying there. She was unable to secure a house “because no one was allowing you to tour anything. Everything was virtual.
“It was challenging. The unknown was frightening, but it was a new chapter in my life.”
Why Borgata decided to open weeks later than most casinos
Johnson and MGM had some tough calls to make along the way. One of the biggest was deciding when to open.
Unlike AC’s eight other casinos, Borgata elected not to reopen on July 2 or 3.
And once Gov. Phil Murphy decided to pull back on indoor dining, its original July 6 reopening plans were delayed indefinitely.
But Johnson said Borgata never intended to be the first Atlantic City casino to reopen.
“We were ready to open on the Fourth of July weekend,” she said. “But when we received the executive order from the governor’s office saying that we could not accommodate indoor dining or beverage, we had to stop, because there was no way we could execute a product that would represent our brand or even satisfy our guests.
“So we stopped, and we paused. And what’s so different was, we had to sit down and decide what we were going to do to accommodate our guests [outside].”
More than a month later, Borgata customers have options. The casino turned the Amphora Lounge, a popular stop for guests, into the Amphora at the Borgata Garden, now an outdoor dining option. Johnson called it a “phenomenal experience.”
“Every guest that I’ve spoken to, they love it,” she said. “They are telling us they were happy that we waited, and they knew we would do something that they would thoroughly enjoy. Then we’ve got the Sunbar at The Water Club. We’ve also got Borgata Street Eats, and we have the Beer Garden and pool for outdoor dining experiences as well.”
Being back at Borgata ‘feels great’
Things are suddenly looking extremely different from the days when Johnson was walking around the vacant Borgata all alone.
“I did not realize how much I missed human interaction until COVID-19,” she said.
For now, it’s business as usual. Or shall we say, it’s the new normal.
Borgata employees and customers are now acclimated to the health and safety precautions, including temperature checks at all three entrance points. It’s part of MGM’s companywide seven-point safety plan.
So is having handwashing stations on the casino floor.
More importantly, Johnson is finally interacting with people again and said she “feels like a new person.”
“Once we opened all the doors on [July 23], it was unbelievable. No one wants to wear a mask every time they’re out of their homes, but this has become our new normal, and we’ve adjusted to it,” said Johnson.
“But it’s just exciting to talk to employees and go to an employee dining room and have a conversation with them, talk to them at a table game. Or just walking through the floor and thanking them for coming back and making sure that they understand if there’s anything that they need, please report it to a supervisor or a manager so we can address it. And it feels great. It feels very good being back.”
Focusing on what Borgata AC does well
Of course, Atlantic City casinos aren’t out of the woods yet. Several questions remain, and the future is blurry.
How many months will it be before gaming floors will return to full capacity? And when will drinking and smoking be permitted on casino floors again?
These decisions are not in MGM or Borgata’s hands. Murphy and the Division of Gaming Enforcement will be setting any additional COVID-19 casino guidelines.
Being the newcomer on the AC scene, Johnson is still learning about the market. So instead of addressing situations that she can’t control, she’s focused on what Borgata can offer.
“Borgata is here,” Johnson said. “We may not look the same. We’ve opened more safely, and you still have an opportunity to win big, to delight your taste buds and to have an escape. And that’s what we do, and we do it well.”
AP photo / Wayne Parry