The palm walk inside Tropicana Atlantic City was bustling on a recent Saturday afternoon as guests wandered about looking for the front desk, a place to eat, or their next big win.
Standing beneath the walk’s palm trees at the intersection that leads to an abundance of gaming opportunities or to The Quarter, the properties inside the mall area, stood Jacqueline Grace. A mask covered her infectious smile but her body language portrayed her as happy as she moved to the music that intermixed with the noise of slot machines, the cheerful screams of winning gamblers and the groans of those not so lucky.
It’s not uncommon to see Grace, Tropicana Atlantic City’s new senior vice president and general manager, out on the floor during the busiest times of the day ready and willing to assist guests looking for answers to their many questions.
“I think it’s incredibly important to be visible,” she said.
Caesars Entertainment named Grace to the position back in September and she is currently one of three women and the second Black woman in charge of an Atlantic City casino.
“I’m really excited to be here,’’ she said, while sitting in a spacious fifth-floor conference room. “It was great to be able to become general manager in the market where I launched my gaming career.”
That career began approximately 12 years ago after graduating with a master of business administration from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Prior to that, she spent nine years working in financial services in New York City, which included a stint in a human resources role.
When she attended business school she had two goals in mind.
“I was either going to become an entrepreneur, or I wanted to get into the gaming hospitality industry,” she said.
Her “pivot” to gaming began in 2010 at Bally’s which was a Caesars property at that time. From there she transitioned to two other Caesars properties, as head of human resources for its Horseshoe Baltimore property then to assistant general manager at Harrah’s Philadelphia. She went back to Baltimore as assistant general manager before landing in Atlantic City.
Teri Lutz, assistant vice president of marketing, said she is excited to see this new wave of management that wants to be seen and involved.
“The fact that Jackie was able to come back and reach her goals and be successful as she is just speaks wonders,” said Lutz. “So people that do want to look at that and say ‘hey you know what, I want to aspire to be her.’”
Grace, who now lives in Ocean City with her family, doesn’t think of herself as a role model but embraces the thought that people do look up to her, a Black woman in a managerial role.
“My presence in a leadership position is something that people of color, in particular, are proud of,” she said.
Grace recalls the time when she first started in the industry as an entry-level manager, one of the workers stopped her and said how proud she was of her.
“She could have been my grandmother,” said Grace. “She didn’t know my name, she didn’t know what I did, but all she knew was that I looked like her and I wore a suit. My presence made her proud.”
Time and time again wherever she goes she has received that same message. She says that what inspires her is having a large percentage of the workforce being able to see somebody in a leadership role who looks like them, when for decades they did not, and knowing it makes them proud.
“I want other people to know that it’s possible.”
She said she is often asked how she juggles her demanding professional career and a family — having two boys, ages 5 and 7. She says the support of her husband Melvin Pope Jr. makes it all possible as he does much of the heavy lifting at home.
“It’s only been possible because he’s been as supportive as he is and so I feel incredibly fortunate,” said Grace, who will celebrate 10 years of marriage in April.
When Grace began her role as general manager in September, the pandemic was still raging as the industry continued to struggle with decreased volume and increased safety protocols. According to third-quarter reports filed with the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, Tropicana brought in 44.6% less revenue in the first nine months of 2020, compared to the previous year — $150.1 million compared to $270.9 million. Total gaming revenue for January was also down by 7.9% — $22.7 million compared to $24.7 million in January the previous year.
She said she didn’t take time to process and absorb her accomplishment but just jumped right in saying “what are all the things that we need to do to make sure that we’re continuing to manage the business accordingly?”
Things didn’t get any easier when a month later, to help slow the second wave of the pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order putting a 10 p.m. curfew on indoor service. As a result, she said they had to adjust by furloughing staff.
“The pandemic brought certain challenges that kind of impacted us on the revenue side. It also gave us an opportunity to really think outside of the box with respect to our offerings,” she said.
During the summer, Tropicana — like most in the industry — had to think of creative ways to offer guests a first-class dining experience when indoor dining was not allowed so they moved Chelsea Five Gastropub to the fifth floor pool deck.
“I think that helped mitigate some of that loss that we saw because people were attracted to eating outside and we’re going to continue to do that,” she said.
Always a strong extrovert, Grace’s personality was on full display on a recent Saturday as she made her way down to the palm walk, greeting almost every team member she passed by. Once she made it to her usual spot to interact with customers it didn’t take long before she escorted an older gentleman toward The Quarter to help answer his question.
“Every day I come in and I get to do what I love, which is working with amazing folks, solving complex business problems, strategizing, and then serving people,” said Grace.
“So this is my dream job.”
Caesars Entertainment Regional President Steve Callender said it’s important to have role models in the business to help their team members progress and know that there is a future in the company. “It’s really important to us to have diverse and equitable leadership at our resorts,” said Callender.
In 2018 Caesars launched SAVVY, a group for female team members and allies that helps grow and empower women within the organization through mentorship and support while also giving back to local communities.
Grace said she looks forward to the day when these celebrations of accomplishments become less because the playing field has become level.
“When we’re not celebrating it, it means it’s the norm,” she said.
“I know that me being here is something that gives other women hope and I take that seriously.”
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Tim Hawk may be reached at [email protected].