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MEMPHIS CROSSROADS: Beyond the Casino Lights

The following is an article from the Memphis Crossroads digital magazine. To view the full article and magazine, click here.

Troy Keeping is not really a suit and tie guy.

He said exactly that at lunch recently while he was wearing a suit and tie. But he explained that he had a television interview later and, as the president and general manager of Southland Park Gaming & Racing, he knew he needed to look the part. 

But if he’d stayed on his first career path, he’d be a suit and tie guy every day. He’d be working in a bank.

“I was a year into a (bank management) training program but it just wasn’t the right career for me,” Keeping says. 

It just so happened that the training program was in Las Vegas, Nevada and his school, the University of Nevada, was in Reno, about 60 miles from where he grew up. So, it seems (to the outside world, perhaps) that the gaming industry was a natural choice for Keeping.
But it’s a notion that time got right for Keeping.

Walking across the Southland gaming floor recently, he seemed perfectly peaceful and at home amid the dings and buzzers and noise of the games and televisions. He also seemed to know the name of every Southland employee he met and greeted them all with a wave and a quick hello. Some of them asked him what he was doing in a suit and tie, to which he just smiled and shrugged.  

But he began his career in gaming and hospitality far away from the glitz and the lights of the gaming floor. His banking background qualified him to be an internal auditor in a Las Vegas casino owned by Boyd Gaming. The job made him, basically, one of the casino’s internal financial policemen. But the job allowed Keeping to learn the highly regulated industry and all that banking experience turned out to be “the best blessing in disguise you could ever get.” 

But that was more than 25 years ago. Since then, Keeping has worked in gaming operations, finance, and management. He’s worked for established casinos and start-ups alike in Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois and Southland’s home in West Memphis, Arkansas. 

When he took the reins of Southland in 2007, it was “rough,” he said, noting he inherited many old and entrenched business problems. The property lost $7 million that year, which was followed by a reduction in force in 2008. The place needed a new energy, new gaming products, and the brand needed a wake-up call. 

So, Keeping spruced up the place. New games came. A new marketing plan was implemented. New customers came. And by 2010, Southland was holding its own against the competition in Tunica and it began to turn a profit for the first time in a long time.
Then the Mississippi River flooded in 2011 and shut down many of the Tunica casinos. The event shrank a market of about 14,000 gaming devices down to the 600 devices at Southland. Suddenly, Southland was the only game in town. 

So, Southland leaders bought more games. They got the state legislature to approve a new 24-hour schedule for the casino. Part-timers became full-timers. Many of them were working double shifts. Parking lots were essentially doubled. 

Keeping knew Southland was going to get slammed. On one hand he practiced caution. He took to the media and asked potential visitors to stay away that first Friday and Saturday night. He didn’t want guests (and maybe first-time guests) to have a bad experience at Southland. But on the other hand, the casino raised billboards all over the Memphis area saying “You Bet We’re Open.” 

“We were going after it,” Keeping said. 

Southland is still holding its own, even with the lights back on in Tunica. But it’s also “going after it” again with its recent $37.4 million expansion and redesign project that brought even more games (close to 2,000) and new amenities like the brand new, 150-seat bar and restaurant, Sammy Hagar’s Red Rocker Bar & Grill. And this project comes after an $11 million expansion and renovation project in 2012.

Just about any discussion with Keeping comes with talk of advice - the favorite pieces of advice he’s ever gotten, the piece of advice he gives most to employees, and the advice he wishes he could give to younger people making their first career moves.

“Find what you love and what you’re passionate about and then you will do it well. If you do it well, the money will follow,” Keeping said. “If you try to be a doctor or a lawyer or another high-paying profession just because that’s where the money is, at the end of the day you’re just going to do the job and you’re not going to love the job.”

But Keeping also has advice for businesses, particularly those around Memphis: join the Greater Memphis Chamber, pay your dues, get involved, and take it seriously.

Southland has been a member for years, he said, but he really saw the value of the organization  - for the region and his business - once he got personally involved in the Chamber’s Chairman's Circle a couple of years ago. Since then, he said he has seen further proof of the inter-connectivity of the economies of Memphis and the Mid-South.

“Troy Keeping’s participation in the Chamber’s Chairman Circle points out the interdependence of Memphis and the region,” says Dexter Muller, senior advisor at the Greater Memphis Chamber. “He and Southland Park are key assets to our region.”

As for working in the hospitality industry, Keeping says you need to love working with people and understand what it means to be a guest. If you know you love it early on, get a job in a hotel or a kitchen. After that, he said entry level-management jobs are available in the industry for those out of a university, he said. 

Southland has teamed up with MidSouth Community College in West Memphis to create a hospitality management education program. The $1 million project has created facilities like mock hotel rooms and kitchens to help students get a real feel for the day-in, day-out work. 

Students can continue their hospitality management education after the two-year program at MidSouth. The school has partnered with the the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis with Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs.   
Posted: 2/25/2015 2:24:20 PM | with 0 comments

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