A Great Track Record
Ryan Eller, President, Resorts World New York; Senior Vice President of Development, Genting America
The name Genting may not ring a bell for most Americans, but that’s all changing with the success of the Malaysian firm’s gaming projects in New York and Las Vegas.
Since opening in October 2011, Resorts World Casino New York City at Aqueduct Race Track has become the most successful slot hall in the United States, with 5,550 video gaming machines that draw 10 million visitors a year. The racino’s tax rate—the highest in the nation at 70 percent—has also made it a very generous community partner; in five years of operations, Resorts World has contributed $1.6 billion to the state education fund.
Based on that track record, Resorts World will add 750,000 square feet and 1,000 gaming terminals to the property. At the reins is Ryan Eller, the former Resorts World CFO who became president in 2014. With more than 10 years of experience in commercial and tribal gaming, the former Marine is also overseeing the development of Resorts World Las Vegas.
The scope of the New York investment—up to $500 million—is justified by the numbers, says Eller. “This year we expect revenues approaching $870 million of gross gaming win—it’s really unparalleled in the country.”
The project is also a hedge against future competition. New York City’s only casino dodged a bullet when New Jersey voters vetoed a plan to bring mammoth gaming halls to the northern part of the state, “on the doorstep of Manhattan,” Eller says. “The investment we’re contemplating is not only a way to protect our current asset, base and position; it’s intended to better position us to ultimately be a fully integrated resort in the future.”
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Eller spent eight years in the Marine Corps before heading to Harvard Business School. On the advice of a fellow veteran, he joined Caesars Entertainment as part of its President’s Associate program. Surprisingly, he says the two occupations—military and gaming—have a lot in common.
“Both are people businesses,” he says. “We have more than 1,000 employees at Resorts World who have thousands of interactions with customers every day. In the military, though one person is accountable, everyone works toward a common goal. And if they believe in that goal, they are ultimately capable of extraordinary things.”
As senior vice president of development for Genting Americas, Eller is also deeply involved in development of the 3,000-room Las Vegas property, which will be the first new integrated resort to open on the Strip since before the recession.
“We have a comprehensive, appropriately scaled and designed project that will transform the market,” says Eller. “The cranes are going up, and you’ll see an extraordinary level of construction in the first quarter of next year. It’s like moving a gigantic ship, and I’m frankly happy to be able to steer that ship.” The resort is projected to open in late 2018 or early 2019.
But New York is Eller’s primary focus, and the benchmark for Genting’s performance in Nevada.
“It’s our anchor in the Americas, our bellwether of success,” he says. “My focus is here, to try to ensure we grow on the success we’ve built as Genting’s first foray in the Americas.” —Marjorie Preston
David Chang, Founder and CEO, Betcade
Apple is cool and all, but it’s Google’s Android OS that rules the global smartphone market, powering around 80 percent of all handsets and 65 percent of tablets, which for the world’s mobile gamers means Google Play Store, now in its eighth year, has pretty much become the go-to shopping mall. This should translate to stupendous access for remote gambling operators. Only Google doesn’t allow real-money gambling apps on Play Store. It’s a real problem.
Enter David Chang, whose California-based startup Betcade has launched the first dedicated Android app store for gamblers.
Betcade, which went public with its platform in the U.K. in November, was developed in collaboration with design company Fantasy to deliver the look and feel of a traditional app store with easily navigable categories for different game verticals, plenty of visuals, and extras like star-based reviews and actual promotions, which Apple’s App Store doesn’t provide.
An integrated payment system is in the pipeline for the first quarter, so users will be able to deposit funds with Betcade for wagering on any RMG app they choose to download, similar to the way Apple and Google handle app store payments—and plans are in the works to round out the offering with messaging and a real-time news feed, data and analytics tools for operators and regulators, even safeguards and controls to promote responsible gambling.
“There are lots of things, lots of touch points we want to accomplish,” says Chang, whose aim for Betcade is to be a vehicle for helping the industry reap the same benefits everyone else has enjoyed in the migration over the last decade to mobile.
“For example, take integrated payments,” he says. “It’s very common everywhere you look. But it’s novel to gambling. Everybody else has been living with this for the last seven years.”
It’s very much an outsider’s perspective, one for which Chang’s experience uniquely suits him.
He was an entertainment lawyer who got involved in the tech side of things working with a number of Silicon Valley marketing companies. It piqued his interest in the wider world of non-gambling games, and he launched and grew two mobile games companies, both still in business, before being approached by the founders of Gamblit Gaming, an innovative developer of wagering applications for skill-based and video games, also California-based. He became chief marketing officer and head of industry relations for the company―not out of any particular attraction to gambling, he says. “What attracted me to that role—I didn’t find gambling games that interesting—was developing games that non-gambling gamers, millennials and Gen-Xers would enjoy. That interested me.”
Betcade was born out of much the same thought process, from looking at the bigger picture from enough distance to be able to see where a lot of different pieces fit.
“It was basically me looking at the whole ecosystem,” he says, “looking at what was out there in terms of what the industry was doing to get out there, the challenges the industry faced that other digital entertainment didn’t face.”
The gambling industry, he says, “is sort of what the games industry was like five years ago, in the transition that took it from land-based to online and from an online experience to a mobile experience.”
Betcade’s mission is to normalize the transition.
“The genesis of it was I just wanted to make the consumption of gambling conceptually the same as anything else,” he says. “If you look at it from the customer experience and what they prefer, it’s really about bringing gambling in line with the consumption of other products.”
The company is directing a major marketing push in Britain. Big-time operators the likes of William Hill and Betsson are already on board, and Chang and his team are talking to global leaders in every sector, from casino and sports betting to poker, bingo, lottery and daily fantasy sports.
“As a startup guy, it’s nice to see your value proposition embraced,” he says. “We don’t have to do a lot of selling. It’s more like explaining it. And when you do, they say, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’” —James Rutherford
West Meets East
Kevin Kelley, Chief Operating Officer, Galaxy Entertainment Group
When you’ve worked for some of the most innovative companies in gaming, you have a choice about where you want to live and work. So when Kevin Kelley left his job as COO of Station Casinos in 2012, he thought long and hard about where he wanted to work.
“I took some time off, and when I decided to come back, I had to consider whether I wanted to play in the major leagues or not,” he says. “And there is no doubt that Macau is the major leagues. There’s no place like it in the entire world. It’s such a robust market and it’s such an interesting time in that market. It makes coming to work fun!”
So when Galaxy Entertainment, which is one of the major players in Macau, offered him the position of chief operating officer, he grabbed it. Kelley had previous experience in Macau with Las Vegas Sands properties prior to taking the Station Casinos position, so he liked the complexity of the Macau market.
“It’s sometimes a daunting task getting your arms around all the different pieces, but that’s what makes it exciting,” he says.
But Kelley arrived in Macau at a time when the booming market had ground to a dead stop. Revenues fell dramatically for two years as China cracked down on corruption and the flow of money in and out of the country, making it sometimes risky to even travel to Macau. But Galaxy wasn’t hit as hard as its competitors, and Kelley credits the philosophy of Galaxy Chairman Dr. Lui Che Woo and his son, Vice Chairman Francis Lui.
“The company has always had a long-term vision for the market,” says Kelley. “We believe very strongly that Macau is a great destination with loads of potential. But like every market, we go through cycles. So we pulled in the reins of managing what we could manage and controlling what we could control. We reduced a lot of operating costs out of the business that were not necessary. At the same time, we were very focused on the fundamentals of our business.”
He says that starts with the excellent guest service provided by Galaxy employees.
“We made sure our team members felt supported and remained motivated to deliver a great experience for our customers,” he says. “That was a very important part of our success as we went through this trough.”
The “Asian Heart” service, says Kelley, isn’t just a slogan or a tagline; it’s a very real measure of the warmth provided by Galaxy employees.
“It comes from our chairman and vice chairman and it gets pushed all the way down. We walk the walk every single day.
“We’re blessed to have a great team of people from top to bottom,” he points out. “It starts with hiring right, and I have to give a lot of credit to Eileen Lui, who does a great job in hiring people who have the ‘Asian Heart’ spirit inside of them. The company works very hard to make sure we support and treat everyone with dignity and respect so they feel really good about coming to work.”
In addition, the opening of phase II of Galaxy Macau before the downturn made a big difference in the company being able to ride out difficult times.
“The customers really appreciated the facilities we added just prior to the downturn that are aligned with our long-term vision,” he says. “It was the right choice, with the right product that showed our commitment to the future of the market.
“Being first in was a good thing. I think people now realize that these properties take some time to ramp up as the market starts to shift and mature in its new form. At one time it was all about the VIP. Now it’s about the mass market and the many different segments inside that mass market.
“We have a very diversified resort experience here that allows us to capture the best of the various segments of the mass market, as well as the VIP business. So when you put it all together, it allows us to push forward a little faster, harder and higher than the other properties that may have a more narrow product offering.” —Roger Gros
Luisa Woods, Vice President, Online and Internet Marketing, Tropicana Entertainment Inc.
It’s a matter of routine for Luisa Woods. Every morning when she wakes up, she reaches for her mobile phone to check TropicanaCasino.com.
“It’s literally the first thing I do when I open my eyes—before I get out of bed, before I have my first cup of coffee, I check my numbers,” says Tropicana’s vice president of online and internet marketing. At a glance, those numbers tell Woods how many people are playing online, how many are new to the site and other key performance indicators including the pace of revenues (online revenues in the state topped $16.7 million in October, up almost 30 percent year-on-year, with Tropicana bringing in more than $3 million of the total).
Woods came to Atlantic City in late 2013, tapped by Tropicana shortly before New Jersey officially launched legal online gaming. Her job: to deliver, in a virtual environment, the same dynamic experience guests enjoy at the bricks-and-mortar casino.
“There are technical hurdles that we all face in the industry,” Woods says, “but I want playing online to be as easy for our customers as strolling in off the Boardwalk.”
Like many in the industry, the Canadian native discovered her career almost by accident. She began during graduate school as a researcher “at the intersection of culture and technology,” studying the use of multimedia games in the education field. In 1997, she founded Toronto-based Internet Presence Inc., which outsourced online marketing services for ecommerce clients and specialized in the online gaming and software sectors.
“I spent my early career building a startup agency in a startup industry,” says Woods. “At that time, gaming software platforms were extremely pared down—essentially a random number generator and downloaded graphics files.”
As CEO, Woods provided her clients broad marketing support: “creative, strategic, acquisition, retention, campaign tracking and optimization, customer service and beyond. I gained a diverse base of experience with product, operations and marketing. As the industry has matured, this range has been invaluable both in working across disciplines and bridging functions and in allocating and organizing resources.”
The nature of online gaming eliminates much of the opportunity for direct customer contact that exists at Tropicana Atlantic City, but Woods values talking by phone with her customers, and makes it a point to do so at every opportunity. “It’s helpful to see our product and the user experience from their perspective, and we’re always reaching out, inviting them to come down and get to know Tropicana in person. Just as we’re here to entertain them and welcome them when they come to Atlantic City, we focus very much on extending that experience online.”
As online gaming proliferates—from 10 virtual casinos in 2013, New Jersey now has 14— Woods refutes the perception that technology must make interactions impersonal. In fact, she says, the opposite may be true.
“In customer retention, I see a kind of reversion to high-touch service emerging. In the early days, it was all about creating the infrastructure. But as communication tools become more sophisticated, less time is spent on the work of managing execution. That actually allows us to step back, let the tools to do their work, and interact with our players person-to-person once again.
“Ultimately, our customers don’t care about the technology,” she adds. “They don’t want to hear about our back-office system or what software we’re using. For them, it’s all Tropicana. We’re in the entertainment business, and people don’t have to play with us if it’s not fun.”
The winners in online gaming, Woods says, “will be the ones who make it easy and fun for our customers.” —Marjorie Preston
Affinity for Recovery
Michael Silberling, Chief Executive Officer, Affinity Gaming
Think of Michael Silberling as a kind of “Mr. Fixit.”
His career has consisted of working for “challenged” properties or markets, starting with his introduction to the industry with the Promus Corporation, later to be Harrah’s and then Caesars Entertainment. After working as a president’s associate—leadership training in that company—he was assigned to the Laughlin casino, which had been underperforming.
After Laughlin, he got his first general manager role at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, then being pummeled by tribal gaming expansion in Northern California. After a stop in the Midwest, Caesars sent him to Europe, where the London Clubs acquisition had lost $100 million the previous year. He immediately turned it around to a $50 million profit in his first year, and spent seven years overseeing all the international locations for Caesars.
His current challenge came when Z Capital Partners, a large investor in Affinity Gaming, brought him in to run the company, a collection of casinos in Nevada, Colorado, Missouri and Iowa that had been underperforming. Since then, Z has obtained the entire company and is taking it private, which Silberling is eagerly anticipating.
The core of Affinity, however, is in Nevada, where in Primm, it owns the recently renovated Whiskey Pete’s, the Primm Valley Resort and Casino, and Buffalo Bill’s.
“Our flagship is clearly our Stateline properties both in terms of number of hotel rooms and revenue produced,” says Silberling. “We also have the highest-grossing lottery store in all of America, along with one of the highest-volume gas stations in the U.S., along with the casinos, the roller coaster, the outlet mall and all the rest.”
Like the Caesars London casinos, Silberling and his team have turned Affinity around quickly. EBITDA increased by 33 percent in the third quarter of 2016 versus the same quarter a year earlier. He explains it was just plain hard work that accomplished that feat.
“It was back to basics,” he says. “We built a very strong management team, so I give them a lot of credit. I’m very sensitive about being called a ‘cost-cutter,’ because that is not my approach at all. No one gets a memo from me telling them to take 10 percent off their budget. We’re focusing on profitably influencing customer behavior. We started from a blank sheet of paper when we decided how we were going to market this business. As a result, when you look at efficiency and productivity and return on investment, using data analytics, we were able to take a massive amount of expense out of our business without impacting our revenue at all.”
As an example, Silberling explains how Affinity improved a basic guest service.
“When I got here, we took seven minutes to check in a guest, and consequently, we had long lines,” he says. “Today, we’ve got it down to two minutes. We just made sure the printers were in the right place, the necessary forms were all available and the employees had everything they needed. So the customers are happier and the employees are happier. And we’re more productive and efficient.”
He says employing yielding technology for hotel rooms has dramatically improved occupancy and room rates at company hotels.
Instead of just deploying a raft of promotions, he says the marketing of the properties is done in a more scientific manner.
“We have better sense of what our customers want by test and control, where one group of customers gets an offer and another group does not,” he explains. “We’ve become much more of a data-driven company in how we approach business decisions.”
One of the more interesting of Affinity properties is the Silver Sevens Hotel & Casino on Paradise at Flamingo, just a long block from the Strip. It’s a hybrid locals/visitor property.
“When we map our casino,” he says, “the majority of our customers are between one and three miles from the property. But if you walk by the pool in the middle of the summer, you’ll hear a wide variety of accents and languages from all over the world. We’ve got a great price, we’re very near the airport with free shuttle service and access to the Strip. We’re mixing a locals market with the international hotel guest.
“But it’s back to basics there, as well. We spent a lot of time on the food there. Our top sellers are burgers and fried chicken, but I didn’t think we offered a great burger or fried chicken. Again, we’ve gone back and looked at the products—no more hockey-puck burgers or skinny chickens. We make a great pancake mix. We said we want to have amazing food, and I think we do now. I’ll put our Double Up Burger against any burger in America.”
While things are looking up for Affinity, Silberling cautions that more changes are coming.
“We still have a way to go,” he says. “Our margins have gone from some of the lowest in the industry to approaching industry norms. So I’m excited that there is still room for improvement.” —Patrick Roberts
Coast to Coast
Darren Student, Director of Gaming Sales, Agilysys
It’s surprising to find Darren Student at home.
As director of gaming sales for the hospitality software firm Agilysys, Student is always on the go, crisscrossing the U.S. to visit clients in markets large and small—from the global operators of Las Vegas to tribal ventures in remote regions around the country.
His job, he says, is deceptively simple: “to help our customers enhance the guest experience, which in turn enhances operations. If you take care of your customer, you not only create important, lasting connections but also increase brand loyalty, which increases the guest wallet share. It all trickles down.”
By tracking and analyzing guest behaviors and preferences, solutions like the firm’s rGuest Analyze platform enable resort operators to offer better, more personalized service from check-in to check-out and beyond.
“We encompass most of the touch points that affect non-gaming spend and integrate it with the gaming systems,” says Student. “We can enhance and positively influence the complete 360 life cycle of the guest experience.”
As the son of Roy Student, the industry pioneer who automated the casino floor at the original MGM Grand, Darren Student’s career path almost seems foregone. “I grew up in Queens, New York, but I always looked forward to tagging along with my dad on business trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In those days, deals were done over a meal in a steak house. I would listen as my father talked about slots, keno, sports book and all the gaming applications around the casino.”
But Student was more intrigued by what went on behind the scenes.
“When I was only 13, I got the chance to tour the back of the house at the original MGM. To me, the technical part on the non-gaming side was kind of the unsung hero of the operation—nobody talked about it, but it was just as important. I guess that’s what led me to where I am today, with 20 years on the non-gaming side.”
In fact, in one of his first jobs, working the front desk at the old Aladdin Hotel on the Strip while attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Student used a product he now represents—LMS by Agilysys, which automates and streamlines hotel operations so staff can focus on guest service.
It always comes back to service for Student, who predicts that emerging technologies will create even more opportunities to heighten the guest experience.
“Mobility is transforming guest engagement,” he says. “Smartphones and tablets are easy to carry, easy to use and wearable, so casinos will be interacting with guests on a variety of devices more than they ever have before.” With expectations ever higher, resorts must provide service that’s “fluid and seamless,” he says.
As the new year progresses, Student looks forward to racking up some more frequent-flier miles.
“My favorite part of the job is talking with my customers,” he says. “We’re so fortunate to have an intelligent customer base that’s really engaged with the business. We’re always looking ahead together to best meet the needs of the industry.” —Marjorie Preston
LuAnn Pappas, President and CEO, Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort
Who says a woman can’t be president?
In December 2015, when the Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort opened in D’Iberville, Mississippi, the corner office was reserved for LuAnn
Pappas—a gaming industry veteran, New Jersey native and marketing whiz who ascended through the ranks over more than 30 years at Harrah’s/Caesars Entertainment.
Unlike some industries, gaming is well-known as a meritocracy, where drive and tenacity can shatter glass ceilings. Pappas, for example, started out on the graveyard shift in a casino gift shop, and with persistence, grit and talent rose to the C-suite. But she’s still pushing to see more women at her level in the business.
“We cannot afford for another century to go by without recognizing the value of more female leaders in gaming,” Pappas has said.
For those following in her footsteps, Pappas provides an exceptional role model. Prior to joining Scarlet Pearl, she had worked her way up to become regional vice president of casino marketing at Caesars Atlantic City. Pappas was so revered in the market that, when she was tapped for the top job down south, Caesars posted her photo on Harrah’s Resort’s famous exterior wall, a 500-foot animated video screen that illuminates the night sky and can be seen for miles around. The tribute included the farewell message, “Thanks for 30 years.”
Pappas still enjoys a water view: the $290 million, privately owned Scarlet Pearl, which joined 11 other gaming halls on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, attests to the resilience of the Old Town neighborhood ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The resort includes a 60,000-square-foot casino, 300-room hotel, restaurants, an event center, a pool and a popular 36-hole miniature golf course, Lava Links, complete with waterfalls and an erupting volcano. Fittingly for someone in her job, Pappas’ office directly overlooks the volcano.
In the past year, the resort has become an economic driver for the area. On its opening, local Councilman Joey Bosarge said Scarlet Pearl “puts us on a whole other level. D’Iberville’s a destination city now.” The property has added 1,200 jobs, and Pappas will do her part to see that many pivotal roles are held by women. The crusade makes sense, she says. Who better to understand, communicate with and market to the 52 percent of casino patrons who are female?
As for her personal and professional creed, Pappas has often cited her father’s motto, which she’s clearly followed throughout a distinguished career: “Be fair, be firm, be disciplined and never, ever quit what you start.” —Marjorie Preston
Games People Play
Aron Ezra, Founder and CEO, OfferCraft
Aron Ezra took a unique axiom to a new level. If a task appears unexciting, make it a game.
The 39-year-old New York native brought a creative zeal to the OfferCraft company he formed last year. Ezra’s Las Vegas outfit highlights “gamification,” enticing increased customer response to offers by making them interactive.
“One of the biggest challenges for all marketers is that the vast majority of the offers don’t work,” he says. “Most people who see a given offer don’t pay attention, and while the casino industry does better than others, the majority of people are not going to utilize it.”
But if they play for it, or win the award, the feeling is different, he asserts.
“We can turn normal promotions into a game,” Ezra indicates. “It can be utilized on our hotel booking page, for instance, in which they can win things. Say the price of the hotel room is listed. You can figure ‘Let me play this game to see what kind of discount I can get off the room.’ You win a discount and you can apply it to that room. You are enticed to use it because you won that discount.”
Casinos purchase the OfferCraft software and can utilize it through varied forms of social media or inside their properties. Redemption of the awards identifies player preferences regarding future market offers.
OfferCraft takes gamesmanship to another level, internally. Employees can benefit from it, Ezra indicates.
“You can teach employees about food safety, security measures or sexual harassment concerns,” he says. “You turn it into a game. People are much more likely to remember a message if it comes in the form of a game or a video. It forces you to engage more. This is a great tool during orientation, and it’s nice for someone who just got promoted to a new role.
“You can win prizes. In some casinos they have a leaderboard to see who is best at playing these games.”
From a career standpoint, Ezra has excelled. He was previously the CEO of MacroView Labs, a San Francisco-based mobile software startup that served the hospitality, travel, event, retail and entertainment markets. MacroView was acquired in 2011 by Bally Technologies. Ezra then spent three years leading Bally’s global interactive initiatives.
The OfferCraft founder has given more than 800 presentations on technology and marketing issues at conferences around the world. The Innovation Group named him one of the 2016 Top Six Emerging Gaming Leaders.
Ezra looks to connect the best of two worlds in 2017.
“We are expanding outside of gaming,” he says. “We would like to bring the expertise of the gaming world to non-gaming entities, like health care, say setting up a game in which patients gain points for taking their medication on time or win prizes by paying their bill on time.”
That’s the success blueprint. Make it a game. Everybody wins. —Dave Bontempo
The Winning Team
John Hemberger, Senior Vice President of Table Products, AGS
Sports writer Grantland Rice said, “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.”
John Hemberger isn’t a big fan of such sentiment. A sports enthusiast since his youth in Long Island, he prefers former UCLA football coach Red Sanders’ quote: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
“Sports were a huge part of my upbringing,” says Hemberger, senior vice president of table products at AGS. “The pace of the Northeast, coupled with the competition sports offered, shaped me into someone who loves winning but hates losing even more.”
It’s the kind of attitude that has served him well in his career.
“I’ve always been interested in gaming, the psychology of winning and losing, and analyzing risk versus reward,” says Hemberger, who moved to Las Vegas after college, where he got a part-time job at a local casino.
He joined Shuffle Master in 2007, handling product submissions. He transitioned into table games product management.
“Shuffle Master had a structure that was a bit unique, because product management was the quarterback or CEO of that business. You were empowered to own your products from infancy to the grave. Every facet of the business ultimately was your responsibility,” Hemberger says.
In 2014, Hemberger moved to AGS, where he helped build a table business from the ground up. In his current position, he’s responsible for creating a successful table games team.
“Luckily, I’m working with an unbelievably passionate group that’s focused on giving table customers the best experience in the industry,” he says. “We had a blank canvas, and it’s been exciting to develop the AGS table game brand.
“AGS is a family-type environment where everyone works towards a common goal,” Hemberger says. “I’ve known CEO David Lopez for 10 years, and he’s someone I connected with early on and watched and learned from. It’s the way David motivates a group of people, whether they directly report to him or not.”
Hemberger also cites his wife, Julia Boguslawski, AGS marketing vice president, as a mentor. “She’s able to view situations and people through a completely different lens than I do. She provides me such a thoughtful perspective on situations.”
To Hemberger, passion is the driving force to success. “You have the choice to select any industry to work in; if you pick gaming, you should love it. It’s a lot easier getting up each morning when it doesn’t feel like work, and the gaming industry is a field that gives people that chance.”
In the future, community gaming will focus more on player interaction, Hemberger says.
“It’s important that platforms and content are designed with this in mind,” he says. “The tricky part is avoiding player confusion; simplicity will always be key. It’s also important to make sure players have a chance to win. If the focus is solely on games with higher and higher house advantages, we will ultimately lose players who have a choice on how to spend their entertainment dollars. We must keep the fun in gaming, and in the end, winning is fun.” —William Sokolic
Gary Carano, Chairman and CEO, Eldorado Resorts
It’s been an adrenaline-fueled two years for Gary Carano, chairman and CEO of Eldorado Resorts.
In that time, he has taken his company public, increased its property holdings sixfold and transformed it from a small, Reno-based family casino outfit into one of the largest regional gaming empires in the United States.
First founded in 1973 as a single Reno hotel by Gary’s father, Don, Eldorado operated for four decades as a mom-and-pop company with a pair of properties in Reno and eventually a riverboat casino in Louisiana.
But starting in 2014, Carano has led the company through an audacious growth-by-acquisition strategy that began with the purchase of MTR Gaming and culminated in September 2016 with a deal to buy Isle of Capri for $1.7 billion.
Once the deal closes in mid-2017, the new and improved Eldorado Resorts will feature 20 properties across 10 states, which combined would have generated upwards of $2 billion in annual revenue for fiscal year 2016. The company also will have doubled its annual net revenue and adjusted EBITDA draws, and doubled its slot machines, table games and hotel rooms while tripling its property holdings.
In the process, the company has leapfrogged competitors like Pinnacle Entertainment, Penn National Gaming, Full House Resorts and others in the battle for what’s seen as a still-profitable yet tightening regional gaming market.
Once the transactional dust settles, Carano’s task will be to integrate the new properties under the Eldorado brand while discerning where the company fits among the other big-hitter gaming operators.
“The niche that we think Eldorado has in the public gaming sector is a little bit different than the other corporate giants that are larger than us,” he explains, adding that the company culture is based on the Jack Binion model of customer engagement and hospitality.
“That’s allowing our managers to operate their properties without overly intrusive corporate guidance, and also the culture of the team members and management to be on the floor with the players versus in their offices reviewing spreadsheets,” he continues. “That’s how we grew up.”
Carano asserts that he is proud of how the company his father started now spans the country. Personally, even though he’s taken an enormous jump from heading a family-owned casino business to the boardroom of a publicly traded company, he insists that because of his upbringing he still feels more at home on the casino floor.
“I’m a more hands-on CEO because I came up through operations,” he says. “I’m not a Wall Street finance guy, I’m an operations guy.”
One of the key selling points of the Isle of Capri deal for Carano was the cultural similarities between the two companies—particularly their family- owned, sweat-equity backgrounds—that figure to help smoothen out the transition.
“We’re very excited, because Isle is a very well-run company with a great culture for players and team members,” he says. “Our plate is going to be pretty full this next year molding these two great companies into one efficient team.” —Aaron Stanley
Everyone In the Data Pool
Anthony “AJ” Mason, Principal Consultant for Prospect Analytics, Innovation Analytics
AJ Mason likes the one word that scares people in most businesses: merge.
The Orlando, Florida resident has joined with the Innovation Group as principal consultant for prospect analytics to form Innovation Analytics. Mason’s new company blends his gaming and non-gaming background with the Innovation Group’s large casino-contact network. It should be a powerful synergy, rolling out in 2017.
“The reason there is an opportunity here is that for a lot of smart people, analytics gets pulled in so many directions,” he says. “You are putting out a fire with water and everybody grabs a bucket. The companies can use people with strong analytical skills that can help them get to the big problems they can’t get to.”
Properties can see this in an illuminating way. Let a specialist grind data for you. Let someone else perform the legwork to provide the basis for important decisions.
“What drives my passion in this: What creates the real excitement is combining the best practices of the gaming and non-gaming industries,” Mason indicates. “Whatever you pick up from one you can bring back to the other. It’s going to be an exciting time.” Mason brings a recent wealth of casino experience to this position. He held marketing roles at Las Vegas Sands, Ameristar, Pinnacle and Foxwoods prior to launching a consulting journey. Mason’s specialty will be helping casinos leverage data with return on investment.
“It’s important for operators to get a real good understanding about optimizing their baseline investment in marketing,” he says. “What you should be giving away, how you are targeting the customer, etc. This does not replace traditional operating experience in any way, but it helps you in finding the money you couldn’t find otherwise if you didn’t use math.
“We want to take the guesswork away,” he adds. “We can actually get the solution, and give you a clear answer one way or another to what you are doing. We can go back, look at certain cases and determine that this is how much money we made with offer A versus offer B.”
The 37-year-old Bloomington, Indiana native obtained a B.A. at Indiana University and a master’s at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, both in economics. He won the Economic Alumni Award at UNLV’s Lee Business School in 2012. Mason considers being part of the Las Vegas Sands team that built a centralized digital marketing team, along with testing platforms to provide ROI blueprints, his top gaming achievements.
Mentors also helped. Mason says Rom Hendler at Las Vegas Sands and Dave Clark at Ameristar taught him to build strong relationships to obtain buy-in for new projects. John Celona at Las Vegas Sands showed him that developing appropriate organizational structure leads to happier and more productive teams, because responsibilities are clearly defined.
Now it’s his turn to teach, or at least advise, in this new gaming-world role. —Dave Bontempo
Ian Hughes, General Managing Director, GLI Asia
Ian Hughes brings gaming a passionate blend of compliance and reliance.
The personable 45-year-old native of Adelaide, Australia plays a major role for the increasingly prominent Gaming Laboratories International. The company issues annual certifications on about 220,000 items to a gaming industry rooted in competition, change and quick innovations. The GLI seal of approval lets operators and regulators know that a new product will work.
Hughes is the managing director and CEO of Sydney-based GLI Asia and the vice president of global services for GLI via its Las Vegas office. He has been actively engaged in the areas of compliance and gaming equipment globally for the past 20 years,
“I love the gaming industry,” he says. “I know a lot of people whom I can call friends, whether that means regulators, manufacturers, casino operators—you name it. They are great, interesting people. Everybody is passionate about their work. Through good times and bad, we are all in this together. I love that side of the industry.”
Hughes has long understood the mechanics of this business. A few years back, he established a central monitoring system in New South Wales, testing and approving a system that brought the jurisdiction from the paper to the electronic age.
He has led the development of many of GLI’s innovative and value-added tools, including GLI Link, Point Click Transfer and GLI Scale. Hughes holds a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering and a master’s in business administration.
Gaming is always trying to enter an upgraded age. As it speeds through uncharted waters, GLI keeps the industry on course. Most of its efforts help manufacturers obtain the blessing on a new product or technology. GLI sees its role with the gaming industry as amicable.
“With the thousands of new game titles, we usually can find two or three issues (often regarding math) that we can alert the manufacturers to and they normally get it right the second time,” he says. “With new technology, there could be perhaps 60-70 issues and again, they will soon get it right. We want to be of great value to them. The manufacturers spend a lot of money and quite a bit of time internally supporting the lab process. If they have to adjust products multiple times, they have a bigger internal cost. We work hard on getting the manufacturers to as many markets as they can possible be in.
“This reduces the cost for them of going into new markets. If you have received GLI approval on a particular item and you want to later bring it to another jurisdiction, say Brazil, we will try to have this set up so that you don’t need to re-test anything.”
One of GLI’s new gifts to the gaming industry is hacking. That’s right. A new wrinkle of this company is its ability to attempt hacking a property’s security system, often after a new product has been implemented, at the operator’s request.
That’s taking gaming trust to a new level. —Dave Bontempo
Most Valuable Player
Tammy Farley, President, Rainmaker Group
In business, a “rainmaker” is someone who bags big clients and big paydays. It’s an apt name for the Atlanta-based Rainmaker Group, co-founded in 1998 by Tammy Farley and Bruce Barfield. As pioneers in revenue management and optimization, Farley and Barfield help clients in the gaming, hospitality and multi-family housing industries boost profits while building extraordinary customer relationships. The firm’s clients—including Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International and Wynn Las Vegas—have helped land Rainmaker on the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies for five years running.
Born in a suburb of Detroit, Farley took pre-med at University of Michigan. But after failing chemistry and passing out on her first day at the hospital, she knew a career change was in order. Today, at the helm of a globally influential firm with 230 employees, she’s confident she made the right choice. “The thing I like best about my job is interacting with and listening to both clients and prospects, finding out what we’re doing well and what we could do better,” she says.
Gaming and hospitality comprise about a third of the company’s portfolio. As the casino industry expands—there are currently some 1,500 bricks-and-mortar casinos in the U.S., with more to come—demand is strong for Rainmaker’s software solutions, which use customer data to identify the most valuable players, so resorts can bring them back, again and again.
“You want to fill your rooms with guests of the highest value for the casino operator,” says Farley. “That value doesn’t come from the cash rate paid for a room; it comes from money spent on the gaming floor. We seek to optimize the guest in the room, not the rate they pay.”
Determining the value of a potential guest enables casinos to not only set the right rate but add comps, upgrades and other perquisites. The system factors in reinvestment costs, “so you’re really looking at profit, not just revenue,” says Farley. It also generates daily forecasts that inform a hotel management team when VIPs are coming in. “Typically, the people with the highest value have the shortest booking window,” observes Farley. “So if you sell out too soon, you’re turning away your most valuable players.”
The assessments “can be nearly real-time,” she adds. “At the time of booking, we look up your value and base our determination on what you did the last time you were here. We also do some post-departure analysis.”
As a company, Rainmaker has “a very well-defined set of core values, and they’re far more than words on a plaque in our lobby,” says Farley. “We live and breathe them every day.” Those values include respect, teamwork, compassion and authenticity, as well as a customer-centric attitude that puts client success first.
“At Rainmaker, we talk a lot about our ‘say-do ratio,’” she says. “When we engage with customers, we’re clear and direct about what we can and will do, and what’s best done by others. And then we do what we say we’ll do.”
Another key value is the willingness to embrace change—a must in the casino industry, which continues to morph at a rapid pace. With increasing competition, and with non-gaming becoming a bigger piece of the pie, “we’re making sure our models adapt,” says Farley. “We’re hyper-focused on helping our customers capture the true value of their guests and optimize that, because it’s not just about the casino anymore.” —Marjorie Preston