In each of the seven years that Global Gaming Business has been publishing its 25 People to Watch feature in the first edition of the new year, the group of people identified have indeed been “watchable.” To cite a list of honorees would be very impressive, but also very lengthy. The complete list is featured on the front page of the website. Our selections have indeed been watchable and have changed the industry to a very large degree. It’s that quality that has influenced our choices for 2009. The selections, nominated by the GGB Advisory Board and other savvy industry professionals, make these people important players in their organizations and jurisdictions. We believe that, like all the other People to Watch classes, the 2009 group will leave their mark on the industry this year and many years in the future.
President and COO, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore
Former Wynn executives are coveted throughout the industry for their operational savvy, their entreprenuerialship and their ability to turn on a dime; to change quickly in response to market conditions.
Andrew Pascal, the president and COO of Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, is admired within the organization for those skills, but much of that was learned while he was away from the Wynn organization.
As a casino gaming “brat”-someone who was raised around gambling-Pascal had something of a head start.
“I grew up around it,” he says. “My dad was a bit of a gambler while I was growing up, so it held a bit of a mystique.”
During the summer breaks from school, he held down a variety of jobs at the Golden Nugget, a casino coincidentally owned by his uncle, Steve Wynn (Pascal is Elaine Wynn’s nephew).
“I was exposed to so many different aspects of the resort,” he says. “It was very dynamic and I learned so much. It didn’t take me long to realize that these resorts have so many different kinds of businesses under one roof. If you weren’t really clear about what you wanted to do professionally, it seemed like a good place to figure it out.”
When Wynn opened the Mirage, Pascal was with him, eventually rising to lead the slot department.
“Steve wanted us to focus more on the content,” he explains. “He’s known for building these incredibly fanciful resorts, but at the end of the day, people spend the time playing these games, and for the most part, they weren’t really evolving all that much.
“We created a whole suite of products that were unique to us, first at the Golden Nugget and later at the Mirage. The idea was to develop new, fun games that were unique to us and couldn’t be found anywhere else, and people would come back to us to play them. And if they happened to wander in from the joint across the street, they’d see something they had never seen before and they’d stay a while.”
Through this involvement, Pascal was exposed to the many slot manufacturers at the time, and found them wanting. He met a group technology experts from the San Francisco area and formed Silicon Gaming, a company that would revolutionize the slot industry. Whether it is the bold video graphics, the streamlined slot cabinets, really unique games or even server-based gaming, Silicon Gaming was truly ahead of its time. Today, every slot manufacturer applies and uses the innovations that were first found in Silicon Gaming products.
“It was an exciting time,” Pascal says. “It was an opportunity for me to get out on my own and learn a different set of lessons. It helped to dream big.”
While Pascal says the company was dynamic and creative, the challenge was to get his partners to understand the consumer.
“With an entertainment-based product, you’re appealing to someone on an emotional level,” he explains. “While we built a platform and a suite of games that was clearly revolutionary for our industry, we got a bit distracted initially by the technology and the capabilities of the platform we had created, and we lost sight of how to leverage those things to really enhance the gambling proposition.
“We ultimately figured that out, but it was a little too late.”
While Silicon Gaming was eventually swallowed up by slot giant IGT, Pascal says he learned a lot from that experience, and a subsequent position with IGT’s groundbreaking WagerWorks division, which is today one of the top providers of internet games in the world.
“The experience of being an entrepreneur, coming up with plans and strategies and being able to articulate that to your investors, your customers and your employees… that alone was invaluable,” he says. “I still apply those lessons today in my role at Wynn.”
Since he was appointed to lead Wynn Las Vegas more than three years ago, Pascal has been able to apply the principles he learned at Silicon Gaming and IGT, coupled with his experience at Mirage Resorts and Wynn Resorts. And he knows, in the end, it’s the quality of the experience, driven by the commitment and dedication of the employees, that makes all the difference.
“Everyone is trying to do the same thing,” he notes, “but we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been acknowledged by groups like AAA, Mobil and Michelin, and we take a lot of pride in that. At the same time, we don’t get overly obsessed with those things, because they’re just a byproduct of focusing on doing the right thing. First and foremost, it’s the guest.”
Again, it sounds like the lip service mouthed by all other casino resorts, from the most economical to the most expensive. But Pascal says Wynn does it differently.
“It’s about a lot of little decisions,” he says. “But it all starts with how our employees feel and how they react the first time they’re standing in front of a guest. If they’re checking them in, serving them in a restaurant, dealing them a game in the casino… what we try to do is empower them. We want them to focus on the guest; to give them a sense of what we are and create a level of warmth that you may not find to such a great extent anywhere else. Hopefully, it gives the guest a sense that we really care; we appreciate that they’re here and we want to make sure they have nothing less than a flawless experience while they are here.
Pascal says his experience begins and ends with the lessons taught by the master, Steve Wynn.
“He involves you in the process, whether he is designing a restaurant or a room or a resort, or re-architecting a casino division,” he says. “He’s very engaging, he solicits your ideas and opinions. Just by observing him asking the questions as he collects the information, then applies his own experience and comes up with a solution, that we all then vet, it’s a fascinating, stimulating process. It’s a style that I then try to apply as I engage my team. I want to make sure that they feel as connected and involved in that process as I feel in the design process. He’s given me a lot of latitude to approach managing this resort in a way that fits me and my style.”
That level of entrepreneurial direction is what sets Wynn Las Vegas and Encore apart from all the other resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, according to Pascal.
“Too often, people who work in big companies or big resorts think that all they have to do is to execute their job function-deliver the good meal or execute the sequence of service in the front of the house,” he says. “If they start thinking about who we are or who the customers are, it gives them a slightly different point of view. That makes them value the customer more, which means they put more of an effort into establishing the relationship with that customer. It helps them really understand that customer or how to attract more of them. That’s what’s going to drive the business.”
Director of Construction Administration, Innovation Project Development Company
Gail McDonald has a unique perception of a “home game.”
As the director of construction administration for Innovation Project Development Company, McDonald can be sent anywhere to spearhead a company’s expansion. Her latest project, however, occurs right where she grew up. A native of Akwesasne, a border city located both in Canada and New York, McDonald directs a $60 million expansion for the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino.
The project, launched in 2008 and set for completion in 2009, will add 750 slot machines, several amenities, food courts and an expansion to the Sticks sports bar. This is the first expansion for the 10-year-old property, which plans to add a 250-bed hotel somewhere in the future.
The Mohawk property owns a respectable gaming niche. It attracts patrons from Quebec, Montreal, northern New York state and Vermont. The casino also is building at a time when credit is stagnant.
“Our model is that we are the North Country’s favorite playground,” McDonald says.
“We are extremely guest-oriented and we really are in a remote area,” she adds, laughing. “One side of my street is in Canada, the other is in New York. Turn left you are in one country. Turn right you are in another. I’m real happy about this expansion because it offers our guests more variety, and will enhance their experiences.”
The expansion holds personal and professional significance for McDonald, a St. Regis Mohawk tribal member. Much of her previous work improved living conditions for the tribe. It involved building health facilities, a home for the elderly, a family violence shelter and an adolescent group home. As a result, residents no longer must travel a significant distance to receive basic medical and social services.
McDonald has also served as director of finance for the casino and was the project director for the tribe’s planned Monticello, New York, casino, which did not materialize. Whether working for the tribe, the casino, or both, she has made a significant impact.
Now with the project management division of the Innovation Group of Companies, McDonald will work on many projects, commercial and tribal alike.
As construction leader, McDonald must know codes, permits, regulatory concerns and a score of architectural logistics, for which she has a team. After 35 years of improving life in the neighborhood, McDonald can enjoy the benefits.
“I had never realized what a fun environment gaming is,” McDonald says. “It’s awesome. It still takes all your skills as a manager, administrator and planner, but it’s exciting; it’s changing all the time.”
Vice President of Marketing, WMS Gaming
WMS Gaming has been at the forefront of the evolution of game content toward the networked gaming floor. However, beyond game development itself, the slot manufacturer has been blazing new trails in the marketing of the games-not only to the primary casino customers, but to the end users, the players.
That’s where Rob Bone comes in. As vice president of marketing for WMS Gaming, Bone has directed traditional marketing efforts for the slot-maker’s games, but he also has initiated something else: 21st century marketing.
WMS was the first slot manufacturer to actually put mockups of its games up on a website so players can actually sample them. The company also has worked with operators such as Harrah’s to launch new games with sweepstakes events. In short, WMS has used the internet like no slot-maker before it.
“We wanted to make our story well-known,” Bone says. “In the old days, that meant direct mail that was thrown away. It was costly, and it was not memorable. We wanted to market our products in the same way we make them.”
That means going into a virtual 3-D casino on the WMS website-a visit that can be made by either operators or players, to actually see how a game works. “What better opportunity to reach a player than in the confines of his own house?” Bone asks. “By doing that, we can modify or influence what product they go to first when they get to the casino.”
He says this targeted marketing will become ever more important in the coming year, as the economy begins to recover.
“There are clearly capital restrictions (for operators), and people are doing different things,” says Bone. “We have to make sure our focus is on offering a proposition that offers them something better.
“Sixty percent of all players will say access to new slot machines is why they go to a casino. We have to make sure those experiences are fresh.”
This attention applies to slot directors as well. “For operators, I’m back to being more of a consultant than a sales representative. I want to sell with a strategic vision-not just launch a product, but have empathy for our customers, understand what they’re going for, and understand their challenges.”
– Frank Legato
John Acres and Rich Fiore
Partners, Acres-Fiore, Inc.
John Acres and Rich Fiore were both “people to watch” in the gaming industry long before they were included on the Global Gaming Business 2009 list.
Acres is a legend in the slot sector, having achieved slot-industry milestones ranging from the invention of player tracking to the creation of modern progressive jackpot systems and bonusing software.
Fiore has long been known as one of the best slot game designers in the business, having worked at Sierra Design Group on the technology that has given slot-maker Bally Technologies new life since it acquired SDG a few years ago.
Last year, the two formed a new company to develop third-party slot content. Acres-Fiore, Inc. operates like no other content provider-it buys hardware from Bally on the Alpha platform for the express purpose of creating prototypes for beta testing, taking all the development risk and licensing the games back to Bally only after they’ve been approved.
This has allowed the two industry veterans to create radical new game concepts-ideas that would likely be deemed too risky for one of the traditional manufacturers to bring to market. The new company already has introduced “Fast Forward,” an ultra-fast game that speeds through all losing combinations only to stop the reels on wins; and “Jewel Chaser,” a community game feature that requires players to work together to trigger bonus events.
Fiore says these two features can be added to any Bally game. “Our objective is to have Fast Forward and Jewel Chaser on as many Bally products as possible,” he says.
The outlook for 2009 also promises Acres-Fiore concepts that are even more radical.
“Last year was all about creating ideas and getting patent implementation,” says Acres. “2009 will be about a lot of product coming forth from Bally and us.”
Among the most prominent of those new products will be in a category Acres and Fiore call “Personalized Gaming.” The idea is to use data on players gathered through player’s club and CRM systems to actually customize game aspects like volatility and bonus style to individual players.
“Right now, a lot of players are going through casinos and not finding anything they want to gamble on,” Acres says. “They took the time to give their names and information to the casinos but didn’t find anything they like. By rethinking every element of a game-how simple it is to play, how personalized it is to the individual, how fun it is-we can deliver a great percentage of those people to casinos as profitable customers.”
Another upcoming concept is “Members Bonus,” which uses the player tracking card as a bonus enabler. “Play of the game changes according to whether or not you have your card inserted,” says Acres.
More concepts and innovations to follow. Bet on it.
– Frank Legato
President and CEO, Bally Technologies
There have been several crucial periods in the 77-year history of slot manufacturer Bally Technologies. However, few periods have been more crucial than the past four years, since Richard Haddrill took over as CEO of the world’s oldest slot manufacturer.
Since taking the reins as CEO in 2004, Haddrill has overseen the rebirth of Bally, from the incorporation of the former Sierra Design Group to the development of the company’s first truly successful video slots to the revamping of the entire product line around the versatile and modular Alpha platform.
Under Haddrill’s stewardship, Bally soared out of a difficult period to become one of the hottest slot-makers in the business. Most recently, he insulated Bally from the worldwide economic slump through a program of low-cost, high-yield expansion to new markets across the world.
For the coming year, Haddrill says he aims to continue this winning formula in a way that will help operators weather the economic downturn.
“Our products are definitely designed to produce a strong return on investment for our customers,” Haddrill says. “We designed our cabinets to be modular so customers can change stepper to video, so they can add a top box or a second screen, and so they can upgrade to server compatibility, and therefore preserve capital for the long term. We’ve made our design teams very efficient also, by using one platform, Alpha, for both stepper and video.”
The same attention to return on investment can be found in Bally’s system products, he adds. “No system customer in 31 years of Bally’s history in systems has ever been left behind; they’ve always had an upgrade path,” he says. “That makes customers confident investing with Bally.”
Haddrill says Bally will not be one of the companies in the manufacturing sector to lay off employees this year. “We’re hiring at a slower rate and being more careful, but we’re still hiring,” he says. “We’ve completely retooled our systems product line to state-of-the-art technologies, so we enter this economic downturn as a pretty well-oiled machine.”
With games like Hot Shot-Haddrill says it’s the most successful Bally game in history-still burning up the market, as well as innovative new offerings like Break-Out and other skill games, it’s a safe bet Bally will continue to pump out successful product. Haddrill says the key going forward will be return on investment.
“I think a number of operators are going to be investing smartly,” he says, “and I think you’re going to see that we and our competitors will have to continue to innovate to provide products that produce a good return-and a great player experience.”
Chief Marketing Officer, Olympic Entertainment Group
Estonian casino operator Olympic Entertainment Group has successfully spread its fun-based gaming concept into seven other countries. One crucial factor has been the development and implementation of the initial and follow-up marketing efforts for each of the different cultures. Overseeing that task is Chief Marketing Officer Katre Kaarenperk-Vanatoa.
Understanding what will appeal to someone from another culture takes more than guesswork.
“The first thing we do is make a survey,” says Kaarenperk-Vanatoa. “The competition, the market overall, the general habits and traditions of the local population, what they like to do and where they like to go-we try to get as much of that kind of information as possible.”
After a model of the new operating environment has been constructed, Kaarenperk-Vanatoa must find the right people to handle the business.
“I start putting together the local team that will be working at the casino, hiring the marketing and CRM team,” she says. “Then we start planning the campaigns, the casino launches and we enter the market.”
Kaarenperk-Vanatoa monitors all the existing markets and works closely with the local teams she put in place. Together they develop marketing plans and annual budgets. She continues to study the competition, checking to see if the Olympic Casino product needs adjusting, maintaining contact with the local marketing manager.
With a bachelor’s degree in economics and advanced study in hotel management, Kaarenperk-Vanatoa has a great background to understand her task. She worked previously at the Reval Hotel group, a popular chain in the Baltics. With a 4-month-old at home, in summer 2003, she was contacted by a former colleague from Reval to work part-time on some projects for Olympic. By September they had offered her a full-time position.
The job has demanded a lot of travel, with Olympic establishing itself with multiple casinos and slot casinos in four new countries over the past three years. For 2009 the challenges will be different.
“The main challenge is the economic situation, which is very difficult now in the Baltics and the other countries as well,” says Kaarenperk-Vanatoa. “Our main focus is to be more efficient next year, to keep our clients in our casinos and build up customer loyalty even more.”
And there is the usual challenge for Kaarenperk-Vanatoa, working in a male-dominated business and culture. But that is changing.
“There are a lot of women now in Parliament, lots of women running their own businesses in Estonia, so it is not something very unique,” she says. “Even in Ukraine, our general manager is a woman, and she does her job very well.”
Director, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian
Kevin Gover didn’t know why the National Museum of the American Indian had him on its list when looking for a replacement for longtime director W. Richard West Jr. He had no experience in museum operations or anything resembling it.
What he did have, during his time as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior from 1997 to 2000, was a stellar relationship with tribal leaders. And it turns out, that’s what the museum was looking for.
“They want to have increasing contact with and input from tribal leaders,” says Gover. “And that’s why I was chosen, I believe.”
During his time at the Interior Department, Gover handled many Indian gaming issues, including land-into-trust decisions, tribal recognition assessments, off-reservation gaming and much more. Despite its inherent adversarial possibilities, Gover says he tried to broker a deal during every dispute, usually between states and tribes.
“My message was, ‘If you don’t reach a deal and force me to make a decision, I can guarantee no one will be happy with it,’” he laughs. “That usually did it. It got people to work harder to make a decision they could each live with.”
Gover’s experience at Interior was complemented by long legal involvement with Native American issues of all kinds. A member of the Pawnee tribe, Gover is a graduate of Princeton with a law degree from the University of New Mexico. He was very active in the establishment of the New Mexico Indian gaming industry. Gover joined the faculty at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in 2003 and serves on the faculty of the university’s prestigious Indian Legal Program.
Many gaming tribes donated millions of dollars to fund the development of the museum and Gover says their contribution was invaluable.
“The dedication shown by these tribes made a real difference in the development of the museum,” he says. “We recognize and honor them for it.”
Gover believes controversy surrounding the travel budget of former director West will evaporate now that he’s in charge. As a new institution, the museum had to have a presence at gatherings of these kinds of professionals, at least during the first few years.
“The museum has to be present in those places,” he says. “This is the museum world. This is how it’s done.”
Gover says he won’t travel as much and will limit his international travel to Latin America, which is an area that Gover considers essential to the museum.
“Native Americans weren’t just limited to the United States,” he says.
Gover is looking forward to an “edgy” exhibition that will debut in 2010.
“We’re going to delve into the relationships that Europeans had with the Indians when they arrived,” he says. “It’s going to be a full examination of what happened at that time.”
If Gover’s term at the Department of the Interior is any indication, however, his diplomacy will smooth over any hard feelings.
President, Gaming & Resorts Division, the Cordish Companies
Joe Weinberg had a busy 2008. Starting with an agreement reached in late 2007 to get involved with a racetrack in Indiana that was adding a slot parlor, Weinberg was involved in a bid for a casino license in Kansas, and a proposal to buy the Tropicana in Atlantic City after the New Jersey regulatory authorities pulled the license of the former owner, Columbia Sussex, and put the property up for sale.
The Indiana property opened last summer when Indiana Live unveiled a temporary facility that has been very successful. The company won the license, along with the Kansas Speedway, to build a Hard Rock Hotel Casino there, but recently withdrew the bid after the state refused to allow Cordish to open the property in phases. And the Tropicana bid speeds to completion now that the legal challenges have been surmounted. And since Cordish is the only bidder, the company should become the owner of one of Atlantic City’s largest casino resorts.
Weinberg’s 20 years with the Cordish Companies have been rewarding. He’s been involved with all of its notable developments, including the Inner Harbor and the Power Plant in its hometown of Baltimore; the Walk Outlet Shops in Atlantic City; Woodbine Live in Toronto, Canada; and many others, including the Seminole Hard Rock Casino Hotels in Hollywood and Tampa, Florida.
Cordish stands on the threshold in 2009 of becoming one of the most important new companies in the gaming industry. In addition to a permanent casino at Indiana Live and the possible purchase of the Tropicana, the company is eyeing an opportunity in Baltimore to build a recently authorized slot parlor. The city has designated land between Cordish’s Inner Harbor and two city sports stadiums for the casino.
“We’re closely examining this opportunity,” says Weinberg. “We’re concerned about the high tax rate and a few other issues, but we’d like to play a role in Baltimore.”
In addition, Weinberg says his company is in a good position to consider purchasing any of the casinos which some of the larger casino companies in financial difficulties may divest.
“Our company is more liquid than most,” he says. “We’ll take a look at any possible deal, and if it works for us, we’ll go forward.”
Along with Cordish’s operations partner, former Tropicana president Dennis Gomes, Weinberg believes his company is well positioned to become a major player in the gaming industry.
Vice President of Singapore Development and General Manager, Marina Bay Sands
Unlike many jurisdictions that legalize gaming, Singapore is an ordered society, one that thrives on conformity and predictability. That is not always the strong suit of gaming companies, and in the current fiscal environment, it’s even more difficult.
But when you have a man noted for his legal and financial expertise, as well as experience in some of the most difficult Asian markets, your chances of success increase.
When Las Vegas Sands named George Tanasijevich to lead its Singapore development, Marina Bay Sands (MBS), it made perfect sense. Prior to being assigned to Singapore, Tanasijevich was director of development for the company’s Cotai Strip project, a massive undertaking that required financial, legal and diplomatic expertise.
Before joining LVS, he was a member of CapitaLand’s management committee overseeing Singapore’s first Real Estate Investment Trust; not to mention his extensive legal experience with General Growth Corp., the largest shopping center developer in the U.S.
In Singapore, Tanasijevich has been able to walk the tightrope between an aggressive construction schedule and government oversight. However, he doesn’t view the government as an adversary, but as a partner.
“There is a strong alignment of interests between Las Vegas Sands and the Singapore government,” says Tanasijevich. “Both parties seek a regulatory regime which promotes the highest standards and integrity, and an integrated resort (IR) that is a commercial success and draws large numbers of leisure and business travelers to Singapore, thereby energizing the economy and creating job opportunities for Singaporeans.”
The government’s desire was to increase tourism and business gatherings through the MICE segments (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions). Tanasijevich says he’s been encouraged by a great response from these segments.
“Marina Bay Sands will offer a unique product that targets higher-end international business and leisure tourists,” he says. “We will offer a collection of entertainment options that cannot be found elsewhere in this part of the world. Our major target markets will include China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.”
Like the Opera House in Sydney, Marina Bay Sands is building an iconic structure that will forever be identified with Singapore.
“The contemporary design of MBS is unique to this project and was created to integrate with its surroundings at Marina Bay,” says Tanasijevich. “Marina Bay Sands complements Singapore’s ‘Garden City’ landscape. It is located next to the new Gardens by the Bay, and integrates with the city skyline of downtown Singapore at the same time.
“Two iconic architectural features of Marina Bay Sands include the inspiring ArtScience Museum and the breathtaking sky park.”
Despite approaching the late 2009 opening in one of the worst economic times in anyone’s memory, Tanasijevich is upbeat.
“Historically, Singapore has proven to be an outstanding place to invest,” he says. “The government is forward-thinking, transparent and proactive in its planning. As a consequence, the country has been resilient during challenging economic times and quick to rebound from adversity. Add to this environment an integrated resort unlike any other in the world, and you have a very strong formula for success.
“When we assessed this opportunity in 2006 during the bidding stage, we were fairly conservative in our projections. Now that we have had the opportunity to learn more about the rules under which we will operate, we have been able to redesign and re-program certain elements of the project, thereby increasing its tourism appeal and our financial projections. Consequently, our confidence in the ultimate performance of Marina Bay Sands is very high.”
Regional President, Rio, Paris and Bally’s, Harrah’s Entertainment
A cursory glance at casino executives throughout gaming suggests that it is a male-dominated industry. The ratio is changing, however, and there are a growing number of women holding down executive-level positions in Las Vegas and throughout the world.
It is something that Marilyn Winn, regional president for Harrah’s Entertainment in charge of Rio, Paris and Bally’s in Las Vegas, attributes to nothing more than the commitment necessary to climb the ranks in the industry.
“I don’t put much stock into the glass ceiling,” she says. “You pretty much have to marry this business. Now we’re finding women who were willing to pay their dues just like the men have, but men typically had a wife at home watching the kids. It is something that will ebb and flow.”
Winn got her start in the gaming industry in 1988 after responding to an ad for a human resources position at what was then the Holiday Casino, now Harrah’s Las Vegas. From that point her career was a steady rise to the top including executive positions in both human resources and operations. She has led the corporate human resources team for Harrah’s Entertainment, as well as a number of properties, including Harrah’s Shreveport, Harrah’s Las Vegas and Rio. She currently oversees all operations at Rio, Paris Las Vegas and Bally’s.
“The greatest challenge as well as the greatest responsibility is ensuring that the folks who report to me have what we’re looking for,” she says. “If you have the right management team, it makes operating three properties or 10 properties so much easier; if you have the wrong team, it makes one property a nightmare.”
Like so many other operators, Winn is dealing with the economic slowdown. While some companies are looking to cut corners or lay low and ride out the storm, that is not an approach Harrah’s is willing to accept.
Instead, Winn says she is digging into the player and guest data the company has compiled through its Total Rewards program. An aggressive direct mail campaign offering attractive room rates as well as bonuses like dining and entertainment deals is part of the strategy to bring people to Las Vegas. The next step is keeping them at Harrah’s properties.
Research shows that the average visitor will go to five different casinos while they are in the city. Harrah’s has seven properties in the market, so when properly handled, the customers never have to go to a competitor’s property.
The other component of the economic challenge is controlling costs at the three properties. There are only so many staff cuts that can be made before customer service suffers, and the protracted nature of the recession has made voluntary reductions less attractive to the company’s workforce. Winn says it is important to let people know that the company knows they are working harder—and that it is appreciated.
The slate of new projects scheduled to open along the Strip this year also presents a challenge.
“Talent retention will be a challenge as different companies grow,” says Winn.
“There are a lot of reasons why someone might leave a position, and we hope the relationship we have is strong enough to keep them here and to forgo those opportunities as long as there are growth opportunities within the company.”
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Station Casinos
Casino executives who have worked their way up from entry-level positions are always an interesting story. During their ascension, they gain valuable insight into all aspects of the casino operation, and have firsthand experience of what it is like to be on the front lines to add to their experience in the executive offices. It makes for a well-rounded leader.
That is exactly the case with Kevin Kelley, executive vice president and COO of Station Casinos. He got his start in the gaming industry in 1973 as a pool boy at the Flamingo, where over a five-year period he also worked as a busboy, kitchen worker and valet attendant. He fell in love with the gaming industry immediately upon moving to Las Vegas from southern California.
“I worked every crummy job you can imagine, but I did it with a smile on my face. I realized this was a means to an end and one more step in the evolutionary process to ultimately get to where I wanted to be,” he says.
That evolutionary process took him from the entry-level positions at the Flamingo to marketing positions at the Las Vegas Hilton and Mirage Resorts. He worked for Station Casinos as director of development and was promoted through to president of westside operations for Station before leaving in 2003 to serve as president and COO of the Hard Rock. He left that position to oversee Macau operations for Las Vegas Sands—including the opening of the Venetian in Macau—and then returned to Station Casinos in his current position in early 2008.
With a working knowledge of all operational aspects, he was happy to return to Station Casinos. The experience was necessary, he explains, because the company requires its executives to understand all details of the business. He is also happy within the corporate culture the company embodies, saying it feels like a favorite pair of blue jeans.
There were some significant changes at Station during the time he was away. The most notable was that the company went private in 2006. It might not have made anything easier, but Kelley says going private allows him to focus more on the long-term value of the company versus quarterly performance.
The other obvious and significant change is that the troubled national economy is having some dramatic effects on Las Vegas. One of the most difficult decisions he had to make was announced in early December when the company decided to suspend matching contributions to employees’ 401(k) plans. It ultimately camedown to a decision between suspending the contributions or eliminating jobs, and it is a decision he says the company will reverse as soon as its financial situation improves and the economy stabilizes.
In the meantime, he is focusing on an aggressive marketing strategy to improve the company’s market share.
“Your guests are everything and you do what is right for them, whether it is good times or bad times,” he says. “It is a lot easier to keep your customers happy now than to try and win them back when times are good. It becomes a very expensive proposition then.”
While he jokes that aspirin is the key to coping with the current economic situation, Kelley sees a number of signs of hope in Las Vegas—perhaps a silver lining to the depressed local economy. Housing prices are lower, and the cost of entry into the city is not as prohibitive as it was during the peak in 2005 or 2006.
“I think with the major projects like CityCenter and Fontainebleau and Encore coming online and creating more jobs, people are going to be able to assimilate into the Valley even faster and more affordably,” he says. “That is a good thing for Station Casinos.”