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Game On Again

AGS welcomes customers back to its unique GameON conference

Game On Again

Early in June, gaming supplier AGS held a three-day conference for 125 of its key customers. Held in Florida at the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood Hotel & Casino, it was the company’s fifth GameON Customer Summit.

At its closing, the AGS team didn’t gather to tally product sales from the conference. There was no comparison of attendance, because the number is the same every year.

GameON is not that kind of conference.

Launched in 2016 with sessions at this same Hard Rock Hollywood property, GameON is not a traditional customer sales event. It is, rather, an effort by AGS to interact with its top customers in a non-sales setting, with presentations addressing issues important to the overall gaming industry. These are complemented by a group of unique social events at which AGS representatives can interact with customers in a casual setting.

David Lopez, the company’s CEO, says that’s the idea of GameON. In fact, an AGS customer conference wouldn’t exist any other way. When Julia Boguslawski, the company’s chief marketing officer, first raised the idea of a customer summit, Lopez rejected the idea. “I said no, we’re not doing that,” Lopez recalls. “I don’t like customer events; I don’t think they’re very productive for customers.

“Julia said, that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re going to do programming, informational sessions—it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be educational. It’s going to be inspiring.”

In other words, it wasn’t about selling. “We’ve got 362 other days a year to sell,” Lopez recalls from Boguslawski’s original pitch. “We’re not selling for these three days. We’re just going to hang out; we’re going to talk. And we’re going to try to share things with them that they don’t otherwise get an opportunity to hear.

“We think that this conference is the best because we’re not asking anything of our customers other than to fly in, sit down, learn, have fun, an do some social events. And we we’ve created this agenda that’s not about our products. You don’t have to sit and listen to product pitches about AGS all day long. In fact, we’ve been criticized that we’re not doing enough product pitching. I’ll take that criticism all day. It’s supposed to be informational. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to stimulate conversations that otherwise wouldn’t exist.”

This year’s GameON certainly checked all those boxes, from its keynote by entrepreneur, record producer, rapper and author Jesse Itzler to a cashless technology discussion by rival suppliers, sessions on NFTs and crypto and supply-chain issues, and social events that included a rooftop reception and a dinner cruise down the Stranahan River on the massive South Beach Lady yacht.

The reason for the lack of emphasis on attendance, incidentally, is that AGS wants to keep the interaction on as intimate a basis as possible. Lopez says the entire attendance is limited to 200 people, including AGS staff, sponsors, media and speakers.

“We try to keep it intimate so that the conversations can really marinate and percolate over three days,” Lopez says. “If there are 500 people there, I might talk to you for 10 minutes, then I might not see you again for the entire three-day period. So we like to keep it smaller, because it’s the intimacy that matters most.”

This year’s GameON was the first since 2019, the fourth and last pre-pandemic edition of the event. Asked if there was any “catching up” to do with AGS customers, Lopez says that wasn’t necessary, since the company has maintained contact with its customers consistently through pandemic shutdowns, reopenings and other challenges wrought by Covid-19.

“We see our customers quite a bit,” Lopez says. “When we think about our industry and what we’ve gone through—we’ve all experienced how 9-11 impacted gaming. We experienced how the economic downturn eliminated all these jobs in gaming. We saw October 1 (the 2017 mass shooting) in Las Vegas. And now, the Covid shutdown of basically every casino in North America.”

Last fall’s Global Gaming Expo, he says, was a good first step back to normalcy after those challenges, and he says it was a good omen for the ability to bring GameON back. “G2E was a nice little event last year where everyone came back together, but it’s primarily focused on selling,” he says. “I think getting together post-Covid now, the ‘catching up’ is personal. It doesn’t have to be about business.

“And quite frankly, these folks are our family. In the end, we spend so much time together as the AGS team, we spend time on the road with these folks, we go visit them, we break bread with them. (GameON is) a nice opportunity, post-Covid, to spend time as a gaming family.”

GameON 5.0

Acies’ Chris Groves talks sports betting trends

The program for the fifth GameON summit kicked off with a lively presentation from Jesse Itzler, the famous entrepreneur who parlayed early success as the rapper Jesse James into a remarkable career in which he cofounded Marquis Jet, the world’s largest private jet company (which he sold to Berkshire Hathaway), helped to develop Zico coconut water (which he sold to the Coca-Cola Company), and became a co-owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

Itzler, who also authored the New York Times bestseller Living with a Seal, talked about how all his ventures came not from a carefully laid-out business plan, but from his heart, and an innate belief that he could make it happen. One example of this theme was how he launched Marquis Jet after hanging out at a swanky party and meeting people, finding out what their needs were. After establishing trust, he told one partygoer he ran a private jet rental company, and the partygoer happened to be looking for a private jet—that person became the first paying customer of Marquis Jet, now the top such business in the world.

Itzler also emphasized that true success comes not from pursuing only money, but pursuing the spiritual, human side of the equation—becoming a “spiritual billionaire.”

Money Talks

The conference program heated up with two issues that have been among the hot topics this year in the gaming industry, both involving payment technologies.

In a unique discussion among rival suppliers in the payment space, Lopez moderated a panel discussion between Omer Sattar, co-CEO of Sightline Payments, and Darren Simmons, executive VP and fintech business leader for Everi Holdings, Inc. “Those companies are not exactly going to lunch together very often, right?” says Lopez. “It’s fair to say they are rivals, and they might be called bitter rivals.”

In fact, Lopez, the moderator, himself leads a company that competes with one of the two represented on the panel. “Everi is one of our No. 1 competitors on the slot side,” he says, adding that they’re also “like family to me,” owing to the fact Lopez was president of Everi legacy company Global Cash Access for nearly two years.

“I used to work with many of them, but the spirit of what GameON is about is reflected in that Everi and Sightline Payments are talking about something that’s very germane to the industry right now.”

At the session, Simmons noted that the discussion of cashless play at casinos is nothing new. “This is something that’s been a topic of discussion for a few years,” he said. “As the gaming industry looks at what goes on outside the industry, they see that digital payments have grown dramatically over the past few years.

“The opportunities are not only from an efficiency standpoint, but of an experiential standpoint as well… It’s an opportunity for engagement with the player—connecting with the player, and giving them experiences they might not otherwise have.”

Cryptocurrency expert Travis Wright describes the “Metaverse”

Sattar said that creating a network of cashless gaming at various casinos won’t be as easy as applying a universal system like Apple Pay to casinos, mainly because of the competitive factor—since casinos don’t want the funds in a player’s electronic wallet to go across the street to another casino, players are typically going to have individual wallets for each casino brand.

The cashless discussion was followed immediately by an extensive look at cryptocurrency and its applications in the gaming industry. Crypto expert Travis Wright, who with Joel Comm hosts the “Bad Crypto Podcast,” presented a “Beginner’s Guide” to crypto, NFTs and the Web 3.0, explaining everything from the use of crypto for virtual goods to the “Metaverse,” a virtual world that includes virtual casinos in the “Decentraland” virtual world.

The first day also featured the conference’s annual “Word on the Street” Wall Street panel, in which moderator Brad Boyer, AGS senior vice president of corporate operations and investor relations, queried analysts Chad Beynon of Macquarie and Barry Jonas of Truist Securities on the potential rebound of gaming stocks, the relative stability of gaming REITs, and the fact that the strongest performance always comes from the best-managed companies.

One of the best sessions the first day was a compelling interview by Lopez of Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association and former CEO of the American Gaming Association, on the supply chain issues that have dogged all industries, including gaming. Freeman noted that the difficulties in the supply chain can be traced in large part to the labor shortages following the global pandemic—he noted that the trucking industry today has a turnover rate of 90 percent—and to the way U.S. business locks deliveries to specific ports.

Freeman noted that while China moves goods on the fly to whatever port is equipped to accept them, the pandemic saw the port in Long Beach, California with a lineup of ships waiting to be unloaded while other ports like Portland and Seattle were virtually empty.

Supply-chain issues have held up deliveries of equipment like bill validators, monitors and computer chips. According to Lopez, that means for some manufacturers, what was a lead time of weeks for supplies pre-pandemic has become months.

Other highlights from day one:
  • John Hemberger, AGS senior vice president and GM of table product, joined AGS Senior Director of Table Game Content Jamie Abrahamson for a presentation outlining the benefits operators are experiencing from Bonus Spin Xtreme, the industry’s first floor-wide table-game progressive. Product demonstrations illustrated how the progressive is now being applied to the games of roulette and craps. (This was the only part of the entire program that directly involved an AGS product.)
  • Hussain Moosvi, president of Misfits Gaming Group, and Brooks Pierce, president and chief operating officer of Inspired Entertainment, gave an update on the expanding markets for esports tournaments and for virtual sports as an addition to casino floors and/or sportsbooks.

The second day of the conference kicked off with Chris Grove, co-founding partner of Acies Investments, with an overview of sports betting trends, including the improvements in data speed that will speed up live betting to the next level, and what he called the “casino-fication” of sportsbooks to include same-game parlays that resemble RNG-based casino games.

This was followed by a fascinating look at the emerging phenomenon of “slot influencers,” in which casinos, manufacturers and “influencers” benefit from the latter live-streaming slot sessions to YouTube and other social channels.

Featured were Brian Christopher, one of the first influencers—he has some 750,000 followers—and host of the BC Slots YouTube channel, which draws millions of views every day, along with BC Slots Marketing Director Britt Carter; and two of BC Slots’ biggest supporters from the casino operations side, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Media and Digital Marketing Director Thomas LaRocca and Jackie McQueen, content marketing manager for Cherokee Nation Entertainment.

The panel noted the invaluable benefits of marketing slot games via social media influencers. BC Slots video streams, for instance, have an average watch time of 18 minutes, an unbeatable way to market slots to a public that lives on their phones, and to provide instant feedback to slot manufacturers on new games.

Other day-two highlights:
  • OPTX Co-CEO Tom Rafferty and Data Science VP Dr. Steve Bright gave an overview of the potential uses of artificial intelligence to serve patrons through loyalty programs.
  • AGS Game Development VP Steve Walther moderated a panel including Nick Hogan, CEO of ReelMetrics, and Mark DeDeaux, AGS senior VP and GM of slots, looking at the importance of slot inventory management. Hogan noted in his presentation that today’s slot floor is being stifled by an overabundance of variety, which means that low-performing games are being played by a disproportionate number of customers. He noted that inventory imbalances are the rule today rather than the exception.
Looking Ahead

AGS products, while not the focus of the conference, were still available for sampling

This year’s GameON ranks with the best of the five, Lopez says. “Looking back, the first was the best for customers because of the element of surprise; they had no idea what to expect. But this is right up there with the best programming we’ve had. Looking to the future, we’ll continue to do our best to make it informative and keep it fresh.”

Lopez adds that one of the priorities over the coming months will be to select a venue for the next GameON summit. “We look for locations that are convenient to get to and that our customers will be excited to visit,” he says. “In the past, we’ve looked at venues where we have strong customer relationships, and it’s made the process easier.

“We’re excited to be back at it again. This is an extremely valuable event, and I’m not talking about selling—it’s the building of customer relationships, and letting them see a little bit more about what we’re about as people, not product.” As far as the conference program, he adds, “We don’t know whether we’re pushing the industry forward, but the important part is that we’re trying, and that’s the key.”

As far as priorities for AGS beyond the next GameON, Lopez says it’s all about concentrating on performance in the three business segments—slots, table games and interactive—despite the challenges in the overall economy, concerns about stock prices, and other macro issues.

“Our objective is to keep our head down, execute, and do a great job with our three business segments,” Lopez says. “We’re branching out into a couple new things that we’ll talk about later in the year, but it’s all about execution, the launch of some new products towards the end of the year, and then moving into next year. I’m looking for momentum moving into 2023. It’s key to stay focused and disciplined, but also to be aggressive and look for that momentum.”

GameON served as a launching point for the company to build that momentum.

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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