People to Watch 2018 (Part II)

Part II of GGB's 2018 People to Watch in the gaming industry

Home Sweet Home
Matt Harkness, CEO, Hard Rock Hotel Casino, Atlantic City

Welcome home.

Matt Harkness, a longtime Atlantic City casino executive, returns to launch its next phase. The president of the new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino leads an opening primed to boost Atlantic City, beset by property closings in recent years.

Hard Rock’s physical location denotes some sweet irony for Harkness. He was once a senior vice president of marketing and executive director of casino administration for Trump Taj Mahal, the renovated resort that will become Hard Rock, and the general manager at Trump Plaza.

“This means a lot to me, not just professionally, but also personally,” he says. “In terms of knowing the area, I grew up in North Jersey, my wife grew up in the Atlantic City area, and we have family here. The bulk of my career was spent in Atlantic City, 25 years. When I was away from the city for 12 years, I paid a great deal of attention to what was going on here, and did see the obvious decline.

“However, I think people tend to overemphasize the decline without necessarily understanding that this is still an extremely viable market. Atlantic City is very well located in terms of proximity to major population areas and it has the great benefit of a more competitive tax rate on gaming revenue than in surrounding states. This is a direct benefit to both the city and the market.”

Hard Rock expects to create more than 1,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent ones in the casino hotel, along with ancillary jobs for retailers, suppliers and partners.

“The region will significantly benefit economically in the near term and on an ongoing basis from this opening,” Harkness predicts. “Hard Rock is an international brand with presence in 73 countries, including 179 cafes, 24 hotels and 11 casinos. The fans of the brand are loyal, and we cannot wait to welcome them to Atlantic City again—as you may remember, we had a Hard Rock Cafe here for 20 years, and it will be relocating into the casino.”

Harkness spread his wings beyond Atlantic City in the past. He was chief operating officer of Michigan’s Four Winds Casinos, spearheading casino operations and overseeing the planning and implementation of project development during his nine years with the tribal gaming enterprise.

He most recently held the position of general manager at Lucky Dragon Hotel & Casino, a unique Asian-themed property in Las Vegas, where he led he operations team through pre- and post-opening.

This will be his sixth opening as a company president. And it has a special feel.

“The property is situated along the world-famous Atlantic City Boardwalk and is currently undergoing an all-encompassing $500 million renovation,” he says. “Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City will become the premier entertainment destination with live music (we have a number of acts already lined up), sporting events, conferences and shows with two separate arenas boasting more than 7,000 seats in total.

“As we get closer to the opening, be on the lookout for a lot of surprises!”

We will.—Dave Bontempo

 

Cornering the Market
Tiffany Widdows, Executive Director of Marketing Operations, Station Casinos

When she moved to Las Vegas in the early 2000s, Tiffany Widdows found the desert landscape less than hospitable. She disliked “the summer heat, my lack of friends, and uncertainty about my professional future.”

Her dissatisfaction was short-lived. In 2006, Widdows, who had recently graduated from the University of California, San Diego with degrees in sociology and communications, “stumbled across a marketing coordinator position for the Stratosphere,” an American Casino & Entertainment Properties resort on the Vegas Strip. It was her first step on a fast track to success in gaming.

Over the next decade, Widdows earned her stripes as a marketing executive at PlayLV Gaming and the Golden Nugget. Today, she’s executive director of marketing operations for Station Casinos, overseeing multiple award-winning brands from Red Rock to Green Valley, from Wildfire to the Wild, Wild West, and many more.

Each property has its own personality and customer profile, and “speaks uniquely to its core base,” says Widdows. “On a daily basis we’re coordinating direct mail, a robust database, and promotions and advertising, which keeps things interesting and fun.”

With recent seismic changes in gaming, marketing has changed too.

“The services we provide have increased in importance, from spa services and the in-room guest room experience to the atmosphere of our guests’ favorite Station Casino,” says Widdows. “These types of non-gaming decisions are now at the forefront of best business practices within our company.” The new emphasis on non-gaming has created “a hybrid blend that challenges companies to look at a blended wallet and overall guest profile.”

Of course, Station’s Boarding Pass loyalty card now rewards guests for non-gaming spend.

“It has continuously been voted best loyalty card by the readers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal—I’ll let the accolades speak for themselves,” says Widdows. “I’m excited to tease that the program will just keep getting better, as 2018 will be a pivotal year for the program.”

Also in the new year, “I’m so excited to welcome my first son,” says the executive, now Tiffany Widdows-Sides. “It will be a learning experience on how to balance a meaningful career with my family.” Meanwhile, she makes time for volunteering and “pays it forward” by mentoring the next generation of gaming leaders, particularly women.

Her long-term goals are simple, she says. “I want to be known as a strong, fair, kind and intelligent marketing executive who’s been able to successfully provide balance for her family and value within the community. Professionally, I want to continue developing new ideas for Station’s enterprise and help to maintain our strong marketing footprint within the Valley.”—Marjorie Preston

 

Tribal Advocate
Chris Stearns, Member, Washington Gambling Commission

Chris Stearns has long fashioned an eye for administration.

The New Jersey native and member of the Navajo nation laid major groundwork in this area nearly 25 years ago. In 1994, he served on the United States Congressional Sub-Committee for Native American Affairs, which examined the national implementation of tribal gaming. Stearns also worked for the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee and was appointed to be the first-ever director of Indian affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton.

Throughout much of his career, Stearns has been a lawyer focused on tribal interests. For the last four years, he’s also been a regulatory executive.

Stearns is a commissioner with the Washington State Gambling Commission, which administers several challenges and opportunities during a surging growth period. The Washington agency oversees tribal, commercial and charitable gaming.

Stearns has been placed in a good spot. This is an opportune time to feature one’s knowledge of legal precedent and tribal culture. Stearns says the climate between tribal entities and state government is a good one.

And all indicators point upward. Washington state witnessed the opening of the Ilani Casino Resort in April. Legends Casino in Yakima County and the Point Casino in Kitsap County recently enhanced their profiles by adding hotels and other amenities. About 90 percent of state residents will soon live within a one-hour drive to a Class III facility. Overall revenue is projected to hit nearly $3.5 billion by 2020.

The commission recently embraced a 159-page report provided by Spectrum Gaming Group, which forecast areas of potential growth. Findings include strong expectations for commercial, nonprofit and tribal gaming.

The report’s hint of prosperity may be the easy part for Stearns. The primary mission of protecting the public, ensuring that gambling is legal and honest, has more moving parts than ever.

“The environment is incredibly challenging,” he says. “There is so much change occurring in the industry at such a frenetic pace. We are having to conduct more and more investigations into illegal or unregulated gaming, particularly the internet and eSports.

“At the same time, there is always a clamor for innovation. We just approved the first wide-area progressive games, connecting games in Washington to machines outside of the state. One of the challenges you have is to always make sure the odds are the same.”

Stearns’ own research indicates that tribal operators “are doing an excellent job at regulating gaming and building within the market structure, during a time when a lot more money and people are coming into Washington.”

The 53-year-old Stearns places a high emphasis on responsible gaming and relishes his role facilitating explosive growth the right way.

“I am delighted to be doing something I love,” he says.

Stearns has also been a member of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and the Seattle Indian Health Board.—Dave Bontempo

 

Onward, El Cortez
Adam Wiesberg, Assistant General Manager, El Cortez Hotel and Casino

At 42 years of age, semi-retired and a seasoned businessman, Adam

Wiesberg didn’t fit the profile of your typical table games dealer.

After building and selling off a casino signage business, Wiesberg decided to try gaming operations as the next stage of his career. When he approached the El Cortez, one of his former clients, he didn’t get the response he was expecting:

“When I came down, they said, ‘Yeah, we’re super interested in having you here. We’re going to start you in the pit.’ And not only start me on table games, but start me as a dealer.”

Wiesberg, now assistant general manager at El Cortez, said the move was a tough sell—especially to his wife.

“At 42 years of age, to suit up as a dealer was one of the biggest challenges of my life. But I had enough faith and trust in ownership that I knew it was probably a good idea,” he says. “So I took the job.”

While his stint in the pit came with a slice of humble pie, it gave him an invaluable understanding of day-to-day casino operations such as relating with customers, internal processes and the math behind the games.

“Looking back now, I’m so grateful I started as a dealer,” says Wiesberg. “Because to put me into a management role in this casino without having an understanding of the games and the customers and the interactions on the floor would have been a much steeper learning curve for me.”

And while it may not seem there’s much overlap between owning a commercial signage business and working in casino operations, Wiesberg sees the core ethos of both as one and the same. “You have to have a great product, you have to have a great value and you have to have great relationships,” he says.

With that ground-level foundation intact, Wiesberg is now spearheading the El Cortez’s efforts to renovate its facilities and expand its footprint in rapidly-iterating Downtown Las Vegas, which has been a hub for tourists and local millennials alike. “We’re located in the hottest neighborhood in Vegas and arguably in the country when it comes to gaming,” he says.

Some might argue that the 76-year-old property might be out of place in such a trendy district, but Wiesberg doesn’t see it that way.

“I love these kinds of contrasts. I love the history and the authenticity of the El Cortez and the fact that we have customers that have been coming here for 60 years, and right outside our door is this new, exciting neighborhood.”

The influx of younger visitors to the neighborhood and the property has made his blue-collar table game experience all the more invaluable, as millennials tend to prefer these types of games over traditional slots.

“With table games, if you haven’t dealt and you haven’t been a supervisor, there’s really a mystery to it every time you walk by.”

As for the next phase of his career, Wiesberg is laser-focused on continuing to evolve the El Cortez, arguing that ownership’s 40 years of experience in Downtown Vegas and progressive approach to implementing new ideas has facilitated a sweet spot for him.

“I’m able to make a really big impact here, and that’s what drives me every day.”—Aaron Stanley

 

Settle Down
Bill Peters, General Manager, Chumash Casino Resort

Tribal gaming is a notoriously fickle field for gaming executives. With tribal chairs and councils changing on a regular basis, casino executives running tribal casinos are often let go the same way a coach would be fired when a new general manager comes in.

Not that way at all at the Chumash Casino Resort in California, near Santa Barbara. Bill Peters joined the casino at opening as a dealer 23 years ago. He recalls the first “casino,” set up in the former bingo hall. Later a Sprung structure was added and still later, an elegant casino was built. Just last year, under Peters’ leadership, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians built a $170 million expansion that included a new hotel tower, doubled the gaming floor and added a selection of non-gaming amenities, mostly food and beverage.

Peters credits his longevity to the support of the small tribe, only 134 members.

“The tribe has always been directly involved in the operations and planning for the casino,” he says. “It’s their business, and they’re very supportive of what we do. Their leadership is very stable. They celebrate tenure and consistency, not only at the tribal level but in the casino hierarchy.”

The executives who surround and support Peters are also very stable.

“My leadership team, except for our new hospitality director, has been with us for 15 years or more,” he says. “That is unique not only in Native American gaming but in any gaming enterprise. Because of this we’ve been able to work on continuous improvement.”

The decision to add onto the casino was made several years ago, but it wasn’t as simple a choice as it might be at some other Southern California casinos.

“In addition to being a small tribe in number, the reservation is also one of the smallest in the state,” says Peters. “The total usable land is only about 8 acres on a 120-acre reservation. So we had to be very thoughtful about how we scaled all of the different functions.”

But expand they did, and the project opened in October 2017. Peters says all projections made prior to construction have been met or exceeded.

“It always comes down to the same things: parking spaces, hotel rooms and gaming positions,” he laughs. “All of the other things are nice, but if you get those three things right, your money will be well spent. And we absolutely nailed it.”

The Chumash casino is a little more remote, but Peters says he competes with the giant casinos in the Palm Springs area, like Pechanga, Morongo, San Manuel and others. He says the Chumash marketing focuses on the older gambler; he’s not chasing the millennial.

“Some of our competitors are targeting the younger people, the entertainment-oriented, adrenaline-seeking demographic. We’re happy to get some of the niche markets, those people who appreciate the true resort experience.”—Patrick Roberts

 

Experience Plus
Nick Casiello, Chairman, Fox Rothschild, Gaming Practice

Atlantic City-based Nick Casiello, the chairman of Fox Rothschild’s Gaming Practice Group, observes his usual stacked assignment plate in 2018. Two particular items loom large. New Jersey’s Supreme Court sports-betting challenge would send properties “off to the races” if successful, he says, while the opening of Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City has no legal uncertainty. It will launch, completing a long regulatory road for this decorated gaming attorney. He handled several aspects of the Hard Rock process.

The New Jersey native has been named one of the world’s leading gaming

attorneys by the prestigious Chambers Global publication annually since 2008. Fox Rothschild is one of the largest gaming law practices in the United States.

Casiello’s efforts have been tireless since he began doing casino work in 1980. His brand of legalese often involves helping clients like Hard Rock, Showboat and Empire Resorts clear cumbersome regulatory obstacles and obtain licenses. Mountains of boxes, paperwork, motions, deadlines and delays must be navigated steadily. Billions of dollars, over time, ride on a successful outcome.

A completed project is a cause for celebration.

“One of the rewarding aspects to this area of law is doing something that positively impacts a lot of people, not just your client,” he says. “If your client is successful and opens a casino, that’s great. And then they will employ people, buy products. Many people benefit.”

Casiello’s endeavors involve patience and persistence. The successful Empire Resorts project, Resorts World Catskills, enabled that outfit to gain one of three licenses from a field of 16 bidders two years ago. Casiello says it involved going through 200 boxes and coming up with the core elements of an $875 million project in upstate New York.

For Hard Rock, he helped the organization clear several licensing checkpoints. They included a statement of compliance ruling to be suitable for a casino license, the purchase of the former Taj Mahal and a string of other issues.

And then there was “double S” in the mid 1990s. That means Showboat and Sydney (Australia).

“We were handling Showboat’s licensing for a casino in Sydney,” he recalls. “That’s bizarre because I thought we would be meeting with the executive director, but they considered me the person handling the entire project.

“The hearing took forever, there were several trips back and forth, about 20 hours flying one way each time. Finally I get home one Friday evening and there’s a message: ‘Please come back.’ One day later, I had to. The flight crew hadn’t even changed. They said, ‘We thought you were going home.’ I told them I had just stopped in.”

Casiello says he appreciates the down-to-earth values reflected by many billionaires who crossed his path over the years. His expertise is often sought. Casiello has testified three times before the New Jersey legislature on gaming technology, including internet gaming.

The forecast was prophetic, and his plate, along with the entire gaming practice division of Fox Rothschild, will be full in 2018 and beyond.—Dave Bontempo

 

Great Canadian Express
Tony Santo, President & CEO, Gateway Casinos & Entertainment

These are great times for Tony Santo. The longtime Nevada gaming stalwart, whose career began in 1981 at the Las Vegas Hilton, has an enviable niche north of the border.

Santo thrives in Canada as the president and CEO of Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Limited, the largest and most diversified gaming company in Canada.

This is a time to celebrate. The company marks 2018 as its 25-year anniversary as it continues to build and annex establishments.

Operating in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, Gateway has over 6,100 employees and operates 26 gaming properties with 282 tables, over 9,600 slots, 68 restaurants and bars along with 272 hotel rooms. It has been on the move, purchasing 11 properties in Ontario at the end of 2016 and upping the ante in 2017. The company announced late last year that it has secured development lands at the Delta Town and Country Inn. Gateway is excited to propose a premier casino and entertainment property in Delta.

The proposed project will bring up to 700 new jobs and an estimated $70 million investment to the Delta economy. In addition to this long-term investment, the project will result in 500 person-years of construction employment.

“We are very proud to be making this commitment to Delta, where we will work together to create jobs and invest in the Delta economy through this new local entertainment destination,” Santo says. “With our investment, the proposed Delta casino and entertainment property will bring new and exciting gaming, dining and entertainment options to this rapidly growing community.”

Gateway undertakes an ambitious growth strategy that includes the development of proprietary food and beverage brands like Match Eatery & Public House and Atlas Steak + Fish as well as the addition of two new planned builds in North Bay and Kenora in Northern Ontario.

Just as he did in Nevada, Santo has reached the highest of highs. Gaming insiders know Santo’s glittering credentials. He served as senior vice president of operations and products and services at Harrah’s Entertainment, and he was president of Paris Las Vegas, Bally’s Las Vegas, the Flamingo Las Vegas, Flamingo Reno and Reno Hilton.

Santo was a longtime community fixture, serving on the boards of Las Vegas Events, the Culinary Training Academy of Las Vegas, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Harrah Hotel College Alumni Association and Opportunity Village. He was a director of Las Vegas Monorail Company and on the board of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Santo holds a B.S. in hotel administration from UNLV.

When it seemed like he couldn’t do any more in Nevada, Santo flew north. And his career path reached the skies.
Dave Bontempo

 

Rock and a Hard Place
Kresimir Spajic, Senior Vice President, Online Gaming, Hard Rock International

Kresimir Spajic is one of those people who got into gaming through the side door. It wasn’t a career choice, but something that gradually happened.

“My background is sports marketing and management,” he says. “I was operating in that area when in mid-2000 I was approached by Bwin, which was the largest online sports book and the biggest brand in iGaming.”

Spajic was hired to handle the area of the former Yugoslavia, later moving on to sports sponsorships, signing deals with more than 70 organizations, including Real Madrid, AC Milan, FIFA and others.

“It was a very exciting time to be in the business,” he says.

In 2013, several U.S. states were legalizing iGaming. In New Jersey, Boyd Gaming was looking to open up its online casino for Borgata casino hotel.

“Bob Boughner (former president of Borgata and Boyd Gaming executive) approached me to set up an online gaming division for Boyd,” he says. “I didn’t know much about U.S. gaming up to that point, but honestly, he sold me the vision.”

Part of the vision was rapid expansion throughout the U.S. and beyond, but the industry stalled after the initial three states. Spajic eventually became a consultant for Rush Street Gaming. His responsibilities there were overseeing interactive gaming for that company, since at the time, it did not have a real-money gaming site—until the SugarHouse casino reached a deal to enter the New Jersey market.

“It was a different experience than Borgata,” he says. “SugarHouse didn’t really have a brand outside of Philadelphia and maybe some New Jersey towns across the river. So we had to look at different competitive advantages, and the biggest one was product. We weren’t going to offer the European product that the previous online casinos had. Once the market stopped expanding, they stopped investing in that U.S. product.

“Rush Street decided to build their own platform and control their own destiny when it came to the product, and offer a superior experience to their players. And I think they’ve been successful.”

But Spajic believes brands in iGaming are powerful, something that they didn’t have initially in Europe.

“Brands are important because there’s a big issue of trust in iGaming,” he says. “In the early days in Europe, many companies opened and closed in a short time.

“In the U.S., it’s different. They know who we are. They can see the buildings. They know it’s a regulated company in a regulated market. If they have a problem, they know they can come and knock on our doors. Having a longtime established brand is key because it’s trustworthy.”

Now with Hard Rock, Spajic is planning that company’s launch in New Jersey in conjunction with the opening of the Atlantic City casino next summer. He says you can expect an “amazing brand, combined with a superior product and excellent service.

“Hard Rock is such an experiential brand, and I believe we are going to be successful,” he says. “Yes, we are late entrants into the market. Yes, we’re going to be competing with at least 16 other online casinos. But we’re going to aim to be No. 1.—Patrick Roberts

 

Crisis Management
Jesse Robles, Editor, Pechanga.net

The mass shooting on October 1 that left Las Vegas reeling had an incalculable impact on everyone in the casino business.

But for Jesse A. Robles, who spent a decade as a first responder in San Diego before starting his career in gaming and retains a passion for public safety, the event was a confirmation that the two career tracks are far from mutually exclusive.

“That really cemented it for me,” explains Robles, 26, who—like 30,000 other industry participants—was gearing up to attend the Global Gaming Expo when the tragedy happened.

While most might think of recreation and entertainment as a casino’s core value proposition, Robles reasons that safety and security are as, if not more important—as the former cannot exist without the latter.

Drawing on personal experience, he highlights the positive value casinos can offer their neighboring communities during times of crisis.

“Between wildfires, earthquakes and blackouts, I’ve had a couple opportunities to interface with casinos during these crises,” he says, noting that when the power has gone down in his community, people have gone to casinos to get shelter, food, light and electricity.

As the October 1 shooting reminds everyone, being prepared for a potential active shooter situation is now everybody’s responsibility.

“You don’t want to be fleshing out an emergency action plan for the first time when something critical is happening,” says Robles.

“And while nobody wants to turn casinos into airports, there are steps the industry can take to better equip and train assets for dealing with mass casualty incidents,” he continues. “When patrons see that there is some elevated consideration for their safety, a process in place to keep them secure, they’ll feel more comfortable and spend more time on property. This will become increasingly important, but also challenging, as the industry continues to mature and host more integrated resorts.”

At the moment, Robles is working alongside Victor Rocha at Pechanga.net, where he is responsible for curating and posting content, producing newsletters, manning the social media accounts and helping to formulate a website revamp.

“Victor has worked tirelessly for over 19 years by manually scouring print and digital newspapers to keep Indian Country informed,” he says. “Wading through the noise, we comb through hundreds of articles a day to shine a light on the issues important to the industry and are motivated by the stories we hear from people who use the website every day to stay current and make informed decisions.”

A graduate of the Sycuan Institute for Tribal Gaming at San Diego State University, he was first introduced to the industry in a casino operations course. He enjoyed the course so much that he signed up for the remainder the program, where he had the chance to visit over two dozen casinos in the U.S. and Macau, as well as the opportunity to be mentored by industry icons such as Rocha, Kate Spilde and Richard Schuetz as well as thought leaders like NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. and NIGC Chairman Jonadev Chaudhuri.

What made gaming so intriguing to him? He says he quickly became infatuated by the nascence of the industry.

“Tribal gaming was unlike anything I had seen in business school. It’s the ultimate social enterprise; I thought, here is this industry that came about purely as a need for nation-building and economic development. In doing projects and research for the class, it quickly became clear that, unlike most other industries we picked apart in business school, gaming was still largely undeveloped by science and academia.”
Aaron Stanley

 

Hard Hitting
Matt Sodl, Founding Partner, President and Managing Director, Innovation Capital

Except for sports betting, football seems to have little to do with gaming. But for Matt Sodl, his four years playing defensive tackle for Columbia University served as a potent training ground for his later success as a financial wizard for investment firms working with the casino industry.

Coach Tom Gilmore was a key mentor to Sodl, who was All-Ivy League for two years, despite going 0-30 for his three years on the varsity team.

“Not only was Gilmore my defensive line coach my senior year, but he was previously the Ivy League Player of the Year at Penn a few years before me. He pushed me to maximize my potential. I felt if I could out-work and be the most focused, intense player, I would succeed. That mindset paid off,” says Sodl, who obtained a B.A. in economics and remains active with the Columbia football program in a number of areas.

Steve Rittvo and Steve Szapor, Sodl’s partners in Innovation Capital, also mentored him as they launched the investment firm 13 years ago.

“I look at my relationship with Rittvo and Szapor in a similar sense as Coach Gilmore,” he says. “They achieved great success in their careers and we push each other as partners, but I’ve learned to embrace it as it has made me a better businessman.”

As partner and managing director, Sodl oversees a firm that has established itself as a leading boutique investment bank serving the mid-market gaming, leisure, restaurant and retail industries. Prior to Innovation, Sodl held a number of positions at large investment banks where he developed casino gaming industry expertise as well as execution skills including debt financing and merger and acquisition transactions. He’s completed nearly 100 transactions aggregating over $5.5 billion for nearly every segment of the gaming/hospitality industry. Over the course of his career, Sodl has also advised on transactions aggregating over $30 billion.

“For the mid-sized clients we work with, these transactions in many cases are game changers,” says Sodl, who lives in Manhattan Beach, California, with wife Cathy and children Katie, Kelly and Patrick.

The future remains bright, he says. The capital markets for casino gaming are robust, with investor appetite strong. Much of that capital is allocated to finance mergers and acquisition transactions as consolidation activity takes center stage.

“Investors still have an interest in financing new-build casino projects. However, they are much more discerning over financial projections as gaming supply across the country has dramatically increased over the past 10 years. With that said, as new markets open up, there could be some interesting opportunities for investors in the near future,” says Sodl, who has coached his son’s Pop Warner football team for the past few years and serves on the board of the organization in El Segundo.

The mindset of industry players in the U.S. focuses on providing customers with high-quality gaming venues across the globe to build brand loyalty, he believes.

“We also see Native American tribes becoming much more aggressive in expanding their tribal business beyond on-reservation casino gaming,” he says. “A number of tribes look to diversify and make commercial casino acquisitions, and invest their capital in businesses where they have industry expertise.”—William Sokolic

 

Making a Difference
Sally Gainsbury, Deputy Director, Gambling Treatment & Research Clinic, University of Sydney

Gambling is in Sally Gainsbury’s blood.

“I’ve been around racing my entire life,” she says. “My mother’s family was quite involved in owning race horses. My great-grandfather owned horses that won some of the biggest races in Australia.”

Another form of gaming caught her attention as she got older.

“When I was 18, I started working in bars and pubs and saw people playing pokies,” she explains. “I remember clearly one day a man had $900 into a pokie machine and left with nothing. It was a Tuesday night and I was making maybe $15 an hour and thought losing that amount of money was incredible.”

At that time, Gainsbury was studying for her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and later went on to earn her doctorate in clinical psychology. And that’s what got her interested in the psychology of problem gambling.

“Gambling is the ultimate puzzle,” she says. “I really couldn’t understand why people needed to gamble if they lost all the time. They knew they were unlikely to win, but they would get money from many different sources and get themselves into serious predicaments. I was interested in understanding what was driving that seemingly irrational behavior.”

Gainsbury shifted her specialty from clinical to research after spending a year in Montreal with problem gambling researchers. After attending conferences on responsible gaming, she knew she had to change direction.

“The opportunity to impact policy and practice through my research was appealing,” she says. “In the clinic you see people one-on-one, but through my research I could impact a much larger population.”

And that has come about. Gainsbury has worked in collaboration with many of the legends of the field, including Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky at McGill University in Montreal and Professor Alex Blaszczynski at her own university, who has served as something of a mentor to her, and who is director of the Gambling Treatment and Research Center.

Gainsbury affirms that problem gambling research and treatment are complicated by comorbidity—if someone has a gambling problem, it’s likely they have another problem, possibly alcohol, drugs or sex addiction.

“In the clinic,” she says, “you don’t just see someone who has a problem with gambling. You see a person who is depressed or has other problems. There’s no one-size-fits-all pathology. Everyone has a different pathway into problem gambling, and it’s really important to appreciate that complexity.

“From a research standpoint, we acknowledge that complexity, but we only focus on one specific problem or issue. I find that simplicity is really going to be helpful at the end of the day because if we focus on one or two at a time, we can come up with different solutions that will work for different parts of problems and different people.

Gainsbury’s groundbreaking research into social gaming was the first in that field. Recently, she has embarked on studying problem gambling in an online setting.

“Some of the data we’ve been uncovering has been really shocking,” she says. “But without context, they’re really just numbers on a page. So what we’re doing now is to get the financial institutions involved so we can look at someone’s financial picture holistically to see how their gambling fits in.”

She’s also working with the Australian government to put into place education and prevention for problem gambling online.

“Although we have a lot more knowledge than we had just a few years ago,” she says, “there’s actually little evidence about what really works to prevent problem gambling. That’s a failing in our field, and one that we hope to address.”—Roger Gros

 

Diverse Development
Marcus Diaz, Director of Organizational Development, Casino del Sol

Some executives seek to climb the corporate ladder with promotion after promotion. Marcus Diaz relishes holding onto one position as director of organizational development at Casino del Sol in Tucson, Arizona.

It’s not that Diaz has no ambition.

“I’d like to expand my influence in many different ways and enhance programs and initiatives for the growth of Native America collectively,” he says.

Just with the same position.

Diaz landed at Casino del Sol in a circuitous way. He traveled the world in his younger years, working with many different cultures, so the timing was perfect when the opportunity came along to enter tribal gaming in 2001.

“Working all over the world shaped my global perspective and allowed me to see things through a unique set of lenses,” Diaz says. “I had the opportunity to stay with 82 host families in nine countries in a year. That was the beginning of my career in human development interest and initiatives.”

He began his tribal career teaching blackjack school, before becoming training manager and then training director.

Diaz’s position encompasses training, tribal development and guest service initiatives.

“Each of these areas is critical to organizational success and requires strategic approaches,” he says. “I think of it as a conductor, conducting a symphony. Every musician and their instrument are key to the overall success of the orchestra. If the conductor has a clear vision for the end result, he achieves harmony and rhythm.”

In addition to his parents, Diaz cited a trio of mentors who have guided his career path. Dr. Gary Frost, vice president of operations for Canyon Ranch Resort, assigned him to read specific biographies to share insights.

“I found it very humbling that the leader of a large organization would take time out of his busy schedule to chat about perspectives with me,” says Diaz.

Pascua Yaqui Tribal Chairman Robert Valencia allowed him to see things from a different vantage point, while CEO Kimberly Van Amburg helped Diaz understand the behavior of leaders.

“I believe it is important to not only hear what a mentor has to offer but also see how they lead and influence those around them.”

Diaz urges young people to develop a relationship with a mentor. In addition, learn from mistakes, be respectful and pursue education and self development.”

Casino Del Sol is adding a new hotel to the property, increasing convention space, and adding an RV park and event space at Casino of the Sun.

“The tribal gaming industry has been very prosperous, and most importantly, provided a multitude of opportunities in many arenas,” Diaz says. “In our specific environment, tribal gaming has allowed us to not only generate revenues to support critical tribal services, but to create several development programs for tribal members.”

Gaming’s future comes down to one word, Diaz says: diversification.

“It’s what I refer to as ‘critical catalysis’ of the industry, which includes a multi-generational workforce, a millennial workforce, the speed of technology change, the global economy and emerging markets.

“Each of these can be game-changers; however, combined, they may shape the industry as we know it.”—William Sokolic

 

Spirit of the Law
Cassie Stratford, Vice President of Legal Affairs, Boyd Gaming

A sign on Cassie Stratford’s office wall says, “Never stop learning.”

It’s a daily reminder for her of the accelerated rate of change in gaming.

“Stay stagnant, and the world will keep moving without you,” says Stratford, vice president of legal affairs for Boyd Gaming. “It’s dangerous to get comfortable.”

As a college student in Washington, D.C., the North Dakota native briefly flirted with a career in government before choosing law. After graduating from the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she began her career at a commercial litigation firm.

“But in the litigation scenario, the facts have already happened; you’re only dealing with the aftermath,” says Stratford, who wanted to be in a position to shape the outcome. In 2012, she joined Boyd Gaming.

The scope of her duties is as diverse as the company, with 24 properties in seven states. “Any given day I could get a call about ADA issues, data security issues, questions about sponsorship arrangements—I could be meeting about an HR issue around changes with marijuana in Nevada. It’s really all over the board.”

Whether the question is simple or complex, it’s Stratford’s goal to make the legal department accessible to everyone, from the executive ranks to the rank-and-file. “People will roll their eyes and say, ‘Do I have to call legal?’” she says with a laugh. “You don’t want to be the ‘no’ person, the one who slows down the process for no good reason. I’m solution-oriented. It should be, ‘Let’s figure out what you want to do, to make sure we can be comfortable from a legal and risk perspective.’”

Applicable case law, especially concerning technology, “is often a couple steps behind,” she notes. “The amount of data out there is growing exponentially; companies have to know what that data is, where and how it’s stored, and how it’s being classified. As our company grows and acquires properties, we have to get our hands around those issues for the new properties as well. It truly is an ever-moving target.”

A related issue is cybersecurity, which requires impermeable technical safeguards, readiness, and educational programs that put employees on the front lines of prevention. “I’m a big believer in preparation in all things,” says Stratford. “When something happens, are you ready to respond quickly, thoughtfully, appropriately? The people who succeed continue to keep their finger on the pulse.”

Not surprisingly, Stratford cites Boyd Gaming’s founder and executive chairman as an influence.

“Bill Boyd is not only a lawyer but a hugely successful executive in the gaming world and a strong proponent of social responsibility,” she says. “I don’t think legal aid offerings in Nevada would be what they are without his support.”

In fact, Boyd Law School students spend a semester teaching at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada; similarly, at Boyd Gaming, pro bono work is strongly encouraged. Stratford volunteers through the Ask-A-Lawyer program, which offers free consultations on landlord-tenant disputes, family law, veterans’ affairs, probate matters and so on.

“It’s really rewarding,” says Stratford, “and a way to remember how fortunate we are to be able to help other people.”

As a gaming lawyer, she says, “You have to remember you’re not the operational folks bringing in the money, but a cost center. It’s important to support people in a way that’s helpful, be tough when you need to be tough, and figure out the balance.”—Marjorie Preston

 

Digital Domination
Barry Cottle, Chief Executive, SG Interactive

Scientific Games Corporation is a natural leader in the interactive gaming space, its legacy companies having blazed trails in social and online gaming. It was not surprising, then, that after the acquisitions of WMS and Bally Technologies, interactive technologies were prominent when Scientific Games became an end-to-end supplier with three strong divisions: interactive, gaming and lottery. The newly formed company saw great potential in all three businesses but had especially high expectations for the interactive division.

To realize the untapped potential, it was important to select the right executive to head the new division, SG Interactive. In naming Barry Cottle chief executive of SG Interactive, the company tapped into experience in a diverse range of digital entertainment. Cottle had been senior vice president of Disney TeleVentures, creating online experiences for the Walt Disney Company; executive vice president, interactive for Electronic Arts, growing that company’s online and mobile game division; and executive vice president/chief revenue officer for Zynga, helping to build its impressive stable of online and mobile games.

Immediately before Scientific Games, as vice chairman of Deluxe Entertainment, he helped drive digital innovation, including the launch of virtual reality in 2015.

Now, Cottle will lead SG Interactive in an effort to use the unparalleled content of the parent company’s gaming and lottery divisions to aim for dominance in the expanding worldwide interactive gaming marketplace.

For Cottle, that means 2018 will be spent strengthening each discipline within SG Interactive. “For real-money gaming, our core focus is leading the industry with integrated solutions by offering the broadest portfolio of content, technologies and services to our customers,” Cottle says.

One of the initiatives in this effort will be new features for the SG Universe digital product suite—an intuitive mobile and desktop app with an interface that showcases a casino property’s brand, including a social casino on the award-winning white-label Play4Fun Network.

“Our SG Universe initiatives build upon the technology platform and the total customer experience,” Cottle says. “In B2B social with the Play4Fun Network, we really are focused on continuing to outperform the market by providing the highest-quality, authentic content to our players with innovative features. Operators benefit equally; SG Universe ties into a casino’s loyalty program and back-end systems to provide a 360-degree player view.”

He adds that in 2018, SG Universe will be improved with a state-of-the-art technology platform designed to give a better experience to the player and better position the customer’s brand. “As part of this relaunch, we’ll roll out a new, intuitive modern interface that’s been designed by our team of experts and tested through a lot of player research,” says Cottle. “In addition, the casino’s app is going to become significantly more efficient in performance. It will load faster than ever before, which will enable us to get our players to the fun quicker.

“We’re also focusing on content parity with the floor, drawing upon newer themes which will better reflect the land-based experience. This is important, because we believe this kind of dual-channel crossover will be key for operators in their marketing efforts going forward.”

The final piece of the puzzle on SG Interactive’s road to digital dominance may be the pending acquisition by Scientific Games of sports-betting platform supplier NYX Gaming and its OpenBet subsidiary, which is the market-leading business-to-business sports-book supplier.

“The acquisition will provide some complementary industry-leading content, getting sports betting into our portfolio as well, which will give us a full suite of content and platform services,” Cottle says. “We’re really looking forward to being a digital real-money gaming and sports-betting powerhouse, and (the planned NYX acquisition) will position us to be the world leader. Leveraging their platforms as well as our content is a perfect win-win for both companies.”

The acquisition takes on added importance as the U.S. moves closer to full legalization of sports betting, and Cottle notes that it may also place SG Interactive immediately into sports betting in regulated markets around the world. “Both of our companies are world leaders with ambitions to grow market share outside of the U.S., with very complementary capabilities,” he says. “NYX has one of the fastest-growing B2B sports-betting platforms. The planned acquisition will combine that with Scientific Games, which is a world leader in gaming and lottery content.”

With the planned addition of NYX, SG Interactive is primed to achieve dominance of emerging digital markets.

“We believe there’s a clear leadership opportunity in the marketplace, and we don’t want that to go unanswered,” says Cottle. “We want to be the global digital leader across iGaming, iLottery and sports betting. To do this, we need to continue investing in growth and innovation, driving efficiencies and finding ways to be the best partner possible to our customers.”—Frank Legato