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Powers Behind the Throne

GGB’s Annual 25 People to Watch for 2018

Powers Behind the Throne

The engine that drives the gaming industry isn’t the beautiful buildings, the shiny slot machines or the soft green felt; it’s the people who know how to run those things. In this year’s edition of 25 People to Watch, the GGB Editorial Advisory Board has recognized many behind-the-scenes heroes who make the industry hum. These are the people in any organization who demonstrate the hard work, attention to detail and commitment to excellence that inspire not only the line employees but everyone in the organization.

Oh, we’ve got leaders. We’ve got thinkers. We’ve got organizers. We’ve got role models. But most of all, we have the people who have dedicated their lives to making gaming a better business for everyone involved, and for that, they are eminently watchable in 2018.


25 PEOPLE TO WATCH 2018 (Part I)

Revenue Royalty
Marco Benvenuti, Co-founder, Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer, Duetto

For Marco Benvenuti, his first job in the casino industry was enlightening. Just after graduating from Cornell in 2005, he joined Harrah’s (now Caesars) Entertainment with his specialty of revenue management. He said there still was an aura of mystery behind the revenue-management process.

“Casinos were just beginning to understand the importance of revenue management,” says Benvenuti, who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2002. “My first boss was brought in to establish the discipline of revenue management and integrate it under one roof to optimize all the hotel accounts.

“The revenue management discipline was concentrated at the second level of management, however. The people at the top didn’t get it most of the time. One executive said it was like the power company. You had to pay the bill but you didn’t really understand how it works.”

Benvenuti says there’s been a lot of education on revenue management, but there are still some remnants of that attitude.

“I still see it today in casinos. Excel is still the tool of choice. This isn’t only true of casinos, but other industries are also stuck in the past. It’s a tough tool to beat.”

In fact, Benvenuti blazed the trail to Duetto using the popular Microsoft program.

“I developed a spreadsheet that could be used for hotels and casinos, the way Caesars and Wynn used them,” he says. “Some companies are still using the spreadsheets that I designed.”

After leaving Caesars for Wynn Resorts, the Italian-native Benvenuti met his partner Patrick Bosworth, who was director of yielding and business strategy there. Together they made a decision three years later in 2010 to leave Wynn and start Duetto.

“We were looking to build a consulting company helping hotels make more profits and better decisions on pricing,” he says. “At the time we were still using Excel, which was the predecessor to GameChanger, which is now the top cloud application that casinos use to make pricing decisions.”

But as much as Excel was a great tool for Duetto’s consulting group, it wasn’t until Benvenuti and Bosworth met the third founder of Duetto, Craig Weissman, the former CTO of SalesForce, that the tools began to change.

“Things changed when we brought in Craig,” says Benvenuti. “He’s now our CTO, and our very first exercise was migrating my Excel spreadsheet and transforming it with new technology into what GameChanger has become today.”

With Weissman, Duetto has become a technology powerhouse. In addition to GameChanger, which is the pricing application that optimizes hotel room rates across all channels, segments and room types, Duetto has developed products like Scoreboard, which provides easy and intelligent reporting to help companies manage their business; BlockBuster, which enhances collaboration between sales and revenue management departments; and PlayMaker, which personalizes the contact between the hotel/casino and customers.

Right from the start, Duetto was a success in the hotel business. There are not as many variables to consider as you find in the casino industry. But Benvenuti says casinos were always a target market.

“We knew that the casino would be more difficult than the integration we needed for hotels, so the pipes that we built were casino-ready even if we didn’t develop them at the time,” he says. “Everything we built at the beginning started with the vision that we would optimize the casino as well as the hotel, whether the data was coming from a slot machine, a table game, a retail shop or a hotel room. The underlying architecture was built with a very deliberate vision, but the application on top would add the functionality.”

The gaming functionality has resulted in contracts with diverse casino companies, large and small, and the results have been impressive. And it’s only going to get better, says Benvenuti. It will help casinos to get the edge in the long, drawn-out battle with online travel agents (OTAs, like Expedia and Travelocity), and create customer loyalty.

“All our integrations are complete at this point,” he explains. “We have an amazing partnership with Agilysys. We’re able to get data from all the casino management systems, and we can bring true open pricing to casino resorts where we can surgically price specific players, knowing their preferences and patterns. By later this year, we’ll be able to give a customer, right at the moment of booking, a specific offer personalized just for them.

“This will speed up the booking process to help the hotels fight the OTAs and increase sign-ups to their loyalty programs. It gives you reasons to sign up even beyond the points you accrue, because now you give me convenience and value at the moment of booking. You’d rather book directly on the booking engine of the hotel than on Expedia.”

Benvenuti is also an advocate of “democratization” across the casino organization—bringing different teams together and allowing more people to see more data to understand and contribute to the success of the casinos’ business strategy.

“Lots of people understand how there are silos in every casino company,” he says. “Trying to break them down is more difficult than you might imagine.”

But Duetto is making inroads by applying its own strategy.

“Some revenue management systems only have two or three people logging into the program,” Benvenuti says. “Those people control all the power and all the narrative about the company’s process and procedures.

“That’s where we are different. We encourage unlimited access at the casino’s discretion. At one casino on the Las Vegas Strip, we have over 100 users. We democratize the process and provide visibility to all departments. All these people don’t need to be decision makers, but they can benefit from seeing the data maybe a little differently, and now they’ll also understand why decisions are being made, and the strategies being used.”—Roger Gros


The Road to Singapore
Anne Chen, Senior Vice President, Casino Operations, Marina Bay Sands

Growing up in the city of Xi’an, northwest China in the 1970s and ’80s, Anne Chen was urged by her parents to pursue an “iron rice bowl” (i.e., a job with guaranteed security, like teaching or banking).

But Chen wanted something more. In 2003, while studying for her MBA at the University of Nevada, Reno, she accepted a 12-month gaming internship at Harrah’s, a program split between slots and table games.

“I fell in love with the industry,” she says.

The feeling was mutual. Just a year later, Chen was the property’s director of marketing, managing a $50 million budget and maintaining a 50 percent profit margin in a highly competitive market. With her understanding of Asian culture, customs and language, she helped the casino hosts drive half of the property’s gross gaming revenue.

By 2010, Chen had become regional vice president of Asian business development at Caesars Entertainment in Reno and Lake Tahoe, and in 2011, assumed a similar role at Foxwoods in Connecticut.

At both companies, Chen launched cultural awareness programs that “helped our workforce better understand Asian gamers in terms of proper service, communication, marketing programs and such. Asian customers are vital to casino resorts worldwide because of the size of the population, their propensity to game and their high spending power.”

In January 2013, Chen’s remarkable record continued—halfway around the world, at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Appointed vice president of premium mass marketing, she helped grow that part of the business by 200 percent in just four years. She attributes the results to “the vision, trust and support from Las Vegas Sands as well as Marina Bay Sands senior leadership, the sales branch office infrastructure we developed in key regional markets, strong business acquisition strategies and programming to attract new customers to Singapore, and in-depth understanding and penetration of our existing database.”

Now senior vice president of casino operations at MBS, the iconic property with the most Instagrammed hotel in the world, Chen is looking at the big picture—including 3,000-plus team members in her department alone.

“For 2018, our focus is to continue introducing new, exciting products and excellent service—to provide that unique experience customers don’t get anywhere else. Another focus for me will be talent development,” fostering leaders who embody the spirit of CHASE—an employee excellence standard defined by Chief Casino Officer Andrew MacDonald (it stands for Committed, Hardworking, Ambitious, Smart, and Execute).

Chen cites many mentors, including MacDonald; the late UNR gaming economist Dr. Bill Eadington; Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and longtime Nevada gaming executive Terry Oliver.

“My career growth over the years would not have been possible without all the things I’ve learned from various professionals,” Chen says. “My long-term goal is to be able to help as many professionals as I can, in whatever capacity; I aspired to break the glass ceiling, and I’d particularly like to help other women leaders in our industry do the same.”

Now living in Singapore with her husband Allan and 2-year-old son Leo, Chen’s motto is, “A thousand miles’ journey begins with the first step. This comes from Lao Zi (Dao De Jing), and has so much wisdom. To me, success is the accumulation of many failures, learnings and persistence.”—Marjorie Preston


Engineering Luxury
Sean McBurney, General Manager, Caesars Palace

The first stop after college for Sean McBurney was as an automotive engineer at General Motors. While going to graduate school at Stanford University, he was recruited by Harrah’s. McBurney says the transition wasn’t as strange as it seems.

“You don’t see a lot of automotive engineers in hospitality,” he laughs. “But it’s not as big of a departure as you might imagine. When you think about running a manufacturing facility, you have to hire great people, meet performance standards with a great process, and they have to be celebrated when they do well. When you look at Caesars Palace, the only way you can consistently deliver a great product and great service is if you have a best-in-class team, held to very high standards with a great process. So the skill set is eerily similar.”

McBurney was brought into Harrah’s as a president’s associate under Gary Loveman. He says that program allowed him to understand how the business operates and challenged him to think differently. He later went to many different properties and found that a great experience, getting his feet wet in many different departments.

“Every brand is different and has different standards,” he says. “But the one thing that ties them all together is the Total Rewards program.”

Later, when he joined the company’s Enterprise Shared Services department, he was able to apply those different experiences.

“Total Rewards has always been a competitive advantage for our company,” he says. “A lot of competitors have tried to make inroads similar to Total Rewards, but it really is a best-in-class program.”

McBurney was also responsible for overseeing the VIP program during his time in the services department. He says it brought a new awareness of the power of the Caesars brand.

“It’s a critical part of our business,” he says. “I believe we are best in understanding who our VIPs are, their interests and preferences, so we’re able to market to them on an individual basis, based on what we know about them. Because we have 43 properties across the enterprise, we’re able to facilitate cross-property visits and get them to experience our brand more deeply and increase their loyalty.”

Now that he’s at Caesars Palace, he’s immersed in the international aspect of the business. Even though Caesars has no properties in Asia, McBurney says the brand is strongest there.

“It’s unbelievable the international reputation this property has, even though there is just one Caesars Palace in the world,” he explains. “It has a very rich history with the best entertainment, food and beverage, and some of the most opulent villas in the world. It’s the collection of those assets combined with the service experience that makes Caesars Palace a place you have to see at least once in your life.”—Roger Gros


Living Monument
Simon Thomas, CEO and Chairman, Hippodrome Casino London

For more than a century, Londoners have flocked to a West End landmark at Cranbourn Street and Charing Cross Road, next to Leicester Square. The Hippodrome, a Victorian gem opened in 1900, began life as a haven for circus acts involving elephants and polar bears, and aquatic spectacles in a 100,000-gallon water tank.

(They would even flood a couple of the hallways so performers could make their entrances via boat.)

From there, the Hippodrome, from its central atrium to its ornate cantilevered galleries and painted-glass retractable roof, went through many lives. It was a music hall and theater from 1909 to 1951. Beginning in 1958, it was The Talk of the Town for more than 30 years—a theater/restaurant that featured the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and a host of ’60s rock ‘n’ roll acts.

The venue closed and reopened several times, going from the London Hippodrome nightclub in the 1980s to the Hippodrome Events Space & Theatre in 2006. Through multiple incarnations of the building, many features of the original Victorian-era design by Frank Matcham were lost.

They have been rediscovered, in what is now the Hippodrome Casino London.

In 2006, Leicester-born father and son Jimmy and Simon Thomas acquired the lease on the Hippodrome with a promise to restore it back to Matcham’s original design. After finally being awarded a gaming license in 2009, the restoration began. In 2012, the new Hippodrome Casino was unveiled, after a £40 million restoration of key features, from the central atrium to the “Minstrel Gallery” above a retractable roof, from which acrobats once dove into the big water tank.

The renovation preserved the facility’s original Victorian charm while adding modern elements such as futuristic lighting fixtures over the large main gaming floor, under the huge atrium. There were four floors of gaming in all, including the Gold Room casino in the original basement, featuring direct access to London’s Chinatown behind the building. Around the sides of the atrium were restaurants, six bars, a cabaret theater and a smoking terrace.

“We wanted to turn it into what we hoped would be a world-class asset,” says Simon Thomas, who is CEO and chairman of the Hippodrome Casino, “different from everything else in the U.K., but picking up some lessons we’ve learned along the way, and also some ideas from casinos all over the world.”

Thomas has consistently added new features and attractions to the Hippodrome, not the least of which has been a continuing re-evaluation of the casino itself. It is the most popular gaming property in the U.K., one reason being a constant mission by Thomas to discover what has made other casinos around the world successful. That includes the U.S., where Thomas and his team hosted presentations by industry experts during last fall’s Global Gaming Expo.

The gaming offerings are in a state of constant improvement. The basement casino that was the Gold Room is now Lola’s Underground Casino—“a naughty little system with dancing girls, two craps tables—the only place in the U.K. with back-to-back craps tables—and a really cool bar in a themed 1900 Victorian area,” says Thomas. “The ground floor is the main gaming casino and bar under the original atrium, which is stunning.”

Upper floors include restaurants, bars, a cabaret theater and, on the top two floors, smoking decks and high-end rooms.

“The important thing for us is finding the right balance of entertainment and gambling, food and drink, where you can optimize the income but also get a lot of people in the building,” Thomas says. “They are great assets to pull people through, and we’re one of the few places in the area that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

If that sounds like a model of the gaming/non-gaming mix of modern casinos in places like Las Vegas or Macau, it is because of Thomas’ constant effort to take the most profitable practices from other parts of the world and apply them to the Hippodrome.

“There’s been a huge learning curve,” says Thomas, “and I’m absolutely sure we’re nowhere near the end of the learning curve, which in a way is quite exciting.”

That learning curve will continue to be explored as Thomas searches for new ideas.

“I love the industry, and I will go around and see who is doing what, why, where, when, and see if there are ways to take that knowledge and improve our business,” he says. “One our gaming room is copied from Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore. The penny floor and main bar was an idea I saw in the Standard Hotel in New York.”

Immediate plans include a tripling of the size of the smoking deck and a plan being kept under wraps for “a world-class show which will really put our theater on the map.” Meanwhile, he says, he is using a Las Vegas consultant to optimize the gaming floors, and customer relationship management tools to improve service and profitability. New games are being added, including Blackjack 11, a side bet with a frequent payoff and a progressive jackpot.

And at the core of it all is that beautiful building, and its storied past.

“The trick is building on the past,” says Thomas. “For example, our steakhouse is named after Claire Heliot. She was a lion tamer who used to feed lions raw meat on what is now the gaming floor, in 1906. At the same time, the product we offer is superb, and as a result, we’ve been voted the best steakhouse in London.”

Thomas likes to repeat a comment he says captures the essence of the modern Hippodrome Casino:

“Somebody said it has the energy of Vegas, the class of Monaco, and the eccentricity of the British.”—Frank Legato


Digital Dynasty
Anika Howard, Senior Director for Product Marketing for Mobile, PlaySpot, and North American Sportsbetting, International Game Technology

Anika Howard was fortunate. She knew what she wanted to do early on, and after obtaining degrees at Arizona State and the University of Maryland, she got the break she needed when she was recruited for the President’s Associate program at Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesars).

“The program was my introduction to the casino industry,” she says. “I did my time at Harrah’s New Orleans and was part of the opening team for the casino on Canal Street. I had no experience in the casino industry, so I went from hard hats to opening and learned a lot. It was a very unique experience.”

She says having no experience was actually a benefit for her.

“I think what I got most out of that time is the importance of being empathetic and being humble. As a president’s associate you go through the entire organization. I was struck by how hard-working the different groups are, and what goes into a casino that makes people want to visit.”

Howard’s training was in interactive applications, and later she held positions at Caesars, where she developed innovative interactive marketing campaigns that increased profitability and drove hotel occupancy. She also developed strategies for online advertising, social media, email marketing and acquisition and online customer service.

“I got the interactive bug early on,” she says. “I always wanted to be in that field. I like that intersection of technology and innovation.”

With the rapid rise of interactive technologies, Howard says it’s important for casinos to note how people are using interactive technologies in other parts of their lives.

“Using your phone to pay for a coffee, board a plane or check into your hotel room… These are what people are doing today with technology,” she says. “So there’s an expectation when people come into a casino that kind of convenience will be available to them.”

At IGT, Howard is responsible for overall strategy and marketing responsibilities for expanding IGT’s mobile and sports betting services and solutions in North America. Her department drives the design, development and marketing for the PlaySpot solution for land-based global casino customers. And she thinks PlaySpot and its applications will be a major diversion for the gaming industry in the future.

“Early on,” she explains, “there were a lot of questions about casinos and online gaming, and how the casinos should respond. And I think that’s the case with playing on devices. This will give players the option to choose how they want to interact with casinos and give casinos the option to extend their gaming experience without necessarily extending the casino floor. That’s going to be the model going forward as technology evolves and as casinos get more comfortable with that concept.”—Roger Gros


The Smart Casino
Andrew Cardno, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, VizExplorer

We all know that the casino-hotel industry collects more data on its customers than most businesses. But for Andrew Cardno, collecting data is only the first step.

Cardno, the founder and chief technology officer of California-based technology firm VizExplorer, has built his career devising tools operators can use to benefit from that data in real time. In fact, his knack for turning numbers into profits for gaming operators was recognized long before he founded VizExplorer in 2008—evidenced by two Smithsonian Laureate for Heroism in Information Technology awards, the first at Compudigm, a company he founded in 1999 in his native New Zealand that was acquired by Bally Technologies in 2007.

Those Smithsonian awards—which are among two dozen awards Cardno has received for information technology development—were for software products to optimize the revenue generation of the slot floor. At VizExplorer, his mission has been to empower operators with ways to use data from every single point in a casino resort.

“Five or eight years ago, casino industry data was all about gaming,” Cardno says. “But there’s been a massive shift, and now, for a casino to not be thinking about social media, the hotel, food and beverage—and getting the complete picture—is just not the way to run a business anymore.”

VizExplorer’s products give operators easy ways to use data to optimize the customer experience, which, in the end, is the easiest path to optimizing profits for a resort. “Our main business today is putting tools in front of all the different lines of business, so in real time, the data from across the business is provided to customers in a smart and simple way.”

VizExplorer’s suite of software solutions contains a tool for each of a growing number of profit points in a casino hotel—floorViz for optimization of the casino floor; campaignViz for marketing and promotions; greetViz to assist customer service; hostViz for player development; techViz for service management—and the Data Integration Hub to tie it all together and enable easy access to the data, at a moment’s notice.

The system creates a full-fledged “smart environment” for casino and hotel operations. Cardno offers one scenario in a fully “smart casino:”

“If you insert your card, check into the hotel, or do something at a point of sale, your host is immediately notified,” Cardno explains. “Many properties have greeters, who are dispatched to talk to you wherever you might be. And they are dispatched with a message that is appropriate to you. Our business is to empower that real-time activity.”

Cardno estimates that he has worked with close to 1,000 casinos over the past two decades, “helping with analytics and tooling so they can understand their business.” VizExplorer, he says, was founded to help operators approach operations “fully equipped with data from across the business.”

As VizExplorer works with major operators across the world, Cardno and company continue to build up the company’s software library with new ways to optimize the gaming business. One of the newest additions is Cash-Insite with Everi IQ, in partnership with Everi Holdings. VizExplorer used the fact Everi is a leader in supplying ATMs and kiosks to casinos to identify yet another source of data—the ATMs themselves. “ATM data allows us to look at a customer globally and see what they do both inside and outside of your four walls. It’s a very powerful tool.”

For 2018, Cardno says the big drive for VizExplorer is to continue efforts to make a casino “a center of a beautiful whirlwind of data.” He says utilizing all available data offers new and valuable ways of measuring performance that go way beyond the traditional obsession with daily theoretical win. (This will include gathering data from table games, which he says may be key to unlocking the preferences of the millennial generation.)

“No longer can your casino run on your slot system,” Cardno says. “Different areas are competing for a wallet share of the same group of customers. You’ve got to have a centralized view of your customer to operate a proper gaming organization these days, and it’s got to be in real time.”

VizExplorer itself is surely equipped to continue growing—also in real time.—Frank Legato


Building Relationships
Jennifer Weissman, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Penn National Gaming

In an era when job-hopping is the norm, Jennifer Weissman is sometimes asked how she has logged almost 20 years in the gaming industry. Her answer: It’s always changing, always challenging, and much too interesting to quit—even when the going gets tough.

Take her tenure as regional vice president of marketing for Caesars Atlantic City, from 2008 to 2012. In the midst and aftermath of the Great Recession, Weissman and her team continued to generate headlines with events like OUT in AC, a citywide party for the LGBT community; the Food Network Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival; and the star-studded premiere of the famed HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

“You start with the customer,” says Weissman, who joined Penn National Gaming as senior vice president and chief marketing officer in 2015. “We did research to find out what they were looking for that we weren’t already offering, or experiences they were having when they weren’t choosing to visit us, then deciding which ones would make sense in a casino. When we knew we could deliver something forward-thinking and on trend, it afforded us an opportunity to talk to (potential) customers and customers that already loved Atlantic City and gambling.”

With new technologies, there are more ways than ever to reach customers. Sorting out the options can be a big task.

“It’s up to someone in my role to ask, what are you trying to get from that technology? Can you can do it with something you already have? Is it going to be additive or a distraction? There are parameters you can use to score whether or not it’s worthwhile.”

Meanwhile, she says, the “core tenets of marketing” remain the same. “It all comes down to reaching the customer and creating the best relationship with them. And the customers will tell you how they want to have a dialogue with you.”

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Weissman studied journalism and public relations at the University of Maryland, and launched her career in gaming at the Hollywood Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. Among her early mentors was Director of Marketing Kathy Hickman, now marketing vice president at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in California.

“She gave me enough leeway to figure out the job and enough mentorship to keep me rowing in the right direction,” says Weissman. In Atlantic City, former Caesars executive Carlos Tolosa was “a very positive role model and huge advocate.”

Penn National has been much in the news as the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania-based firm considers the acquisition of rival Pinnacle Entertainment. Weissman is mum on the issue, and remains focused on Penn National’s current portfolio: 34 casinos, racetracks and off-track wagering facilities across the U.S.

She says her job is to “take very complicated issues and boil them down into something simple and actionable. You need the ability to focus on things that matter and limit the noise of things that don’t. To do that, you have to be very analytical and be a bit of a risk taker.”

First, last and always, she says, “Build that relationship with the customer.”—Marjorie Preston


The Year of AGS
Andrew Burke, Senior Vice President of Slot Products, AGS

Anyone unfamiliar with Las Vegas-based slot manufacturer AGS could get the impression the company is still brand-new. It’s not. Originally American Gaming Systems, the company was founded in 1996 as a supplier to Class II casinos in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

But it has been during the past four years that AGS has emerged as one of the top suppliers in the Class III slot market—a process started in 2010 by then-CEO and former Bally Chairman Bob Miodunski, and completely transformed by the 2013 arrival of David Lopez as the new CEO.

Through acquisitions and development, Lopez has transformed AGS into a full-service supplier of slots, table games and interactive technology, to a market that is still expanding. After acquisitions including Las Vegas-based Colossal Gaming and Georgia-based Cadillac Jack, and the creation from scratch of a now-thriving table-game business and the new interactive division, AGS bears little resemblance to the small Class II supplier it once was.

No one knows this better than Andrew Burke.

Burke, who is senior vice president of slot products for AGS, has been along for the company’s entire transformation, having joined the company in 2008. His slot division has led the company into the elite of the Class III market, and that ride is far from finished. Technology from the former Cadillac Jack formed the basis of what is now the company’s core video slot platform, but it is what Burke’s division has done with that platform that is turning heads among operators, first with the workhorse ICON cabinet and, last year, with the breakthrough marquee-style Orion cabinet, with its lighting that connects machines into banks that are themselves works of art.

Next year, the form factors continue with the introduction of the Orion Slant, completing the possibilities of the operator-favorite cabinet. “Everything is easy when you have really great products, and our development team has just done a fantastic job with Orion,” Burke says. “To add to the success of that series, we will launch the Orion Slant in 2018. We’ve got a lot of pent-up demand for that product.”

Content for the Orion Slant and other cabinets will continue to pour out of the company’s development team, and for next year, that means progressives.

“You can call 2018 the Year of the Progressive for AGS,” says Burke. “Linked progressives have always been an important part of our DNA, going back to the Class II days of the business. We’ve just launched our Xtreme Jackpots series, and our first installs of those games have been really, really strong.”

Going back to the early days, AGS has employed a strategy on progressives Burke calls “achievability.” The Xtreme Jackpots product features a $10,000 startup, with jackpots averaging $30,00 to $40,000 hitting more frequently than many other progressives—thanks to one key factor: lots of games linked to the same jackpot.

“We can do a lot of things other people can’t,” Burke says. “We can link progressives across various different cabinets we have. We can also link them across different types of games; it doesn’t have to be the same math model to be linked to the same progressive.”

As the number of games linked to a single jackpot grows, so will the frequency of the jackpot. Burke says a new, patent-pending feature will be added to the progressive system for G2E “that will really enhance the experience for the player.”

Meanwhile, the company has not neglected its Class II roots. Last month, AGS finalized the purchase of the operating assets of Rocket Gaming Systems, adding 1,600 Class II units to an installed base of recurring-revenue games that now numbers around 23,600. The Class II portfolio from Rocket includes wide-area progressives and stand-alone video and spinning-reel games and platforms, including the player-favorite Gold Series, a suite of games that feature a $1 million-plus progressive prize that is the longest-standing million-dollar wide-area progressive on tribal casino floors.

Burke says one of his first projects over the coming year will be to integrate the assets and technology of Rocket Gaming into the overall AGS platform.

Aside from that, the coming year for Burke will involve a focus on executing the current product roadmap. “We pride ourselves on being super-focused,” Burke says. “It’s one of the things that sets us apart from competitors. We pick our projects pretty carefully. What you’re going to see this year is heads-down execution on the things we’ve been working on the past year.”

Burke comments that AGS is full of “people to watch,” with the slot division running on all cylinders. “Our sales team is the best it’s ever been. Our service and operations teams are both humming along. We’re getting all the puzzle pieces connected at the same time for 2018. We couldn’t be more excited.

“It’s safe to say with no exaggeration that 2018 will be the biggest year in AGS’ history. We’re really poised to break out this year.”—Frank Legato


Trump Train
Tara MacLean Sweeney, Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior

When Donald Trump assumed the presidency, many in Indian Country assumed that the halcyon days of his predecessor, Barack Obama, were over.

But considering the appointments the Trump administration has made to the Indian Affairs section of the Interior Department, Native Americans have been appointed in every important position.

The lead role is being filled by Tara MacLean Sweeney, who was appointed in October as assistant secretary, Indian Affairs, for the Department of the Interior. Sweeney had been vice president of external affairs for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), as well as a past co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and the more recent past chairwoman of the Arctic Economic Council.

Sweeney is an Inupiaq, and the first native Alaskan to serve as assistant secretary and the second woman to serve in that role.

The relationship between the Trump administration and Indian Country is evolving. Willie Hensley, an Alaska Native leader who chairs the board of First Alaskans Institute, told the Anchorage Daily News that Sweeney has the opportunity to inform the president on tribal power structures.

“A lot of people don’t understand Alaska because it is confusing,” Hensley said. “We have tribes. We have Alaska native corporations. And the native-run corporations have land and money, while tribes here more often are struggling with few resources.”

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski was thrilled.

“What a fabulous, fabulous nomination,” she says. “She is at a level as an Alaskan that is just enviable. And I think, again, we could not have identified an individual who has a broader perspective including that of coming from the ANC (Alaska native corporation) side.”

Sweeney began her career working as a lobbyist for a Washington, D.C. law firm advocating for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before returning home to serve a similar role at ASRC. She is the daughter of former state Rep. Eileen MacLean.

In addition to Sweeney, other major appointments by the Trump administration were all members of Native American tribes. Just days before Sweeney’s appointment, Bryan Rice was named director of the Bureau of Indian affairs by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

A member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Rice recently led Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, and has broad experience leading Forestry, Wildland Fire, and tribal programs across Interior, BIA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than 20 years.

Rice joins John Tahsuda III, a member of Oklahoma’s Kiowa Tribe, who was named acting assistant secretary.—Patrick Roberts


Keys to the Kingdom
Ann Hoff, President and Chief Operating Officer, Excalibur Hotel & Casino

Ann Hoff found career inspiration in an unlikely source: the 1980s TV drama Hotel. The nighttime soap starring James Brolin and Connie Sellecca depicted the exciting lives of hotel executives in San Francisco. To Hoff, it seemed an ideal life. Her father disagreed.

“He wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about me choosing a career based on a TV program,” remembers Hoff, a New Orleans native. “He suggested I attend Louisiana State University to study business.” She did so, but dropped out to work at the New Orleans Hilton before enrolling in the hospitality program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

A career in gaming was a natural evolution. In 1990, Hoff joined the management associate program at the newly opened Mirage, where she got a thorough grounding in sales and marketing. In 1993, she moved on to Treasure Island, and helped to rebrand the family-friendly property as the more sophisticated TI.

Then came a pivotal opportunity: a position as director of hotel marketing at the new 2,000-room Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi. Though apprehensive, she accepted the job, calling it “a defining time in my growth and development.”

“While stepping outside of comfort zones can be scary, we can’t realize or even understand our full potential until we’re willing to put ourselves out there a bit,” says Hoff. “Taking risks shows confidence and ultimately helps us overcome fear of failure.”

Another shift presented itself thanks to Scott Sibella, now president of MGM Grand Las Vegas, who urged Hoff to transition from sales and marketing to operations. “He saw something in me, and convinced me to broaden my experience so I could be considered for property leadership more broadly. Without that move, I wouldn’t be a property president today.” In 2005, she became vice president of operations at New York-New York.

Hoff joined Excalibur as general manager in 2014. Today, as president and chief operating officer, she’s responsible for all aspects of performance and profitability at the 4,000-room medieval-themed resort.

It’s a busy time at Excalibur. “We’ve nearly completed a refresh of our casino experience, including a new 4-D theater in partnership with SimEx,” says Hoff. “We’ve also created a new brand positioning that conveys the essence of the property: ‘Adventure for the Taking.’”

Grateful for the mentorship of Sibella and Cindy Kiser Murphey, president and COO of New York-New York, Hoff is committed to developing future leaders “at Excalibur, throughout MGM Resorts and within the industry.”

What qualities does she consider essential for those future leaders?

“Vision, collaboration, integrity, courage and humility,” says Hoff. “I pride myself in bringing these qualities to the team along with incredible drive and dedication.”
Marjorie Preston


Helping the Afflicted
Russell Sanna, Executive Director, National Center for Responsible Gaming

The ratio of players who can handle their gambling versus those who can’t is 99-1. In this industry, that means the effort to help that small group will never be over.

Russell Sanna, executive director of the Beverly, Massachusetts-based National Center for Responsible Gaming, wants to extend the research funding elements of this complex issue. About 2.5 million American adults have a gambling issue. That’s a small percentage compared to problem drinkers and smokers, he indicates, but the effects of a gambling disorder can often be hidden until it destroys a family’s finances. The NCRG hopes for more mechanisms to drill down on the 1 percent.

“Historically, the casino sector has carried the ball in supporting the center,” he says. “But gaming has hugely diversified. You have 44 states with lotteries, you have more than 460 Native American tribes that operate casinos and you have major developments on the horizon like online and sports betting. Underneath all that are industries like banking and the legal services that support the gaming. We would like to secure their support and participation for research.”

NCRG’s mission is to help people who suffer from gambling disorders. The organization does that with scientific research into pathological and youth gambling. It also encourages the application of new research findings to improve prevention, diagnostic, intervention and treatment strategies.

Sanna does not push his own theories. He wants to assemble “the smartest people in the room” to produce initiatives.

Success can span numerous realms. It may include converting information from self-exclusion cases into treatment options. It may entail gaining data on income groups and minorities. Perhaps more information will lead to initiatives coaxing people inside that 1 percent bubble to seek help. Even ideas to address comorbidity, the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient, are possible through research.

“An emerging area for research is the 99 percent of players who are able to partake of this gaming without any negative effects,” he says. “What is normal within that 99 percent? What habits to they have? What beliefs do they follow in their behavior? Why is gambling not a slippery slope for them? If I am not in that 1 percent, what is it about me that allows me to go in and out of a casino, with no difficulties?”

The Wyoming native joined the NCRG on March 1, 2016. He oversees the operations of the center.

Sanna was the executive director of the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine. In earlier posts, he was the associate dean for external relations at the Harvard Design School and assistant director of the Harvard Art Museums. In all three roles, he was responsible for building and enhancing stakeholder networks and resource development. Before coming to Harvard, Sanna served as assistant superintendent of the Solomon Mental Health Center in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Dave Bontempo

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