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Reviving RD&E

The industry seeks to reclaim inspiration in retail, dining and entertainment

Reviving RD&E

Retail, dining, and entertainment (RD&E) need inspiration. Not because the worldwide gaming industry has not done a great job in decades past. It has.

But, in an unplanned conspiracy of events, capital left telltale skid marks as spending screeched to a halt with the onslaught of the worldwide financial crisis. The fuel needed to fund inspiration was cut off at the pump in 2008. It remains severely constrained today.

And so, just when the casino industry needs its mojo the most to power its way out of the financial crisis, inspiration seems to have at best gone into hibernation, but at worst, the industry may have temporarily lost it. It can and needs to be refound.

Delivering ‘More’

I believe any RD&E resurgence must be premised on continuing the industry strategy of always trying to offer something more. The “more” can mean many things to many people, but in general, it translates into an RD&E experience that is bigger, better, different, new, innovative, or just plain “badder,” to use the jargon of the current generation.

The key distinction between “more” casino-driven RD&E experiences and non-gaming RD&E experiences available back home is the amount of emotion generated. Emotion is the currency of “more,” the emotional value created by how far the “more” RD&E Experience goes beyond the routine, beyond the expected, and beyond the “I’ve seen/done this before.”

This article will talk about how to conceptualize, produce, and deliver this “more” both by explanation and by example. The explanation is structured around axioms. The examples are shown in a series of highlighted sections not to mimic exactly but rather to get the creative juices going, catalyze derivatives, and engender entirely new concepts. The examples focus primarily on restaurants, but many if not most of the ideas are adaptable to shopping, entertainment, and other non-gaming activities to create the elusive “More” we are seeking.

Restaurants can be found as far south as Antarctica, at 1,450 feet on top of a building (Burj Khalifa, UAE), at 17,519 feet on top of a mountain (Bolivia), or 410 feet underground (Poland). The largest indoor restaurant by sheer physical space is the size of three football fields (China) but by number of patrons 6,014 seats (Damascus). The smallest is a table for two. The fastest restaurant from the time the order is taken until the meal is served is 13 seconds (Mexico).

You might be served by Cinderella, Spock, a vampire, nurse, spy, Ninja, monkey (a real one), children, twins, inmate (at a real prison), or a robot. On the other hand, you might be catching a roll thrown to you, watching a barbecued chicken catapulted to a waiter about to catch it with a plate, or eating sushi off a naked lady’s body. Your meal may arrive by miniature train or boat or slide down tracks from the kitchen above propelled by gravity.

Note: Most of the restaurant examples were taken from The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World: www.unusual-restaurants.com or http://restoran.us/trivia/unusual.htm#service.

 
The ‘More Toolbox’

First, a strong caveat: Build the “more”upon well-executved fundamentals. None of the “more” that follows is meant to replace or dilute the necessity to fully develop and consistently deliver the core fundamentals of each RD&E activity taking place. Restaurants must have good if not great food, shops must offer an array of desirable goods people want to buy, entertainment must be, well, entertaining, the price must have an underlying value, and all must be delivered with earnest, attentive, courteous, accurate and fast service. The “more” must build upon, not replace, these fundamentals.

Your menu may feature traditional American, Italian, Chinese or French cuisines. But, you might also be picking from a menu with 1,810 items (Hungary) or be picking-and-choosing from a 400-selection buffet. You may be faced with consuming a stream of tapas mini-plates, stabbing at fondue, or cooking your food at hot pot in the middle of the table. Or, you might be choosing your meal from constantly rotating dim sum carts, eating prime rib cut at your table on an ornate cart, or enjoying a constant flow of different meats carved at your table off skewers, Brazilian style. On the beverage side of the menu, the largest restaurant wine list features 1,746 wines, all of which are allegedly available (Luxembourg). Once you have made up your mind, a waitress may take your order or you may convey it to the kitchen via a telephone at your table or via an iPad.

Axiom No. 1: Leverage Off the Casino First

For many patrons, casino gaming is the unique experience, a “more”and different experience by itself. When a casino is “cooking” (i.e., full of people), it is a unique, intense, frenetic, dynamic and exciting activity not only for the participant but for observers as well. As such, it is the first tool in the “More Toolbox” to reach for, to boost RD&E experiences.

How? By populating every available linear foot of the casino perimeter with restaurants, bars, lounges, showrooms, nightclubs, shopping and other non-gaming activities. In some locations and for certain activities, the walls along the borderline can come down completely. Floor-level patio or raised overlook seating in bars and restaurants can further take advantage of the views. In situations calling for more separation, the wall should still be visually porous, enabled by the use of pony walls, large openings with or without latticework or other types of screening, with or without glass. In yet other instances, non-gaming activities work best smack-dab in the middle of the gaming floor.

Hip, chic bars at the perimeter attract and feature model-like males with three-day-old beards over square, chiseled chins and ladies with short skirts that could not be shorter. They, in turn, act as magnets to kinsmen, poseurs, and those not so physically blessed. Diners at the borderline provide a live showcase for designer food whose visual appeal merchandises the restaurant. The casino serves to attract RD&E patrons to the general area, and after consumption, the RD&E generates players for the casino, a true symbiotic relationship.

 

Axiom No. 2: Good Reasons to Breach Axiom No. 1

Non-gaming activities should be located away from the casino if: (1) the perimeter is already full with RD&E and gaming support activities; (2) site constraints prohibit it; and/or, (3) there are other strong reasons that benefit the property more advantageously.

For example, if the property has significant retail and/or meeting space, shoppers and meeting attendees will need and want dining and beverage options close by. Off-casino locations may also be used to merchandise the property, pushing and pulling people through and around it.

 

Axiom No. 3: Create the “More” from Outside In

Every RD&E activity should have one or more walls that look outward onto something that creates or builds the experience inside. Why? First, because there is greater range and scope to create “more”experiences outside; and second, where the outside is truly outside, because most of your guests live and work indoors and appreciate outdoor and outdoor-like environments as part of their leisure-time experiences. In non-gaming resorts, the equivalent principle is to situate your RD&E to look upon the beach, ski slope, marina, vineyard or verdant valley, thereby bringing the resort indoors. Casino RD&E needs to do the same in its own way.

Techniques include creating overlooks of what already exists, such as an overlook of the Las Vegas Strip, the Singapore Central Business District skyscrapers and tourist-driven quay, or the Boardwalk and Atlantic Ocean in Atlantic City. In the absence of natural overlooks, they may be created via the use of heavy landscaping and other forms of softscape and/or swimming pools and other forms of wetscape;  replicas of natural features such as man-made rivers, waterfalls, and volcanos;  replicas of other high-value visual man-made experiences such as streetscapes of famous locales (e.g., Venice canals), man-made aquariums, animal habitats populated with live animals, and carefully staged human, mechanical, pyrotechnic, video-intense and robotic shows. To make the point, I have seen a well-crafted show applauded time and time again even though there were no human actors to hear it.

Axiom No. 4: Complete the “More” from the Inside

The “more” not created or fully created by natural or man-made views flowing into the RD&E space from outside must be created or completed within the four walls. Tools here include the use of color (preferably, “hot” not “cold” colors), man-made lighting, natural lighting, texture (organic preferred over metal and plastic), geometry (curves over straight lines), aural (music), smell (aroma), furniture and fixtures, and replicating highly visual interiors such as mentioned in the examples below.

Patrons can enjoy their meal in a tree, over water, under water, in a cave or crypt or cistern, hanging from a cliff, overlooking a live volcano, on the Titanic (replica), in an airplane fuselage, inside a windmill, or in a church. Your restaurant may be made out of traditional building materials or all wood, salt crystals, stone, a shipping container, or carved out of snow, ice or rock. You may find yourself surrounded by memorabilia, stuffed animals, business cards, gold, money, hanging hams, musical instruments, tractors, alien stuff, freaky toys, bras and panties, or bombs and rockets.

Axiom No. 5: Themes (Still) Work

Beside mediums, the More Toolbox also includes themes. Themes can do for RD&E activities what stage and movie sets do for plays and movies: they bring out, amplify, accentuate, and support the dialogue and screenplay taking place. Note that a theme need not necessarily mean building castles or having every employee in costumes; they can be dramatic or subtle. Regardless, themes are a great tool to construct a differentiation between what your customers experience at home and what they will experience at your casino, between your casino and your competition.

Across the world, themes range from women only, grandmothers (to make you feel more relaxed and comfortable), British royalty, school cafeteria, 1950s, an indoor mock-up of a drive-in with a full-size movie screen, a Medieval feast complete with wenches and a village idiot, a circus atmosphere of general chaos, sci-fi, intentionally rude and irreverent staff, not to forget the more bizarre war themes (including a Pol Pot theme in Cambodia), death, cross-dressing, alternative lifestyles, and eroticism. But in one sense, perhaps the most extreme are those restaurants whose interior is totally dark,  served by blind or visually impaired staff, ostensibly allowing diners to focus on the food served.

Axiom No. 6: “More” Can Mean More Activity(ies)

“More” can mean adding complementary other activities to the core activity.

You may be enjoying your meal while listening to opera or singing waiters, watching a movie, play, circus or magic. You may be enjoying a beach luau, Eastern Seaboard clambake, barbecue cooked over a crackling wood fire, or in the middle of an African game preserve watching the annual wildebeest migration. There is even a company that offers a table-for-two that appears somewhere in a city center location only disclosed to the patron by SMS one hour before the reservation time. There are portable, self-contained restaurants that move from city to city appearing at otherwise unapproachable places of interest including historic venues, architectural wonders, and space that is otherwise public domain (e.g., inner city parks). The “restaurant” may be standing still or moving, i.e., on a floating sampan, a bus, a tram, a train, a cable car, a rotating observation wheel, a Clydesdale-drawn turn-of-the-century bus, or a horizontally revolving facility on top of a tower.


Axiom No. 7: Every Casinos Needs Wow! Factors

Ideally, there should be multiple “Wow!” factors located around the property to provoke and evoke emotion, amplifying the activity nearby, and to push and pull people through the property as they try to find them. However, they need not all be colossus, nor necessarily outrageously expensive. Wow! factors can be something new, curious or just innovative and creative. But, regardless, they must blatantly and unabashedly “hit the customer” with enough emotional force to cause them to reflexively think under their breath or utter “Wow!” out loud.

Besides those already mentioned: Como-like lakes. Pirate battles complete with sexy sirens. Water fountains that shoot water hundreds of feet into the air in a water ballet choreographed to musical scores playing in the background. Roller coasters roaring in, out and around the property and building. Robotic dragons emerging from a faux magic kingdom below. Animal habitats. Multi-story-tall arboretums. Warehouse-sized aquariums. Exclusive, dramatic art. Ultra-high-resolution videos on 360-degree enveloping screens. Party pits with serpentine, scantily clad dancers wrapping themselves around stripper poles. Exotic car dealerships. Fireworks. Mega-yacht marinas.

Axiom No. 8: If not Wow! Then X  (Or Both)

More subtle than Wow! factors, and more difficult to pull off, are the creation and generation of  X factors. Whereas Wow! factors are in your face, X factors hang like a pall over the property, akin to company-driven brand but more of a consumer-bestowed standing or reputation. By inference and association, the value of the X factor “sticks” to those who patronize the property that has it.      

For example, a casino acquiring the reputation as the hip, chic place to see and be seen is effective when appealing to younger, aspirational market segments. Other properties may garner a reputation as the romantic place to spend a weekend, a foodie’s paradise, sports central, or a technophile’s dream.

 
Axiom No. 9: Be Edgy; Push the Limits

Casinos are, by definition, hedonistic places of excess. These dynamics attract market segments that consciously seek out avant garde, innovative, edgy, romantic, sexy and surprising environments before the trip as they decide which casino to patronize. But they also tap such emotions lying dormant within affinity-rich market segments when they unexpectedly encounter them. This is not to say the entire property should be edgy, per se, but these attributes should be overtly embedded in strategic and tactical locations for certain predetermined market segments.

In a casino room, you may find yourself sleeping in a raised, round bed with a mirror overhead, in a bathroom that has no separating wall, in a soaking tub at a window overlooking a private mini-pool area, in a suite designed for partying with a stripper’s pole in the middle and enough state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment to turn it into a South Beach mini-night club, or swimming in a pool cantilevered out from the top floor of a tower with a glass bottom.

In a restaurant, you may find yourself eating exotic meats such as venison, bear, kangaroo, peacock, lion, armadillo, buffalo, crocodile, or whale meat and, for the more adventurous worldwide, you can choose from grasshoppers, flying fox, fruit bats, goat and sheep heads, chocolate-covered scorpions and bees, snake, horse meat, polar bears (only if one is recently killed in self-defense), Surströmming (herring with a very strong odor), cod tongue, toxic blowfish, tuna eyes, or meat from animal penises.

 
Axiom No. 10: Value Received Must Exceed Price/Cost

Value is the real or perceived worth of the experience relative to its price/cost. While there are clearly guests who shop price when determining what to patronize, most leisure-time visitors and vacationers shop for the experience first and then after-the-fact determine whether they got back what they spent and whether they will return again. For this group, value may be quantity-value (more units for the price), quality-value (higher quality for the price), entertainment-value, recreation-value, relaxation-value, innovation-value, Wow!-value, X factor-value, and numerous other value vectors that your customers appreciate. In a “more” environment, the real or perceived value of the experience must equal if not exceed the price/cost of it.

Your meal might be for free (e.g., if you can eat 7.5-pound hamburger or a six-pound seafood roll in one hour) or only as much as you feel the meal deserves. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you may be admonished if you do not chew each bite 30 times or pay a fine if you do not finish your meal. In one restaurant, you determine the price, paying what you feel it was worth.

Casino players—and recently high-spending non-gamers—through loyalty clubs can earn the right to automatic upgrades, discounts and full complimentaries.

Axiom No. 11: Build the Experience Around Explicit Target Market Segments

Optimally, it is best to develop activities bottom-up by aligning the concept and execution with the needs, wants and expectations of explicit individual, grouped and aggregate target market segments. Even so, some provision and tolerance must be left for instances where “great ideas” come first, and afterward seek target market segments who will respond to it, because not all customers know what they want or will respond to until they see and experience it.

Axiom No. 12: It is the Sum of the Parts that is Ultimately the Arbiter of Whether the Trip Experience Works or Not

While it is important to pay detailed attention to a given activity, in the final analysis, your patrons will judge the value of their visit by the sum of the parts of the total experience. Both must be managed.

 
Axiom No. 13: There are No Shortcuts

The process of identifying, developing and delivering “more” is typically a process of looking at a number of options. It takes time, effort, research, trial-and-error, and money. There are no shortcuts.

Axiom No. 14: Embed Flexibility; Be Willing to Change

Given the fickleness of the marketplace, the ever-changing competitive dynamic, and the need to regularly refresh and change space and activities, it is smart to develop with flexibility in mind. This means embedding infrastructure, space, operational, marketing and mental flexibility into what is being done. Development is a process. Correcting mistakes and adopting to changes are part of the process.

 
Epilogue

The process of offering “more” to meet and exceed your player and other guest expectations never ends. Yesterday’s “more” becomes accepted, competitors copy your ideas, and the norm germinates the need for the next version of “more.”

Those who are able to initially provide “more” and then offer a continuing stream of effective ever-changing “more” experiences will rule the roost as market leader in their space and reap the rewards for their stakeholders. It is worth the effort. Those not making the effort may find declining revenues, market share and profits, and not know why.

Dean Macomber is president of Macomber International, Inc. With 35 years of diversified experience in the gaming industry ranging from dealer to president, development to operations involving mega-destination resorts to locals-oriented casinos in numerous domestic and international venues, Macomber provides executive-level consulting in the areas of strategic and business planning, feasibility and all other project development phases, and pre- and post-opening management and profit improvement engagements. He can be reached at [email protected].

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