The Evolution of The Casino Experience: Part 2

Lessons from three innovative members of the gaming industry

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 1 of the discussion on developing casino experiences vs. selling commodities truly hit a chord, as the response to the commentary affirmed the need for the spotlight. Finding the way back to true hospitality and the need, now more than ever, to create emotional connections with our guests is paramount. Delivering extraordinary products and services by employees focused on excellence in an environment where the details tell their own story has never been more important than today.

The cover of Forbes magazine on September 8, 2014 spotlights the luxury retailer Hermes. The quote from CEO Axel Dumas is clear and poignant: “Our business is about creating desire.”

The focus is not on selling incomparable scarves or the most beautiful ties or iconic bags; the company’s vision is creating an emotional connection by purveying status and sophistication through the highest quality of craftsmanship. Will paying hundreds of dollars more for a Hermes scarf keep you any warmer in the winter, or look that much more colorful and vibrant? It is about function vs. experience.

One section in the article sums it up clearly: “At Hermes any lasting premium derives from mystique. After all, selling a commodity ultimately boils down to one thing: price. But selling beautiful objects that people don’t inherently need? That requires a more complicated formula that Hermes has mastered.”

In the latest round of Apple commercials, they feature individuals doing truly extraordinary things in their lives. The imagery and music elicit a strong inner yearning as you see their technology extrapolated into the very fabric of our existence in a manner that simply enhances our ability to do the things that we will value and remember for a lifetime.

The ads leave you with the question, “What will your verse be?” They don’t say a word about an iPad or iPod or using a Mac to get your work done.

It is time to get back to basics. If Starbucks’ “Third Place” is your inspiration—or maybe BMW’s passion to create the “Ultimate Driving Machine”—then there is a much bigger vision of creating experiences vs. selling commodities that should motivate your day-to-day efforts.

In this next installment, three industry veteran experts have provided their take on how best to reinterpret and realign the key elements of our business: the design, the employees, and the experiential product.

Paul Heretakis is an award-winning architect who has worked on creating enlightened spaces in gaming hospitality venues around the world. Arte Nathan is the human resources guru who partnered with Steve Wynn for decades to redefine the approach to creating a culture of team members relentlessly dedicated to delivering extraordinary interactions with guests. Charlie Skinner is a passionate operator who has worked in some of the most challenging and competitive gaming marketplaces, but his key to operational success always remains the same.


Paul Heretakis
It’s All In The (Design) Details

Place-making, dream-weaving, and experiential environments—words that designers speak to all the time. But it takes a visionary client who wants to redefine what is expected in order to create a project that truly resonates, constantly evolves, reinvents and never stops surprising.

That experience starts at the front door—the first impression. It’s the first time you ask, “What should the customer see, feel, desire?” From that very first moment, you need to put yourself in the shoes of that customer and guide them through the space, control their movements, their experience, craft their emotions, fulfill their dreams.

The designer’s personal ego must be put aside. Remember, you are not creating your own dream or vision; you are creating a canvass for others to build their own dreams upon. Each space must be enjoyed in various ways, must expose itself further with each return visit. Every time I revisit Wynn, I see another tassel, molding, fabric or color that I missed the time before.

It all starts with a vision, a story. “I want the customer to believe they are in a dream. This is my customer and they have never seen life brought to them on this level before; that it must be a dream.”

To use a restaurant as an example, its takes an all-out effort of the owner to set the tone for success: Constantly ask the designer to create what has not been created before, empower the chef to cook as no one has ever cooked before—to challenge everyone involved to deliver a level of service that is second to none. Aqua by Michael Mina at Bellagio did just this—it stunned designers with its unique ambiance and raised the bar with foodies as well with its unparalleled cuisine when it opened.

The designer starts with space—large, small, tall, low. How do I compress the experience until I decide to let the customer feel the explosion of space? Philippe Stark did this so well at Felix in Hong Kong, compressing the guests in a tiny elevator lobby, turning you around the copper bar wall until the city of Hong Kong explodes upon you—still impressive to this day.

Very subtle design details and seamless operational efficiencies are paramount. Although most may go completely unnoticed individually by the customer, collectively they are appreciated and remembered forever as a complete experiential moment. For those that reach the highest plateau, they are emotional and burn an image in your mind to last a lifetime.

All three components (design, service and product) need to balance, complement and elevate each other.

Have you ever received the check for a meal or a hotel stay and think that is was wrong—too inexpensive for such memories? So good you repeat it to everyone that will listen? The grand hotels of Europe have delivered those dreams for hundreds of years. Cipriani’s mastered it on multiple continents and Steve Wynn has reset that bar every time he opens a new property.

Do you have the vision to change… to desire… to ask… to dream?

Paul Heretakis, RA, vice president of WESTAR Architects, has over 15 years of experience overseeing hospitality design and mixed-use master planning projects throughout the world. His portfolio includes over 1,000 casino, restaurant, retail and hotel projects throughout the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asia.


Arte Nathan

Creating a Service Culture

Providing guests with incomparable experiences that create emotional connections and long-term loyalty is the goal of every hospitality and gaming professional. Throughout my career as Steve Wynn’s HR guy, I was tasked with building a culture to support that kind of service. Here’s what I learned about making that goal a reality.

Start with hiring the right people: not the ones who only have experience, but those who also have the right attitude. This attitude is found in those who are genuinely optimistic: they’re open to learning, interested in helping others, and always looking for those who are looking to be served. They adapt to dynamic situations and enthusiastically join with others to create incomparable experiences.

They’re the first ones to volunteer, and the last to leave: they’re focused on doing what’s right rather than only what’s expected.

Create a culture that nurtures the performance you want: define exactly what you expect, and why, show them how, provide relevant and continual feedback, ask for input and suggestions, and let them know you care. This shows that you’re engaged in what they’re doing, and they will respond in kind: they’ll be engaged in providing the service that creates satisfaction and loyalty. Just remember: these are professionals and you need to give them the support and space they need to do their job.

And give your employees the respect they deserve: high performers don’t need to be micro-managed, but they also don’t want to be ignored. Check with them regularly, treat them as colleagues, and remember to say thanks.

Arte Nathan spent the last 30-plus years as a human resources professional and thought leader; for most of that time he was the HR executive for all of Steve Wynn’s casinos worldwide. Currently he teaches at UNLV and writes about leadership and employee engagement.

Charlie Skinner
Creating The Experience

We work in interesting times in our industry, especially when you consider the fact that we sell a product that no one essentially has to have. We are selling an entertainment experience in what is a highly competitive market today.

As operators we are working to get more money from a customer that is saving more as a result of the Great Recession, and dealing with substantial losses in home equity, and there are more and more entertainment offerings both offline and online. These are these things as an industry we are all aware of: So what can we do about it?

Operating in one of the most competitive markets for many years (Las Vegas locals), there is something that all operators can do to overcome these challenges. We can offer an experience that our guests will feel great about and that will keep players coming back. Every operator in the world talks about guest service, so this is nothing new, yet some operators can execute on it and some can’t.

Why doesn’t every casino give world-class service? It comes down to the vision and culture of the property and the people.

Does the property that you visit or work at have a vision for guest service? Educating all your team members to understand that our guests have a lot of choices is essential, and following up by explaining to them that the No. 1 difference from one property to the next is clearly the people. Relentless focus must be placed on this to drive continual improvement and consistency all of the time.

One common area for improvement across many casinos is taking care of the guest that “we don’t know.” As operators, we know our top players and they give us several visits a month; we know their family and where they work and we have a relationship with those guests. It is the new guest that walks into the casino that we need to win over, and often this simple fact is forgotten. It all goes back to the culture and the people.

It is important to foster and train your teams to really go above and beyond when they meet guests and to try and make that personal connection upon first encounter.

Most casino operators offer comment cards, survey guests, train employees for guest service through their human resource departments, and do the necessary “check the box routine” in measuring whether or not their property is giving good service. If you have these bases covered and think that is a program that will create elevated experiences, then you have some more to learn. This is a fraction of what it takes to really provide a long-lasting relationship with players. It is simply one spoke in the wheel of what needs to be done.

Are you hiring the right people? The kind of people that let their smile shine through with every encounter, and that genuinely care about being great at what they do? If you start there, you have a good start to accomplish your guest experience goals.

Going through a fast food drive-through recently, the young lady taking the order and cashiering was shocking. She was so energetic and sincere that it felt like patrons were dealing with a top server in a five-star restaurant. It was not what she said but how she said it. She had an energy and a sincerity about her that made you realize: This management really gets it! She not only asked everyone how their day was, but went on to thank every customer for coming in with the attitude like you were a visiting family member.

What an experience this was. There is no doubt that this young fast food attendant will move up in her career. These are the types of experiences that we should all want our team members to strive to give.

Here is another story of one other person that will never be forgotten about when it comes to the guest experience. The University of Arizona had a student dining hall that served breakfast and lunch, and they had a morning breakfast buffet. Students by the thousands often went there because of one particular food server in the buffet line.

Her name was Betty, and she was known by many in a school with over 35,000 students. Every experience between her and her “guests” went something like this: “Hi honey, how are you doing today? Can I get you started with some fresh eggs or maybe some French toast? I’m so glad you’re here today; this food is really going to get your day started off right.”

This sounds like an exaggeration, but when the younger students bring this experience up to the older students, or even when sharing stories with alumni who graduated years ago, they all start laughing and consistently say, “You mean Betty.” She was a legend on the campus because of her energy, compassion and sincerity. Thousands of students knew who Betty was, and she went out of her way to make every encounter memorable. No real cap-ex investment needed for this.

Another great example of guest service occurred recently at one of Station Casinos’ properties. It once again illustrates culture and people at their best. A guest sat down at a machine while the slot attendant in the area was busy with another player and the beverage server was working her way back from the bar.

A security officer approached this guest due to the fact that she had just sat down and he knew that his other team members were tied up at the moment. He introduced himself and mentioned the names of his other team members working with him in the section, and that they will be over shortly. He then asked if he could do anything in the interim for the guest.

This guest was not only impressed by the communication, but also by the energy and passion of the security officer who was working to help the slot attendant and server. Again, this guest experience speaks to the culture of the property and the people. This guest made a point to convey this story, which speaks volumes to her experience. Guess how many times she has come back, and with lots of friends?

These are just a couple of examples of experiences that are great examples and used to inspire and to lead our teams to deliver these types of results.

Lastly, are your beverage servers yelling out cocktails as if in a cattle call? Are your dealers just going through the motions or are they helping the players to have a fun time? Are all of your employees reaching out to the guest and giving experiences like the fast food attendant or like Betty?

Only you can answer that, but as an industry we should all strive to give this type of experience to our guests.

Charlie Skinner has spent 18 years in the gaming industry with emphasis on the Las Vegas locals market. Starting out at IGT, Skinner was an executive with United Coin Machine Company, and currently serves as vice president of operations for the Wildfire Gaming division at Station Casinos. 

And In Conclusion

This is just the beginning of the revolution gaming executives must undertake to redefine each of our respective businesses around the globe. Like many of the truly iconic brands, products and services in our world that have reached a status above and beyond selling commodities, we too must find our way within these three key spaces to create new stories our guests will be telling for years to come.

Dream a dream. Define that vision. Instill a mission in every person. Engage the guest with relentless and incomparable attention to their needs, wants and expectation and not our own. Take them to a whole new level they never thought possible. Put the black and white papers down; hit the floor and illuminate the warmth and bright colors of hospitality.

“What will your experience be?”

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Mark Birtha is vice president and general manager of Station Casinos. A highly regarded gaming and hospitality executive, Birtha has over 19 years of experience in both operations and development at leading casino and hotel companies including Mirage Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Marriott International and Starwood. He has worked domestically and internationally as well as in commercial and Native American gaming. A graduate of the Cornell Hotel School, Birtha has written numerous articles, spoken at multiple conferences, and is an advisory board member of G2E, RD&E, Cornell Hotel School and the Henderson Commission on Cultural Arts &Tourism.