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The Evolution of The Casino Experience

Other customer-friendly businesses can teach the casino industry some valuable lessons

The Evolution of The Casino Experience

“What I like about casinos is that they allow us to build hotels. A slot machine or a blackjack or roulette table… They have no power. It’s the non-casino stuff that gets people to come back again and again and again.”
Steve Wynn’s opening quote from the Wall Street Journal’s “Uncommon Knowledge” interview, July 2014

Steve Wynn clearly articulates a “to the point” message that explains how he has redefined the gaming experience and elevated the industry continuously to new heights by emphasizing the significance of hotels, meetings and retail, dining and entertainment (RD&E).

 After years of innovation, investment and development in the non-gaming space, if your strategy does not include a focus on establishing a differentiated hospitality RD&E program that is synergized with your gaming revenue centers to maximize the enterprise value of the guests in your building, then you are far behind the last evolution in the gaming space.

However, the focus should not be on where we have been and how we have grown as an industry. Instead, it should be on how we do it better so we don’t miss the next step in our never-ending evolution.

The hurdles and challenges we face as an industry will continue to be both exciting and daunting in the years to come. Continued gaming expansion and the much-feared “saturation,” the need to expand the demographics of our clientele and engage the missing millennial populations, and the retooling of our business to synergize online gambling, social gaming and international development are but just a few of the opportunities we must embrace.

As operators, we must all remember that we sell a very discretionary product, and when dollars are stretched, how do our goods and services compare to others?

A New Reboot

A visit to Disney World might trigger an epiphany for our industry. Disney has big, beautiful theme parks filled with exciting rides, lots of themed content, plenty of merchandise to choose from, and millions of visitors each year. Sound familiar?

Disney, though, does something very special—it doesn’t sell a commodity; it creates an experience. And not only does it do that, it truly evokes both an emotional connection with its guests (young and old) and clearly leaves its patrons wanting to return the next day, or very soon.

In today’s business world, executives spend significant amounts of time focusing on spreadsheet metrics, revenue-generating marketing, operations opportunities, cost controls, and the resulting margin performance. This is how our success is measured, and attention to these details is critical to our long-term results. But hopefully, somewhere in the mix are a few other benchmarks that might hit the operating radar, and at the end of the day make all of the difference.

As operators and/or developers, we cannot be short on vision and fail to realize that the casino experience is rooted predominantly in our employees and our guests. The best in any business know that, and live by that mantra day in and day out.

Reconnecting to our Fundamentals

“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”—Walt Disney

It has been, and always will be, about our people. Beautiful casinos and integrated resorts have been built around the world totaling tens of billions of dollars in capital investment. These properties are filled with the finest foods and beverages, linens and room amenities, entertainment venues, nightclubs and lounges, and of course, the best and newest gaming products available.

How many times, though, have our guests written a letter to the GM or talked endlessly to their friends back home about these details?

If you haven’t visited a Disney park lately, then you might not know that they are always immaculate, even with thousands of visitors every day. Management and hourly employees do their best to ensure that each guest remembers that the experience took place in a pristine environment where pride is evident.

More importantly, the employees consistently stop and engage a guest when there is a question, often taking longer to explain each and every detail necessary and walking guests in the right direction if it’s a landmark search. Paying guests don’t pass by employees smoking in the back, hanging out with their uniforms unkempt while on their cell phones, or bantering in large groups as guests wait for the “coffee talk” to cease before “interrupting.”

In Disney language, the team is always “Show Ready.”

And it’s not enough to only look the part and smile. Disney employees are all trained extensively to communicate effectively and to know all the answers. Whether it’s a show time or a ride description, the staff knows the answer. You don’t hear “that’s not my area or my job;” instead, you often get a fun anecdote and an entertaining story as part of the commentary. Even the bus drivers truly enjoy what they do—interacting with their guests.

If Disney’s success is not enough to prove the model, let’s take another well-known company that has redefined its industry. Howard Schultz is the CEO and chairman of Starbucks. He recently wrote a book called Onward, which is about his return to the company to help turn it around from its recent downturn.

The company had run into some trouble expanding too quickly, losing its focus on quality, and in turn saw guests leaving and profits fading. Interesting parallel? Daunting challenges lay ahead, not to mention it was the middle of the Great Recession.

So, did he focus on his marketing campaigns or add dozens of new products to the menu, or send out a stack of reports to his subordinates to digest to turn the ship around? In Onward, Schultz says, “Tell our associates what we need to do and why.”

Starbucks closed all of its thousands of stores one day to retrain all its employees, re-engage them on the company’s vision of great guest service and consistent/high-quality beverages, and bring alignment and focus back to the organization through its people. Interesting how the company, like Disney, is at an all-time high stock price.

Marriott Hotels provides a similar hospitality product to the gaming industry. If you ask Bill Marriott what the secret is to the company’s 80-plus years of success, he will tell you it’s about “people serving people.”

Their core belief is that if they take care of their people, their people will take care of their guests. The large majority of their employees interact with guests daily, often having hundreds of guest contacts through the course of their work day. So, a significant investment is made to train and educate their staff to do their job and to go above and beyond the guest’s expectation at all times.

Still not convinced? Maybe you have heard of Nordstrom’s, the world-renowned department store chain, which redefined the retail industry selling similar merchandise as other shops and stores throughout the United States.

What’s different? If you ask them about their success, it won’t be tied to an exclusive product line or a one-of-a-kind big-box design. Instead, they will direct you to one of their culture’s golden rules: “Use good judgment in all situations.”

As a company focused on having the best service, they ensure their employees know the standards and are trusted and empowered with the autonomy to make decisions to please the guest—always. Not surprising the company has been around since 1901.

Pushing the Envelope: Transactions vs. Stories

“You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want, and you build it for them.”—Walt Disney

It is clear that we design and build our own magical destinations to attract our guests. And we fill these properties with the best “stuff,” train our staff to understand what great guest service is, and run reports to measure the results and our ability to please our guests. Every year billions of dollars are spent on cap-ex improvements and refreshes to make sure we have the newest “bells and whistles” to maintain differentiation and, in turn, competitive advantage.

But how much time do we spend on the floor, in the restaurants, or at the front desk talking to our guests? Do we know the names of our top 50 or 100 customers? Can we pick them out of a lineup or ensure they are greeted immediately when they arrive on property? Do we teach our teams about “legendary service,” retrain our employees on the essential ways to take care of our guests, and practice what we preach day in and out ourselves?

Disney does. They have mastered the ability to “make every customer feel important.” Their employees are not only friendly, they go out of their way to find opportunities to interact with guests, hunt down guests who show even the slightest bit of confusion, and grab cameras to take group pictures hundreds of times a day.

If your focus is on meeting the needs and wants of your guests, you are behind the times. If your priority is ensuring your employees exceed the expectations of your guests, then at least you are in the game. We are in the entertainment and hospitality business. And we are here to engage our guests, create extraordinary experiences, and have these stories told over and over again.

Stories are the fabric of our existence. They are the best reference and unpaid advertising in our business. Stories like when a beverage server takes it upon herself to change out a soggy bag of ice for a guest on a slot machine who just had surgery on his knee—without being asked. Or when a corporate meeting planner shows up in a hotel room and there is a picture of his or her newly adopted child in a frame on the nightstand to help them “get through” their first trip away.

You probably have heard the story about a Wynn employee driving from Las Vegas to California and back non-stop to retrieve medication for an elderly guest who forgot it and desperately needed to have it.

Beginning to get what it means to be “legendary?” Are these the types of stories being told at your property or company? More importantly, are your team members hearing these stories, and are the employees responsible being celebrated and spotlighted in the back of house, newsletter, or employee recognition program?

Guess what happens when you do that? Your employees start hitting the floor looking to create their own stories, and everything falls into place from there. As hospitality leaders, if we believe we are successful because we check the guest into their hotel room efficiently or engage them by using their name on the slot floor or have hundreds or thousands of “likes” on our social media platform, it’s not enough. These are just the basics.

JD Powers did a recent study where they found that a powerful correlation exists between guest service scores and the number of employee interactions a guest has during a visit.

Rocket science, huh? Yes, the steak and lobster must be good and the hotel room had better be clean and the slot machine buttons should always be functioning properly. But give a guest multiple positive interactions with engaged employees who want guests to be on-property and watch your service quality and experience scores shoot upward.

Not to mention revenues and profits. Employees must be positioned as ambassadors of property goodwill and hospitality engagement, and encouraged to interact with guests all the time. And then recognized for going above and beyond in doing this.

Personalization and customization have been bantered around in the gaming industry for years. But is this an actual initiative that is executed regularly and is it part of your strategy to give incomparable service always, or is it merely a data point in a database warehouse that we entrust a computer to manage effectively?

Having a service program in place that maximizes these opportunities, creates unique programs and amenities that are specific to the guest, and exceeds all expectations allows you to create a destination, a “third place,” and not just the joint down the street nearby or where the hotel guests stay at for points or convenience.

Reimagining the Experience

“A lot of companies have chosen to downsize, and maybe that was the right thing for them. We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of customers, they would continue to open their wallets.”—Steve Jobs, founder of Apple

It’s always been about the full experience guests have on our properties. The design and ambiance, the products and amenities, and the service. That gets you a seat at the table. For casino operations in monopolistic or duopolistic markets, not having all of these covered may not be that detrimental. But the times they are a’changing.

With more new jurisdictions emerging domestically and internationally, coupled with changes in our guest demographics and the fragility of our global economy, the gaming industry needs to be vigilant and constantly focused on raising the bar. And it all starts (and ends) with the guest experience. At the end of the day, aren’t we just creating adult-centric Disney Worlds? Memorable and unparalleled guest experiences result in the nirvana known as “emotional connections,” far more powerful than a free-play offer. And often much, much cheaper.

Steve Jobs routinely created products through Apple that his buyers did not ask for. What was revolutionary about his impact on the technology and entertainment spaces was that he created tools and experiences that not only didn’t exist before, but that consumers didn’t even know they wanted.

This wasn’t done by him sitting in focus groups; instead, he had a vision to redefine how people experience technology and its importance in the daily lives of its users in multiple capacities.

Schultz of Starbucks sums it up very well: “Customers don’t always know what they want. The decline in coffee-drinking was due to the fact that most of the coffee people bought was stale and they weren’t enjoying it. Once they tasted ours and experienced what we call “the third place”—a gathering place between home and work where they were treated with respect—they found we were filling a need they didn’t know they had.”

Disney is passionate about each and every possible component that goes into the “performance” that guests experience. They create “Disney Magic” via their core brand standards of courtesy, show, safety and efficiency. Be it the fresh vanilla scent on Main Street, the six weeks of employee training, or the fact that cast members (not employees) don their costumes (not uniforms) and transform into characters, no detail of the guest experience is left out of the equation.

Starbucks is just as dedicated. Schultz goes on to clarify how his company is focused on every detail in the day-to-day business. “Every little act matters. A store manager’s job is not to oversee millions of transactions a week, but one transaction millions of times a week.” No detail of the experience is too small or unimportant, and executing each and every detail perfectly, to Starbucks, is the difference between a great guest experience and a failure.

Both organizations are focused on a mission of delivering truly extraordinary and unforgettable guest experiences. And each has loyal, almost fanatical followers that allow them to invest marketing dollars in customer experiences instead of into promotions and discounts to move their needle.

To really stand out, make sure the experience continues when the guest is not on property. This does not mean what shows up in their mailbox routinely every week or month, or the periodic casino player development phone calls to see when you are coming back again.

At the next operations and strategy meeting, instead of dwelling on a stagnant economy or a slip in market share, have a conversation about the way you manage your business and the experience your guests are receiving. It’s the most exciting part of what we do as hospitality leaders, and arguably the most important.

“Life is service—the one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow men a little more, a little better service.”—Hotelier E.M. Statler


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.