Making a Commitment
by Darby Harris
Making a Commitment
Experts say proactive responsible gaming policies are not only inevitable, but essential for good customer service and positive brand recognition
“In the long run,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, “the gaming industry in general is much better off using all the tools at their disposal to provide better responsible gaming, because that’s going to minimize the harm to their customers. It’s going to preserve their reputation with regulators, preserve their approval by the regulators and improve their reputation with the public.”
Problem gambling experts and many casino operators believe responsible gambling efforts yield a bevy of benefits: better customer service, higher employee morale, a more positive appearance in the public eye and less regulatory scrutiny. And the downside?
“I have yet to find a downside for the gaming property to do the right thing,” said Carol O’Hare, executive director for the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. “I haven’t seen a class-action suit by social gamblers who are suing a company saying, ‘You damaged my entertainment experience because you (had responsible gambling policies).’”
More proactive preventative measures can cost more, but basic responsible gambling measures may cost little, or nothing at all. And in the long run, not taking action may be more costly. “You will be judged by your responsible gaming efforts, either because you have them or because you don’t,” O’Hare said.
At the very least, O’Hare said, properties should establish a fundamental position on responsible gambling. “If your position is, ‘We’re a small mom and pop, and all we can do is meet the minimum regulatory standards. We don’t have the resources to do otherwise,’ that’s your position, then live up to it,” O’Hare said.
Failing to live up to a set standard can be worse than doing nothing at all, she added. “I think you are perceived to not know what to do if you do nothing. You’re perceived to not care about what you do if you set a standard and don’t mean it.”
Steps involving minimal effort and expense include making problem gambling hotlines numbers visible at casino properties and in advertising materials. “In jurisdictions where either that’s been mandated or in companies where they’ve taken that on as a voluntary standard, I have yet to see any of those companies report that it has somehow negatively affected their business,” O’Hare said.
“Social gamblers are not going to be offended by these messages,” she added. “And yet, often the resistance or the defense that is provided, ‘Well, you know, we don’t want to bother our customers. They’re not going to like it if we’re sticking these messages in their faces.’ Well, no, the problem gamblers won’t like it. Those are the ones who are supposed to be bothered by it.”
O’Hare also advises that properties review policies that have the potential for contradiction. Credit should be extended responsibly, marketing should be targeted to of-age consumers with discretionary income, and employees with gambling problems should receive benefits to treat their behavioral disorders.
“We certainly don’t expect the gaming industry to be able to pre-screen who are the potential problem gamblers out there and take them out of the mailing list,” O’Hare said. But “I would hope there would be some discussion at some point somewhere in that company that says, ‘Is this making sense? Is this fitting? Is this appropriate? Is this consistent with what we say?’…I think having a sensitivity, that that is also a part of your responsible gaming message.”
Whyte suggested that addressing problem gamblers is really just part of good customer service—helping guests who ask for, or show distinct signs of needing, assistance. A customer in distress is “inappropriately emotional, crying on the floor, yelling, screaming, drunk, acting very oddly,” Whyte said. “And from a good customer service perspective, you want to try to find out what the problem is, and what, if anything, you can do about it. And it may not be a gambling problem. In fact, very few of these things are going to present themselves initially as a gambling problem.”
“Everybody acknowledges there is an issue out there, then it’s a question of how do you address it,” said William Eadington, professor of economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling & Commercial Gaming with the University of Nevada-Reno. “Some companies take the position: ‘we are not experts on diagnosis and treatment, and so our best strategy is to help people who are and work with them to establish strategies or just contribute financially so that they will be able to develop and implement programs.’”
And with the casino industry and gambling increasingly visible in the world marketplace, it will become ever more difficult for properties to remain on the sidelines, even if research lags behind advancing technology. “You can’t wait for the research to come in before taking action,” Eadington said. “I think there’s a political reality to that kind of statement.”
Putting it into practice
John Osborne, vice president and general manager of Hollywood Casino Tunica, explained his jurisdiction’s multi-pronged approach to problem gambling, led by the both the industry and by the Mississippi Gaming Commission.
“First, all casinos provide information to gamblers that highlight the known behaviors that are common to problem gamblers,” Osborne said. “This literature also provides information on where and how to get help. Second, all casinos provide casino guests with self-exclusion forms that are sent to the gaming commission.” Casinos are required to maintain systems preventing self-excluded patrons from gaming. Finally, “all employees are trained in a program approved by the state to identify problem gamblers, and all employees in customer contact areas of the resort receive recurrent training.”
The casino also maintains a Responsible Gaming Committee, he added. The committee meets quarterly to ensure proper and timely employee training, proper display of printed materials describing problem gambling and availability of self-exclusion forms. “As an added measure, our property compliance director randomly selects employees and tests them on their knowledge of problem gambling and what to do if they suspect someone is a problem gambler,” Osborne said.
“Detecting problem gambling is challenging,” he added, but employees pay attention for customer comments about playing or gambling too much. “Though not often, one indicator is delayed credit repayment, which creates the opportunity for us to speak to the individual and, if deemed appropriate, encourage them to seek help,” Osborne said. “Only about 10 percent of the gaming activity is done with credit, but it can still provide some insight.”
Hollywood Casino Tunica doesn’t forget its employees, either. “While much of the attention is paid on customers to the casino, Hollywood also provides its employees with confidential assistance if they suspect that they may have a gambling problem,” Osborne said.
Harrah’s Entertainment has been cited as an industry leader in responsible gambling policies. “We were the first to really raise it as an issue with Project 21 and Operation BetSmart, which were really about educating the public on underage gambling and how to be a responsible bettor,” said Jan Jones, senior vice president of government relations and communications for Harrah’s.
Key to the company’s approach is the Harrah’s Code of Commitment. “We see the Code of Commitment as a brand,” Jones said. “And like any brand, it’s a promise, and so making sure that all of our employees are aware of the code, that all of our messages surrounding the code, whether it be employee programs, social responsibility, community reinvestment, responsible gaming, is core and understood by everyone in the company.”
Harrah’s has three levels of employee training relating to responsible gambling, ranging from a basic understanding to the responsible gambling ambassadors, “who are trained to approach a customer and sit down and have a conversation, never saying they have a problem but saying they seem to be making statements that mean they’re not comfortable and giving them information.”
Ambassadors are on hand to help when other employees hear and report guest comments that express unhappiness with the gambling experience. “We keep a responsible gambling log, and they’ll check the log to see if there’ve been other times this customer has stated problems,” Jones said. “But the responsible gaming ambassador makes a decision on whether they should engage the customer in a conversation.”
Additionally, responsible gambling hotline numbers appear in all Harrah’s advertising, and responsible gambling messages are constantly integrated throughout advertising and marketing materials. And the company’s TV ads starring CEOs—first with former CEO Phil Satre, then with current CEO Gary Loveman—advocate and define responsible gambling. “We’re the only company that runs paid advertising with responsible gambling messages that is part of our brand advertising,” Jones said, with consistently positive results. “When we first launched the advertising, we actually tested it in Missouri,” she explained. “And after four weeks of advertising, positive public opinion of the company increased by almost 22 percent.”
Harrah’s also follows self-imposed marketing restrictions. “We don’t use anyone in our advertisements who are under 25 years old; even visuals, usually actually it’s under 30 years old,” Jones said. “We don’t advertise in any medium where the average viewer, the average audience, isn’t 75 percent 25 (years of age) or older, just to make sure that our messages could never be construed to anyone not of a legal age.”
Treatment of gambling problems is covered by Harrah’s employee health plans, and all of the company’s responsible gambling programs were reviewed by treatment experts. “We want to understand the most current research because then we can modify and base all of our training and public outreach on science, not on perception,” Jones said.
Accepting the inevitable
“For many casino companies, this is an exercise in enlightened self-interest, in the sense that there is a lot of political pressure to address this issue,” Eadington said of responsible gambling. “And if casinos are inadequate in their response, then it’s quite likely that external strategies will be imposed upon them, either by regulatory bodies or legislation.”
Indeed, the consensus seems to be that to avoid more regulation—and to maintain profitability with a potentially cynical consumer base—casino companies must embrace ethical responsible gambling practices.
“If they want to be around in the long-term, they’ve got to do responsible gaming, because the licenses can be taken away,” Whyte said. “If you’re just up for the short-term make a buck, you don’t care about where you’re going to be in five years, then maybe it’s not as important.”
Notable problem gambling groups
National Council on Problem Gambling
National Center for Responsible Gaming
Nevada Council on Problem Gambling