Products: Kiosk technology and operational strategies are evolving to better meet diverse casino needs
Ever since the ATM debuted, kiosks have been an option for casinos. But the technology has been hovering on the sidelines for years. Now it's finally taking off in a pronounced growth phase.
One force driving the spread of kiosks is the coinless revolution. As more casinos go to a ticket-in/ticket-out system, ticket redemption kiosks become more useful. As the coinless approach gains acceptance, so do the machines.
How is the market unfolding? Newer properties such as Indian casinos tend to be coinless and thus favor kiosks. Kiosks are also making inroads in Atlantic City, where casinos use them to process tourists by the busload. More traditional properties such as the Las Vegas stalwarts have less need for them-for the moment.
Surveying the scene
There are other factors driving kiosk acceptance besides coinless/cashless gaming. The most common kiosk functions are ticket redemption and bill breaking, said Mark Sutherlin, sales director at Western Money Systems. These let patrons perform their own transactions and get back to the floor faster. People don't have to stand in line at the cashier-perhaps behind someone who's taking minutes to open an account or collect a jackpot.
Another popular kiosk function is point tracking and redemption. By swiping their cards through a reader, players can view their point totals, print coupons for games or meals, or exchange points for cash or prizes.
Promotional kiosks encourage visitors to join membership clubs, come on less-crowded days, and sample the site's venues. The Las Vegas Hilton's $1 Million SuperNova game model, developed by SCA Promotions, has increased club sign-ups 166 percent.
Hotel check-in/check-out is an area where casinos aren't using kiosks to full advantage, said Beau Young, project manager at Netbooth Corp. Such machines can offer information about events and attractions on or off the property.
Internet kiosks can be revenue generators, added Young. Rather than tuck fragile PCs in out-of-the-way business centers, hotel-casinos can put sturdy stands in the lobby for easy online access.
Nevada has just approved sports-betting kiosks, which are already popular in Europe and South America. By spreading off-track betting to locations such as bars, these devices may change the dynamics of sports betting.
Technology evolvesAs the demand for kiosks grows, the technology that drives the product is also advancing quickly, according to industry experts. Everything is becoming smaller and less expensive. The competition is heating up, obliging vendors to innovate.
These days, casinos are demanding more from kiosks.
"They're looking at multifunctional machines that provide three or four or five different services all in one," said Young.
Ticket-in/ticket-out, bill breaking, ATM, player tracking ... they want one unit to do it all. That implies kiosks must be expandable and programmable to meet changing needs. Western Money Systems, for instance, add functions to its products with its Xpack modules. Managers can change the screen displays by down-loading Flash or streaming video content.
Like a PC, the kiosk is turning into a portal to an enterprise's information technology. Therefore, casinos want kiosks to integrate with their existing systems. Vendors are striving to make their machines work with whatever hardware and software a site has.
One valuable feature is central management: the ability to oversee things from a single spot. With this tool, a single person can monitor the kiosks, check their status, or reprogram them on the fly. Without leaving the control room, a manager can add a promotion to a unit, update its text and images, or dispatch someone to fix it.
Kiosks are also shrinking. Western Money Systems offers models with a 24-inch by 24-inch footprint, slightly smaller than a slot machine. A casino can place more of them on the floor without taking space from revenue-producing slots.
Although these developments are recent, they aren't necessarily cutting-edge. In fact, making kiosks tougher rather than smarter, with built-in redundancies, may be a selling point to managers.
"They like technology but they like reliability better," said Larry Lorenz, VP of marketing at Cummins-Allison Corp.
"I'm in casinos all the time and see out-of-order signs" on kiosks, said Young. "But then sometimes I'll walk by and I'll see eight people in line waiting to get change."
Efficiency or human touch?Indeed, perhaps the top selling point for kiosks is that they are an easy way for casinos to enhance customer service. For patrons, the advantage is convenience: fewer lines and more locations to do business. The devices reward them for their patronage with special discounts and deals.
Management benefits by being able to reduce or redirect personnel. Machines don't have variances, go on breaks, or shut down at night. They can run promos for attractions or carry advertising.
However, not all companies see it that way.
"We do not have kiosks in our casinos because our company leans more toward personalized service that is delivered with a human touch," said Yvette Monet, an MGM Mirage spokeswoman. "It adds to the overall quality of the guest experience."
Other drawbacks include the high cost-often $30,000 to $40,000 per unit-and the not-infrequent breakdowns.
But many properties are steaming ahead. The Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif., has installed 19 ticket-in/ticket-out and bill-breaker kiosks and has ordered more. These machines have saved Pechanga the equivalent of 40 full-time employees with a return on investment in eight months.
Foxwoods Resort Casino, the world's largest casino, has about two dozen promotional kiosks and two dozen of the ticket-in/ticket-out and bill-breaker kind. Because Foxwoods is really a collection of casinos, it uses the devices to tie its facilities together. Daily promotions encourage visitors to try games, stores, and restaurants they may not be familiar with.
The Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino in Lakeside, Calif., has found a happy medium. It uses kiosks only for what it calls "low value/high volume transactions"-those that don't require a personal touch. For things such as issuing points or comps, it makes sure a host is present to thank the patron. In fact, it doesn't eliminate superfluous workers; it redeploys them into customer relations.
Experience shows that people will choose a nearby kiosk rather than wait in line or walk across the floor. But employees will always be needed to provide personal service.
"All the casinos are very much customer service-oriented," said Lorenz of Cummins-Allison. "That's what they're trying to sell."
Tip sheet: How to buy kiosks
With kiosks taking off, companies are entering the market in droves. Kiosks.org used to list 20 vendors, but now lists 80 or more. That means the field is becoming increasingly competitive and buyers must beware. The following guidelines may help managers through the murk:
• Look at how other casinos and even other industries are using kiosks. Think carefully about what functions you want your machines to do.
• Each property has a unique combination of factors: floor layout, clientele, systems technology, and regulatory environment. Find vendors who will assess your situation and develop a plan to meet your particular needs. Avoid vendors who push their hardware as a one-size-fits-all solution.
• Examine the vendors' record and background in the industry. There's some question whether it's better to go with a kiosk company entering the casino market or a casino company entering the kiosk market. Experience in both areas may be best, according to Beau Young of Netbooth.
• Consider the initial cost of implementing a function up front vs. the higher cost of adding it later.
• Consider a product's reliability as well as its technical prowess. Remember the tradeoff between adding more functions and making a system too complex to operate.
• Make sure a kiosk is compatible with all the systems it must interact with-slot management, player tracking, and so forth.
• Consider whether you want one vendor, to streamline the process and create uniformity across equipment, or several compatible vendors to preserve your options.
• Make sure vendors understand your gaming environment and can secure all the regulatory approval needed from compliance boards.
• Make sure vendors offer enough training and support for their products. Some may have local offices to provide faster turnaround.
Tip sheet: How to deploy kiosks
Once you decide on adding kiosks to your casino floor, there are several things that should be considered. Researching where to place the kiosk and what features to offer can go a long way toward their effectiveness.
• Patrons, especially older ones, are reluctant to try new technology. Place kiosks near the cage and replicate the casino's signage to make them look familiar.
• Patrons also don't trust new technology, fearing it may cheat them somehow. Try stationing hosts by the machines to assist people.
• Take baby steps. Add features such as a card swipe or touchscreen to one unit and expand them if they prove successful.
• Depending on the variables, a property may want one kiosk per 50, 75, or 100 slot machines, according to Mark Sutherlin of Western Money Systems.
• With more than one kiosk, consider getting a central management module, added Sutherlin. "Definitely with four or more."
• Test everything first. Foxwoods runs devices in a parallel system that mimics the live scene before putting them into production.
• Plan to devote at least one full-time employee to kiosk maintenance. Make sure the person gets the necessary training.