Slot floors in Indian country on the cutting edge

Aided by Bally Technologies’ Display Manager system, Pechanga Resort & Casino recently held a record-setting slot tournament that involved 1,100 machines and 2,885 players.

Tribal gaming operations have always played a leading role in innovation for the broader casino industry, perhaps never more so than in the past few years, when financial pressures have stifled investments at many publicly-owned companies. That’s not to say the post-2008 financial meltdown period; with its New Normal rules and pared-down consumer spending hasn’t taken a toll. But tribal gaming operators have been known to take the long view, and it’s no accident that some of the most progressive slot floors in the United States can still be found in the sector. We profile just four of many here:

-Pechanga Resort & Casino, Temecula, Calif.

If there’s ever a derby for who gets to ride the lead car representing the fleet of slot floors in Indian country, Pechanga Resort would have to be right there at the top of the list of candidates.

As much of the rest of the industry begins to warm up to the potential of the player user interface and its marketing and communal gaming power, Pechanga has gotten a huge head start, devoting much of the past four years to leveraging its investments in an Ethernet floor and the most modern version of the Bally Technologies’ slot system, including Display Manager. The system made news last month when it powered the world’s largest slot tournament ever, driving 1,100 machines and 2,885 players for three rounds of simultaneous play. The event was free and open to everyone over 21 years of age. The top 300 players won $100,000 in cash the winner walked away with $30,000 in cash.

Pechanga General Manager Rudy Prieto said the event, “changed all expectations of what a slot tournament can do.” Joaquin Fletcher, President of the Pechanga Development Corporation, added, “Outside of opening day in 2002, I would say that this is the single most exciting thing that has ever happened at the Pechanga Resort & Casino.”

For Buddy Frank, vice president of slot operations, the tournament was only the latest example of the long-term commitment the Pechanga tribe has made to the facility. “The Pechanga tribe has been a leader on gaming since its inception in California,” said Frank. “They were one of the first to build a major ‘Las Vegas-style’ facility in and have been an innovator ever since. They hire good people, they invest in their products and they try to better the tribe in any way they can. It makes working for them and playing in their property if you’re a customer a really enjoyable experience.”

Pechanga has offered gaming for 17 years; the new property is approaching it 10-year anniversary. The first part of the building opened in 2002 and was expanded in 2004. The slot floor is currently at 3,800 games and originally opened at 2,000, though the tribe’s current compact, which was approved in 2008, allows for up to 7,500 machines. It’s a crowded market with plenty of choices for players. Nearby competitors include Valley View, Harrah’s Rincon and Pala. Barona is a little farther south, and Morongo and San Manuel are to the north. Frank keeps his eye on Las Vegas as well, which he also sees as competition.

"When we run [Bally Technologies’] horserace, you can see people all over the casino cheering and high fiving… since this runs on every machine on our floor, everybody on our floor is engaged and I had never seen that in my career."
-Buddy Frank, VP slot operations, Pechanga Resort & Casino

Frank has been with the property five years. One of his first moves was to eliminate almost all of the property’s Class II devices (all but about 350 machines on the floor are now Class III). The other major development was a complete system change in March of 2008 and a high-speed Internet floor powered by Ethernet. “It’s probably the latest and greatest slot floor of any floor in America,” said Frank. “This was back in 2008 and we were worried that only a high-speed floor could handle the volume of transactions with that many machines. That’s what forced our decision. We also wanted to do new kinds of bonusing, particularly the new kinds of server-based products that were coming in the future.”

Working with Bally to make the most of the system’s capabilities and working with other manufacturers to integrate Display Manager with as many machines as possible has been a sometimes arduous process. “Ainsworth recently signed on; Multimedia is working on it,” said Frank. “We have always had Aristocrat, Konami and Bally. Aruze is working on it. IGT and WMS have not officially signed on but we have it on a few of our machines that we own.”

Still, many of the basic building blocks of success were there from the get-go, said Frank. “The real heart of a slot system is its ticketing system and its ability to bonus,” he said. “And by bonusing I mean what we used to call cash back in the old days or what we call EasyPlay here. That feature worked from day one. The ability to account for a slot machine, run a good marketing system and give people a good ticketing system and promotional credits on the machine, we had that from day one. Most of us were looking at additional and unique kinds of bonusing. And, yes, it took a few years to get those out.”

Pechanga has a virtual horserace bonusing game that can run on all of its machines simultaneously, be it through iView or Display Manager. The record-breaking slot tournament was limited to games with Display Manager, which presently number 1,100. “The horserace we have run about 10 times since last spring and have had real strong customer interaction,” said Frank. “That piece has been real solid. With tournaments, I don’t know if our customers knew how unique they are but with the ‘World’s Largest,’ they’re going to really realize how powerful it is.”

The tournament involved any video machine on the floor or a slot with a top video glass that has a Bally Display Manager installed in it. That machine can become a tournament machine with the exact same video tournament slot as all the other machines and the exact same scoring. An IGT poker, an Aristocrat Mark V or VI, a Bally Alpha, a Konami Podium-all those different players were able to play the exact same game at the same time.

For Frank, being able to extend a common experience across all or at least a major part of the Pechanga floor has enormous value, in terms of solidifying player loyalty, carded play and, ultimately, revenue. “When you get people excited about the same thing at the same time, it really does bring on that community spirit,” he said. “When we run that horserace, you can see people all over the casino cheering and high fiving. When it’s over you can see some people cheering, some not so happy, just like you would if you were at the race track. Since this runs on every machine on our floor, everybody on our floor is engaged and I had never seen that in my career until I saw the horserace. It certainly gives us a unique advantage and keeps our floor fresh and new and gives us new and exciting ways to give features back to our guests.”

"Over 50 percent of our floor is penny games and we get a lot more than that in terms of revenue from penny games so we’re not oversaturated yet."
-Warren Davidson, director of slots, Coushatta Casino Resort

-Coushatta Casino Resort, Kinder, La.

Coming out of the 2008 financial meltdown, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana had a daring idea for their slot floor: invest heavily.

When Warren Davidson, director of slots, Coushatta Casino Resort, started his job three years ago, the property still had about 450 coin-operated games; so the first step was to get to 100 percent ticket-in/ticket-out. But the property went much further than that.

“That first year we brought in 600 new games and really made a leap forward in terms of freshening up our floor,” said Davidson. “We were the darling of the slot vendors at that point. In the last two-and-a-half years, we have put in over 1,200 new games to the floor. We have made a real substantial investment in our product and that has given us a great slot floor. I have called the tribe visionary leaders a number of times because of their willingness to invest at a time when most or a lot of other casinos across the country have frozen investments. Revenue has increased every year since 2009, which in this economy is quite a feat. We also have a new hotel opening up this spring with 400 extra rooms and that will be a real welcome addition.”

Any slot manger knows that 1,200 games is a lot to get your head around. A lot of IGT S2000’s made the cut and are still on the floor and performing very well, as are many Bally mechanical reel products, both in quarters and dollars. Deciding what to purchase was made somewhat easier by the popularity of penny games, which continue to be among the strongest performers on the property.

“We saw how they were performing here and we just didn’t have enough of them,” said Davidson. “Most of the first 600 games were penny games. We looked at the percentage of revenue versus the percentage of floor space so it was a no-brainer which direction we needed to go. Over 50 percent of our floor is penny games and we get a lot more than that in terms of revenue from penny games so we’re not oversaturated yet. Every time we add I think we’re going to reach that saturation point and we haven’t reached it yet. We react to what the players are playing and penny games have been hot.”

Davidson also keeps things fresh by purchasing machines from a broad range of vendors, even if he has to push them to get licensed first. “When I got here we had Konami, AC Slots, Aristocrat, Bally, IGT and WMS machines,” he said. “Since then, we brought in Multimedia and Lightning Gaming. Aruze is also coming in for the first time, as is Incredible Technologies. Usually, vendors come to you, but I find myself trying to work out contracts with them so it makes sense for them to get licensed out here. With a floor this large, you want as much variety as you can get.”

A broader range of suppliers also helps with the look and feel of the floor. “One thing that I struggle with at this property is we still have a lot of super-long banks,” said Davidson. “If you’re designing a casino today, I don’t think anyone would build a bank bigger than eight games. All the games are starting to look a little different with different toppers and you want to group them together. In the old days, it didn’t matter how long the banks were because you had row after row of S2000’s. Now I’m trying to get more four-packs, two-and-two back-to-back, because I don’t want 16 of anything.”

International Game Technology’s Wolf Run is among the diverse group of games that have found a home on Coushatta’s slot floor.

Coushatta operates a total of 2,800 slot machines in 100,000 square feet of gaming space, giving it one advantage over licensed riverboat operators who are capped at 30,000 square feet of gaming space, which tends to limit them to about 1,600 machines. Located in the town of Kinder, Coushatta competes for business in the tough Lake Charles market, which features such heavyweight operators as Boyd Gaming, Isle of Capri and Pinnacle Entertainment. Next year, things will get even more competitive when Mojito Pointe opens, the project that is being developed by former Pinnacle CEO Dan Lee (now of Creative Casinos) and will be operated by MGM Resorts International under a management agreement.

All of these properties live mostly off of the Houston market, which accounts for about 65 percent of Coushatta’s slot play. It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour longer for these players to drive to Coushatta, which puts pressure on Davidson and his team to make the trip worthwhile.

The larger, updated slot floor is one key. Another is value, which Coushatta tries to deliver with looser machines and employee engagement. “We’re in the unique position of being able to see the hold percentages of our competitors, but they don’t get to see ours,” said Davidson. “So we position ourselves to be looser in every denomination across the board. On top of that, we also give higher club rewards. So we hold less and we give back more. That’s part of our value premise and a reason why we believe that people make that extra drive to see us. We also put a huge effort into the value that our associates deliver. They have fun at work and they bring that to the floor and the guests see it. Not everyone can come out a winner, but we want everyone to have a great time.”

New game placements have been supplemented by investments in systems and operations sides. Coushatta went with the Bally system and its iView display product two years ago. A full Ethernet floor (“we’ll never run out of bandwidth with the cable we selected,” said Davidson) was installed two years ago and recently purchased Tek Results’ business intelligence software package.

“We made the commitment to go 100 percent iView, so now we have a five-inch color touch screen on every machine,” said Davidson. “For us, that was a big step, coming from a two-line text fluorescent display to a nice color touch screen. We have refined it to the point where we’re able to push new content that we generate to the floor. It’s a nice marketing tool to have for our guests where we can tell them about our restaurants and all the amenities that we have.”

The Ethernet floor supports another new addition; WMS’ portal applications for networked gaming. Coushatta offers two mystery progressives, Piggy Bankin’ and Jackpot Explosion, on 16 machines. “It’s basically a four-level mystery that rides on top of whatever base theme you want.” said Davidson.

Another potential source of new play comes from a recently opened bingo hall, which utilizes Planet Bingo’s Epic bingo hall management system, which interfaces with the property’s slot system and captures player account numbers with a card swipe. “Being able to capture information in the bingo space with the club card that players already have gives us an ability to do things that none of the properties in this area that offer bingo can do,” said Davidson.

"The poetic thing about iSino is we have a set amount of games on our floor, but we can add another 200 of these and we don’t have any floor space to add. You don’t have to pull off a machine to add a new game."
-Steve Degraffenreid, GM, FireLake Grand Casino

-FireLake Grand Casino, Shawnee, Okla., & Blue Lake Casino Hotel, Eureka, Calif.

One of the more compelling speeches you could hear around the industry the past few years was by John Acres on the need for the slot machine industry to start embracing new consumer entertainment technologies or risk losing the future. Acres, who is an established game changer in this business with paradigm shifts on player tracking and bonusing already on his resume, has a new company, Acres 4.0, and its A4 tablet gaming platform is beginning to gain some traction in the field, perhaps nowhere more than at two tribal casinos, FireLake Grand and Blue Lake.

Blue Lake, in Eureka, Calif., has a dedicated gaming space for its 52 iPads that run off an A4 server. The space, called the Kinetic Lounge, used to be the non-smoking area of its 803-unit slot floor, housing 23 machines. Now it is the staging ground for Blue Lake’s attempt to cultivate younger slot players.

“We started in October 2010 and we introduced the tablets to our bingo players, simply because we could keep and monitor the players without having to worry about chasing them all over the casino floor,” said Michael Laffey, director of marketing. “Then we realized that bingo players are kind of like our slot players parents in terms of how old they are. We actually had some of them say, ‘This looks neat but I don’t want to have a computer deciding whether I win or not.’”

Still, Blue Lake learned a lot by originally deploying it in bingo. The existing base of players questioned the validity of the product; it wasn’t a 1,200-pound box with a stool in front of it and buttons all over it. “It really opened our eyes to the idea that tablet gaming is not necessarily a replacement for the traditional slot machine, it’s more like an entirely new platform to introduce to a different demographic completely,” said Laffey. “We took it out of bingo and gave tablet gaming its own brand called iSino. (Acres gives properties the rights to use their own naming conventions.) This brand is not about tablet gaming, it’s about the entire look and feel of what a slot floor is for someone that’s between 25 and 35 years old.”

The Kinetic Lounge is more like a New York City martini bar outfitted with Apple TV’s, private bar service, a dedicated server who understands Macintosh technology and everything that goes into it. There’s black leather reclining chairs, private pay-per-view sports viewing, model service-everything the youth culture is looking for, as Laffey put it.

“There are young players who are intrigued by the idea that everything that happens on an iPad is cool,” he said. “So they check it out. But we have couples who come in and order a glass of wine and they pass the tablet back and forth between the two of them and they’re just enjoying themselves in a quiet setting that is smoke free and doesn’t have loud noises. It’s really relatively private. You can’t really see from the main floor into that lounge. These are people looking for privacy or a couples exchange; that’s really who we’re seeing in there.”

And some new business is coming in as a result; such as bachelorette parties with 40 or 50 women, three or four times per month. “They’ll all pitch in and put some money on the machine and whatever’s left at the end of the party is a gift to the bride. That happens three or four times a month for us now. The social aspect of being able to pass your Class III gaming device from one person to another in an atmosphere that feel more like a night club seems to be much more appealing than just sticking it out on the floor and putting it next to a regular machine.”

To play, it takes a players card. At the Lounge, players are greeted by a host, who is part bartender, part slot attendant and part executive host. Payment is accepted through the cash register just as if you’re buying a drink. Then the host loads the iPad with the credits that they want put on. There’s no bill acceptor; the bill acceptor is the host. As they’re playing, if they want to put more money on or order R&B, players press a “Please come see me” button that alerts the host. They can either add more money, cash out, or answer questions about the game library that’s on the iPad.

Games include Acres-supplied titles that are similar to popular iPhone and social networking games such as Slideways, which is very similar to Bejewelled. “It requires a certain amount of cognitive reasoning instead of just pushing a button and watching the reels go around,” said Laffey. “There are helpful hints that will help you make your next move. The game looks very similar to what they’ll see on their social networking programs. We find people not so much paying attention to what their dollar-in dollar-out is; they’re looking to see if they have the highest score that week.”

As for numbers, the Lounge, “is doing much better now than it did a year ago,” said Laffey. “It took some acceptance time, but now it’s catching up. We’re seeing our first run of real numbers on this thing and what they are is kind of the exact opposite of our regular Oasis slot tracking system, where the coin-in at the machine starts at 25 and you go up to 60 before you see the peak. Well it’s almost like you flip that upside down with iSino. The larger players still play, but the majority of the volume comes from the younger players and that’s exactly what we want.”

FireLake Grand has also adopted the iSino brand for its 15 A4 tablet gaming units, and, while it has not carved out a dedicated space for players, its experiences are similar to those of Blue Lake. “The games have done OK; once people play the game they really love it,” said Steve Degraffenreid, general manager. “The traditional gamer is a little bit leery of grabbing a wireless iPad and there’s the slot machine right in front of them. But once they do it, and figure out how mobile they can be; they can walk around the floor and a wife can stand behind her husband while he’s playing blackjack and she’s playing the slot machine just standing there. Or they can set it at our Sports Grill or our fine dining establishment upstairs, they can play it at their leisure and they like that.”

Located in Shawnee, Okla., right on I-40, FireLake Grand has about 1,800 machines. “We see people from all walks of life here,” said Degraffenreid. “Our main business is our local business from the Oklahoma City/Dallas Ft. Worth area. We still have to cater to some of the people to slot machines that have handles on them and wheels that spin. But as people get older, the baby boomers are coming up; people are used to stuff like iPhones and iPads, and they are computer-savvy. We’re seeing vendors react to that with products that include touch screens, keypads and interactivity that is becoming more popular. The Acres family put a unit in that looks like a bar top. You can move the iPad to any table that someone is sitting at, on any bar or any variety of choices, like they’re playing a bar top. That seems to attract more people because they think of it as a bar top.”

The product is distributed by keno runners and the slot staff, who show people the product in demo mode. “People can play them for free and once they realize they can play them for real we show them how,” said Degraffenreid. “It’s really word-of-mouth and talking to people. The cool thing about iSino is it’s an investment but it’s a small investment. We own the actual iPads. Acres furnishes the server and all the technology behind it and we do a revenue share with them. It’s the difference between spending $15,000 or $20,000 on a new game and $400 on an iPad.”

Bedazzled is probably the most popular game at FireLake Grand, because it’s the most popular on iPhone, said Degraffenreid. “The Keno game has some pretty cool features like PowerPlay, which enables game play when you hit a power button, so you can keep talking and the game plays for you. If you want it to stop, you hit Stop. We have seven games on the iPad with two more to come. The poetic thing about iSino is we have a set amount of games on our floor, but we can add another 200 of these and we don’t have any floor space to add. You don’t have to pull off a machine to add a new game.”