When was the last time you walked across a casino floor and noticed the chairs? Yet, when you think about it, basically what casinos do is provide places for people to sit. Because they are in the business of managing time. Because players generally measure whatever entertainment value they believe they’ve extracted from the gambling experience by how long the experience lasts, or doesn’t. Because time is the agent by which probability and house advantage work their inexorable ends. Time is every casino’s best and closest friend. They think a lot about time, casinos do. They also think a lot about chairs.
“The real question the whole industry is big on is what influences the customer to stay at the machine,” said Steve Odden, vice president sales and marketing for MLP Seating out of Elk Grove Village, Ill. It’s never been an easy question to answer. No substantive study exists on the subject, at least not any that Odden is aware of. “There are lots of answers,” he said. “There is a lot we think we know.”
Which means that in their need to provide their clients with the means to master time, the people who make the chairs have to reconcile aims which on their face seem to contradict one another. Comfort, by definition a very individual thing, must be delivered on an industrial scale. It must satisfy as many different sizes and shapes of people as there are slots and tables. And people are getting larger and larger all the time, but the spaces the manufacturers have to work with aren’t necessarily expanding to accommodate this reality. If anything, casino floor space is at a greater premium in these revenue-challenged times than ever before. Manufacturers have to build the flexibility that comfort implies into products that must meet a high standard of permanence in one of the most punishing environments imaginable-and make them easy to clean and maintain -and affordable too. And they face ever more demanding aesthetic requirements, the preoccupation of the designers casinos are employing in increasing numbers these days and who may or may not be thinking about any of these problems.
As for designers, “We try to guide them in terms of our experience in terms of what will hold up,” he said. “We want to make sure that when they make a decision or choose an option they know about the maintenance issues.”
To get an idea of the scope of the challenge, it helps to think of a chair not as one element but three: a base, the seat itself and the seat-back.
The last thing casinos want is to be straightening and replacing chairs after players have moved them, and that are tearing up the carpet in the process. The manufacturers’ solution, and you see lot of these nowadays, especially with the popularity of slant-top slots, are “disc-base” chairs, built on a round pedestal supporting a single column. They use a counterweight for stability and to hinder movement. It’s a one-position-fits-all configuration that has obvious drawbacks from the standpoint of comfort, and they’re also harder to clean around.
Gasser’s new Halo base, a “glide” base, as the technology is known, introduced just this year, restores forward and backward movement with five linear rollers set parallel to each other that function like miniature rolling pins. The Halo’s round, “floating,” disc base is designed with edges slightly raised off the floor along a curve so it doesn’t dig into the carpet when the chair is tipped from the back or its occupant leans back in it. The Halo is compatible with almost any style of chair, “But it is particularly applicable,” Gasser said, “to the larger, more comfortable seats that casinos now want.”
Introduced about a decade ago, X-Tended Play continues to prove itself a true time warrior. The line generates “probably 95 percent” of Gary Platt’s business, said Chairman Bob Yabroff. “Because it lasts,” he said, “and customers are comfortable that it will perform, and that’s what you want.”
Equipped with injection-molded, high-density cushion foam - which holds its shape and firmness longer than sheet foams - a steel support bar on the back, built-in lumbar support and a “waterfall” seat edge for a more comfortable leg bend, X-Tended Play has proven so durable that it’s become the foundation of a refurbishing program Platt developed to assist operators in these capital-constrained times â “stripping and putting new fabric on good foam and wood, which have held up for years,” as Yabroff described it.
“Cost is a much more important driver than it was, say, three years ago,” said Odden. “Budgets have a greater influence on purchasing decisions.”
Gasser, whose chairs are almost entirely recyclable, offers a similar trade-in program. Gasser also is experimenting with ways to make cloth seating more stain- and wear-resistant - cloth being more aesthetically desirable than vinyl and more comfortable because it breathes - by “self-skinning” its molded foams with a protective barrier and employing a moisture-resistant synthetic called Crypton that is woven into the individual fibers of the cloth itself.
MLP’s seat tops, the part of the chair that suffers the most wear, are interchangeable on many of its models. The company also applies a formulation to its new Stay and Play line that protects the foam from breaking down for a minimum of five years.
Pinnacle Furnishings of Aberdeen, N.C., also offers a molded-foam seat top that is interchangeable.
âTO MINIMIZE DISCOMFORT'MLP’s approach to the comfort paradox begins with the recognition that the science of ergonomics, developed to solve the physical problems that arose when commercial office spaces became computerized, has little real-world relevance to how casinos and slot machines are designed and configured and how people exist in relation to them.
“There is only so much we can do in the seating arena to create comfort when a lot of the rest of the seating environment isn’t ergonomically designed,” Odden said. “We can build a $5,000 ergonomic chair, but if it becomes un-ergonomic in the position in which you have to sit in it, then you will be sitting in an un-ergonomic position or in an un-ergonomic way.
“Our job,” he maintained, “is to minimize discomfort” with extras like extended foot rests and spring-flex brackets for a little “bounce” when the player leans back. Stay and Play features injection-molded multi-density foam that distributes thickness to conform to the shape of the body, denser in the middle of the seat and the seat back than along the edges. The line also comes with a “mesh-back” option - a more transparent and breathable fiber weave with virtually no pressure points - “like leaning back in a hammock,” Odden said.
Gasser is mining a similar vein, fitting its chairs with additional layers of cushioning and a flexible spring mechanism in the seat base and a self-adjusting spring-loaded base on the some of its poker chairs - all part of a kind of “hidden ergonomics,” as Mark Gasser termed it.
“Two things I like to do,” he said. “One is talking to the top managers. But I like to walk into the slot tech room. If we see a lot of chairs up, we want to know what’s wrong. We attack it from both directions, the front door and the back, with what the staff is living with every day, while management may have their big concern with comfort. Trying to balance the two is what we do.”
A quarter-inch of foam is applied “just to cover [the wood],” he added. “The curves in the wood achieve the comfort. Very little foam but a very curvaceous piece of wood that really hugs your body.”
The company also is experimenting with distributing different densities and viscosities of foam to different pressure points, building thicker, softer cushioning where more of the chair is likely to meet the body, the area of the middle back, for example, and softer foam in the area of the kidneys.
“That seems to be future,” he said. “They want the seat to be more complete. It started about a year ago, and more and more of the big boys are going to that. They want to create a total experience for the customer.”
Platt has worked closely with IGT in this area and will be unveiling new interactive chairs at G2E designed in conjunction with three other manufacturers.
The company has identified another growth area in “companion seats,” the bench-type seats designed for the new community-style two-player games. “We have been doing a lot of them,” Yabroff said.
James Rutherford is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who specializes in gaming issues.