In the second of a two-part series, Barry Thalden, a partner with Thalden - Boyd - Emery Architects, discusses how to bridge the gap between casino design and performance.

Themed shopping centers and restaurants have become one way to attract customers. Experience shows that the tenants and customers will pay higher prices for a more interesting experience, a lesson gaming properties such as the Venetian, pictured here, have taken to heart.

Today things not only change, but as sociologist Alvin Toffler predicted in his book Future Shock, the speed of change occurs at a faster and faster rate. As an example, the Kindle Book Reader was heralded as the most innovative new product of the year in 2008. Two years later it was outdated by the iPad, which not only duplicated its capability, but delivered an infinite variety of additional capabilities. It sold 15 million in its first year. Then the iPad was even more quickly outmoded and off the market only 14 months later, replaced by the more advanced iPad 2.

In a growth industry, where demand is much greater than supply, any executive can look smart. In a maturing industry, one where supply meets or out-strips demand, a phase that the casino industry is in now, successful people need to act creatively to stay in the game. Others may not survive as their poorly designed properties will likely suffer or even fail.

For example, over the past 30 years, TV and movie rentals have continuously threatened the movie theaters with extinction. As a self-preservation strategy, the theaters have been re-invented to provide a better customer experience. Their solutions have included smaller and more intimate multiplex theaters, a wide variety of movie options, stadium seating with comfortable reclining seats, cup-holders and removable armrests, surround sound, proportionately larger screens, more food choices, high-definition films, 3-D, and IMAX. These changes have in fact saved the theater industry and allowed it to continue to prosper. Unfortunately, in many cases, it was not the original theater owners of 30 years ago that had the foresight and flexibility to change. Many of them went bankrupt. It was a new generation of theater owners that transformed the industry.

Like the theater industry, casinos are also threatened with extinction. Revolutions in technology and regulation will soon allow everyone to play casino games in the comfort of their own home (perhaps on their 72-inch TV screens), in a coffee shop on iPads (visualize internet games being played in every conveniently located Starbucks), in the office when people are supposed to be working, or literally anywhere.

What can be done today that will continue to bring our customers to the casino tomorrow? Recently, a small group of futuristic thinkers related to the gaming industry gathered in a private meeting in Las Vegas to discuss and strategize about the future of the casino. Several of them are quoted in this article.

One thing many agreed upon was that the gaming industry should take a clue from the theater industry. Some of the current casino owners may be too rooted in the past to see a new vision for gaming. When change comes, we are either ride the wave or drown in it. Those that succeed will be the ones that create a unique experience for gaming that people can’t get at home or anywhere else.

Yes, you will be able to play casino games at home, just like you can watch sports at home. But is it not more exciting to be “at the game” than to watch it on TV? With some innovative thinking, the casino can continue to be the place you’d rather be.

We expect life to be a series of interesting experiences, not just tasks to be completed before we die. The success of Las Vegas is because Las Vegas has been the “experience” capital of the world.

• Creating a “fun” experience- Where is the fun? Surprisingly, according to gaming researcher Dr. Jeffrey Lohenhart, 95 percent of the slot players do not think they are gambling, nor consider themselves gamblers. Yet those in the industry still think that their customers are there to “gamble.” They refer to them as “players,” and talk about win and loss. When a couple goes out to dinner and the movies, they don’t consider that they “lost $120.” It was just the cost of their entertainment experience. To be successful, the casino needs to be understood as an entertainment venue and deliver on the entertainment experience that will compete with other choices.

• Beyond the WOW- The wow factor is a great draw but we have done it to death-everything from white tigers and volcanoes to flower gardens and roller coasters. How do we get people to stay and play? Why do we spend so much money on all of these fantastic casino properties just to leave the casino floor as an after-thought?

No one stays long in a place that is chaotic, or a place that is boring. There are many casinos which grab peoples’ attention but there are far too few that hold their attention. So the ability of a casino’s design to make the customer feel comfortable while engaging their interest and attention is crucial.

• Character is important- In a survey by the American Gaming Association, “Atmosphere and Experience” was ranked as the number one determinant in customers’ interest in going to a particular casino. It easily out-ranked the games, entertainment, and food.

Since the experience people have and the environment they have it in determines their enjoyment at a particular casino, the character of the casino is critically important to the success of the property. As David Stewart, CEO Cherokee Nation Enterprises has said regarding the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino - Tulsa: “Without a doubt, property design is directly related to the financial performance of our property.”

Design influences how you feel and what you do. The idea of utilizing design to increase financial performance should be obvious, yet it is generally not understood. Good design plays a significant factor in attracting customers and enticing them to stay and play. It has been proven that great casino design can improve same-slot performance by as much as 300 percent.

• Knowing the customer- Everyone would admit that the design of a casino affects the success of the property. Yet there is a huge gap in knowing how different design concepts affect the customer to improve or reduce their play, and how that might be different depending on whom specifically that customer is.

It’s not that easy to create an agreed upon great casino environment, since that means different things to different people. For instance, a “fun place” would be different to 70-year-old women versus 30-year-old guys. How do we create the right place for both of them?

“Some of the most successful Indian casinos have been expanded over time. The resulting site plan may look like a train wreck of buildings, but the reality is that each section has a different casino atmosphere, coincidently providing a wide variety of experiences,” comments Rich Emery, design partner at Thalden - Boyd - Emery Architects.

Music is another issue. It should be a no-brainer that our best customers – adults over 55 – do not appreciate and are likely irritated by loud Techno, Trance, or Rap music. Yet it is actually is being played today throughout some elegant casinos and also, unbelievably, in their pricey fine-dining restaurants, where grey is the predominant hair color. Teresa Boley, slots director at Wheeling Island Casino, Wheeling, W.Va., asked the insightful question: “If our average customer is a 61-year-old woman, why do we have rock bands instead of a nail salon?”

The casino of the future will have slots that are not in fixed machines… Games will not be lined up in rows like little soldiers… Server centric casinos will allow customers to play in a variety of environments (even outdoors), on a wide variety of conveniently placed, or hand held displays.


Strategic casino design can increase player activity in the casino which will result in greater slot and table game revenue and profit.

While the data available for tracking slot performance and player performance has become very detailed and exact, design is still totally subjective. What has been missing is a connection between the character of the casino and actual performance of slot machines and table games.

Casino slot operators calculate slot play versus coupons, free play, hold limits, comped rooms, etc. They try to optimize product mix and location. But what about music, lighting, color, intimacy and so on? “We believe that the character of the environment impacts play as much as, if not more than, hold percentage. People don’t mind spending a little more money if they are enjoying themselves and feeling good,” said Brett Ewing, partner with Thalden - Boyd - Emery Architects. “Design influences how you feel. The idea of utilizing interior design to increase financial performance should not be revolutionary.”

“You can design a casino in very specific ways that will substantially increase or decrease player counts, and thus increase or decrease win and profitability,” states Bill Friedman in his book, Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition.

The questions that should be asked are: “If the casino is about making money, how does each aspect of the interior character support or detract from that goal? What sorts of design will bring customers back again and again?”

Here are some items to consider:

• Creating a good time-Let’s face it, when your business (gaming) provides a product that nobody actually needs, you better deliver a good experience. And when all your competitors have exactly the same product, it better be a great experience. As Walt Disney once said, “You need to provide more than a fun thing to do; you need a fun place to do it.”

•“The experience” will determine success or failure-“Why go to the movies when you can see that same film in your living room? Why go to a store, when you can order it cheaper and easier online? It’s because we all want to experience life. We expect life to be a series of interesting experiences, not just tasks to be completed before we die. The success of Las Vegas is because Las Vegas has been the “experience” capital of the world.

“In the emerging experience economy, companies must realize that to generate greater economic value they must create memories, not just goods and services,” wrote Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in their book The Experience Economy. “Every business is in the experience business-the ‘experience’ of shopping, eating, etc.-is more important than the products or the food.”

People are drawn to a place, and more importantly, come back, because of the memorable experiences they have there.

Companies must design “memorable events.” Themed shopping centers and restaurants have become one way to attract customers. Experience shows that the tenants and customers will pay higher prices for a more interesting experience. Considering that the Forum Shops in Las Vegas has had the highest per-square-foot sales in the country suggests that it’s the unique experience that makes it work.

Experiences are the foundation for our future growth. We can’t just give our customers a room full of slot machines. We have to give them “experience architecture.”

Gaming is an escapist activity. But it must be more than an opportunity to get away from everyday life. Many people really enjoy the visceral experience of risking their money in interesting surroundings for a chance at greater fortune. It combines participation and immersion.

The best restaurants create a memorable experience because our appetite is for more than just eating. “Creating loyalty, not through slot clubs or loyalty programs but through memorable experiences,” is how Phil Satre, former chairman and CEO of Harrah’s Entertainment, described it in his article, “Rules for Marketing Success.” “We must be able to say, ‘Our business is providing unforgettable customer experiences.’”

"We believe that the character of the environment impacts play as much as, if not more than, hold percentage. People don’t mind spending a little more money if they are enjoying themselves and feeling good."
-Brett Ewing, partner, Thalden - Boyd - Emery Architects


Once you realize that a great and memorable experience is what attracts people to the casino, providing it becomes the challenge. But since a “great experience” represents something different for each person, the dated idea that one-size-fits-all actually doesn’t fit anyone well. How does one casino effectively target the experience desires of a wide variety of customers-different ages, different likes and dislikes, different social or economic status, some that stay for days, some that stay for hours or only for a few minutes? The answer, of course, is in knowing our customers as individuals. A customer wants more than just options. She wants options that appeal to her. Customizing the casino for different people is essential to deliver the best possible experience to each customer.

The casino of tomorrow will provide a variety of options that will delight each segment of our market. We will relate more closely to customizing our casino environments to meet the desires of our customers. Each part of the casino must fill the desires of different people, different demographics.

The casino of the future will recognize that the gaming market has distinct segments. Therefore, the large casino will be segmented into smaller discrete gaming spaces that are uniquely designed for customer preference. Each will have a distinct environment with its own feel and character, creating a great place to play for each customer. We will identify what is most attractive to each of those customer groups and we will provide it. Someone brilliant once said: “To be successful, find out what your customer wants, and deliver it.”

“Our customers will be driving the next evolution of our casinos. We will be revising our properties by creating gaming spaces that are unique and diverse, so that our customers will see that we really care about them,” said Jeff Livingston, a former casino CEO.

Casinos will no longer be slaves to the boxes, which will allow much more intriguing slot-playing environments. The casino of the future (more likely three to five years than 10 years) will have slots that are not in fixed machines. Customers will be accommodated in comfortable, non-fixed, lounge-type seating. Games will not be lined up in rows like little soldiers. The computer industry is rapidly moving to “mobile.” Server centric casinos will allow customers to play in a variety of environments (even outdoors), on a wide variety of conveniently placed, or hand held displays. Slot machines will market themselves, enticing longer play. There will be more game choices and, like Amazon does, there will be a side bar that says: “People who enjoyed this game have also played …”

Casino floor design will include variety, invention, and surprise. It will be bold, dramatic, exciting, and fun. It will have a variety of “pleasure options,” so that players can, according to their own individual needs and desires, keep the great experience going.

Napoleon Hill once wrote: “A fool with a plan will outperform a genius without a plan.” The casino of the future will be designed related to a “Casino Performance Strategy.” We can bridge the gap between casino design and casino performance--and make a lot more money!

Many casino executives are waiting for things to return to the way they were before the recession, reminiscing about the “good ol’ days.” But life doesn’t have a reverse gear. Things only move forward, and change is the only constant. There are those that will be part of the change versus those that will get “run over.” Things change – and the future of gaming design is about to arrive.