Pechanga Resort & Casino’s VP of slots strives to give players the best experience possible with a formula for success that melds whiz-bang technology with hands-on customer understanding

Buddy Frank, vice president of slot operations for Pechanga casino-resort near Temecula, Calif., stands on a landing overlooking the main casino slot floor.

Hard-core slot players need few incentives to come out and play their favorite games. But others – especially in these less than stellar economic times – require a little more coaxing.

If Buddy Frank sounds a little defensive, you can hardly blame him. For three years, he’s run the slot side of the largest gaming floor west of the Mississippi. But mention Pechanga in a room full of Las Vegas casino operators, and you’ll get a few blank stares.

“It’s not a little shack in the forest, you know,” said Frank, vice president of slot operations at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula Valley, halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles. “It’s a real casino and actually quite a good one. We’ve got 192,000 square feet on the main floor. That’s huge! The MGM Grand is about 180,000. That surprises a lot of people.”

The word on Pechanga may not have reached everybody in Las Vegas, but it’s no secret in Southern California. Early afternoon on a Friday and the casino floor is jumping. Part of the reason may be that Pechanga has a big night coming up: There’s boxing in the ballroom and Oscar de la Hoya will be dropping by for a VIP meet and greet. Good luck trying to book one of the 517 guestrooms.

Frank has pried himself away from his windowless office in the second-floor executive suite to give a visitor a tour. Coming with are right-hand man Randy Boutell, the slot operations manager, and Neng Moua, the slot performance manager.

A Pechanga tour is no small thing. The marbled floors seem to go on forever, past 3,400 slot machines, 133 table games, 14,000-square-foot high-limit area, seven restaurants, three retail outlets, and 1,200-seat showroom. Then there are the 72-par golf course, RV park with its own pools and clubhouses, and various other entertainment venues, including two swanky nightclubs.

“If you were to walk from our cabaret to the food court, it’s a quarter of a mile. When I first started working here, I wandered the floor a lot, as I do now. I couldn’t understand why my feet hurt all the time.”

Buddy Frank fields a phone call from his office at Pechanga casino-resort.

Frank has had a typically busy morning. A couple calls from the Pechanga Gaming Commission. Another from a software developer pitching a product. (“We’re always looking at investment opportunities and trying to see what’s new.”) A reminder of the putting contest at the pre-shift meeting at noon. (Frank lost.)

Frank heads up a slot team of about 265 people. The entire work force at Pechanga is 4,300, making it the second largest private employer in Riverside County.

At the moment, Frank has a few openings in the tech area. Anthony Zamora, the slot technical manager, escorts in his top three candidates, one at a time. Frank is mostly interested in their people skills. He needs only a few minutes with each. He’s a fan of the author Malcolm Gladwell, whose bestseller “Blink” talks about the importance of snap judgments.

One of the candidates is a young Navy veteran who has a polite manner and is wearing a gray suit and tie. Frank likes him from the get-go, so he takes advantage of the face time to give his prospective employee a mini lecture on guest relations, slot style.

“The reason the lights are still on here is the bulk of the customers lose most of the time,” Frank tells the candidate. “A few of our guests are incredibly happy because they have won huge amounts of money. But if they win huge amounts of money, it’s because an awful lot of guests have lost small amounts of money.

“If you say, ‘How’re you doing?’ More than likely you’re going to hear, ‘Well, I’m losing.’ But if you think about it ahead of time, you’ll be prepared for that. You tell them about other winners. We have displays on the floor that show the jackpots that have hit $400 and above since midnight, the day before, last week, last month. The numbers are incredible. People don’t realize how many jackpots our casino hits every single day.”

Frank likes another jobseeker as well. Both are “a notch up from what we would have seen a year or two ago,” he says. He’s not sure about the third. A couple things he said didn’t add up. Frank asks Zamora to do a little more digging into his background.

As Zamora is leaving the boss’s office, he stops in the doorway to mention something that crossed his mind when he was in the basement watching a cleaning crew at work on some slot machines.

“Hey, we should get that guy from ‘Dirty Jobs’ to follow us around for a day.”

Frank ponders this, but not for long. “I watch that show a lot. I don’t know if we’re dirty enough.”

Mike Perches, a tribal intern, hangs out this morning in Frank’s office. Perches has conducted a survey of slot players to find out how long it takes to get a jackpot payout. “He did a nice job on that. The result of that is we’re going to the Gaming Commission next month to ask for a change in procedure based on the data he gave us,” Frank says.

Buddy Frank listens as Slot Operations Manager Randy Boutell points out hot spots of activity on the Pechanga casino’s slot floor.

Frank takes time out this morning to show off one of his favorite work tools, a Bally Business Intelligence product that tells him just about everything he could want to know about his slot operation short of a customer’s shoe size.

He opens the program on a 46-inch LCD screen on his wall and loads in a model that uses different colors to indicate how each machine is doing.

“If I back out more, I can hover on any given machine, like that one, and there’s all that data for that machine - coin in per day, slot win, denomination value, average bet, handle pulls, hold percentage, theoretical bet, manufacturer, everything.

“It would take you about five minutes working with this diagram to understand my whole floor in terms of revenue performance, which you just can’t do with reports. You’d be poring over reports for weeks.”

So, what’s with the tall stack of paper reports on the counter behind his desk?

“It’s like your phone book at home,” Frank explains. “You’ve got the Internet, but every once in a while it’s faster to look up something in the phone book.”

Frank followed a roundabout route to the casino business. He started off as a TV news reporter in his hometown, Reno. (The University of Nevada, Reno, journalism degree hanging on his office wall reads “Walter Henry Frank” but he’s been “Buddy” for just about forever.)

After 11 years in front of the camera, Frank joined a computer start-up, handling public relations. When the start-up sold a few years later for eight figures, Frank decided it was time to hang out his PR shingle. One of his clients was the Reno-based Fitzgeralds Gaming Corp., which at the time owned properties from Nevada to New York.

Frank launched his gaming career at one of them. Fitzgerald’s was next to the famous Reno arch. Frank handled PR and later marketing. When an opportunity opened in slot management, he grabbed it. “The slot side was where they made the money and I wanted to learn about that.”

After Fitzgerald’s came slot positions with two more Reno casinos, the Eldorado and Atlantis. Then a move to Southern California Indian Country to work for Viejas. After Frank spent five years at Viejas, Pechanga made an offer.

“It was kind of a no brainer because Pechanga is one of the premier casino resorts in the country,” Frank said. “They pretty much do everything first class here.”

Frank keeps a hand in journalism. His byline appears often in trade publications. For several years, he had a radio show called “Inside Gaming with Buddy Frank” on an AM station that broadcast in the San Diego area out of Tecate, Mexico.

He also teaches gaming at San Diego State University. He likes teaching because it forces him to keep up on news and trends. He also learns a lot from his students, many of whom already have careers in gaming.

Back on ground floor, the marathon tour continues.

Frank points out a few of his hotter games: IGT’s Sex and the City, Bally’s Quick Hit Platinum and WMS’ The Wizard of Oz.

On weekdays, Frank works about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. He comes in on Saturday nights from about 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. He lives across the street, which makes it a lot easier. Sometimes, he’ll hang back in a corner and just watch. “Anyone who doesn’t come in on the weekend, you ought to reexamine your thinking,” he says. “You know all those sophisticated analytical tools upstairs? Well, you have to be down here to just look at people, see what they like, how they behave.”

Slot team members share a laugh with Buddy Frank during a pre-shift meeting at the casino-resort.

Like all Pechanga employees, Frank wears an ID badge with his first name in big, block letters and no last name. It telegraphs to customers that he’s approachable. Approach him they do. A customer in khaki shorts wants to find a machine whose name he can’t recall exactly but is something like “cash reel.”

Frank thinks he knows the game, but the machine was removed a while back. “What kind of games do you like to play?” Frank asks, hoping to interest him in something else. “Oh, I don’t play. My wife is looking for it.” Frank says he used to play in his younger days but doesn’t much anymore, except when he’s testing a machine.

Frank says Pechanga tends to be an early adopter of new technology, the Bally Business Intelligence product being but one example. The resort is demoing an Internet Protocol television product that will enable guests to do nifty things on their guestroom flat screens, such as access their player club info or watch that episode of “American Idol” they missed while driving to Pechanga.

There is also Pechanga’s high-speed Ethernet. “You’ve seen all of the press about CityCenter in Las Vegas with its high speed Ethernet floor? Well, we [had a high speed Ethernet floor] a long time before CityCenter. It allows us to get involved in a lot of high-tech things.”

One of them is the small, LCD screen on the main game screen on slot machines. It’s a Bally iView that Pechanga uses to communicate all sorts of things to players, things such as marketing messages and player club details.

In 2008, Pechanga let go 8 percent of its work force, or 400 employees, but promised that there would be no further layoffs. So far, there haven’t been.

When the recession hit, Frank noticed that players were spending more time on video poker and single-line, three-reel machines. “My guess is that in a time of economic uncertainty, people resorted to safe, tried-and-true products,” Frank says.

Business was down slightly last year but rebounded nicely in the first half of 2010, Frank says. “I see people moving back to the more exciting, multiline bonusing products.”