Harrah’s IT and innovation chief Tim Stanley gives his take on how rapidly evolving technology is affecting the gaming and hospitality universe.

Tim Stanley is pushing buttons on a keypad to gain entry to the Harrah’s Entertainment corporate offices inside Caesars Palace - to no avail. The man who oversees IT, gaming and innovation for the world’s largest gaming company and its 65,000 slot machines can’t get into his office.

“The one thing I’m not in charge of here is the security system,” said Stanley, whose official title is a mouthful: chief information officer and senior vice president of innovation, gaming and technology.

 After a couple more attempts, he phones his assistant to come down and open the giant glass doors to corporate offices inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“It was not lost on her that the technology-innovation guy couldn’t get in through the doors,” he tells his assistant.

We’re still not completely in yet. We must still pass through a set of huge metal doors Stanley calls the “Get Smart” doors. This time, they open without a hitch, and we’re in.

It’s a tight time schedule for the interview, and there is a lot of ground to cover. Stanley, his corporate biography notes, is responsible for the strategy, architecture, program management, development, support and operations of the entire portfolio of Harrah’s IT-enabled business systems, capabilities and infrastructure in the United States and abroad. He also leads multidisciplinary teams focused on the creation and execution of new business and next-generation gaming and technology innovations throughout the company.

And, he is responsible for the strategy, product development, marketing and merchandising, revenue management, and financial performance of the company’s slots, tables and other gaming operations.

Is the broad scope of his responsibilities unusual?

“It’s pushing the envelope a little bit,” Stanley acknowledges.

But he’s apparently up for the task, judging by the accolades he’s received recently. Stanley was named Information Week’s “Chief of the Year” for 2007-2008 for his unique IT, innovation and business roles and achievements, and also was selected as one of InfoWorld’s “Top 25 CTOs,” among other awards.

A self-described workaholic, Stanley’s workday starts early. He’ll try to squeeze in a short workout in the morning and makes it a priority to be around to see his daughter, age 4 and a half, out the door with her mom to preschool. Then, it’s off to either his offices at Caesars or the Harrah’s headquarters at 1 Harrah’s Court near Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport. From 8:30 a.m. on, it’s a steady stream of meetings and interviews, lunch most of the time at his desk or a working lunch in a conference room with colleagues, and quitting time often not until 7 or 8 p.m. or later.

“I try to race home, grab a bite to eat, try to catch my little girl before she goes to bed, talk to my wife briefly, and then she goes to bed, and I kick into a second or third gear at sometimes around 10 o’clock a night. And I generally work, not every night but often, until 1 or 2,” answering e-mails, preparing presentations and working on projects, Stanley said.

Future is now

At work, Stanley spends a good share of his time on innovation in the gaming, hospitality and entertainment space.

The gaming industry has long held a reputation for being behind the curve in technology, but that’s changing now, Stanley said.

 “We’re spending a lot of time looking at the consumer markets and industries in general. So, a lot of the work I’m doing now has everything from mobility and cell phones, and where we spend enormous amounts of time is customer enablement and loyalty and marketing offers and those kinds of things,” he said.

A major area of focus is network-based, or server-based, gaming. Stanley and Harrah’s are big believers in the possibilities of networked gaming to enhance player experience, drive new players and boost the bottom line.

 “Will it come to fruition on its own? I think there will be some interesting fits that will pop out. But it’s an area, among others, where I think we can get more involved - with our customer insights, our knowledge, other intellectual assets, our locations  - where we might be able drive that. And with our size, frankly, we might be able to structure some interesting angles or deals, where we could maybe set the tone a little bit and say, ‘Maybe there’s a different way to do some stuff.’”

Harrah’s spends a lot of time looking at how network-based gaming is deployed at some of the smaller UK casinos it acquired when it bought London Clubs International.

“It actually exists in the UK and it’s farther along,” he said. “It looks and feels a lot more like running an IT operation than it does a classic gaming operation.

“It’ll really give us the opportunity to vett out certainly the things that are going to come from the U.S. manufacturers,” Stanley said.

A reel future?

As networked gaming is adopted, the need for reel slots will diminish, but will they ever completely go away?

“Probably not. Now, are reel slots what they were 10 years ago? Of course not. They’re almost completely electronic right now. In fact, there are variants of them that represent themselves as video,” Stanley said. “There is new stuff I’ve looked at that’s actually video, but it looks like actual reels rolling around. There’s just something about that product that players like so there’s probably always going to be some kind of reel product.”

What does that mean in terms of the look of the gaming floor?

“There’s a school of thought that says all the terminals look like these ultramodern, European hip flat-screen panels, like a big Apple store. And you’ll just be able to have every kind of game on there,” he said. “I actually think there are little pockets of that one might do. I think there’s a cool ultralounge; there are different kinds

of theming things. We might experiment with some things like that.”

But the industry isn’t going to morph into that overnight, if at all.

“For many years, there will still be this hybrid or polymorphic environment out there,” Stanley said. “There will be this environment out there for a good long while. This will be a long transition, but one that will happen. And to a great degree, we and others can continue to crack the nut, and deliver value and differentiation and upside and efficiencies around it.”

New kinds of gaming

What it will do, Stanley said, is open up  new possibilities in terms of game types.

“I think there’s a whole range of different types of games, and a group of people who probably, for any number of reasons, aren’t engaged in all the different things we do and what we offer today and who might very well be interested in some new experiences and some new things,” Stanley said.

The idea of skill gaming is something worth exploring, he said.

“We have several concepts both internally and through a couple of very big name partners who are in gaming who have thought of some interesting ways to do that,” he said.

Stanley noted that he spends time with major gaming industry manufacturers to discuss concepts Harrah’s would like to see explored. “We’re also expanding or canvassing that to a much broader audience that we’ve historically been able to use because of our belief and desire that there may be a different way to begin to go experiment with some of these things.”

Harrah’s, he said, wants to start driving innovation in that area.

“We are exploring our knowledge and insights and what kind of games might we want to have written as opposed to what you can buy and what can you negotiate with the vendor,” Stanley said.

For example, he noted Harrah’s owns “a nice little brand called World Series of Poker” that could lend itself to an interesting game or games on a networked gaming platform.

 “That might in fact incorporate some cooler features that you can’t do on a classical Game King or whatever you’ve got out there today,” he said.

The Wii effect

Stanley wants to find ways to make slots more engaging.

“I’ve gotten pretty enamored of [Nintendo] Wii for instance. I’m not a big geek, and I’m not into gaming consoles, but there’s a level of interactivity that’s interesting,” he said. “I’ve had folks over to the house, the thing comes out, and it’s unbelievable the effect this thing has on people.”

Quarterly, Stanley’s innovation group brings forth five or 10 new ideas and concepts that are introduced to casino operations in a specific market. The next one was to be in Atlantic City.

Some of the games Harrah’s has been developing internally and with partners include new games and concepts on that kind of platform “that had an element or a look and feel of skill but probably we believe certainly fit with the regs of nonskill-based gaming.”

Giving players more

Stanley envisions networked gaming providing a more universal experience for players.

“I do believe that, as the world continues to evolve toward more interconnective, online sorts of experiences, clearly you’re going to get, I hope, something that’s much more universal on the back end,” he said.

“It would be great to know that as I move from property to property, market to market or online to offline, my preferences are still there, the games I like are still there, the people I played with or who are on my team are still there, so it starts to get much more seamless” to the player.

Harrah’s also is exploring how to blend what consumers do in the rest of their life and the technology they bring with them to make that useful in some way to their time here, Stanley said.

“When all of us are used to surfing on the Web or chatting with our friends or our kids or whatever it may be, in this environment, what pieces of that should we tap into and make relevant, and how can that be part of the overall consumer experience?” he asked. “Why is it that they must leave that world aside when they come to the casino environment, and then once you’re back out there, you can do all these interesting things?”

Stanley pointed to things like instant messaging, social networking and using Google to get directions.

“Some of the stuff we’ve been working on are where we can make the environment and the experience, while still about gaming, something at least in certain markets where people find the overall experience was cool,” he said. Players may enjoy the gaming, shows, restaurants, but also see and do things there that they couldn’t find elsewhere, Stanley said.

Form factor

“One of the other things that really appeals to me is the whole form factor can change pretty fast,” he said.

 “When you look at what is possible with these networked based platforms, they take a variety of different form functions and factors,” he said. “The big, gaudy slot machine will still have its place, but there will be much cooler, hipper, compact, and I might add, less expensive hardware, and you can start getting creative with the experiences you want to create.”

One of Harrah’s projects involves Surface, Microsoft’s tabletop computer technology. Harrah’s is just about to launch Surface in either May or June at the Rio in Las Vegas. “We’ve developed some really cool apps for it,” he said. “It’s not ready for real gaming yet, but with World Series of Poker, stay tuned.”

Surface is one area Harrah’s is focusing on, but the company is also looking at mobile gaming and other channels. “Whether it’s on Surface or not, that whole idea or concept of introducing new form factors, I think there’s an underserved market out there,” Stanley said.

Risky business

One of the things Stanley is charged with is creating a culture of innovation across the Harrah’s properties - no easy task when your company’s casinos are scattered across the country and around the world.

Gaming property operators tend to focus on results, and there’s a natural risk aversion, he said.

“There’s a million reasons not to do something. A big part of the innovation focus is how do we more systematically introduce those things to take the risks.”

One of the ways Stanley is doing this is by bringing the ideas to the casinos in different jurisdictions. “I’ll introduce a number of these ideas to try to get people excited about them so there’s a pull effect,” he said.
“But if I was just over here working in a lab and, ‘Eureka! I’ve got the greatest thing on Earth,’ and go out to Biloxi or Tunica and say, ‘You guys got to do this…,’” the operators would be less receptive and more likely to focus on the negative.

He’s also established different types of labs that encourage innovation.

“We’re starting to build this now, and it’s kind of fun. There’s an excitement that’s building, and there’s an increasing degree of they’re looking for the next thing from us.”

In addition, he said, “We’re now getting people bringing their stuff to us, and saying, ‘I want you guys to see some of the things we’ve done and help us take it to the next level. ’ ’’

Harrah’s recently launched two innovation initiatives in Atlantic City: a new mobile concierge service that allows the player to call in his order instead of having to wait to be asked for it, and a mobile marketing initiative that is interactive with players’ cell phones.

“At the end of the day, it will send you very personalized and customized offers,” he said of the mobile marketing initative.

Interactive CRM

Another major focus for Stanley is on  launching PRISM, which stands for Personalized Real-time Interactive Slot Marketing. It is designed to introduce innovative CRM features and digital entertainment capabilities to Harrah’s Total Rewards cardholders.

It marks the company’s latest evolution of CRM, which initially started with analytical CRM based on business intelligence, and then more recently operational CRM, which allowed the casino to deliver surprise experiences to guests while they played a machine. For instance, if the system recognizes that a player’s birthday is that day, it could send out a person to sing a special birthday song to the player.

PRISM will take this to a new level, giving players a chance to drive more of their experience and allowing the company to use business intelligence to customize their offers.

PRISM’s precusor, Vivid, which is now incorporated into PRISM, communicates the player’s Total Rewards items, and it will also deliver Sirius Satellite radio, as well as beverage concierge service that allows players to order their drinks and then remembers those preferences.

Initially, PRISM will deliver promotional bonusing, downloading credits and community prize bonusing.

What Stanley is even more excited about is  functionality that will eventually allow more dynamic and multichannel offers. “The true interactive CRM starts to kick in. If it’s a player’s birthday, that person can choose what type of reward they want, perhaps $5 in free play or a free buffet.“

“It changes the whole thing where it gives you control over what you want. But way more interesting than that is it now gives us very cool capabilities to say, ’‘Tim is a customer I know from Tunica, and he’s in Biloxi, and he’s in Las Vegas. And it’s the second time we’ve seen him, and he’s never been to the Caesars brand before. Let me do something interesting; let me engage with him.”

That allows Harrah’s to leverage its business intelligence so that a customer’s preferences can be acted upon “based on this rules engine on the back end that says, ‘I know something about Tim. Tim’s in control, he can order his beverages, and do other things, but I can also surprise and delight Tim by offering him some things that are unexpected.’”

So, for instance, Harrah’s could offer him show tickets to a Bette Midler show that is below capacity, or even offer him a surprise based on the fact he had a bad day at the slots.”

 “A big part of it is putting some control in customer’s hands, and the really cool part about it, is it lets us actually provide better service,” he said.

And that’s the kind of thing that players will remember when they’re trying to decide which casino to go to.

“It just further drives that sense of loyalty and preference by personalizing the experience a little,” he said.