The human side is missing in action. You can spend an hour on the slot floors of some places and never see a soul from the house. Don't underestimate the power of camaraderie.

I still remember the phone call from the head of the journalism department at San Jose State.

“There’s a sports editor’s job open at the Review-Journal in Las Vegas,” he said. “Better take the bus down there and get it.”

Hey, I could have driven. Or taken the train. But the man said “bus” so that’s what I took. Rode the whole damn night and pulled into Las Vegas at 5:30 a.m. Young at the time. Naive. Get it? Anyway, I got the job.

About a week later, for the first time, I walked into a casino. I’m pretty sure it was the Last Frontier, or maybe El Rancho Vegas, both long gone. So I’m standing there when I realize there are a hundred or so people playing the games and slots and they all know exactly what they’re doing. Plus this one eyes-wide-open dummy who has no idea what’s happening.

I walked the pit, then the slot section. Of course, I didn’t have a clue why the players were shouting and screaming and occasionally patting each other on the back. Then a house guy comes up to me and introduces himself.

“May I help you, sir?” he said.

We had a nice chat. I liked him. He gave me a couple of tips on slots, and I played the machines for the first time. Where do you think I went from then on? Back to the same joint because I knew someone there. The power of camaraderie.

But when I walk into a casino slot section these days I seldom get spoken to. Maybe I look like I know what I’m doing. But the more likely answer is that no one from the house is ever there to say, “May I help you, sir?”

Oh, there’s a players club booth around somewhere, and they’ll talk to you if you ask them a question. But they seldom circulate. Their job is to service card-carrying players - and the players have been trained to come to them, not the other way around. That’s OK, I guess, but the booth people are so busy they don’t always have time for a casual chat - or to say “Welcome,” or to reach out with, “May I help you, sir?”

Is this the way it should be? I say no.

I have a regular routine when I visit a large casino. I walk the slots, every machine, and I count the number of players with their cards in the slot. At the same time I’m counting players with no cards. The result is unscientific, I know. But when I find a casino where 55 percent of the players use their cards, I congratulate the marketing people. For most casinos that’s about as good as it gets.

I think it ought to be 75 percent or higher, don’t you? Wouldn’t some personal service help?

And here’s something I think is a bit strange. I see someone from the house now and then during my surveys, but no one has ever spoken to me. And over the years I must have walked a hundred slot sections.

Casinos are starting to look like old science fiction movies-the kind where robots and weird machines run everything and the humans walk around in out-of-style white coats and trousers trying to find out what their jobs are.

Some joints offer cash bonuses to their top-line players, but they never send cash vouchers that require a signature from a host to get the money. They just let the player know his money is already loaded in one of their cash machines, waiting for him to come in and draw it out. Quick and easy for the player, questionable when the personal touch that can mean so much is omitted.

At other places you get your comps and drawing tickets from a kiosk. And ticket in/ticket out games are everywhere. Automation, it’s wonderful. Keeps down the payroll, all right. Doesn’t do a lot for the loyalty factor.

The human side is missing in action. You can spend an hour on the slot floors of some places and never see a soul from the house. So when Dennis Conrad and Steve Browne of Raving Consulting in Reno came up with a program named “Slot Ambassador,” I told them they should have named it “Rage Against the Machine.” When I got a good look at it, I stopped kidding. It’s personal service all over again.

“Slot Ambassador” on the floor looks like money in the bank. Raving has a four-step program and a tactical manual so big you could hurt your back trying to lift it. I mean, these guys are thorough. They expect to get the program going in several casinos this summer-which means the human side is back. Time for Gort to get lost.

Conrad and Browne worked on the casino floor before they turned to marketing. They came up when “loyalty” meant “the customer comes first.” Sounds a bit quaint these days, but it’s their strong suit. You can’t fool these guys with fancy terms like “customer relationship marketing.” They lived it before it became fashionable.

Their “Slot Ambassador” is a business-builder that turns on-floor workers (and even off-floor employees) into salespeople. Players can’t help but love the personal treatment, and Conrad and Browne believe Slot Ambassador positions will become productive and sought-after jobs.

It all comes back to establishing a familiarity with your regulars. And the concept also turns newcomers into solid new business that in the past might have gone down the street.

A pal of mine named Murray Raphel has been a direct marketing star in Atlantic City for decades. He works and writes in the retail sector, but much of his advice holds true for casinos. Here’s a gem: “The real reason people leave one store and go to another,” writes Murray, “is because no one paid any attention to them in the first store.”

It’s true. And this ”snub factor” can have the same effect on slot players. Even your slot players.

Call it “Slot Ambassador” or make up your own name. But the plain fact is that personal time spent with all player segments, elite to newcomer, has got to improve your business. Explain the rules, solve problems and earn the trust of your players. That’s what “Loyalty Marketing” really is.