I’d like to believe we didn’t do this to ourselves on purpose, that we are too smart to have this happen; and it is the unintended consequence of many individual business decisions and new technologies that, on their own, seemed a smart way to streamline play but when taken all together are beginning to spell disaster for the industry.
The modern casino experience steals too much of our players’ gambling time. That was likely not the original intention of gaming product and systems upgrades—we thought these improvements would give our customers more time to gamble. After all, as marketing research guru Michael Meczka has said over and over again, when it comes to attracting the casino customer, “it’s the gambling, stupid!”
Take coinless slot machines for example. It saved players from getting their hands dirty by grabbing coins from the hopper and continuously cramming them in the coin slot. They could play more, just by hitting a “Spin” button on the slot machine. Players liked it—and so did we. Good trade-off.
Then came ticket in-ticket out (TITO) technology. It gave our players more time to play, with the benefit of less time spent schlepping cups of coins to coin redemption booths. Good trade-off.
Tables started to use multiple-deck blackjack shoes. I know, I know, some players still don’t like (or trust) them. But most have accepted them because it means more playing time and less shuffling time. Another good trade-off.
So far, so good.
And then someone thought that we should have the slot reels spin faster and generate a result sooner. And gee, the players seemed to like it.
And then someone thought that we should have progressive slots. And slots with famous characters on them. So what if we had to lower the payback a little on them to pay for the royalty rights and added risk? The players seemed to like them.
And then we added penny machines for low-risk gamblers. How cute, we thought, you could bet as little as a penny on them. Except … you could bet as much as $5 or $10 a spin on them, and their payback percentage was the lowest in the casino.
And then came redemption kiosks. And downloadable credits. And “speed racks” on tables. And ATMs that could give you money in any way imaginable. And slot bonus rounds that diverted your attention from higher hold percentages. And tighter video poker pay schedules as a new norm. And new blackjack games that no longer treat as sacred the three-to-two payoff for a player blackjack. And …
Maybe these were all good decisions at the time. Perhaps the players liked the changes, or at least didn’t seem to notice them. But cumulatively, they have produced the result that we now take our players gambling dollars faster than at any point in history.
And some of the results of this short-sightedness? Most mature gaming markets are seeing declines in gaming revenues, even as we come out of the recession. Sure, you can blame it on greatly increased competition, but the player refrain of “you tightened the machines!” has gotten louder. We’ve had to resort to bribery, commonly called “free play,” to get some players to even visit us anymore. Most players who sign up for our loyalty programs, perhaps better called “marketing schemes,” never make another visit, or if they do, never bother to use our wonderful tracking devices.
I strongly believe that we are now well into the start of a player rebellion because we have been taking their gambling dollars so increasingly fast for so long. No doubt, to make up for these “voluntarily withheld gambling budgets,” we’ll have to cut staff, delay capital maintenance, shelve expansion plans, and squeeze even more operating efficiencies out of the enterprise, like having combined cashier cage and players club operations.
Oh gee, I’m sorry, we’re already doing all of that.
And through all of this, our customers just want to play a little more and have us take their money a little more slowly. Our response: “How ‘bout a free buffet for two?”
Meczka is right. It is the gambling, stupid.