It has been said many times that the slot floor is akin to a retail space, with innumerable elements of consumer appeal and prime locations, but what does that really mean in practice, and what insights can be gained if we really explore the meaning of the casino as a shopping experience?

That was the gist of an excellent presentation on casino floor optimization by industry veteran Bruce Rowe at last month’s Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas. Rowe, now president of Renaissance Casino Solutions after more than 30 years as an executive at Harrah’s and several slot manufacturers, was educated as a theater major and started out as an entertainment buyer before holding top jobs in IT and slots. It’s a unique background and well-suited to the theme of making sense of the enormous and often chaotic space that casinos occupy, both physically and in the minds of the players.

Webster’sdefines a casino as a building or room that has games for gambling; this is the definition of a store, a building or room where things are sold,” said Rowe. “Like a store, you have a diversified product portfolio; you don’t sell one thing. To shop is to visit a place where things are sold to look at or buy something. This idea of shopping and hunting for the best buy is native to us. Price is the most important differentiator in retail but other factors matter, including convenient location, selection and display of the merchandise, attractiveness of the establishment and reputation. Does that sound like things your customers consider when they come to a casino?”

  

STARTING AT THE ENTRANCE

People have a lot of different experiences coming into a casino. When Rowe asked the audience how many entrances their casino properties had, answers ranged from one to six; which means consumers experience one to six different entrance experiences when they visit a gaming property.

Rowe stressed that operators should perform an information audit for each entrance. The best way to start this process may be to ask yourself what you remember from the last time you walked through a particular casino entrance: What was the predominate color? The smell? The sound? What was under your feet and what did it feel like? Carpet that had padding, soft padding, or worn-out padding? What was the emotion you had walking into this casino taking in the smell and sound of the casino? What is the first thing you saw, slots or tables? Slots that people play? Tables, but the first one with players at it is three tables down? A restaurant?

What is the security guard wearing? What color is it? Does it look like a host’s uniform or a policeman’s?  If it’s a policeman’s, does that make you feel more secure or like you’re in a place that’s dangerous?

“I was recently in Macau and the first casino I went to had security guards who looked like they were from the French Foreign Legion with formal uniforms right down to epaulets,” said Rowe.  “Another casino had guards with pink sport coats and they smiled at you and said hello; every one of them. They could have eight-degree, black-belt ex-Navy Seals, with Uzis under the pink coats, and I still would have felt more comfortable. The environment in which we provide these products is critical.”

The list of questions upon entering continues: Did you see a sign for the bathroom from where you’re standing? If not, ask your security guard what is the most frequently asked question they get at the entrance of the casino.

Do you feel comfortable that you can find your way out based on the way you came in? If you came in with someone else, is there a memorable landmark where the two of you can meet an hour later to go to dinner?

When you walk in there’s a whole group of games with three colors. Do the squint test: “Next time you go into a casino stand somewhere and close your eyes slowly,” said Rowe. “The last thing you see before you black out is the first thing that your brain sees.  That’s your first impression; that game that has yellow, green or bright red…red won’t last as long as yellow; that’s why yield signs are yellow.”

How many times do you go to the six entrances that you might have and say, gee, this one doesn’t smell the same as the other one; how come? One’s near a trash dumpster and one’s near a Cinnabon. What’s the difference in your brain when I say that and you connect those two things to smell? Where do you immediately want to be? Two of the most powerful smells are cinnamon and popcorn.

“For those of you with multiple casino entrances, you have to perform this test on every entrance and on every decision point,” said Rowe.

 

AGE AND GENDER ISSUES

We know that casino players skew older—one attendee from South Florida said the age range at his property is “55 to dead”—but the industry can and must do more to make them comfortable.

Rowe asked the audience who picks the music at their property. One answer was the IT guy and the GM. “I was an IT guy for nine years; nowhere did it say what do you know about picking music for people 55 and older,” said Rowe. “Who sets the volume and adjusts it? Volume is typically set so that it aggravates the fewest people at quiet times in the casino, and many times that’s employees who drive it. I started out as an entertainment buyer and the first rule I was taught was don’t ever buy for yourself. As soon as you do that, you’re going to lose your job. If you’re not picking the music for your customers and you’re not adjusting the volume based on time of day and day of the week, you’re not doing the right thing to set the ambience for those customers.”

Ensuring elder customer comfort goes beyond the volume of background music. Rowe suggested slot executives purchase a rolling tape measure and determine the exact distance it takes to get somewhere. Rowe, who started his career in Atlantic City, wanted to see how far it was for his customers, whose average age was 60, to get from their car to the machine and all the stops they had to make in between. “It turned out that we put the parking garage about as far as we possibly could from the game,” he said. “It was about a quarter mile to get to the entrance of the casino, so I timed it, and I thought that was flawed data because I was not walking behind one of our customers. When I did that it was double the amount of time to get to that destination. At no time did I pass a bathroom, a coat check, or a loyalty center. I had to go past the game I wanted to play to get to the loyalty center. When I went to the ATM, I had to go to a bill-breaking device that wasn’t next to the ATM so that I could convert the $100 in to $20s so that I could go play the game that I came to play. And then they put all the restaurants as far as they could on the other end. That gave me almost a half a mile to get from my car to the buffet.”

In addition to the distances between vital services, Rowe pointed out that the actual physical layout of a slot space can be a turn-off to potential gamblers of all ages. By way of an example, Rowe cited a case study from Why We Buy, a book by Paco Underhill that used video surveillance to qualify consumer purchasing decisions. The book describes a store that featured a long, circular tie display that stretched to the back of the retail space. The problem: tie sales from this display were lackluster. The reason: video studies showed people couldn’t buy ties at that display without running the risk of physical contact with passing shoppers. Management subsequently changed the display and tie sales went up, simply because customers weren’t forced to touch another human being in order to buy something.

“Do you have choke points in the casino where people might be forced to touch other people and not want to?” asked Rowe. “Who is your casino for? Most casinos are designed to be equally inoffensive to people [of all ages]. They remind me of department stores that I went into as a young man—when there were still department stores—that were supposed to meet the needs of everybody in the family of every age.  You need to understand who your customers are, what they like, what their affinities are, what motivates them and what matters to them. You need to understand what products they consume.”

 

LAYING OUT PRINCIPALS

One of the early battles Rowe fought as a slot manager was over the optimal number of machines at an Atlantic City property. “The GM at this casino wanted to add 350 slots and I wanted to take 750 off the floor,” remembered Rowe. “We were a casino apart in our thinking process. We had to take 750 games off the floor and the reason was it wasn’t comfortable for the customer. We were arguing what the aisle width should be and the ranges were six to eight feet. I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s get in a wheelchair.’ I got into one and went all around the floor to find out what it would be like to navigate it in a wheelchair. If you haven’t done that, do it. It creates a whole different perspective.”

From this experience, Rowe determined the design of the casino floor can’t be done strictly by one person, whether they are an architect or slot manager. “One of the best locations in the world for a slot machine is a column,” said Rowe.” You can put a 12-foot game up there, it’s easy to hang a sign… there are all kinds of benefits. I’ve been in situations where we were told we couldn’t use the columns because we had, say, crystal chandeliers hanging from them that still had five years of depreciation on them. I said I could make $200 more per day on a machine if you let me put it on a column but I couldn’t do it. When I was at Harrah’s it took a couple of years for the architects to understand that, at our company, the gaming people own the columns.”

Rowe remains a disciple of Bill Friedman’s casino design principles, composed many years ago but a good portion of which are timeless and include advice such as:

• Short lines of sight beat extensive physical depth:“People want to be able to see something in little bits, move on and see more,” said Rowe. The Palazzo casino resort in Las Vegas, in order to settle a settle a disagreement, put half of the floor with fewer games and better layout against another half with more games. The side with fewer games won decisively on every revenue metric. It was dramatic enough to convince senior management to redo the entire floor.

• The maze layout beats long, wide, straight passageways and aisles:“When I was at The Rio, we made it as easy as possible for people to never play our games,” said Rowe. “They could come in from self-parking and there was a big aisle with the shops and they would just keep right on going past the games. Until we did the Show in the Sky and re-did the path to make it smaller, they’d go right through the games. If you don’t have the money for games, put a wall up and make the casino smaller and more exciting. There are a number of casinos in downtown Las Vegas that should do this.”

• A layout with a focal point beats a layout that lacks a sense of organization: This is all about creating loci of energy and also to create landmarks. Meeting people at the Michael Jackson game or Wheel of Fortune, so you can find your way if you need to without a GPS.

• Low ceilings beat high ceilings:“Ceiling height needs to be appropriate to the game,” Rowe said. “If you have a sign that is literally jammed up against the ceiling, you know that it wasn’t meant to go there. You need about two to three feet above your highest sign or the tallest game you’re going to have in order to create the correct aspect ratio so that games will look good in the area where they are presented.” 

• The gambling equipment is the focal point:“We’ve taken out murals, foliage, etc., because it wasn’t designed to showcase the games” Rowe said. “If a game isn’t exactly in the right spot and it’s not exactly the right color, it’s going to look like it never belonged there.”

• Themes go in and out of style and you either get it really right or really wrong: “Treasure Chest in Tunica: it was a boat, everyone was dressed as pirates in black and you feared rape and pillage,” Rowe explained. “They weren’t dressed in gold and jewels and handing you chocolate ponies. It was scary.”

• Long banks vs. short banks:Short banks always do better; they make it easier for people to find the games. And the end games on banks always make more than in the middle. Just as in retail, end caps and end aisle displays are where stores make the most money. “I am shocked how many casinos continue not to utilize end caps correctly,” said Rowe. “In many cases it’s an impulse buy. You can put a high-hold game right in front of the buffet. If people are standing there long enough, they will put a $20 in that game.”

“If I were bidding for space in casinos, it would be end caps and column wraps, because they give you the most private space and peripheral vision,” Rowe added. “Human beings have a real issue with being approached from the back. They get really nervous; their heart rate and blood pressure go up.  Almost 90 percent of the service interactions in a casino start from behind the player. People, particularly women, want to know who’s around. Diamonds and triangles are other ways you can create more space and vision for players.”

• Be cautious with curved banks: Games on the outside will make more money because they create more private space. When you’re wedged in you’re being forced alongside people you don’t know or want to know, especially in a smoking casino.

• Multiple gambling experiences and settings beat a single atmosphere throughout: Regarding this last point, an attendee who said his casino had 1,700 slot machines was asked how many casinos he runs. When he said, one, Rowe said he would argue that he runs five. “You’ve got neighborhoods with different personalities,” he said. “The high-limit area, the poker room, the penny section; each one of these neighborhoods has sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes and different service levels. What will be in these neighborhoods and why? What will not be there? What kind of levels do you expect at Nordstrom? A white grand piano? At Wal-Mart?”

 “The point is every neighborhood has a very different value proposition,” Rowe added. “The Nordstrom customers might come five times a year and gamble more than $1,000 per trip, The Wal-Mart customers might have an average bet of 35 cents. Understand where Nordstrom is on your floor and where Wal-Mart is.”