When Pearl River Resort chose to convert to Konami’s SYNKROS system for two different casino floors at the same resort, there was no shortage of challenges. Here’s how the parties made it work

System conversions are always a challenge, particularly when they involve two different gaming floors, one old and one new, and the older floor is faced with a legacy issue that requires a unique wiring solution, and everything has to be done in basically two months. This was the situation at Pearl River Resort, Choctaw, Miss. Owned and operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Pearl River Resort features two exciting casinos, timeless and comfortable hotel rooms, European spa facilities, award-winning golf club, water theme park, dining, shopping and live entertainment. The main attractions are Silver Star and Golden Moon casinos, the latter of which re-opened in late January.

Prior to this, Golden Moon had been cut back to a weekends-only casino in 2009 because of the soft economy and was converted to a concert venue in 2010. The re-opening was part of a $70 million comprehensive renovation in which the Resort enhanced the physical appearance of the entire property and upgraded amenities. Technology upgrades were a large part on the renovation projects, which included numerous customer-facing technology purchases and a conversion to Konami Gaming Inc.’s SYNKROS casino management system.

“This is a property in transition,” said Bill Burtch, CIO and VP information technology, Pearl River Resort. By the end of June all 1,074 hotel rooms were renovated. In addition to the new CMS, the property installed a brand new hospitality system from Sonifi that was up and running on June 1. “It’s a tool that will allow us to interactively communicate with guests in their hotel room.”

“As a result of comprehensive renovations, new gaming systems and technology enhancements, I believe we have created a game-changing experience for the gamer, diner or guest that just wants to get away,” stated Holly Gagnon, president and CEO of Pearl River Resort, “With all of the wonderful changes that have taken place, Pearl River Resort has solidified itself as the premier resort destination in the South.”

Assisting Pearl River Resort with the CMS system selection and implementation was Claudia Winkler, president, G.H.I. Solutions, who spelled out the complexities of the project: Implementing two different floor networks on a single casino system; a full casino system conversion and the opening (reopening) of a second casino, 10 days after the initial conversion. Tasks that had to be completed included re-carding the top 75,000 customers, implementing a new kiosk system, reducing one slot floor (Silver Star) from 2,400 machines to 1,200 machines while installing 1,200 games on the new casino floor, coordinating the regulatory testing requirements for both GLI and the Choctaw Gaming Commission at both properties, working around the needs of the various construction trades, and training the entire casino staff on a new system.

 

THE CURVEBALL AND THE CHOICE

Every system conversion is unique, and Pearl River Resort was no different. “One of the curveballs that was thrown at us with this installation was that one of the casino floors, Silver Star, with 1,200 machines, was 100 percent serial and staying that way,” said Scott Richards, director of system sales at Konami Gaming. “We had to be able to show them that we could prepare a solution that would run on a serial floor. SYNKROS, which has been 100 percent Ethernet, TCP/IP based since its entry into the casino industry, was presented with a challenge. We had never run on a serial-based floor before, only converted them. We said, wow, how do we do this?

“A lot of great minds came together and we ended up with a serial-over-Ethernet conversion. We put the proof-of-concept together within weeks and, when Pearl River Resort came to Las Vegas for our presentation in response to the RFP, we were able to demonstrate a proof of concept on a bank of machines in a live showroom environment and show them how it worked.”

To raise everyone’s comfort level, Konami also approached the Silver Slipper in Bay St. Louis, Miss., to do a serial/Ethernet beta test last October, or 90 days before the go-live date in late January. The casino gave Konami two banks of eight machines on the floor as well as three months of data generated by people playing every hour and every minute.

“That was vital because you can’t really do detailed beta testing in a showroom,” said Michael Ratner, director of product management systems at Konami. “We worked with them to pick a bank that had fairly high traffic. This was a risky thing to do because we had never done it on a live floor before. They ran a CAT2, which is essentially a serial cable, from the bank back to their server and put serial-to-Ethernet converters on either end of the run, and we ran it for three months with no problems whatsoever. Even though it was only banks of eight machines we were fairly confident that it was going to work.”

From Burtch’s perspective, “Our leadership team along with Konami went through a very intricate process of reviewing all the requirements needed to make this conversion successful,” he said. “I’ve been in the IT business for over 25 years and have been involved in numerous system upgrades and conversions, and I have never seen a process this thoroughly done.” 

Having addressed the primary technical challenge, Konami’s other strengths helped win over Pearl River, one of these being that it has grown SYNKROS organically over the years and not through acquisition.

“One of the advantages we have is that all of our modules are fully contained and integrated into SYNKROS,” said Ratner. “Pearl River Resort went from a situation where the system was modularized and there were disparate modules and databases interacting with each other. In that situation, you have to build interfaces within the system that speak to the different modules. Also, we are able to upgrade our system on a one-time basis; you don’t have to upgrade different modules at different times, which ends up being very expensive. Pearl River Resort was in a situation where they wanted to realize some efficiencies and to take their system to the next level.” 

In announcing its choice of SYNKROS at the end of last October, Pearl River Resort cited the system’s tournament features, bonusing and its ability to customize offers. “The end game is revenue-driven,” said Burtch. “And if it’s revenue-driven, it has to be about the customer and the customer experience. After extensive research to decide which company would be best to help achieve our goals, we went with Konami. We not only chose Konami because of its great value, but also its functionality and future capability. The fact that it is seamless is good, if problematic at times in that you can’t just ask for upgrades of individual pieces. But Konami is good at upgrading versions of the overall system.  When it was all said and done, the marketing and customer-facing aspects of the Konami system made it the right choice for us.”

The actual contract was signed on October 8. There was still the matter of getting the Silver Star conversion done in 70 days, a window that included three major holidays and a period of time from December 20th to January 5th where very little project work could be accomplished. 

 

“A LITTLE SHOCKED BUT GREATLY IMPRESSED”

“Timing for the project was tight based on the amount of work that had to be accomplished,” said Winkler. “A delay in any single major project task would have had serious repercussions downstream. Not only did this timing dictate extensive coordination and communication across multiple teams, vendors and construction trades, it also made having full-time project management resources on site for extended periods of time a must.

“A complete review of the internal controls had to be performed in conjunction with the upgrade to insure that the ICs aligned with the functionality of the Konami system.  Revisions were made where specific reports, functions or roles were mentioned to reflect the new system and it was a race to the finish line to insure the various regulatory agencies were satisfied and signed off prior to going live.”

“One the major success factors was the fact that the Pearl River Resort slot team along with Konami field services were able to install more than 90 percent of the in-machine hardware in the games at Golden Moon, prior the January 19th conversion at Silver Star,” said Winkler.  “Even though we did not get power and data at Golden Moon until mid-January, having the in-machine hardware installed--and the Pearl River team trained, so the Silver Star install could move more quickly--allowed us to focus on getting the machines optioned and tested prior to the Golden Moon opening.”

“Our Pearl River Resort slot team planned a very organized movement of slot machines which resulted in very little business disruption. I could not be more proud of the team and how well they executed this multi-layered project,” Gagnon said.

As for the serial-over-Ethernet solution, it passed every test. “We always do streaming video down to the floor from our application servers in the back of the house, so we had to do a lot of load testing as the system is design for an Ethernet/TCPIP-based floor,” said Richards. “We had to see if there were features that we wouldn’t be able to use. Can we still stream video? Can we deploy our incentives in real times, which is a differentiator for SYNKROS? Do we have enough bandwidth to fire these things off and what is that bandwidth? Would there be any restrictions to running on-demand promotions on the floor, tournaments or our SuperSeries products? When we ran tests on both floors, we were only seeing 5 percent-10 percent degradation on the network, which is still a fast floor, and all promotions and video streams were running in real-time. We were happy with these results.”

In final preparation for the Golden Moon opening, there were still many tasks to be coordinated. Slot machine installations had to be coordinated around the installation of data and power. Games had to undergo GLI Testing and Choctaw Gaming Commission testing, machines moved from Silver Star needed RAM clears and re-optioning.  Ultimately, every game on the casino floor had to be manually reviewed and validated.  New signage had to be developed and applied to specific slot machines as SAS version issues prevented the downloading of free play for some older machines.

Needless to say, one of the questions that Winkler was continually asked was “are you going to make it?”  Her standard answer – after many G.H.I.-assisted openings and many more conversions is: “we have never missed a date yet, it might not be pretty, but we will make it.”  

 

THE WORK THAT REMAINS

For Burtch, the conversion book won’t be fully closed for another year. Any new system takes an adjustment time, both internally and for customers. Leveraging the system’s full capabilities will also take time.

“We changed vendors, so our users had to change from a menu-driven environment to a GUI/Window environment,” he said. “One of the bigger challenges you have when you change vendors is you change terminology and definitions. As you go along in the project, you’re talking about a certain value or something and it’s not called the same thing at Konami. So we had to learn a new language. We’re not just talking IT, but everybody who touches the system, from slots to hosts to the rewards center to the cage to auditing in the back-of-the-house. Everybody had to learn something new.”

The internal training that was conducted in tandem with the conversion will help speed the learning process. In January the property went through an intensive two-and-a-half week period of training that involved everyone who would touch the system. “A lot of them had multiple sessions, such as marketing, which had four or five different categories to cover,” said Burtch.  “I was astounded by the participation rate in the training. I had never seen that many people show up and attend. There was a lot of commitment to change, which was not easy because we moved their cheese pretty dramatically.”

Everything changed for customers, too, added Burtch. “You put the card in and it’s all changed. How they get free play, how they look up anything about their points; that’s all changed, so they had to learn, too. Thanks to our marketing team the transition and learning curve for our customers didn’t take long as marketing did a phenomenal job of notifying guests prior to the change. Our entire slot team and floor personnel were also well prepared to answer any questions.”

 Post-opening, the number of IT help desk tickets had gone down dramatically. “Part of it centers on the seamlessness of the system,” said Burtch. “My general feeling right now is we’re in a normal operations mode and we have been so since April. We have a few meetings with Konami about some tickets that are outstanding but they (the tickets) are low priority in nature. We will probably take the next year to become really efficient at using the system. That’s probably our next task; to get the utilization of the system level higher.”