Architects ponder COVID-19 impacts on gaming resort layout and design
Design firms offer inventive short- and long-term ways to cope with social distancing and other coronavirus concerns
Being withheld from in-person social interaction for several months now, many people are ready to experience entertainment outside of their homes once again.
But this does not come without anticipation on what the new “normal” will be for the gaming and hospitality industry. What will the future of social gathering spaces look like post-pandemic? More specifically, what about casinos—where casino products and games are aimed to enthusiastically generate large crowds and gathering? Slot machines with double-bench seating designed for a more social and intimate gaming experience, as well as new tabletop games where larger groups of friends can play in a close proximity, will indeed need to be reassessed as the casino doors begin to reopen.
The good news: casino design and architect firms want to help, and are up for the challenge of re-thinking interior casino spaces to better comply with social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention mandates. Indeed, many firms had already been contemplating casino environments that emphasized “being together… alone” to better appeal the demands of Millennials and other younger generations of potential gaming customers.
A CLEANER TOUCH
The list of “touchpoints” at today’s casino is truly endless, being that properties were designed with the concept of “we connect with things that we can touch.” These touchpoints are the moments throughout the property that look to enhance guest experience and can become part of the property’s branding. JCJ Architecture recently sent out a suggested list of what they predict will need to change for casinos once they reopen, noting, “To start, the need to create “touchless touchpoints” is inevitable.”
Other predictions for change the team at JCJ mentioned were:
- Grab-and-go type spaces will take over, as they naturally allow for a separation between customer and host, which can be easily configured to meet the current standards for distancing and public safety;
- Room signage will indicate a “clean-disinfected” room, and designers will now focus on selecting finishes that are non-porous, smooth and easy to clean;
- Valet parking will likely go away, which means a greater design emphasis on the self-park experience/sequence;
- Lobbies will become larger in footprint to accommodate distancing, with the elimination of seating to reduce general congregation;
- Personal handheld devices for all transactions on the floor will become more prevalent in gaming, including: players card, cash in/cash out, etc.; and
- Gaming areas that are dedicated to guests who are more susceptible to infectious diseases (such as those who are 65 years of age and older) will start to be integrated into casino design.
What will it take to get gaming up and running and guests walking back through the (hopefully automatic) doors? “The short-term impacts will be physical divisions between gaming positions,” said Dwayne MacEwen, principal and creative director at DMAC Architecture. “Compared to gaming tables, it’s both expensive and time consuming to move slot machines, so we need to think of other solutions that will make for an effective casino floor. Sitting at every other machine or putting up acrylic barriers between machines will be the easiest way to make the floor 50-60 percent or, even 70 percent efficient with usable positions.”
DMAC Architecture believes that the longer-term impacts involve greater use of hybrid spaces. Buffets will transform into food halls, where people are not self-serving. There will be a blurred boundary between program elements, seemingly opening up the gaming floor; but to do that, it will require the elimination of some amenity spaces.
From JCJ Architecture’s perspective, “The short-term impacts to design are going to be the most critical as they are going to set the tone for the long-term changes that we are going to see, ultimately establishing the foundation for the future of the casino gaming experience,” said Bob Gdowski, AIA, director of hospitality design at JCJ Architecture. “The long-term impact on design is going to be focused on flexibility. The idea of creating flexible spaces is not something new and has been a focus for many for some time now.”
Bother JCJ and DMAC had more to say about the impact COVID-19 could eventually have on casino resort design. Excerpts from their observations follow.
JCJ Architecture is a forward-thinking and nationally ranked planning, architecture and interior design firm that offers comprehensive services to clients in the hospitality, gaming, civic, K-12 and higher education sectors.
“Before casino doors began closing, the team at JCJ Architecture was already starting dialogues with our clients about how to institute a safer tomorrow,” said Gdowski. “This ranges from in-work sessions with operators that we have been in collaborative relationships with for decades, to those who have recently welcomed us to their table. As a trusted resource and thought leader, we are grateful that our clients have been turning to us to help them work through this evolution in the industry; we are committed to doing so with a sensitive touch that is indicative of our understanding of the importance of balancing the functionality of a property with the guest experience. We are fortunate to have in-depth experience within the many segments of casino development, ranging from commercial, to tribal, to riverboat. Each of these segments represent a different take on the current challenge, not only because of their physical assets, but because of the demographics of their clientele, as well as what the property means to their organization or community. This diversity drives a unique dialogue when it comes to what tomorrow looks like.”
JCJ said that the negotiation of ideas, as it participates in brainstorming sessions, are forced to pass through multiple filters for them to remain on the table. Hitting benchmarks for fact-based safety measures in harmony with perception-based safety measures create the baseline for evaluation. Building from there, the company is weighing in aspects of operation, maintenance and labor. Finally, it evaluates for financial impact, either from a cost-to-execution perspective, or a loss-of-revenue perspective.
“Concepts that we have been studying include re-working the guestroom model to one where it can begin to accommodate small controlled gatherings,” said Gdowski. “This includes experiences in dining, fitness, spas; or even experiences that are traditionally considered more high risk because of proximity to unknown individuals.”
The company is also researching ideas for food and beverage venues that might begin to balance a grab-and-go concept with that of more intimate controlled seating configurations, as well as looking into concepts for lobbies and guest service points that begin to distribute parties—both physically as well as by providing for the option of both human and kiosk-based service. “We are reviewing gaming floor layouts that not only look at how machines are configured, but also focus on paths of travel and sightlines that drive circulation to be more intentional,” said Gdowski.
JCJ also reported that it is examining the movement of goods in the back-of-house operations that are more sensitive towards the separation of clean and soiled, reducing the potential for transfer.
“Moving forward, we don’t have the luxury of creating large vessels that are slow to turn, rather we need buildings that can adapt quickly to unforeseen changes in our marketplace; not just what we are up against today, but what we don’t know we are up against tomorrow,” said Gdowski. “There are those that argue that flexibility and efficiency are at odds with each other; that to be most efficient you need to be truly honed into the operational details of a singular program. While there are others who argue that flexibility and spatial identity are at odds with each other; that if you end up making a space too agile it’ll result in a watered-down experience. We don’t necessarily accept either of these arguments. Instead, we are going to find ways where properties are designed to be more flexible, in terms of how we can program them, while at the same time not compromising the guest experience, or the ground we have been gaining in terms of efficiency.”
Most casino properties have expansive footprints with a notable amount of generosity built into them to accommodate impactful guest experiences and working conditions. JCJ plans to take back some of the liberality, and in place, get smarter with how people can use spaces and for multiple purposes. The company notes that this model is not about increasing the footprint of the property, but rather how it blurs the line between functions to allow for the same quantity and quality of guest experiences while maintaining acceptable rules of distancing.
DMAC Architecture is a Chicago-based studio specialized in architecture, interiors, product and furniture design. Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, the firm’s work spans a range of typologies and scales—from hotels, health clubs, airport lounges, restaurants, casinos and spas to custom furnishings, fixtures and client branding. For casinos specifically, DMAC Architecture has been involved in the gaming floor and amenities side of design for the last 12 years.
The company has been working in tandem with Rivers Casino & Resorts on casino projects across the country. Its goal is to find aesthetically pleasing solutions that ensure the space maintains the look and feel of a high-end casino while assuring the temporary social distancing strategies and necessary materials do not disrupt the gaming floor.
“Our team has started to brainstorm how we’re going to navigate the new world of casino design following this global pandemic,” said MacEwen. “Our ultimate goal is to develop long-term solutions that will live beyond the current outbreak. We are thinking about it in terms of the aesthetics of separation. We’re also exploring the idea of mixed programming spaces. For example, buffet-style eating options may never come back. Are we then able to give the gaming floor more breathing room and begin to incorporate cafe tables on the floor so everyone has their own table?”
This hybrid mix of F&B and entertainment would blend together to ensure guests receive a holistic experience, while keeping the health and safety of patrons a top priority. DMAC is looking for aesthetic design solutions that live beyond the pandemic. What do the aesthetics of separation look like? It must be more than simply building walls between people.
As for design solutions for social distancing at land-based casinos, DMAC believes that the most obvious and immediate solution is to limit seating to every other chair. While it solves and satisfies the social distancing criteria, it does not completely solve the overarching problem. If people came in the same car together why wouldn’t they be able to sit together? A more efficient solution could be portable dividers that they can move as needed. In terms of safety, limiting the number of people per gaming table to three people might work from an economic and logistics perspective, and would be easy to implement.
“Another thing we as designers and casino owners are looking at is how to build a screen between the blackjack dealer and the patrons while still allowing the dealer to deal out cards and pick up chips efficiently,” said MacEwen. “While plexiglass or acrylic separators may serve as a possible solution, they might cause a bit of an obstacle for dealers to work around.
At the cash stations, where there are typically metal bar barriers, the company is rethinking how to design them as more decorative dividers that are permanent and keep everyone safe. It is both a short- and long-term solution that does not have to look like a hazmat situation.
In the last year, DMAC designed six BetRivers Sportsbook luxury lounges where 360-degree live sports action can be viewed in the comfort of custom club chairs, each with their own drink table. While the lounge already gives guests more elbow room, the company is designing a custom divider between the chairs that maintains the energetic experience yet allows people to feel safe. Each sportsbook also has self-service betting kiosks that allow guests to keep a safe distance while still enjoying the entertainment.