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FRANCISCO VIDAL COO Director of Operations at the Sortis & Golden Lion Casinos  chats to Bill Healey

We are fortunate to catch-up with Mr. Francisco Vidal, COO - Director of Operations at the Sortis & Golden Lion Casinos, located in tropical Panama.  Bill Healey chats with Mr. Vidal about their three casinos located in the nation’s historic, cosmopolitan capital, Panama City.

What are your responsibilities as COO - Director of Operations at Sortis & Golden Lion Casinos? 

This COO position is kind of a hybrid role, I am in charge of the day to day operations of the casinos (the casino managers’ report directly to my position), and at the same time, most of the support areas: Finance, Human Resources, IT, Marketing, etc., report to me as well. It is a very interesting position because you can see the business from many different angles with all the learning that this implies, one minute you are having a conversation about which are going to be the limits on Baccarat, the next you are running a meeting in which it will be discussed the marketing plan for the next month and you could finish your day talking with the IT manager about the possibilities of using wifi technology to connect the slot machines to the casino management system. In summary, a role in which you can develop yourself fully as a casino executive and learn a lot, which in the end is what keeps me illusioned every day.

How many casinos are under your direction?   Are they all within Panama, or spread out geographically?

At the moment, we have 3 casinos in Panama City, each of them in a different sector, the main one (Sortis) in Obarrio, and then the 2 Golden Lions, the first in El Dorado and the second in Marbella. The Sortis Casino is targeted to the mainstream customers, is the kind of casino that caters to a broad segment of players, apart from the mandatory slots and table games, it has a very nice Bingo area and the best poker room of the country; we run there the biggest tournaments in town, this year in March we organised the Pokerstars Championship for example. The Golden Lions, even though, they have an offer that appeals to all types of customers, is got a special focus on the chinese community of the city.

Could you give us a bit on your background in the gaming industry?

Well, my career is divided in four stages clearly differentiated, the first as a casino dealer in both London and Las Vegas, after that comes a period as a floor manager in several casinos in Spain (up to this point I saw myself as a tourist in the casino business), in 2001 I was offered a management position in a casino in Dominican Republic, and from that point there was no coming back for me, It was the beginning of an almost 10 year period as a full casino manager both in the Caribbean and Peru. The last stage, is the current one, it was initiated on 2010, I call it the “corporate” phase, in which I have taken several positions as COO and Country Manager in Panama, Mexico, Croatia and Spain for the main Spanish gaming groups (Cirsa, Codere, LGG). Nowadays, I am back in Panama (my first experience here was between 2010 and 2012), enjoying a new challenge in this beautiful city, surrounded by a team of brilliant professionals ready to disrupt the status quo of the industry. In summary, I have touched in my life around 40 casinos, in 8 countries and for 8 different gaming companies.

What are the sizes of the casinos, for instance, how many table games and slot machines?  Are any a particular favorite games for your casino patrons?

Our casinos in Panama City have the standard middle size which is pretty common in Latin America, between 350-400 slots and 20-30 table games. Our new addition to the family (Golden Lion Marbella) is a bit smaller, 250 slots and 18 table games. If we talk about live gaming, without doubt Baccarat and Black Jack are the main games played in our venues, there is a big Chinese community in the city and all the casinos are chasing their action using all kinds of strategies (junkets, credit, refunds, tournaments, cash promotions) and we are no exception to that. On the slot product front, time on device players and gamblers are the main segments in the Panamanian market to attend, and they are served by the “usual suspects”: Novomatic, IGT, Aristocrat, and WMS with the new addition of EGT lately.

How does social media play into the marketing mix?

In our case, we are very active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; every casino has presence on the three social networks, that´s the strategy we are following at the moment, we prefer not to consolidate in broad profiles so we are able to target our messages to the specific customers of each location. Because most people nowadays is got an smartphone and part of them have profiles on this social networks, social media is without doubt our communication strategy that is growing the most, and we have people on the marketing team dedicated exclusively to handle our presence on this channel.

Do the Sortis and Golden Lion Casinos have table tournaments or slot tournaments?

Yes, but so far I see them as collateral marketing activities, being the main ones the drawings and the incentives through the fidelity program; those are the commercial actions that have the more impact on the customer base. Both table and slot tournaments are more the kind of activity that creates a fun atmosphere between customers and employees, the perfect excuse to have a nice time and break the routine of regular gaming.

Where do the casinos draw their players from?  Are they mostly from Panama and neighboring countries?

Most of the casinos in the city draw their players from the local population, there is of course a great amount of people that come to the city for business purposes, but only a few exceptions are regular players in the casinos, I can honestly say, that even in the best hotels, not even 10% of the gaming revenues are made from their foreign customers. There is just one exception to this rule (one specific casino), and is because they are very aggressive in their policies of refunds, mirror credit (players deposit money on the cage and the casino opens a credit line for the same amount) and commissions paid to junkets, if that kind of policies return a good profit or not is everyone’s guess, most probably their margins are quite tight if they have any. If we talk about specific countries that provide customers to the casinos here in Panama, probably the Americans and the Colombians are the biggest contributors.

Are locals allowed into the casinos?

Yes, of course and they constitute the biggest slice of the casinos customer base. Panama has had casinos for decades, till 1998 they were public (belonged to the Panamanian state) and after that it came the time of the private operators, so the local population is very used to have a gaming offer right at their footsteps, and they are very experienced and exigent, which is one of the things that makes this market so interesting from the professional point of view. The sentence “build it and they will come” does not apply to this city anymore...; and I love it.

Do junkets play a role in the casinos?

The international junkets, not so much, very few operators get their revenues using that kind of strategy, what we do have is the figure of the “gaming promoter” especially those focused in the Chinese community, this figure distributes credit both from his own funds or the casino´s and takes care of the collection of payments. Very few people nowadays go to the casino with a big amount of money, they are the exception; so that´s why this figure is so important in this market. Lately, because the decline on the revenues, the tax of 5.5% on redemptions of tickets and chips, and several other reasons, some operators are trying to bring more foreign customers to their casinos; but the logistics and the costs of that strategy are very complex (the commission to the junket operators, the transfer of funds, the size of the credit lines, the collection of payments), from my point of view is a low margin business and it has it risks, specially the high volatility associated with the high limits they normally ask.

What type of loyalty programs are in place?

All casinos have a loyalty program, there is not even one exception to this rule; the main difference among them is both the basic math behind the system (how much coin in, to get X points, with a value of Y), and the kind of benefits they offer, which depends most of the time on the characteristics of each property.  In our case, we have in Sortis a spectacular hotel, a 5 stars Marriott brand (Autograph Collection) so we have the capacity to give our customers all kinds of attractive benefits (entrance to the Spa, nice rooms, our restaurant Manabí, the pool area, etc.). What I have seen in the last years is a tendency to channel more and more benefits through the fidelity system, in the form of better exchanges, cash back and free play; because of the fierce competition, most casinos are cutting their marketing budgets, reducing advertising, cash incentives, and channelling their scarce resources (comparatively with the past) to social media and promotional play.

Do hotel and leisure activities benefit from the casinos?   Do the casinos benefit from the group's hotel & leisure activities?

Here in Panama City, because the casinos rent their premises to the hotels, this impact is limited; very few hotels have a real partnership with a long term view with their casinos, many times the hotels see the casino only as a source of additional income through the collection of the monthly rent. Because of that philosophy, the synergies between both the hotels and the casinos are not developed the way that it should be. Fortunately here in Sortis, because the owners of the hotel and the casino are the same, there is a high degree of collaboration between both businesses, that translates into customers from the hotel playing and enjoying the casino (the hotel is proactive on this matter) and people that come to the casino and then stay in the hotel; this happens specially when the casino organises big poker tournaments like the Pokerstars Championship that we had in March, in which we received people from all over the world and the hotel was completely packed.

Some say a director’s desk can convey a lot about their management style.  For some, its organized chaos.  What’s on your desk, and what will it say about your management?

Well, as you can read in the flag of Brazil “Order and Progress”, I prefer my desk to be nice and tidy. For complicated issues I prefer to read papers than the screen in the computer, that´s why from time to time you will see some papers on it, but that is the exception. Nowadays, any casino executive with several venues under his responsibility receives dozens if not hundreds of emails from Monday to Friday (a bit less on weekends), the phone calls, now you get the results of the operation every hour on a WhatsApp group (there is one for each casino). Gone are the days in which you could relax a bit on this kind of job, we deal with a much greater amount of information and data, so being organised is not just a preference but an absolute necessity, and the more competition there is on your market like it is in the case of Panama, the more organisation you need to have.

Casino Life would like to thank Mr.Vidal for his time and contribution