Glyn Thomas talks to Michelle Cummins, GM of Casino Bucharest in Romania and the Corinthian Casino in Glasgow.
Michelle, can you introduce yourself to our readers?
I was born in South Africa, moving to the UK when I was 16. I started my casino career training as a croupier in Southport in 1985. In 1986 I took the opportunity to travel, using my newly acquired skills, and have since worked on contracts in South Africa, Northern Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Tanzania, Bulgaria, Romania and Scotland, with several stints back in the UK along the way. I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from some extremely talented people, and my experiences in each country have broadened my horizons and expectations. The experience has been enriching and rewarding, both personally and professionally.
When did you join Casinos Austria?
In 1998 I joined Casinos Austria International as Assistant Casino Manager at their Romanian operation, and have been GM of the CAI casino in Bucharest since 2002. In 2007 I was elected President of the Romanian Casino Association, a position I held until 2011. I am currently the representative for Romania within the European Casino Association.
In 2011 CAI asked me to take on the GM role at their newly established casino in Glasgow, the Corinthian, and I have been concurrently running the CAI Glasgow and Bucharest operations for the past 18 months, commuting between the two.
That must be quite a challenge. You must have very good multi-tasking skills – and some good senior staff?
I would not be able to do what I do if it were not for the dedicated and talented people working in Glasgow and Bucharest. It has been a learning experience for both operations, with senior management taking on more responsibilities than would be usual in their roles, but I think it has been overwhelmingly positive. Management now have a greater understanding of what it takes to run a business, not just the gaming floor, and their skill sets have developed. I am also fortunate in that I am good at multi-tasking and prioritizing – probably the 2 skills that have helped me most during this period.
Managing two casinos that are so far apart must give you an interesting perspective on gambling per se. How do gamblers differ in each casino? Are there similarities / differences?
Both operations are similar in size (Glasgow has 11 tables and Bucharest 12), but that is where the similarity ends. With the very high competition in the Romanian market (there used to be 26 casinos just in Bucharest), casinos there have had to differentiate themselves through service as the product was broadly similar. Enhancing the customer experience became the focus, requiring constant innovation and a very high level of personal attention and flexibility. The staff to customer ratio is by necessity much higher in Romania than in the UK due to the very demanding clientele. Some may find this surprising, but the quality of play (spend/head) is significantly higher in Bucharest as a consequence.
The focus in Romania has been very much on revenue development, whereas the UK casino industry, especially in the provinces, appears to have focused on major cost-cutting drives, especially in staffing numbers. It is easier to achieve and quantify cost savings than it is to achieve and forecast revenue growth, which may be why this path is chosen. This is not to say that casinos in Romania have not had to introduce major cost-cutting strategies in the past couple of years, but this has been achieved without affecting the customer experience.
It has actually been very interesting to return to the UK casino environment after a 24 year gap. UK casinos have not developed or changed as much as I would have expected in that time, particularly as the market outside the UK is unrecognisable from what it was 20 years ago. The UK regulatory regime has something to do with this; outdated restrictions on slot machine numbers and jackpots, and the location of casinos, for example, have held the market back, but the resistance by UK casinos to recruit skilled management with non-UK casino experience may also have held back innovation within the industry.
Business practises within the casino industry have not kept pace with what service providers outside of the casino industry have been doing. Rather than looking at what rival operators are doing, we should be learning from what hotels, cinemas, restaurants, airlines and other service industries are doing to attract and reward customers.
I do believe that UK casinos in general need to be more flexible, to devolve decision-making power down to front-line staff, and to consciously make the customer the centre of every decision.
Have you undertaken any further education?
To advance my business skills I have completed the first stage of the MBA program at the Open University, and a Casino Management Course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (Distance Learning). The MBA program has been put on hold whilst I manage the Glasgow and Bucharest operations as I have no free time to devote to it, but I will resume once my schedule settles down.
Can you recommend the distance learning course?
I can highly recommend the Open University Distance Learning Program, especially the Management Certificates and Diplomas. They are very well supported and provide an excellent foundation of knowledge in HR development, marketing, finance, strategy, change and operations management for casino management looking to further their careers, or who are taking on more of a business management role.
The Casino Management Course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was an intensive 3-month program aimed hospitality professionals intending to work within a gaming environment in the US. It was interesting and enlightening, but I think that there are better focused courses now available within the UK, which would be more suitable for UK/European management.
Have you transferred any experience or knowledge from one casino to the other?
Sourcing and introducing a loyalty program from Intelligent Gaming in Glasgow has been a new experience for me and I have learned a great deal during the process. Loyalty/reward programs are not common in Romania and the features and flexibility of the Intelligent Gaming system would be ideal for the Bucharest market. Working with TCS John Huxley in re-equipping and reconfiguring the entire Glasgow gaming floor was also a very rewarding experience, and has inspired me with new ideas for the casino in Bucharest.
I think the most important value I can bring to Glasgow from Bucharest is to empower staff, from front-line host to casino manager, so that they can make sound decisions that improve the customer experience, involving them in every aspect of the decision-making process. Rather than focusing on the job at hand, staff need the tools and will to focus on the desired outcome, which is satisfied customers wanting to return. This has been achieved in Bucharest and is in progress in Glasgow.
Is there a new generation of casino manager stepping up to the mark?
I believe there is a new generation stepping up, but the risk is that they are being overlooked or side-lined by the older generation. The new generation are willing to question the established way of doing things, and have fresh ideas on how to improve practises and processes. Unfortunately many older generation managers see this as challenge to the status quo, rather than an opportunity to improve, and prefer to develop employees who are willing to toe the line. Change can be an exhausting process and it is often easier to maintain the status quo, but without constant questioning and review of current practise and processes the business will never develop or grow. We should be encouraging curiosity and innovation, and I do my best within my operations to encourage an environment where this is rewarded.
How do Casinos Austria encourage career progression particularly for women?
It is my experience that CAI encourages career progression by challenging employees and giving them the opportunity to shine. They reward initiative, creativity and hard work, regardless of whether you are male or female, and this is as it should be. I would not want to work in a company where I felt I had achieved my role merely because the company had to fulfil a quota. In CAI I know I am recognized for my performance rather than my gender.
Finally, when you are not at work – how do you relax?
My favourite leisure pursuit is travel. I love exploring far corners of the world or even forgotten corners of my neighbourhood. I am interested in architecture and ancient history and these play a big factor in my travel decisions. Long exploratory walks in new surroundings are probably my favourite activity.