Outsiders to the fore

Bringing people into casinos at a senior level from other industries            By  Paul Sculpher

 It’s never difficult to find someone in the casino industry who believes that the only way to become a serviceable senior manager is to do your time: 10, 15 or 20 years at the coalface can be perceived to be the only effective route to being able to handle the varied demands of running a casino operation.

The truth however, is that there are an increasing number of senior managers who have entered the casino industry from a completely different sector, the assumption being that management skills are transferable between parts of the leisure industry and that if you can manage the people who have the specific knowledge of the product, and understand what makes a leisure business tick, half a career spent working the staff level roles isn’t necessary to do a good job at a more senior level.

Steven Jackson & Paul Sculpher, Co-Directors Gaming Recruitment Solutions

With the growth in the land based casino sector worldwide, this is going to become a more and more pressing issue. There are only so many people ready to make the step up to site management, and with casino development outstripping many other sectors, these managers have to come from somewhere. A couple of UK companies have been particularly active in the sphere of introducing management into casino from external sectors, and I spoke with three of the people at the centre of the process.

Ian Woodward, Group HR Director at Caesars Entertainment UK (formerly LCI) has filled a couple of key roles with people who had never worked in casinos before—the Venue Directors of his Alea Nottingham and Empire Leicester Square properties, Mark Hands and Peter Turpin.

“The potential for deploying people from outside casinos is tremendous. While we have some fantastic Venue Directors who’ve worked their way through the casino hierarchy, our businesses are multi-faceted operations and there’s a lot more to running one than simply understanding gaming. The best casino Venue Directors are those who understand how every element of the customer offer fits together to make a consistent, integrated customer experience and there are a number of ways to pick up that level of experience and understanding”.

Some of the issues around bringing people into the business from outside revolve around historical factors—notably in the UK, personal licensing. In the old days of Section 19 certification, time had to be served, as a prospective manager worked their way through the licence levels, and this could tend to embed a reticence into people as to what was required to run a casino business. Ian commented, “it’s frustrating when you occasionally hear a viewpoint that only people who have worked their way up from being a dealer could operate a casino. We understand that table gaming is the key to our bottom line, in terms of numbers, but having all departments working together and delivering a consistent experience is the key to a quality service proposition, and that’s the long term future of the business”.

It would be no surprise to learn that there has been resistance to newcomers, although perhaps it hasn’t been as pronounced as one might expect. Stuart Bowker, Regional Manager for Rank’s northern G casinos and having come out of the restaurant trade (notably a globally recognised operator with over 600 outlets in the UK) has seen a limited amount of resistance. “I did hear some rumblings in the early days of switching over to casinos, but mostly from the more junior management. My job is, to a large extent, to manage the managers and to do that I don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of the games from day one”.

Bowker also recognises that casino operators are collectively selling an experience, not just a product, and drew some parallels to the type of issue that cross boundaries between the sectors. “There are plenty of situations where, whether it’s casino or restaurant, the same sort of issues can compromise the customer experience. It’s just as frustrating to go into a restaurant and be told there are no available tables due to staff shortages as it can be in a casino environment, and my job is to manage those situations. With every leisure customer, I like to think they have a “rota” of leisure experiences, and it’s my goal to make sure a trip to the casino pops up as often as possible on that rota—much the same as it was when I was in the restaurant trade. The skills to deliver that goal have a lot of common areas”. Rank have also brought a number of senior managers across from Mecca, their Bingo division, where of course there is a relatively high degree of familiarity. But Bowker is a good example of someone from a completely different element of the leisure industry making it work in casinos.

At site management level, there are other challenges to deal with. Mark Hands, Venue Director of Alea Nottingham (one of Caesars Entertainment UK’s properties) and previously a veteran of the hotel industry, told us about his experience. “To begin with, I could have resigned pretty much every day,” he told us. “The learning curve was pretty steep, and although I was always confident that I would perform well in the role, it was a challenge to convince all of the senior team that a lack of knowledge about the specifics of gaming wasn’t going to cause a problem in my doing my job. My approach to service was perhaps something a little new to them as well—when I started, the general approach was that most questions from customers were answered with “no”, and that’s something I was keen to change right away”.

It’s certainly fair to say that historically the casino business has been pretty hierarchical, and one of Hands’ objectives was to empower his team to make good decisions for the business. It makes sense to have the specialists in the various areas, particularly gaming, use their experience and instincts to maximise both returns and customer service, although sometimes this needs a helping hand—Mark mentioned that one of his early priorities was to simply have every customer greeted with a smile, something that I think we all can say from experience may not be as highly prioritised as it should be in all sites. A new entrant to the business may not only be in a good position to see these issues, but is likely to be more willing to challenge the status quo.

All three of the interview subjects for this article mentioned the potential for “blind spots” within people who have been in the industry for many years, and this is the flipside of relative inexperience in the gaming industry—the ability to look at things again from a semi-outsider’s point of view. A perfect example was Mark Hands’ retelling of his experience in his first trial visit to Alea Nottingham, as an “undercover” casino visitor when he was applying for the Director role. He was given a £5 chip at the end of his restaurant meal—so far, so familiar to casino operators as a standard promotion. However, he went to play the chip, and of course lost it in one spin. As a result of that, in Alea now, new restaurant customers don’t get one £5 chip, they get 20 x 25p chips, with staff instructed to accept these chips on all games. As a result, they are likely to get an idea of what it’s like to win as well as lose on the tables, and might therefore develop an idea of what’s fun about gaming. These sort of insights, and many more besides, comfortably offset the lack of direct gaming experience in an environment where a good number of the senior team have that critical gaming experience in any case.

So how do operators find the right people to bring into the experience? Going back to Ian Woodward of Caesars Entertainment UK, it’s not as easy as it might appear. One challenge is the fact that running a large multi-faceted site is a fairly well rewarded occupation, so the search will involve some pretty senior operators—unfortunately, in many cases, operators who feel they have done their fair share of late nights and weekends, a working pattern that is vital to any casino operator at any level. “We’ve had people drop out at the eleventh hour when they realised we were serious about the need for some unsociable hours,” Ian told us. “It has taken time to find people who have the skills and experience to run a site with 200 or more staff and a very significant bottom line, but who are still willing to show up at peak times and get involved in the level of interaction that our bigger players require”.

In summary, then, whether existing casino management like it or not, there is going to be an influx of people at senior levels who simply haven’t “done their time” on the casino floor. It may go against the grain for a somewhat blinkered few, but most will realise that as casinos grow and continue to ease their way into the mainstream leisure market, the skills needed to operate them are relatively transferable between sectors. The real naysayers should recognise that this goes both ways too—an outstanding 10 or 20 year veteran casino manager is in an increasingly good position to move into an equivalent role in other sectors. The opportunities are out there…

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