15 LESSONS LEARNED

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Every once in a while, one of my clients or colleagues tells me that I should write a book on my adventures in gaming. I might do that one day – a few years from now when I retire! So when Jeannie asked me to write an article for the 15th Anniversary edition, I immediately thought about the countless valuable lessons I have learned after 25+ years in the gaming/hospitality business. So in honor of Gaming & Leisure Magazine’s 15th Anniversary, and to start what may be the chapters of my book one day, I am sharing my top 15 Lessons Learned.

  1. It is not always about the price. I had a client that replaced their BI tools because new management preferred a different system. It wasn’t about price, it was about the system / BI tool that the new management team was comfortable with. Corporate standards, the operator’s overall IT infrastructure strategy, etc. also drive these decisions. We should always be mindful that as the landscape changes, due to mergers, acquisitions and changes in senior management, system changes may be an important part of the new direction. Lesson Learned: In many cases it is about price. But in many cases it’s about the relationship with the vendor or sales executive or specific functionality of a product. Embrace it as an opportunity, and help your clients do the same.
  2. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should! I think I could write a book on this one (or at least a chapter in a book). To my vendor colleagues, we know that an important revenue stream is upgrades, but it is not always in the best interest of the operator to do an upgrade when you want them to do it. To my operational colleagues and clients, just because a new upgrade is available, doesn’t mean you should do it now! There are many dependencies on new or changing functionality including the regulatory requirements, the company’s IT roadmap, the IT department’s available bandwidth, interface considerations and how these changes are going to impact your guests/players. Lesson Learned: A new upgrade has recently been approved in a jurisdiction. The operator has marginal IT bandwidth and several other dependencies, including the need to do several upgrades in a sequential order (an upgrade needs to be completed on a different system BEFORE the new, recently approved upgrade can happen). Also consider that in many cases, no one wants to be first in any jurisdiction because there may be changes that are specific to the jurisdiction due to regulatory requirements or specific enhancements that are already present in the operator’s version.
  3. Don’t trip over dimes to save nickels. When I first started in gaming, the first thing I learned was to do my homework. What was the pro forma/post forma analysis? What was the Return on Investment (ROI)? What is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over a 3 to 5-year period? When I worked for Boyd Gaming in the late 1990s, one of my mentors was the Corporate SVP of Slots, Dick Burnside. Dick passed away several years ago, but he lives vividly in my memory. At least once a month, Dick would say: “Don’t trip over dimes to save nickels.” Lesson Learned: Do your homework. What’s the TCO? What is the ROI? How much will maintenance or product warranties cost on an annual basis? These metrics determine the FULL COST of ownership. Be prepared to quantify the business value as well as soft benefits of the investment. Finally, make sure everyone involved in the decision-making process is asking all the right questions! You may discover that the least expensive option is not the one with the smallest “sticker” price.
  4. The devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t know! This is another Dick Burnside mantra. I had a client several years ago who wanted to replace their casino management system. The CEO brought me in to do an assessment to determine the key requirements. After completing the analysis, it was determined that their current system had all the functionality that was required, however individual departments had created various “work arounds” that created issues for finance and audit. I brought the incumbent vendor into the discussion and the vendor provided all the necessary resources to essentially “reinstall” the system and retrained the staff so they could achieve maximum functionality. It has been my experience that the primary reason relationships “deteriorate” is because of personnel changes on the vendor side. More on this in Lesson Learned #10. Lesson Learned: Relationships change over time, and sometimes the change is positive, but there are times when changes can negatively impact a relationship. Before you replace a system or a vendor, identify WHY you need to change. What functionality are you going to lose – while perhaps gaining one or two other features? What changed in the system or the relationship that is creating the need for a change?
  5. Everyone needs to be invited to the party. Very recently, working with a client who wanted to implement new policies and procedures around guest comping, we discovered that F&B allowed players to transfer paper comps to their friends and relatives. No one in marketing, player development or IT was aware that this was happening. Because the current process is to issue a paper comp to the player and the paper comp did not specifically state that the comp was NOT TRANSFERRABLE, to avoid guest service issues, F&B honored the paper comp. In order to implement electronic comps, both the front line staff as well as the players need to be educated on the impending changes. Lesson Learned: Any time my team and I are involved in a project, we encourage our clients to bring everyone to the kick off meeting that has an interest (or should have an interest) in the project. Success requires TEAM WORK. Everyone that has/or should have skin in the game needs to be involved from the very beginning and receive regular communication. There is a fine line between “no one told me” and a head in the sand.
  6. Who is the Leader/Executive Sponsor for the project? Every project needs an Executive Sponsor/Project Champion who will be the “go-to” leader when decisions are required or issues need to be escalated. Managing a major project with many constituents is like herding cats! Be aware that everyone has their own agenda, their own internal resource constraints, budget considerations, etc. The Executive Sponsor has to be the tie breaker and have the authority to render the final decisions. At the same time that Executive Sponsor needs to fully understand the project and be passionate about its success. Lesson Learned: Unless the Executive Sponsor feels real ownership in the project they will not be an effective tie breaker. Oftentimes, they need executive briefings to keep them clued in and in some cases they need to be coached on their role. Do not start a major initiative without having this key ingredient in place.
  7. Consider the overall impact of customizations. During the opening of a new property, several of the key stakeholders came from an organization that had a different system and a much larger IT budget. The number of “enhancements” that this group had on their wish list was staggering. These customizations would impact future upgrades and would result in significantly increasing the cost of all upgrades. Sitting down with the key stakeholders and having them triage their list was a major “eye opening” exercise. The key caveat that they needed to keep in mind was that they would eventually have to justify the additional expense that would come with any future upgrade. Needless to say, after having many candid discussions, we came back with a much smaller and more manageable list of customizations! Lesson Learned: If the initial price tag for customizations doesn’t stop you, consider the impact over time in terms of upgrades, interface rewrites, etc. Customizations that add value and pass the ROI test are usually worth the investment.
  8. Good, Fast and Cheap – Pick Two! During the process of doing a major system conversion, a client decided to eliminate specific functionality that was provided by a third-party vendor to save on the integration / interface costs as well as eliminate one of the cost centers. This created a nightmare guest service issue. The client ended up having to have the third-party interface re-engineered to work with the new system and spent countless “service recovery” dollars appeasing their best players. Lesson Learned: Yes, we all know, leadership wants projects good, fast and cheap, but the reality is you can only deliver two! If you want it good and fast, it will not be cheap. If you want it fast and cheap, it probably will not be good. It is up to the Executive Sponsor, project manager and other leaders to set realistic expectations for the business. In many cases, the timeline is going to be longer than expected in order to have a successful install or upgrade. “Do Overs” are expensive and career threatening!
  9. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite! Trying to make too many changes or deploying an entire suite of products at one time is a recipe for failure! You must take into consideration all the moving parts. Lesson Learned: When making changes to any system, introducing a new system or make changes to interfaces, you need to:
    • Identify ALL the stakeholders including third-party vendors.
    • Gain consensus on the timing of the change.
    • Ensure that all stakeholders and vendors have skin in the game.
    • Publish a project charter that clearly spells out the project rules, including the communication and escalation path.
  10. Eight pairs of eyes are always better than one! A couple of years ago one of my clients wanted to embark on a major system selection process. Before I start a project like this, I have a short survey that I like to administer to the key stakeholders to find out what they like / do not like about their current systems, what they perceive to be the major requirements, etc. The CEO did not feel this was necessary. He believed that because of their location, his staff, “did not get out much.” I was able to convince him that the survey would be a simple process and would yield key information. It turned out to be an EYE OPENING experience for the CEO and everyone involved in the project. Essentially, the key stakeholders, collectively said, “We don’t need a new system, we need kiosks, improved dining options, key interfaces to their existing system which were not currently in place and finally, new uniforms and better grooming standards!” Wow! Once they implemented several of the survey recommendations, any issues that were perceived with the existing system, magically disappeared. Lesson Learned: You might be surprised at the feedback you receive when you include others in the process! Test drive your strategy and recommendations by bouncing them off your peers, vendors and trusted colleagues. When making changes or implementing new solutions or processes seek the advice / review of your vendor / partners as well as the business. There is safety in numbers!
  11. Your vendors are your partners! The vendor representative for one of my clients had a bad habit of only speaking with the slot director at the property, ignoring marketing, IT, etc. When a major system upgrade / enhancement was about to take place, he found out that this upgrade not only affected the slot department, but there were dependencies in many other departments that needed to be addressed. Back to Lesson Learned #5. Lesson Learned:Meet regularly with your vendor representatives. An annual / semi-annual meeting with their development team should also be on the agenda so you can share roadmaps, impact of other system changes, etc. Additionally, when there is a change in the key players, on either side, it is incumbent on the vendor to schedule a meeting with all the key stakeholders to assess the operator’s current satisfaction with the system / service and to ensure that key communication has been passed along to the “new guy or gal.” Back to Lesson Learned #4.
  12. You and your staff already have full time jobs. Many clients will tell you that it is worth hiring a seasoned / experienced consultant / project manager that has “been there and done that.” In our practice, we maintain detailed documentation on all the “lessons learned” from past installations, upgrades, etc. Having someone who has, “BEEN THERE AND DONE THAT,” will save countless hours and headaches in the long run. We also maintain excellent relationships with all the key vendors, and have many of their key leaders on speed dial. If we encounter issues that require escalation, we can help both our client and the vendor quickly respond to keep things moving. Lesson Learned: Please do not be intimidated by the idea of hiring an “expert.” Trust me when we tell you that we do not want your job. We are here to help you be successful. Experienced consultants are way past the point in our careers that we are seeking to take credit for success. Our satisfaction comes from YOUR success. Our goal is to become your new “best friend” and a trusted advisor for a very long time.
  13. Testing! There is no substitute for testing. A testbed / sandbox will save a lot of heartache later. Making changes directly in the production system, without testing is a recipe for disaster. Yes, it is going be an additional investment / expense. Many properties have strict change control policies and procedures that help justify this logical process. In order to make changes, you have to have a testbed to test the changes. We recognized that testbeds cost money, but for major system conversions or upgrades, the required testing and training requires end-toend systems and user testing, including the major interfaces. Testbed hardware can always be re-purposed or used as spares if budget is a major issue. Lesson Learned: One of my clients says that this lesson is the “Holy Grail.” We are all familiar with the saying: “Measure twice, cut once.” This applies to system implementations and upgrades, too!
  14. Training – Training is probably the most underfunded, but most valuable investment you can make! I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, “We had when the system was installed…” My questions to that are: “So, exactly how many years ago was that? And how many of the employees who received that training are still with the company?” Regular training audits of how your team is utilizing your system investments will pay dividends. Lesson Learned: I have lost count of how many times a client has found out that sought after functionality was already “present” in their existing systems. I have also lost count of how many times I have discovered “work arounds” that violate policies and procedures that exposed the operator to loss and theft.
  15. Consultants and vendors get no satisfaction in hearing, “You were right; we should have listened to you!!” One of the fundamental rules in opening a new casino is: “NO BETAS.” On a recent opening, two members of the leadership team did an “end run” and convinced the COO to install a thirdparty application that did not have an approved interface to the core application. Their argument was that the interface would be finished prior to opening. Ultimately, the interface was NOT READY in time for opening and a good deal of additional labor was required to manually perform the tasks that the interface was designed to expedite. Lesson Learned: Yes – sometimes we need to make the mistake to learn from it. HOWEVER, in our business, we can’t afford to make mistakes that impact revenue and the guest experience! When a consultant or a vendor HIGHLY recommends that you do or not do something – they are sharing their experience to GUIDE and PROTECT YOU! Like parents and children – when the parent says, “Don’t touch that, it’s HOT!” they mean it and we do, too. One of the main reasons you hire us in the first place is to manage the risk and protect you from making a mistake!

I had a lot of fun writing this article and it brought back many memories! It is my sincere hope you found this article both informative and entertaining! I would love to hear some of your lessons learned. Please send me your stories at claudia@ghisolutions.com.

Claudia is an internationally published author with articles appearing in numerous trade, and she is a highly sought speaker for industry conferences. From 2014-2016, Claudia has been selected to judge the Top 20 Most Innovative Gaming Technology Products Awards for Casino Journal. Claudia also serves as a judge for the Global Gaming / G2E Annual Gaming and Technology Awards (2003 – 2016). She has taught gaming and management at the University of Nevada, Reno since 2001. She was honored as one of the Great Women in Gaming by Casino Enterprise Magazine in the inaugural class of 2005. Claudia is an honors graduate from Penn State University. She can be reached at claudia@ghisolutions.com mobile: (702) 339-1139.

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