Lessons from five months of casino-hoppingBy Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming ReportsAugust 26, 2018 at 2:53 pmAt one casino, a veteran blackjack dealer handled the cards with superb efficiency but no conversation and no smiles, not even a “thank you” for tips. At a place down the road, a dealer who could have passed for a teenager shuffled and distributed the cards deliberately but was quick with a grin.At one mammoth destination casino, the daily $14.99 resort fee provided Wi-Fi access for precisely two devices and – by design – failed to cover the entire property; those wanting Wi-Fi in the conference area had to fork over an additional $13.99.A pit supervisor at one casino gladly handed out buffet comps while a host at a competitor not only refused a request but left the impression of “why are you bothering me?”I’ve encountered a broad range of such casino tales as I traveled the country this year to fulfill assignments for CDC Gaming Reports and my affinity for gambling. My travels in the past five months included casino visits in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri, and Mississippi. I talked with a variety of casino executives and consultants as well as dealers, servers, other staffers, and fellow players.In the spirit of Yogi Berra’s insight that “You can observe a lot by watching,” I recount these recent incidents to give one player’s take on casino operations.Sports betting pays off A fellow gambler smiled knowingly as he waited for the elevator to the reopened and repurposed second floor at Sam’s Town outside Tunica, Mississippi.“The sports book is the only thing up there,” he told me on Aug. 9, the day of my hometown Steelers’ first NFL preseason game. He said the operation was attracting a lot of business, adding, “I’ve cashed every day since they started” on Aug. 3.It’s way too early to declare Mississippi’s launch of sports betting an unqualified success, but the Tunica casinos seem to have regained some of the buzz they enjoyed when the area ranked among the top gaming markets in the country, generating talk about the “Tunica Miracle” that transformed what had been one of the country’s poorest areas.At the sportsbooks and elsewhere, players talked often about the ability to wager legally on their favorite teams; naturally, some see a realistic prospect of winning big.The Sam’s Town sportsbook occupies an area that once featured a poker room and numerous video poker and slot machines. The second-floor casino closed in early 2015 after the recession and the addition of casinos in other states slashed visitation to Tunica. The reopened section now houses a bank of wall-mounted TVs tuned to sports broadcasts. On the morning I placed a $5 bet on the Steelers, a few bettors lined up at the counter while others watched the action or studied their picks.Gold Strike, which had the first sports betting operation in Tunica, has set up a temporary book in its food court area but plans a more elaborate facility off the main casino floor, according to the state Gaming Commission. Resorts, which has only six table games and 799 slots, was measuring and planning for the addition of its sports-betting kiosks.A new way to attract customers, sports betting has also created jobs and spurred casinos to spruce up.A Mississippi Gaming Commission spokesman said 27 of the state’s 28 commercial casinos will offer sports betting, either with a full-fledged book or kiosks. The exception is Caesars Entertainment’s Tunica Roadhouse, which is next door to the much larger Horseshoe, another Caesars property.Assessing the economic impact is difficult this early on, especially with some casinos planning elaborate sportsbooks and others content with small operations. But casinos obviously are adding staff and spending money on improvements. A 2017 study done for the American Gaming Association estimated that sportsbooks would create at least 1,350 jobs in Mississippi, with an additional 1,187 new jobs indirectly related to the sportsbooks.Attitudes make a differenceThe tale of the two dealers – the veteran whose demeanor screamed “you can’t have fun at this table” versus the relative newbie eager to talk and joke – underscores the importance of the people who have the most face-to-face time with customers. The veteran could deal far more hands per hour, assuming any players decided to stay. The younger dealer, while not nearly as skilled at handling the cards, left a far more favorable impression of himself and his casino.Admittedly, this is not a groundbreaking observation. I hope it’s a reminder of how vital the attitudes of casino staffers are to players’ judgements about where to spend their gambling bankroll.All players want to win; most recognize they probably won’t. All players want comps; most realize they sometimes ask for more than what their play merits. A human touch when things don’t go a player’s way – whether it’s luck or casino policy – is vital if the casino wants the player to visit again.Really join the mainstream: Stop smokingOne casino I visited had cordoned off what was advertised as a slot area for nonsmokers, but the arrangement showed the casino wasn’t all that serious about it. The room was just a section of the main casino floor, and nothing prevented smoke from encroaching. The selection of machines was limited, and it lacked many popular titles. Worse, the air conditioning in that area was not working on that day. To provide some relief, the casino two large floor fans, positioned so they sucked the air from the smoking side into non-smoking area.In another state, one casino touted that all its restaurants, hotel rooms, retail areas and public areas were nonsmoking – but not the gaming floor.Throughout the country, casinos have broken many stereotypes to establish themselves as a mainstream industry and upstanding members of the business community. They should stop selling themselves as needing an exemption to smoking bans that apply to all other types of facilities open to the public.The dangers of secondhand smoke for employees and customers are well-known. The widespread acceptance of smoking bans at restaurants, hotels, rental cars, open-air stadiums and virtually every other public gathering spot demonstrates that people appreciate clean air when they go out. The success of nonsmoking casinos in Ohio, Maryland, Illinois and other states proves that such exemptions are no longer necessary, if indeed they ever were. What’s good for casino restaurants and poker rooms is good for the casino floor.Bank on the long runEveryone in the casino world has heard the unending customer complaints about resort fees and other additional charges for no additional service. Those complaints will keep coming because they’re valid. The Wi-Fi access fees described above are ludicrous, even when they can be written off or reimbursed as a business expense.Why does a facility that wants to sell itself as “the place to be” – especially for the generation whose lives revolve around portable devices – gouge customers with a ludicrous fee for a service that almost every other retailer and business provides at no charge?The short-term profit is beguiling, to be sure. But the success of the casino industry relies on the long run. Slot managers don’t (or shouldn’t) sweat a jackpot because the machines will keep 10 percent or so of what’s bet over time.Most gamblers want to play where they can have fun and get a credible shot at winning. Providing that with a friendly staff, good games, and reasonable costs will guarantee they’ll be customers for a long time.