Industry Update
Opinion Article15 January 2019

Fixing Las Vegas’ Millennial Problem

By Tucker Johnson, Instructional Assistant Professor at University of Houston

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Last month I was an invited instructor for the Casino Resort Management course within the University of Houston's Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. This was one of many experiential courses offered by the college and gave me the opportunity to visit Las Vegas for five days, getting a behind-the-scenes look at high-roller suites, gaming floors, and high-tech security systems. While each casino resort had a different feel, and our hosts gave different insights, one problem was mentioned consistently across the properties: Millennials were not gaming at high levels and, although the casinos were trying, no one knew how to fix it.

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Most of the casinos' current Millennial strategies centered around creating gaming opportunities that were more in line with things Millennials already liked (example: multi-player video games). The Rio, for instance, just completed The Wall Gaming Lounge, which consists of rows of pc computers and allows for money tournaments and self-serve beer. It seemed that most casinos viewed this as the proper strategy: connect gaming with games that Millennials are already playing.

One of the interesting parts of being on this trip was observing the Millennial students that I was travelling with, since they were the exact demographic that these hotels were trying to engage. It was fascinating to watch the students' relationship and interaction with casino gaming. At the conclusion of the trip I agreed that there is a disconnect between the casinos and the Millennials, but I'm not 100% convinced the answer lies in redesigning the games to fit Millennial's general generational preferences.

In academia, we struggle sometimes with the Millennials, too. To better understand their generation and more effectively teach to them, I was recently given a book by my Associate Dean: The Care and Feeding of Your Young Employee (Jamie Belinne). A component of this book compares and contrasts different generations, how they interpret instructions, and their preferred communication styles. As I was interacting with my students on the trip and thinking about some of the concepts of the book, something dawned on me: There did not appear to be an effort by any casino to explain, in great detail, gaming to Millennials.

What if I told you that there were multiple students on our trip that didn't know how to play blackjack? Well there were, and it blew my mind. Many of them did not understand how you won on the slot machines. There was great debate on whether or not you needed to tip servers for free drinks. The more I was in the casino environment the more it became clear to me: part of Las Vegas' Millennial problem was Las Vegas' assumption of Millennial gaming knowledge. The problem was further compounded by lack of abundant opportunities for Millennials to learn.

In The Care and Feeding of Your Young Employee, there was one part that stood out to me concerning communication with Millennials: "Give clear and specific instructions with defined timelines, deliverables, and limits, but encourage feedback on processes from young employees" (pg. 63). If this is the best way to communicate with a Millennial, why were there not easily accessible, clear, specific instructions on gaming in Las Vegas?

I started to put myself in Millennials' shoes while in the casino. Due to their "helicopter" parents' interference, Jamie Belinne writes that many Millennials "were taught to stay out of the way and let their elders take charge" (pg. 21). Why would anyone expect them to behave differently in Las Vegas? Millennials don't have a good grasp of slots and table games, but instead of the casinos taking charge to show them how to play, they are shifting the games to something Millennials already know.

The two areas where the students did spend time gaming were the poker room and craps. I think this was due to their prior understanding of poker (the ones who played poker understood the game) and, in craps, the ability to watch closely and not bet every roll. Craps allowed for them to be a part of the action, with access to safety (not betting every roll), while having the opportunity to learn the game from watching. They also had the ability to ask questions to the other players and the three dealers.

What can casinos do?

Yes - catering to games Millennials already know will be helpful in attracting them, but there should also be an equal effort to allow them to become comfortable with casinos' existing, proven, winners like slot machines and table games. Based on Millennial behavioral and communication preferences, I would suggest trying one or more of the below six ideas:

  1. Create "future high-roller" tables and slot machine that offer very low limits ($.25 tables; $.01 slots) with no ability to increase bets. Don't offer drinks to these gamers. I think this would give Millennials the ability to learn the games in a less intense environment. Once they get the hang of things they will likely leave the low limits to try and increase their winnings and get free drinks.
  2. Have a casino game training area. Instead of having one time where a player might be able to learn a game (example: Luxor does theirs at noon), offer an on-demand area where Millennials can practice any game at any time. Offer match play bonus once the player leaves the practice area.
  3. Have half-speed tables and slots. More time to make decisions will reduce the stress and will help for novice players to assess all their options before making a bet. Limit free drinks in this area.
  4. Market to the poker room. Focus on younger players as they are leaving the area and encourage them to try video poker or the three-card poker table games. Offer match play.
  5. Train the dealers to be more welcoming. There is an intimidation factor to sitting at a table game. A dealer that is not smiling and welcoming adds to this intimidation. I know this can be an issue with the gaming unions, but it still should be a focus.
  6. Staff the casinos with "ambassadors" who would be able to join anyone gaming and answer questions in real-time. Have these people dress in approachable attire (no suits).

If it ain't broke

Table games are hundreds of years old and slot machines have been around since the late 1800s (gaming history info). While focusing on new games that Millennials understand is a good strategy, I would also work to remove the barriers that exist from connecting the current games to the Millennial generation. Millennials must be proactively provided detailed information in a welcoming environment. If casinos are unable to do that, they may not be able to capture Millennial business in the long-run.

Tucker Johnson

After nearly 20 years working in food and beverage and hotel sales, Tucker Johnson is now an Instructional Assistant Professor with the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management-San Antonio. He received his BS in Hotel Administration from Cornell University and MHA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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    University of Houston - Conrad N. Hilton Hotel College
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