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July 17, 2019

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Free drinks for slot play? Not so fast

How casinos are using more automation to figure how much booze to comp players

Linq bar

Steve Marcus

A view of Bar 3535 at the Linq resort on Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. Some Las Vegas Strip resorts have begun using automated systems to determine who gets comped alcoholic beverages.

Free booze, handed out by casinos to reward regular gamblers, is as much of a Las Vegas tradition as cheap buffets, showgirls in big production shows and free parking.

But like free parking, gradually being removed from MGM Resorts International's Las Vegas Strip properties this year, getting a free drink for throwing a few coins in a slot may become a thing of the past now that some Strip resorts have started using automated systems to determine who gets comped.

“There’s always been this unspoken rule that the bartenders decide who gets what,” said Scott Roeben, a blogger who reported on the issue last week. “They’re watching the play and if you don’t play enough, they say you gotta play more. They’re automating that system … so there’s a very one-to-one correlation between play and the rewards.”

Roeben thinks automating the process is a way for the casinos to tighten up on comps and ensure people are really gambling before they get free booze.

“It’s a pretty rudimentary concept to understand,” he said. “You don’t get a free drink for a 50-cent play … You never did, but now you get a red light that says you’re not meeting the criteria. You’re not worthy.”

On his blog vitalvegas.com, Roeben posted pictures of a system at Caesars Entertainment properties that feature red and green lights that tell the servers when to hand out comps. In a statement, Caesars officials confirmed they rolled out a comp-validation system in all its Nevada resorts.

An MGM representative said the company is pilot-testing a paper voucher comp-validation system on slot machines at MGM Grand and the Lobby Bar at the Mirage.

Roeben also noticed a comp-validation system at the Chandelier Lounge in the Cosmopolitan in August. Longtime Vegas observer and blogger Anthony Curtis also reported that the Cosmopolitan has implemented a voucher system. The Cosmopolitan declined to comment..

A quick email survey found many other casino companies are still comping drinks the old-fashioned way. They include the Tropicana, the Golden Gate and the D Las Vegas, the Sands, the Silverton Casino and all Boyd properties.

While the use of these systems isn’t widespread, it is significant, given the companies involved.

And Roeben said it makes sense anyway, since people are gambling less, for casinos to start tightening up on the comps.

“(Gaming companies) once thought of casinos as subsidizing everything else,” he said. “So the amount of play warranted freebies and being more liberal with freebies. But as gaming goes down, you gotta fill that gap in revenue. So you’re gonna automate things.”

MGM Resorts said the reason for its pilot program is simply to make the comp process easier for its servers.

“The new technology has eliminated the guessing game for bartenders about how many drinks each guest is eligible to receive based on play,” the company said in a statement. “Further, it has made the number of comped drinks that players receive consistent for all slot players at these bars.”

Curtis, however, has another theory for the interest in automating comps: theft.

“It’s an attempt to end a problem that’s been rampant for years,” Curtis said. “If you have a cash bar with unlooked or overseen comping privileges, a cash customer can buy a drink and bartender can comp them even if they’re not playing.” The bartender then pockets the cash the customer gave him for the drink.

Curtis said the voucher systems he’s seen haven’t been remotely cheap with the comps.

“Here’s what is making me believe that this is true,” Curtis said. “I test-drove it and sat down in one of voucher systems. Drink vouchers were coming out so fast that, literally, you couldn’t use them all. And I know how to drink and play. I’ve been doing it for years.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Sam Pollock is a former gaming executive whose company, Food and Beverage Consulting Solutions, helps casinos work though issues surrounding bars and restaurants.

He thinks automation can’t prevent all theft. But it could help casinos make sure that the people who deserve comps actually get them.

“From a service perspective, the bartender can look at the green light and then come over. It’s like a slot with a call button. That’s where I see it working better.”

As the president of Raving Consulting Co., Dennis Conrad also consults with casinos across the country.

He says automating comps might be an attempt to improve customer service by ensuring people entitled to comps get them. And it might also be a way to get rid of freeloaders and even reduce theft. Regardless of the reasons for implementing them, automated systems could create new problems.

“There needs to be some training and communicating the facts of why we’re doing this and how, if you’re a good player, there’s nothing to worry about,” Conrad said.

“It’s often a challenge with frontline employees whose (tips) are based on service-giving and drinks going out …,” Conrad said. It’s a challenge to explain company strategy that affects that dynamic.

“If you just leave it to the frontline employees, you know what could happen. The player will ask, ‘What’s this?’ and if the bartender isn’t trained, they’re going to say something like, ‘You know how they are. They don’t want me to make a living.”

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