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August 17, 2017

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The myths and realities of Las Vegas casino hosts

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Tom Donoghue / DonoghuePhotography.com

A bird’s-eye view of the Las Vegas Strip at dusk, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016.

In pop culture, Las Vegas casino hosts are almost as legendary as the players they sometimes serve, the uber-rich bettors known in gambling slang as “whales.”

But the biggest challenge casino hosts face isn’t getting finicky players to bet — it’s getting the support and understanding they need from management to do their job. That observation was one of the takeaways during a two-day conference on casino-host development this week at Bally’s Las Vegas.

Hosts are often seen as smooth-talking glad-handers dishing out show tickets and free penthouse suites. But the truth is, and should be, more prosaic: Casino hosts are, according to presenters at the conference, professional salespeople.

“When it comes to the competitive landscape in gaming, the general managers and gaming executives understand it’s an extremely competitive world out there,” said Steve Browne, president of Raving Service, a part of Raving Consulting, the company behind the conference. “But they didn’t grow up in the sales environment.”

Management often regards hosts as “huggers,” and perceives the job is simply to keep players happy, Browne said. “But selling to them was not a standard part of business, so we didn’t learn how to sell.”

This concept of the “hugger” comes, in part at least, from the history of the profession.

At the start of the conference, Dennis Conrad, president and chief strategist of Raving Consulting, provided a brief summary of the history of the casino host, starting with what he called the prehistoric era, the period before 1970.

Back then, Conrad said, the job of a casino host focused on personal knowledge of the games and a little black book of contacts that contained the names of players with whom the host had relationships.

Today, of course, casinos have databases, player-tracking systems and other technological systems that allow them to maintain relationships with high-spending gamblers.

Although the technology has advanced, the perception of the host as primarily a hugger persists — and causes hosts and their managers numerous problems. Browne and Raving partner Janet Hawk detailed the top issues hosts have with their jobs.

Casino hosts should be, they said, selling the casino to high-end players who will gamble more frequently with larger budgets than others. But because they have the power to hand out comps, they are often called when any guest has a bad experience.

“Everybody thinks a host is glorified guest representative and that they should (be called) for every problem under the sun,” Hawk said. “This stops other departments from taking ownership of their problems and guests.”

Also because hosts are often seen as huggers, management will sometimes offer the job to employees who aren’t working out in other roles but who are seen as “nice.”

“‘Nice’ is good,” Hawk said. “But it doesn’t get the job done. Nice people don’t always become effective hosts or effective salespeople. To put people there, just because we need some place to dump them, that needs to stop.”

Other problems hosts face, Hawk and Browne said, are low entry salaries and complex, ever-changing bonus systems.

Poor compensation and not valuing the host role as a valid career path prevent top sales talent from other industries from considering the gaming industry as a career, Browne said.

One challenge hosts face, however, is peculiar to the gaming business and not based on management misperceptions or a lack of resources. It’s something salespeople in most other businesses don’t have to worry about — problem gambling.

“One of the sales practices we don’t teach or engage in, because of the predatory aspect, is to always be closing,” Browne said. “In every other industry salespeople learn the ABC rule. In other words, Always Be Closing.”

Browne said hosts are always selling, not necessarily closing. “I can sell but if you don’t want to buy, I will drop you and move on,” Brown said. "If you have a customer telling you, ‘I don’t want to gamble,’ then I can’t use ethically suspect, highly emotional closing techniques to get you to change your mind. If you tell me I don’t want to come or buy or play, then I back off and move onto to the next player.”

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