The casino of the future

/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

The stakes in the casino business are very, very high. Building and operating even a “small” casino costs tens of millions of dollars, and major casinos run into the hundreds of millions. The 1990s saw the rise of mega-casino resorts that cost even more; in 1998, the Bellagio became the world’s costliest hotel (at the time) at $1.6 billion -- not counting $300 million in artwork it housed.

However, an unsteady economy in the new century seemed to countermand the trend toward bigger and bigger casinos, as exemplified by the gigantic, new Aladdin falling into bankruptcy. Medium-sized, unthemed properties like the Palms represented more modest ambitions and less-risky propositions. Of course, the original creator of the Bellagio, mogul Steve Wynn, doesn’t appear to buy into the conventional wisdom, as he’s opening the $2.4 billion Wynn Las Vegas later this year.

Regardless, the point is that while there are millions to be made, there are also millions to be lost. That’s why the gaming industry is gazing into its crystal ball to figure out how to make its business more efficient, more secure, more adaptable and ultimately, more profitable in the future. You might not drive up to the casino of the year 2020 in your flying car, but the differences will be unmistakable.

Cashing out

One of the most fundamental changes will be less and less emphasis on cash in hand. Ticket-voucher systems are already in place for slot machines and video poker, where all or a portion of a guest’s winnings can be distributed not in coins or tokens, but in a ticket which can be inserted and played in another machine, kept for later or redeemed for cash at the cage. Casinos want to push this technology, as reducing cash inventory means fewer personnel to handle, track and secure that cash.

A related issue is the increasing number of uses for players’ club cards. Some casino corporations have expanded these cards to track purchases made throughout the property (or all the corporation’s properties), earning points for most anything. There’s theoretically no reason why this card couldn’t also link to a debit account for cashless gambling, serve as a room key, or even be used to make purchases at other targeted businesses. There’s some debate over whether the card itself should be an info-packed “smart card” or simply link to a central system as most already do. But the bottom line is that the more information the casino can gain by observing guests’ purchasing behavior, the more they can refine their marketing strategies.

Electronic slot machines and video games revolutionized the casino business, and the industry wants to exploit this cash cow to the fullest. One proposal gaining a lot of attention is the idea of a universally configurable game machine that downloads the gaming “software” -- a new slots game, or pretty much anything else -- thus eliminating the need to constantly bring in new machines and shuffle out the less popular ones. Variations on networked game play -- locally, nationally and globally -- will become more commonplace. In addition, some table games are even getting mechanized, with automated versions of roulette and craps popping up in Europe and set to test soon in the United States.       

It’s those table games that are most resistant to change, actually. No matter how you slice it, anyone who enjoys playing at a table likely also prefers a little human interaction, with dealers and game attendants as well as fellow gamblers. (If they didn’t, they could stick to video poker or video blackjack.) Table games have lost ground for years to the more profitable slot machines, and most industry watchers expect this trend to continue. The little islands of table games will get smaller and smaller in the surrounding sea of slots, but they will likely remain mostly unchanged unless gamblers in general lose interest.       

You’re on candid sky camera

One of the more profound changes in casino operation will take place behind the scene, as digital facial recognition technology gets more and more sophisticated. The Eye in the Sky cameras in many casinos are already programmed to catch the faces of well-known cheaters. But as the technology gets better, it will recognize everyone from criminals to high rollers to regular gamblers. While such systems increase security, they could also provide yet another pool of marketing data for the casino to analyze.

There certainly are obstacles to these potential innovations. Many gamblers are not excited about cashless gambling, either because they enjoy the feel and thrill of winning and carrying real money, or because they’re less than enthusiastic of having all their winnings immutably recorded (and thus tracked by the IRS). Themed properties may be unpopular in terms of new casino concepts, but as casinos become more generically interchangeable, it gets more difficult to persuade a guest to visit casino A versus casino B . . . or even worse, why a gambler shouldn’t just stay home and gamble online.

Likely the most general truth about the casino of the future is that it will take on more and more attributes common to other major vacation destinations. With nongaming income now on a par with gambling income, the serious expansion will take place everywhere but the casino floor. Eventually, if not already, the games will be understood as just one of several integral components of the larger resorts’ overall strategy. Big or small, diversity of product may well be what separates the casinos of the future from the relics of the past.

Chris Mohney is a contributor to "The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas."