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Nevadan At Work: Despite Many Changes, Bally's Long-Time Exec Stayed5 June 2006
By Howard Stutz
In the last 20 years, Bally's Las Vegas has had one name change, almost a half-dozen corporate overlords, a dozen property presidents and countless internal and external renovations and enhancements.
Rick Zeller, however, has remained a constant.
In 1986, when he was age 33, Zeller was asked to move to Las Vegas from Bally's Atlantic City casinos to help Bally's when the company bought the original MGM Grand and renamed the property Bally's Las Vegas. This year, he marks two decades of service to the Strip casino.
Although his job title and responsibilities have changed, his interest in the gaming industry and his loyalty to the property haven't wavered.
"I just try to bring in business and do my job," said Zeller, now vice president of customer development for Bally's and Paris Las Vegas, which opened in 1999. Paris is operated by Bally's management team under the same gaming license.
"I don't play politics. If I did, I wouldn't have been able to survive any of the (casino) presidents," Zeller said.
After a short career in banking, Zeller joined Bally's in his native New Jersey when the company opened its first of two Atlantic City casinos. After six years, he moved to Las Vegas and never looked back.
In a constantly evolving industry, Zeller is a throwback, a casino executive who has spent his career with predominately one property. Zeller stayed put with Bally's when it was operated under Bally's Casinos; as part of the Hilton Hotels Corp.; as a component of Hilton's gaming spin-off, Park Place Entertainment; and when the property was under the Caesars Entertainment umbrella.
Now, as part of Harrah's Entertainment's Strip casino empire, Zeller is entrenched.
"After a while, you have a niche," Zeller said. "If the company you're with is taking care of you and you're happy with the way it is, why change. "We have a lot of employees that have been here 25 or 30 years.
"There are some people at Bally's that were here when the property opened in 1973."
Harrah's Entertainment's stewardship brought Zeller more properties to send his list of clientele.
Unlike, previous ownership, he no longer competes with Caesars Palace for customers. Zeller can send his customers to Caesars and vice versa.
During his tenure, Zeller has developed an eclectic array of casino players, nongambling customers, friends and contacts. For 25 years, when Hall of Fame baseball player Willie Mays was under contract to Bally's, Zeller was the casino's contact to Mays. The pair have developed a lasting friendship.
Question: What was it about gaming that attracted you to the casino business?
Answer: I used to come out here on vacation.
I never gambled, but the life of gambling, such as the people and the atmosphere just enthralled me. I was really happy as a banker and I knew I would have a financially secure future with what I was making back then, but I wanted to get into gaming. The excitement thrilled me.
Question: How long did it take you to get a job in gaming?
Answer: I was living in South Jersey when gaming started in 1978 and I met a gentleman at Bally's. I called him every Friday at 1 p.m. for a year to see if there were any openings. He finally had a position for me in credit.
Once you got your gaming license in Atlantic City you could show what you could do, you moved along pretty move pretty quick in the early days.
Question: How has Bally's changed over the years?
Answer: Before Paris was built and before all the luxury properties were built in town, Bally's had its share of the high-end table game and slot customers.
Back in the '80s, we had a reputation from Atlantic City for high-end play.
The town progressed and a lot of the new megaresorts opened. Now, Bally's caters to the middle-end table game customers to the midlevel, upper end slot players.
Question: What did the opening of Paris Las Vegas mean to Bally's?
Answer: A lot of our higher-end customers moved over to Paris and we did some things to foster higher-end slot play at Bally's. We took out baccarat and made that area our higher end slot area and the baccarat customers went over to Paris.
On weekends, I'll probably spend about 10 hours a day on the casino floor, mainly in Paris, because that's where most of my customers are playing.
Question: How is it different working for a large casino company like Harrah's Entertainment?
Answer: Under Caesars, it was pretty much each property for itself. I was competing with Caesars Palace. Harrah's has a six-stop strategy. We have six properties in Las Vegas and we want our customers going to all our properties.
I have a lot of high-end customers and instead of losing them to Caesars Palace, I'm encouraged to book them into Caesars. It's working out great because all the hosts have basically become somewhat like independent representatives working for Harrah's Entertainment.
Question: When Harrah's bought Bally's, there was talk of major changes to the property. What do you think will happen to Bally's?
Answer: I know, eventually, we're going to have to do something out front (on 16 acres at the corner of the Strip and Flamingo Road that now has a movable walkway). Whether that's taking down a piece of the building or adding on, I really don't know but they have to do something because the land is just too valuable to sit there.
When I first came out here in 1986, that land was a parking lot.
They've been talking about it for 20 years.
Question: What are the biggest changes you've seen in customer development?
Answer: Most hosts used to just sit by the phone and wait for the calls to come in. They would take care of the customer when they were here. You can't do that anymore. We're always on the phone, calling customers. We have to be aggressive in coming up with events for them. You can't sit back anymore.
Question: What did the casino's relationship with Willie Mays involve?
Answer: Willie and I started with the company at the same time. His title was ambassador to the president. We did things together in Atlantic City and when I came to Las Vegas, he did some projects out here.
He would play golf with customers, do an autograph signing, appear at dinner parties. He was great for Bally's.
Question: Are you ever star-struck by some of your customers?
Answer: I have a lot nongaming customers that are also friends; Willie Mays, (acclaimed artist) LeRoy Neiman, Gen. Tommy Franks, (actor) Lee Majors. I met a lot of people through golf tournaments.
I was (awed) in the very beginning, but not any more, When you meet these people, they're actually trying to get more from you, so you meet them on a more level plane.
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