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Understanding cultural differences

6 March 2007

The following is reprinted by permission from Canadian Gaming Business.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

A lion has roared at the beginning of MGM films since 1924, so when the MGM Grand opened in Las Vegas late in 1993, making a lion's mouth the main entrance was a way to connect the casino to an established brand.

The unintended result, according to Toby O'Brien of Raving Research, a Reno, Nevada, consultancy, was a noticeable lack of Asian customers.

"Asian people wouldn't cross the threshold of the casino through the mouth of a lion," O'Brien said in an interview, citing a superstition that doing so would bring the player bad luck.

In 1997, a new management team at MGM redesigned the entrance and commissioned a new lion, which was installed in early 1998. While lions still play a vital role in the casino's branding, visitors now simply pass by a statue of one at the entrance instead of walking through its mouth.

Cultural differences cause a vast array of behaviours and preferences, and gaming industry experts at the annual Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas in November discussed several ways casinos can cater to different segments of the population in a talk titled "Designing for Cultures: Understanding Your Customer."

The panel agreed that the most important factor in determining design is to know what the customer wants. Once you know that, you can create a design that results in a positive feeling about the casino.

"We think that clients spend money on the outcome, not so much on the product," said Alexander Kiss of Casinos Austria International. "They spend money on what the product does for them."

Tom O'Connor of SOSH Architects, of Atlantic City, agreed.

"Good design needs to reach out to the end user, understand who that is and provide them with the 'feel good factor' that brings them back to a property again and again," O'Connor said.

But the importance of designing casinos goes beyond the gaming floor. It extends to the restaurants, the bars, entertainment selections and even the hotel rooms.

"Ultimately, it's not just about the gaming," Raj Chandnani of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, which has offices in London and several other cities, said. "It's the whole environment and the amenities that are associated with it."

Case study: Grand Casino Brussels
A few years ago, Casinos Austria was granted a license to build a casino in Brussels as part of the city's development project. In order to get the license, Casinos Austria agreed to redevelop an old building and establish a temporary casino on the property. After three years, the casino would move to a permanent location and leave the redeveloped building available for another business.

The first step for Casinos Austria was to determine what the clientele of a casino in Brussels expected to see. The city is known for its art and style, and the dining experience takes on added importance for residents of the city; business meetings are routinely held in trendy restaurants.

"We knew we would have to be stylish, we knew we would have to be unique, we knew we would have to make a statement," Kiss said. "Now that we understood our customer, we had a nice conceptual meeting, and our CFO said 'I like it a lot, it's a wonderful concept, but it's temporary so don't spend money on it.' "

Casinos Austria was able to strike a balance between design and budget by determining what the most important factors were for the Belgian clientele. They met their customers' needs by creating several focus areas. One focal area, the restaurant, was deliberately constructed in a tight space.

"People in Brussels want to sit extremely close to each other," Kiss said. "They want to feel their neighbour, they want to see other people there. They don't want too much space."

The bar, gaming and VIP areas were avant-garde, which was essential in order to gain credibility in the community.

"It takes research to understand the local particularities," Kiss said. "At the end of the day it's your operation and you have to live with the design. It doesn't help if your consultants understand the customer but the operation does not."

Asian and Western gamblers
Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort and Casino has 40,000 customers on a daily basis, and approximately one third of those visitors are Asian. That group of gamblers has grown by 17 per cent over the last four years, in large part because of Foxwoods' efforts to cater to an Asian population.

There are several key differences between Asian gamblers and Western gamblers, O'Connor said. Asian players see gambling as entertainment in itself and often wager with family members.

"Even if those family members never have any intent of gambling, they're going to spend the day with their family member on the property," O'Connor said, emphasizing the need to keep non-playing friends and family comfortable with additional seating, and close proximity to Asian food.

Western players are less likely to have non-playing friends and family nearby, as they will often avail themselves of other activities offered, such as shopping or shows.

Top-rated Asian and Western players also expect to be treated differently. While both prefer an area that is separate from the rest of the casino, Asian players want to include gambling while Western players typically are looking for a short reprieve from gaming.

"Some properties will actually go to the extent of designing a salon privé or a mini Asian casino that is separate and apart from being viewed by other players," O'Connor said. "The Western player wants a place where there is no gaming but it overlooks the casino floor. It's near the casino floor, it has food venues, and it's a very relaxed setting."

One of the most obvious differences between Asian and Western gamblers is game preference. While the Asian gambler favours Pai Gow Poker, Sic Bo and Baccarat, Western players prefer slot machines, roulette and poker.

Food choices are also a key factor. It's important to know who your Asian customer is and offer a variety of Asian menus. And while many Western casino patrons still hit the all-you-can-eat buffet, the current trend is to offer a food court with several options. Celebrity chefs, such as Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck are also in vogue.

Asian gamblers tend to be more superstitious than Western gamblers, and if a casino hopes to attract Asian players, it's important to understand those superstitions to avoid making blunders like the MGM Grand entrance. Some casinos, such as Foxwoods, have even made their Asian pits the number eight pits because of the perception that it's a lucky number.

The basis for these superstitions, however, should be well understood before making any final decisions on design.

"If there's a colour that's [considered to mean] good fortune, that doesn't mean you do the whole casino in that colour," Chandnani said. "Maybe it's preferred in small quantities. So I think when you're trying to incorporate those superstitions you might need to dig a little deeper and understand the meaning behind the superstition."

In order to compete in an expanding gaming market, casino operators will need to understand their customers and cater to their needs.

"It's really important to understand the demographic groups and the cultural profile of your customer," Chandnani said. "Because ultimately, it's going to impact what they're willing to pay for and perhaps encourage them to return for a stay."

But in order to be truly successful, operators can't focus on just one group of people.

"In the end, the properties that are most successful are going to appeal to a diverse cultural group of people," O'Connor said. "In a market where gaming is more and more popular, you need to understand and celebrate who those people are."

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.