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Chris Jones

Experiencing Las Vegas: How's the Service? Casinos Tell Ringers: 'Be Our Guess'

27 June 2005

Though it may seem out of sorts in a city where multibillion-dollar towers regularly rise out of vacant desert lots, the little things still matter most when winning over patrons at Southern Nevada resorts.

Forget what you've heard about Elvis: in Las Vegas, customer service is still king.

After all, the merits of even the poshest hotel room or swankiest casino are devalued by the powerful negative impressions left by a rude blackjack dealer, inattentive cocktail waitress or uncooperative front desk clerk.

But finding and training enough good workers can be a challenge for local resort operators who last year maintained the more than 131,000 rooms and countless restaurants, stores, gaming tables and showrooms needed to entertain Las Vegas' 37.4 million visitors.

Despite employers' best efforts, workers with poor customer-service skills too often interact with customers, in some cases causing irreparable damage to businesses' highly cultivated brands and reputations.

With that risk in mind, a growing number of local casinos are using a technique that's benefited retail stores, fast-food restaurants and other industries for decades: clandestine evaluations conducted by so-called "mystery," or "secret," shoppers.

"First impressions are everything," said MGM Mirage spokeswoman Yvette Monet, whose company has for years sent mystery shoppers to casinos such as Bellagio and MGM Grand. "Even an isolated incident with poor service could prevent a repeat visit."

There are several companies licensed to mystery shop in Southern Nevada, including Las Vegas-based Global Intelligence Network, a private investigations firm that has its mystery shops handled by its Quality Service Inspections subdivision.

President Chuck Kenerson said gaming now makes up about 15 percent of his company's business, though he expects the segment to grow as competition for travelers increases.

"(Casino) operators realize people can get gaming, fine dining and nice hotel rooms at a number of different places in town," said Kenerson, whose cast of 200 or so Nevada mystery shoppers frequently work at eight Strip resorts. "Sometimes the only difference is the level of customer service, so (casinos) are taking a little more interest in mystery shopping."

Service Sleuth managing partner Tom Mills said recent policy changes in Nevada made this a more attractive market, which caused his Franklin, Mass.-based company to open a permanent office in Las Vegas last October. It now has three full-time employees, and more than 100 mystery shoppers on its Nevada roster.

Nevada law defines anyone who provides information on the "identity, habits, conduct, business, occupation, honesty, integrity, credibility, knowledge, trustworthiness, efficiency, loyalty, activity, movement, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation or character of any person" as a private investigator.

While similar laws are on the books in most states, both Mills and Kenerson said this recently became the only state that actively requires mystery shoppers to possess, or work for a company with a private investigator's license.

"All of a sudden it became an island, where the way you did mystery shopping in the entire United States was completely different than (in Nevada)," Mills said.

And once it was firmly on the ground locally, Mills said Service Sleuth's team wondered, "Who's doing casinos?"

Wasting little time, Mills spent January through April meeting with casino operators. The company is now testing its service with a handful of local casinos, with just one full-time casino client signed on.

Hyatt Gaming Management, a division of Global Hyatt Corp., recently agreed to use Service Sleuth's mystery shoppers at some of its nine casino properties, which include Hyatt Regency resorts at Lake Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. Vice President of Marketing John Sheldon hopes any clandestinely gathered information will improve service.

"(Mystery shoppers) are experiencing the various aspects of the casino or the property just as you or I would if we were on vacation," Sheldon said. "If we see an issue in a certain department that's underperforming, we may take resources from properties that are doing really well in that area and find out why one is doing well and one isn't."

Though their information is complemented with guest comment cards, telephone surveys and other research methods, Sheldon said mystery shoppers are an important tool for Hyatt, which is owned by Chicago's Pritzker family.

"It's a tool so we can measure the level of customer service at the properties, and hold our management accountable," he said.

Mystery shopping experiences, Monet said, are also invaluable at employee training sessions.

"It gives us a guest perspective," she said. "We're not using them any more or less, but we do use them quite a bit to ensure that we're accomplishing our service goals."

MGM Mirage hires outside companies to study its properties and capitalizes on less-formal information gathered by company employees who may visit competing resorts on their personal time. However, it does not hire mystery shoppers to examine its competitors.

Mystery shopping's widespread use has also created opportunities for locals who may want to earn a few bucks while visiting a casino rather than spending their own cash there.

Mills said he's constantly seeking a diverse mix of would-be shoppers of various ages to work as mystery shoppers. Though clients can pay his company more than $1,000 for a multiday job to $25 for short-term shop at a fast-food stop, the pay given to shoppers themselves can vary greatly.

"The typical shop pays $10 to $12 an hour, though it's difficult to narrow the level of payment because the range of what you can possibly do is so crazy," Mills said.

For example, one mystery shopper may be paid $7.50 an hour, plus expenses, in exchange for buying $2 worth of gasoline and a soft drink at a convenience store, he said.

"And the next person may go to the Lake Las Vegas Hyatt, stay free at the hotel, eat free at every restaurant and whatever," Mills added. "Their pay would be next to nothing, but the perk is the pay."