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Rod Smith

Casinos Bet on Performance Skills

4 September 2003

LAS VEGAS -- Two Las Vegas casinos and their employees have discovered that joining the nationwide trend of merging customer service with performance art can come with considerable costs but intangible benefits. Bevertainers debuted May 18 at the Rio when Harrah's Entertainment replaced 90 longtime cocktail waitresses with a like number of casino singers and dancers who also serve drinks, said Tom Jenkins, senior vice president of Harrah's Entertainment with responsibility for the Rio, Harrah's Las Vegas and Harrah's Laughlin.

The Imperial Palace, which features celebrity look-alikes in its Legends in Concert show, followed suit June 19 with a new crew of look-alike, impersonator entertainers who also deal cards.

The added annual cost of the Rio's bevertainer program is approximately $1 million, but Jenkins said the benefits tend to be intangible and impossible to measure, he said.

"When I make an investment in Show in the Sky or a training program that improves employee performance, it's hard to measure," he said.

The Imperial Palace's dealertainer program has added some payroll expenses but it has been well enough received that it recently was expanded from five to seven nights a week, spokeswoman Jackie Brett said.

At the Imperial Palace, the dealertainers are paraded through the casino at the beginning of the 6 o'clock shift and add frivolity for the players.

"It's like our private volcano show. People don't always get it, but it's entertaining for people who aren't serious gamblers and brings more people (into our casino)," Brett said.

Gaming expert and University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Bill Thompson said the real test of success for the program will be measured in terms of slot play.

"It's a little bizarre and should be very limited (in appeal). When they measure gambling revenues, I doubt they'll see much improvement," he said.

Still Jenkins insisted the bevertainers "have done just what we'd hoped for. It took a level of energy from the Show in the Sky that was unique to the Rio and spread it through the casino."

"Everything we've heard from our customers indicates we've been successful."

The Rio surveys customers monthly, and the beverage serving scores have been higher than ever before since the bevertainer service started, he said.

So far some of the casino's players have mixed feelings about the concept.

Washington, D.C., resident Ida Estelle told the Review-Journal the male bevertainer who had just performed in front of her "was fun," but she added she wouldn't "be coming back for more."

Entertaining servers are part of a nationwide "customer mania" trend with companies from Wal-Mart stores to Joe's Crab Shack and Taco Bell trying to improve service and elevate the mood on site.

The bevertainer concept has not helped the mood with the Culinary union, though.

Instead, the new bevertainers at the Rio are becoming walking advertisements for the need for casino workers to organize, said Culinary Workers Local 226 Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor.

The union has produced a primary recruiting flier, "Treated like junk," about the Rio cocktail waitresses.

Although the Rio waitresses were not unionized, Taylor expressed doubts about the Rio's program when it was announced in February.

"What occurred at the Rio is the exact reason people need to organize into a union. This couldn't happen with union representation," and it makes the Culinary all "the more determined to organize the nonunion workers in this town," he said.

What has happened since underscores the importance of organizing, Taylor said this week.

"Who'd have thought you could subcontract out cocktail waitresses? Even though many of us think we're indispensable, in this economy, that (attitude) leaves a lot of people out in the cold," Taylor said.

"No job in the casino industry is secure. With a union, though, this would not have happened," he said.

Jenkins, however, noted that of the 90 former cocktail waitresses laid off, one landed a bevertainer gig and about 20 percent of the remaining workers found other positions at Harrah's Entertainment properties.

No workers have been displaced at the Imperial Palace, which is unionized, Brett said.

The impersonators are either entertainers who were trained to deal or dealers who looked like celebrities and are not part of the "Legends in Concert" show at the hotel, she said.

Harrah's is not transferring the bevertainer concept to Harrah's Las Vegas or Harrah's Laughlin because it "needs a unique environment to make it work," Jenkins said, but the company might consider a similar program for Harrah's New Orleans.

Jenkins and Brett said the new live entertainment tax does not apply to bevertainers or dealertainers because drinks and dealer services are both complimentary.