Data is shifting the way gaming and hospitality venues are able to create once in a lifetime experiences for their guests.

Shaun Neal, Director of Digital Experience at EVOTEK came on the latest episode of People in Places to tell us how. Here are some of our key takeaways.

Focus is shifting towards using data to create more human-like experiences for guests. Data can be used to identify when a guest is in the lobby, so by the time they make it up to their room, their favorite music is playing and the blinds are open or closed according to their preferences.

Venues are bringing together multiple data sources to create much richer profiles of guests. We’re not talking about just using form fills and WiFi registrations. Instead, pair those with data points like dwell time and location analytics to really understand the experiences people are having in your venue.

Any organization that’s able to pull these points together is able to create a unique, once in a lifetime experience for its customers.

Read the Transcript

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John Rougeux: Hi everyone and welcome to People In Places. I’m John Rougeux and in today’s episode, we’ll be joined by Shaun Neal. Now, Shaun is director of digital experience at EVOTEK an information technology and services firm in Southern California that helps solve problems in a digitally disrupted world. Shaun has nearly two decades of experience in the industry as an IT strategist, consultant, blogger and engineer in a variety of applications. And today, Shaun’s going to share his advice on how analytics can help build a great guest experience and improve business operations in the hospitality and gaming sectors.

John Rougeux: So to find out what you might be missing by not making full use of our data, listen in to our interview with Shaun Neal from EVOTEK. Alright, Shaun, welcome, thanks for being on the show today.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, thank you for having me, looking forward to the discussion.

John Rougeux: Sure, so I know you’ve worked with quite a few technologies in a number of different spaces throughout your career so I’d love it if we could start things off just by hearing a little bit more about your own background.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve been in the consulting side of things for about not quite 20 years working across a number of verticals, everything from gaming hospitality, which we’ll talk about today to healthcare to education, financial vertical, seen a lot of variety out there. My specific focus has been in wireless and security and really aligning those two areas with my customers and helping them get the most out of their investment in those areas.

John Rougeux: Good deal. And today you’re at EVOTEK, right? Tell us a little bit about EVOTEK.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, so I’ve been with EVOTEK for a little over three years now. Our focus is really in the helping the customers that journey from legacy infrastructures to a world that is hybrid cloud, people that are learning to consume data in different ways and we’re the enablers of that digital transformation to the new way of doing things.

John Rougeux: Cool, so you mentioned data, which is going to be the theme for our discussion today, specifically. I know we’re going to talk about some ways that the hospitality and gaming spaces have been able to make better use of that data and get more value from that data but to set the stage for that discussion, can you tell me a little bit about some of the industry shifts you’ve seen in the hospitality and gaming spaces?

Shaun Neal: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the biggest things and one of the great drivers for a need to collect data in a different way is we’re seeing it as a whole, the industry is shifting to less traditional gambling of people sitting at a table or a slot machine and putting a players card down or inserting it in the machine and the casino’s collecting their information that way to an entertainment focus, right? And we’re seeing a lot more retail integrated into these casinos and dining experience and shows and we’re starting to hear these buzz words out there like the experience economy and things like that. And there are many things we can pull from how retail’s doing and then learn from that rather than some of the traditional methods for the gaming industry. And I think that is really going to allow the hospitality and gaming organizations to be a lot smarter about how they collect their data and what they do with it.

John Rougeux: So I’m curious, if someone’s not coming to a casino and using that loyalty card to gamble on those machines and interact with the casino in that fashion, how are casinos collecting data today? How do they have access to that?

Shaun Neal: Yeah, so most people do end up sharing a lot of data. If you are a hotel guest, you do provide some data there. There are means through captive [inaudible] that people will interact with for collecting some data. These things are very normal in hospitality. Like we all stay at a specific hotel and enter our last name and room number or if we’re not a guest there, maybe we put in an email address. There’s a lot of ways we’re able to leverage that type of data and then correlate that with our wireless network and maybe some other investments in other platforms that we have for doing engagement. We’re basically pulling data from different sources is how some of these organizations are starting to approach this [inaudible 00:05:14].

John Rougeux: So you mentioned this big change from more of a gaming type approach in these venues to more of an experience in retail type approach that these venues are trying to deliver and we were talking earlier and I think you’ve got three ways that gaming and hospitality venues are starting to get more value out of that data and the first of those is just providing a better guest experience so I’d love to hear you tell us a little bit more about what that looks like and how gaming and hospitality industries are doing that.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, absolutely. So there’s a few things here. So starting with the basics, we’re starting to see a bigger investment by new casinos or people that are going through and doing a refresh with technology. We’re starting to see more investment in room technologies, better wifi in the rooms, more integration, making people live view the area, starting to see the adding of things like an Alexa in the room and voice control and all sorts of things that are starting to just … it’s a lot more technology that people are familiar with at home in these spaces and this is how our users are learning to interact with technology now. So that’s one thing that we’re starting to see that … starting to lay this groundwork to create a better guest experience and I think what a lot of places need to understand is that one, this wifi experience does need to be ubiquitous, right? We have to be able to have connectivity no matter where we’re at in the space. The younger demographic, the millennials that are coming in are very smartphone driven. Some of them spend hours and hours a day, I know my kids do, on these devices and they expect to have wireless everywhere.

Shaun Neal: So that’s one of the foundations of creating this better guest experience but also understanding how we actually create experiences for people and doing that in a way that’s not just technology, right? In my opinion, when you do this right, technology is one of the channels in which we communicate with people but we try to actually use it less than using the technology to create some more human interactions, right? So things like automating in an environment so that when you walk into a hotel that you stayed at or you’ve stayed there before, maybe there’s things like I recognize you via the mobile one app that’s on your phone and the relationship that I’ve already built with you on your previous stay and by the time you get to your room, maybe you even checked in with a digital key, by the time you get to that room, maybe the music you prefer is playing or the blinds are open or closed based on your preferences and TV’s on a channel you like and the thermostat’s set to what you’re comfortable with.

Shaun Neal: Those are the kind of things that when we talk about a true, all encompassing guest experience, those things just happen in the background, right? And we can use all sorts of data points to really enrich this experience for people. One of the other things that we’re doing … [crosstalk] Oh sorry, go ahead.

John Rougeux: So you mentioned a couple things there. Using technology that guests are familiar with in the home and now taking that to the context of a hotel environment, which I think is really interesting because it’s more like a seamless experience between home and vacation. And you mentioned this other idea, which is using technology to create more human like experiences and I wanted to pause on that one because I think that’s a great segue to the second thing that you wanted to talk about, which is building customer profiles because none of that stuff happens if you never really understand who your guests are and what they care about. So do you mind pausing there a second to tell us about that second idea of using data to create better profiles and to better understand your guests.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of this happens with thoughtful integration on how all this stuff comes together. But yeah, absolutely. So we talked about the room component, through any sort of hospitality system so we can understand who’s actually checking out that room and we can learn what preferences that they’ve had in their room while they were staying and use those for a later date but as we learn more and more about these individuals, I think there’s things that we can do to really … for instance, if we use a presence base or location base analytics platform on top of the stuff, we start to understand … maybe also some integrations like point of sale machines, we can start to understand things like what’s their preference for meals, right? Do they like the steakhouse, do they like the Mexican food, do they like the sushi? Where are they spending their time? Are they out at the pool? Are they working out? Are they there for conferences? We can really start to understand this behavior in the background and it’s important to take that data and then use it in ways, like I said, in my opinion, that will make it much more human.

Shaun Neal: We’re not bombarding them with text messages or popups on their phone or stuff like that that have been the early stages of retail, maybe overstepped some of those bounds. And viewing things like instead of sending an engagement to someone in particular, who maybe they’re walking through the casino floor and I can ping a host that’s on the floor and that person walks by, that host can reach out them as a natural interaction like, “Oh, Mr. Neal, it’s great to see you here today.” And those types of interactions make these little experiences that happen that make people feel important and that they’re wanted there, right? And these are experiences that have only really been accessible for the guys with millions of dollars of line of credit who want to go clean out a private table some where in the back room of a casino and really extending that out is going to be a competitive edge for the casinos that are in place, this kind of stuff. And you can only do it well if you really understand your consumer.

John Rougeux: Yeah, I think you hit upon something really interesting there because I think at least for me, a few years ago, thinking about data collection, my mind would tend to go straight towards things like form fills or surveys or very direct ways of getting data from people, which is fine sometimes but to your point earlier, that can be intrusive and maybe not improve the experience, might just be something that people tolerate. So what you’re talking about is now venue operators can pull in different data sets together like presence or customer journeys and they can start to see where guests spend their time both in aggregate and then even on an individual level in some cases. I’d love to hear just a couple more examples of that because I think this is a really interesting area in data and analytics right now.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ll give you some examples of how we’re starting to apply this data with some of our hospitality customers. So for instance, let me use an example where someone came there and they weren’t gambling, maybe they showed up for a concert and they only came for the concert, we’re working with the concert venue who can collect that data, who’s definitely interested in who’s visiting their venue and obviously with whatever those guests are sharing with them. But for instance, if I can start to put a profile together that says, Mr. Neal likes rock music, and we know that let’s say in three months there’s a similar band playing, we may actually tailor how we reach out to you to include something like that to say, we know based on behavior in our space previously that you came for dinner, had a steak and went to our concert but maybe you didn’t stay with us and as a proprietor I’d like to make sure you stay with us.

Shaun Neal: Maybe I’d offer you a package, right? Like hey, here is a rock weekend package and you get two tickets to our show, in our room and you get half off the steakhouse and now you’re pressing buttons that I’m interested in and I was already interested in the concert and was already interested in the steakhouse but hey, you’re gonna make it easy for me to stay there and you’re reaching out to me personally on this and I perceive that I’m getting a good deal, I’m more likely to take you up on that offer. You can do it in a way that’s not … it’s very tailored and it feels natural, right? Rather than blasting you with every event that’s happening over the next three months and hoping I come to a couple of them, right? This is something that’s very tailored and very targeted at me.

John Rougeux: Yeah, you’re right because if you try to send someone a notification about everything that’s coming up, your chances of them getting to engage with something at all are much lower than if you just sent a few messages that are very tailored and directed at what is interesting to them.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, exactly.

John Rougeux: So your third point is a little different. It’s less about profiles and guest experience, at least directly, and you’ve told me in the past that data can actually help gaming and hospitality venues be more efficient in their operations. How does that work?

Shaun Neal: Yeah, so there’s a couple great examples here. One of the baseline features of having any sort of analytics platform is getting real time heat maps of all your space from a density standpoint when it comes to where people are and how long they’re staying in the space. We talk about a lot of things like dwell time, right? Do people stay for 15 minutes or an hour? Those types of things, right? And so one, I can build on a lot of those trends and really understand, truly understand how busy I am at any given point in time and not relying simply on some of the stuff we mentioned before like cards [inaudible] or on a table and those kind of things. But really understand that ebbs and flows of the business.

Shaun Neal: But then once I have that, that’s the starting point, right? What I do with that information becomes very valuable. So for instance, in the gaming industry, we see there’s a lot of fluctuation let’s say in table limits on games, right? And so one of the things that can start to correlate is there’s always going to be an optimal time to increase or decrease table minimums. And so, we can actually look at the effects and if I raise a table from a 10 dollar table to a 25 dollar table or vice versa and I know some of the backend, I know when I’ve made those exchanges because it’s all updated in the gaming management systems, I can actually go correlate that with heat map data and see if I’m attracting more people or driving people away. And maybe the [inaudible] go from 10 to 25 dollars but maybe from 10 to 15 dollars and I’ve hit a sweet spot of more people and a higher minimum and overall, it’s better for the business.

Shaun Neal: So you start to look at those trends over time and really understand what some of our decisions are doing when it comes to chopping footprint of the gaming floor. So that’s one example. Another example is areas like hotel check in, I’m a frequent traveler myself. One of the biggest turnoffs is I get to my hotel room and I want to check in and get to my room and usually I want to relax for a bit and then start whatever I’m gonna do, if I’m going down to play or if it’s going to the pool, whatever, but I do usually want to be able to check in right away and then go relax, right? We are starting to use analytics to help facilitate what’s called line breaking in the hospitality world, which is I don’t want people to wait in line more than 10 minutes to check in and if they are, my surveys show that I’m gonna get some negative feedback, right? So if I’m starting to trend toward that number, I should start studying more people to help with check in, right?

Shaun Neal: You start pulling people out of line, start checking them in maybe with a tablet or some other means or even come bring them a beverage or something to ensure that I’m doing everything I can to ensure that these people are happy with their experience there and so we’re using a lot of this data to start facilitating those kind of things. One last example would be placement of let’s say in these outdoor venues, concert venue, the pool, those kind of things, placing the bars or numbers of wait staff or those kind of things that also play into that whole experience is another thing that we’re looking at.

John Rougeux: Those are some pretty examples because they all help illustrate how … if you look at something like heat maps or dwell time that’s kind of interesting, right? But depending on the situation, it may or may not be valuable in and of itself but when you link it to another business KPI like wait time, like number of staff that need to be out in the field or even things very specific to the gaming industry like table minimums, then that information becomes very, very powerful and it allows you to see things that weren’t possible otherwise. So I know you’ve worked on a quite a few projects of this nature. Do you have any advice for folks in the gaming and hospitality spaces who are looking at more data oriented projects, guest oriented projects, how do they prepare for successful projects? Especially around budgeting and preparing for the financial side of these investments.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, absolutely. We do see this a lot that organizations are very interested in this. And for us, it depends a lot of times where we get involved. So sometimes if you’re on the marketing side, sometimes marketing’s ready to jump on to something like this. They’ve been looking for ways to get more information and they’re just ready to go. Where we had the most success is when we start to build a truly multifunctional or cross functional team and we have partnerships between operations and marketing and IT and one of the ways we do this a lot is we talk to IT and help them bring this up to marketing and we find that it helps them secure budget that maybe they didn’t have to do some of this stuff. So the other big initiatives that we see that is just a great time to latch onto are there was this thing called the five star promise and all of the major players, Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, IHG, Wyndham, they’re all on board and they have a goal of providing devices to hotel workers for staff safety. So as they’re doing this, those are technologies that require location based services to provide safety for the workers.

Shaun Neal: And this is an opportunity to tack on something like this and just round out to ROIs like, “Hey, we’re gonna make this investment that we have to make in staff safety anyway because either there’s an industry wide promise that we’re gonna do this by 2020 or we’re seeing millions include us in their collective bargaining agreements.” Or in certain states like in New York, Washington, there’s actually legislation that’s going through to mandate this stuff, right? And latching on to those types of projects round off this ROI for investment in this space and if we’re going to make this investment, let’s improve the experience not only for our employees from a safety standpoint but let’s use that and expand that into some sort of guest experience and it’s kind of a win win win for everybody.

John Rougeux: So you’re saying projects like this are a lot more likely to be successful if they identify other initiatives, other types of standards that are taking place and then bridge those together to have one serve the other and help make it more successful.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, I guess the other thing I would add to that too is be real about what you want your outcomes to be as well. So finding these projects is a good place to … finding parallel projects is a good place to kind of make these things happen. That cross functional team is getting something that you can determine what you want your outcomes to be together and setting those in a reasonable way is definitely important up front so everybody knows what they’re shooting for and what they want this outcome to be and really defining what success looks like. And I think a lot of places sort of take a crawl, walk, run approach which is definitely something we advocate. Collect as much data as possible, that’s an awesome thing but be careful if it’s gonna be … and kind of we had talked about if it’s gonna be forms and things like that, you want to be really careful about that stuff. So just take baby steps on that side.

John Rougeux: Yeah, exactly. So Shaun, you shared a ton of valuable advice today. I want to just recap a few of the things that you mentioned throughout the interview just to end this interview with a few tangible takeaways so there are four or five points here that I jotted down. So one was gaming and hospitality industries are now starting to focus on data creating more human like experiences for their guests. Secondly, venues are starting to bring together multiple data sources together to get much richer profiles of people. So we talked about not just using things like form fills and wifi registrations but pairing that with things like dwell time and location analytics. Third, we talk about how things like heat maps are interesting on their own but when you pair that with something like minimums for tables or staff levels, venues can start to get big wins operationally in terms of how efficiently they run the business and how they’re able to deliver the right number of staff in the right place and things of that nature. Last couple things you talked about, latching onto other projects to make some of these technology investments more successful and have greater outcomes and lastly, you mentioned just the importance of setting outcomes and also adapting a crawl, walk, run approach when rolling things out like that.

John Rougeux: Do you have anything to add to those major points we talked about today?

Shaun Neal: The one thing is that if you do it well, you are able to take those points and pull it all together, any organization that’s doing that is able to have the data to create these … I mentioned the experience economy, right? So one of the things that people seem to be craving out there now is the one kind of lifetime experience or something along those lines, that’s something just super unique and it goes up on Facebook and Instagram and those kinds of things and if you do this well and you understand the people, then as an organization, you can create those events that have this echo across social media and I think that’s one of the greatest things about taking the thoughtful approach and doing this the right way is that once you do it, you get a lot of mileage out of the investment that you’ve made.

John Rougeux: Good deal. So if you can use data the right way, you can build great experiences and if you can build more amazing once in a lifetime experiences, people are gonna talk about that and share that with their friends and of course, that’s always good for business so I think that’s a great point to end the discussion today on, Shaun. If our listeners want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Shaun Neal: Multiple ways to reach out. I’m always available at Twitter it’s just @sv_neal or you can email me at EVOTEK at sneal@evotek.com.

John Rougeux: Alright, Shaun, it was a real pleasure having you on the show today. Thanks for being with us.

Shaun Neal: Yeah, thank you John. I appreciate it and appreciate the work you’re doing on your podcast, thank you.

John Rougeux: Alright, take care.

People in Places is a podcast dedicated to helping today’s shopping centers, retail outlets, airports, museums, universities, and other physical locations optimize the experience of their visitors. Get in-touch: podcast@skyfii.com. See all current episodes on our website here.

Show Notes:

  1. You can email Sean at sneal@evotek.com, or connect with him on Twitter.
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