by David Kranes


In the late 1980s, the American casino industry--in its architectural space--underwent a paradigm shift. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call the shift from “Then” to “Now.” From what I’ve observed, and from the reports I’ve been given, casinos in Europe are on the brink of a very similar paradigm shift. As both audience and jurisdictional base for casinos widen, perceptions of both casinos themselves and those who play in them change.

We might also call the earlier Then period of American casinos “The Nevada-only Model.” And if we’re being a bit colorful and romantic, we can also call it “The Mob Model.” Looking at The US’s present-day casino scene--with gambling venues of varied sorts spread across the country--we might also call the Now model “The All-American Model.” The point is: In the shift from Then to Now, gambling has become more ubiquitous, more geographically present and more broadly accepted.

What are the qualities and perceptions of the Then model--the model which the American gaming industry has spent thirty years shifting out of and in which many European jurisdictions are still mired?

First of all, in the Then model, gaming is perceived (and, perhaps, practiced) as being “sinful” and underground. It takes place in a dark world, a world of “eternal night.” Being sinful, it courts dis-order and wildness. It can be seen as lawless and unregulated. It is dis-located from Time. Like the underground activity of its image, it is smoky and “hot.”

Second--in the Then image--because the jurisdictions are limited--gaming enjoys the position of being in a “seller’s market.” When casinos are limited, and those players who would like to dip--from time to time--into “sinful” activity are more numerous, casinos are freed from cordial and humane customer service. They can be dirty and loud and rude and personally ignorant--because the supply of customers is always greater than the available space. Sellers’-market casinos have no need to “court” players; players come to them.

Third, Then casinos tend (and may still tend in Europe) to gather male players. “Sin” has always been more male than female (though the women are catching up). Real men play table games; women go to the back of the Then bus: the slots. Then players are subject to all the male annoyances: cigar smoke, loud and foul language. To the degree that European casinos are still Then casinos, similar roughness may need to be endured--though, as the story goes, Europeans are less rough and more genteel than Americans.

The fourth aspect of American Then casinos is that they were no-nonsense, no-frills, dedicated gambling halls. The men who went to Nevada went to play. Yes, there were swimming pools and gourmet rooms; yes, Sinatra and Liberace sometimes headlined in the showrooms, but the unarguable central activity at any Nevada Then casino was the play. And it was something that any man worth his salt would stay up all night doing.

Then Steve Wynn and The Mirage came along--together with Atlantic City, The Gulf Coast, riverboat casinos and Native American casinos--and all the Then casino operators in America began to scramble. The sense was that something major--and perhaps even tectonic--had shifted. Gaming was different. Many things were different. That was Then; this was Now. What had been a dark and sinful, male-dominated, dedicated-gambling sellers’ market had been turned on its head. The times they were a-changin’.

And that appears to be where many European gaming jurisdictions currently find themselves--at the pivot-point, at the point of shift and change. They’ve been living in their own particular Thens, and they’re headed toward their own particular Nows. And I suspect that the burning question for most of these European jurisdictions is: What’s the Highway? How do we best get from Then to Now?

Now in the American gaming industry has been marked by radical, 180-degree shifts. What was sinful and underground has become an accepted form of entertainment. What began as a sellers’ market has become a buyers’ market. A predominantly male customer base has given way to a couples and groups customer base. And dedicated gambling has been erased by “integrated resort activity” (a Harrah’s phrase).

Two elements--design choices and the broadening of a casino’s pleasure-options--are, I believe, most responsible for the accomplishing of this paradigm shift. First: casino interiors have begun to shift away from Dark-Interiors-of-Chaos-and-Disorder in to Pleasant-and-Clearly-Navigable interior spaces. They have let in the light. They have created space. They have attempted beauty. Taking cues from Steve Wynn, the newer casinos are beginning to try (some very hard) to be neither frightening nor confusing to a non-and-potential-gambler who might--prompted by curiosity and thinking that he/she might “try something new”--comes through their doors. Casinos with cutting-edge designers and enlightened managment have made it easier for Potential New Gamblers to enter into and explore their spaces. Buyers’-market casinos are making efforts to invite a broad base of players into their “houses.” Their guests lists have expanded, and they are trying harder to make such potential players feel welcome and comfortable and “at home.”

Second, the broadening of a casino’s pleasure-options has, in turn, broadened the property’s customer base--from the dedicated gambler to the vacationer who may seem gambling as only one of a multitude of pleasure-and-relaxation options available within the “Integrated Resort.” In any culture where gaming carries a stigma (“only bad people gamble”), the broader integrated resort model helps to erase that stigma (“I’m not here to gamble [though I might]; I can swim, shop, eat fabulous meals, see great entertainment, in short: have all kinds of “fun”).

I would encourage European gaming jurisdictions who feel themselves fighting an uphill battle for customers in their shift from Then to Now to focus their principal efforts on the following: (1) changing the public’s image of what a casino “looks” like; (2) changing the public’s image of what a “gambler” looks like; and (3) broadening the base of pleasure options within their walls. If your casino can be perceived as a place where an adult in your culture can go and be immersed in any number of relaxing pleasures, then it will cease to be seen as a place where corrupt, unsavory men go to indulge their gambling addictions.

Unfortunately image-changing is not an overnight enterprise. I have friends who refuse to enter casinos because their image of what-a-casino-is was formed a quarter-century ago, and it was negative. When I try to describe the Now casino, they are skeptical. But when such resistors have a positive experience reported to them by an also-skeptical friend . . . they will often “take the leap” and explore the Now casino world by themselves.

Change your building’s image--inside and out. Change the image of those who enter your “house” as guests. Expand the range of pleasure options within your walls--including as many as possible which have centuries-old acceptance in your culture. Good luck!

Date Posted: 04-Jul-2007

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