For 15 years, Kevin Parker has worked in, and launched, casinos. Since 2009, he has served as the director of casino operations at Colusa Casino Resort in Colusa, Calif. His casino experience ranges from properties with 349 machines and six table games to those boasting 2,115 machines and 75 table games. He spoke to us about his start, his hobbies, lessons learned about launching casinos, how a hamburger led to a new mobile gaming solution and a little red truck that dropped him off on the way there.
Parker grew up seeing the world from Germany to Virginia to Montana, though not as part of the jet-set crowd. Parker says that when his father finally retired from the military, they settled in the small town of Shelton, Wash., where his mother grew up. “There is absolutely nothing to compare to seeing Mount Rainier each day,” he says. To this day, he insists, “Washington is absolutely the most beautiful place I have ever had the opportunity to live in or visit.”
“My grandmother is the reason I am in this amazing industry,” Parker says of his start in gaming. He was “depressed and despondent” when his grandmother pulled up to his house in her little red truck. He says: “She told me to get in and that we were going to a casino. Now, I had never been in a casino before and knew very little about gaming at all.”
Before that red truck pulled up, Parker had been working himself to the bone at two full-time jobs. He was both a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America and a mental health counselor for high-risk youth. Through an education program called “Learning for Life,” Parker tied the work of both youth programs together, including working weekends at Haven House, a crisis center for children from high risk environments. Not that his work for the Scouts provided any uplift. “After having been in the Scouting program throughout my youth and achieving the rank of Eagle Scout, I had a preconception of how the business aspect of the program must work,” Parker says. “I thought that the outdoor program and developing youth was primary in the eyes of the professional staff. This was not even close to the reality I encountered.”
Parker was repeatedly put upon to increase revenues, membership and manpower. He explains, “We spent precious little time actually working with the youth.” He worked long hours though, setting up Cub and Boy Scout units for special needs children, Spanish-speaking networks and inner city units to give boys a healthy outlets for their time and good role models for their often over-taxed single parent families. Alas, he says his field director frowned on his efforts to assist these groups of underserved youth, instead pushing Parker to “utilize my time taking bankers to lunch and trying to get more money out of the kids by having them sell popcorn to their families and friends. He wanted me to force churches to enroll their children in the scouting program without actually setting up a good solid unit for them, all because the national organization governing these religions had adopted the scouting program for their youth. Although I’m certain this isn’t the experience for all Scouting professionals, for me it was extremely disheartening.”
More heartbreak came from the other job for at-risk youth. Parker remembers: “These kids had the roughest lives you could imagine and they spend a great deal of their time homeless. Although it should come as no surprise to anyone, living on the street can be terribly violent and some of these children have very short lives. I was having a very tough time dealing with the terrible things that were happening daily in the lives of these kids and thinking seriously about transitioning to a different line of work.” And that’s when the red truck showed up.
Parker’s initial experience with gaming was woefully limited. “I knew they had blackjack tables and slot machines, but that was it,” he says. “The thought of a going to a casino held zero fascination for me.” He adds though that his grandmother is “hell on wheels,” and when she wants something, she gets it. They drove 45 miles.
Today, Parker is fascinated with casinos, ending many of his statements on gaming with exclamation marks. As for his simple understanding of a casino’s inner working beyond “blackjack tables and slot machines?” Well, it’s improved a bit.
Parker says of his current property’s dive into server-based gaming: “I have been fortunate in my career to have worked with a number of central determination server-based systems and am extremely comfortable with the technology. The Class II market has really refined this type of delivery over the past 15 years. I have been very surprised at how slowly the Class III side of the industry has moved on this issue.”
As for Colusa’s recent addition of IGT’s sbX™ Tier One package, Parker says that it is actually a server-assisted program, not truly server based. That said, he adds, “The great advantage to this system is that we can try a title before we buy the game kit for any of the non-sbX IGT cabinets on the floor.”
He also shares that Colusa is bringing in the WMS Ultra Hit Progressive in October. “I look forward to its network capabilities as I believe it will be a great addition to the floor,” he says. “Again, while the mystery-based secondary jackpot is operated in a central determination server environment and is ported to the games, the games still operate in a direct control stand-alone mode.”
His excitement about adding the latest technology at Colusa leads Parker to the quandary of the 427 Class III licenses awarded to the property last year as result of a California lawsuit.
He explains: “Although the physical space of the existing casino floor would allow me to add another 54 games without overcrowding, I still needed to come up with a solution for the additional 373 licenses. The cost of expanding the casino floor by another 8,000 square feet and purchasing new machines and infrastructure to support these licenses was daunting in our current economic climate, but we really felt the need to secure these licenses for the future interest of the tribe.” Parker found himself at G2E with his slot manager, Shaun Bisiaux.
“[We] were having a hamburger with the Acres family. As an aside to the general conversation, I told John about our licensing situation and my concerns with the dilution of the floor. Out of this conversation, the genesis of a whole new server-centric mobile gaming solution was born,” Parker exclaims.
In late September 2010, Colusa released Acres 4.0’s very first A4 mobile gaming solution. Parker says: “This true server-based system houses 373 games on an appliance no larger than a toaster! The system is wireless, ticketless, wager account-based and extremely secure. It has been certified by GLI and passed the audit standards as interpreted by a major accounting firm in Indian country. Currently there are two titles, poker and keno, but there are already titles submitted to GLI for testing and certification.” He declines to go into further detail, but says, “You will be hearing a great deal about it in the very near future.” He invites anyone to come to Colusa and try it, “live!” (And look for our own article on the A4 in an upcoming issue of CEM.)
Parker’s hobbies get him out of the casino. He loves snowboarding, climbing and rappelling. His car trunk is permanently stocked with ropes and climbing harnesses in case he finds something off which to rappel. He says, “I have found that power companies take a dim view of you trying to rappel off of the face of their dam but persistence is really the key to anything, right?”
Persistence moved Parker though the gaming industry until he found himself managing the opening of a casino. Then another. And then a couple more. His advice to young Turks facing their own first property launch? “There is no such thing as a ‘casino in a box.’ Surround yourself with the smartest people you can, give them the tasks you need accomplished and manage their success. It’s really important to realize the size of the property does not change the size of the workload. I have been involved in small, medium and large start-ups, and I would have to say the small start-ups are the most difficult. At a smaller property, you have fewer bodies to help and fewer resources to accomplish the task.” He recommends it though, saying that being part of a start-up is “absolutely the most gratifying and educational project you could ever hope for.”
When Parker started in Washington, he comments, “There were some serious fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants type of days when we had to empty drop boxes to pay the progressive table jackpots that hit back to back!”
Much has changed. Looking back, Parker says: “In the last 15 years, I have had the opportunity to be a part of an ever-expanding universe of technology and explore different types of game delivery systems. I have had the opportunity to work with Class II and Class III central determinations, VLTs and direct control slot devices. Recently, I have had the pleasure to work with server-assisted products like IGT’s sbX and true server-based Class III gaming with the Acres A4 system. One of the most important innovations has been the industry’s acceptance of the GSA standards. This interoperability has greatly improved the operator’s ability to function in today’s ever-increasingly complex technical environment.”
As for the future, Parker sees some challenges, especially the Internet. He says, “I am extremely concerned with the prospect of Internet gaming as it will affect the tribes. If gaming is allowed to expand in this fashion it could be very detrimental to the revenue production of the tribes across the country.”
That being said, he says the industry had better figure out its options and deployment strategies before they get figured out for it. He adds: “I find the stance of state and local governments wanting an ever-increasing percentage of the tribal casinos revenue stream extremely troubling. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 was passed, in part, to provide a statutory basis for the operation of gaming by tribes to promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency and strong tribal governments. It was also to ensure that the tribe is the primary beneficiary of gaming revenues. As the various governmental bodies take pieces of the pie, it leaves less for the people this law was intended to help.” He fervently believes the tribes must push the manufacturers to produce Class II games that are more compelling to their player base.
Parker continues: “We have seen this recently with the release of Rocket Gaming Systems’ Gold Series titles. Players are standing in line to play Class II games and walking away from the old standby wide area progressive games. Class II can absolutely be a profit center for every gaming tribe as long as the game designers realize the strengths of Class II and design to them. The use of Class II as economic leverage with the various states in the renegotiation of the tribal/state compact is the best weapon we have as an industry.”
Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester, Wash., is where the little red truck stopped that day. “I have to admit it was pretty darn neat. I guess I had thought of casinos as smoky and small, with bad lighting and dubious characters. This was not the case at all.” Parker recounts how his grandmother took him over to a roulette table and told him he should become a dealer. “She and I played for a while and she talked to me about how negative my life had become and that I needed a change,” Parker says.
Turns out, she had arranged that change, having already enrolled her grandson in the dealing school for a casino that would open seven months from then. Parker remembers, “So, because my grandmother wanted it, I became a roulette dealer!” He’s never looked back.
Asked what he would be doing if that red truck hadn’t come by that day, Parker replies, “I would be trying to get into gaming!”