The Gaming Life: Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett has an incredible gaming pedigree. The young executive, hand selected to excel in a prestigious industry training program, is now the vice president of slot operations at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. He recently told The Gaming Life about gaming’s future and why, sometimes, he should be avoided on Monday mornings.

Bennett was already successful before being selected for a successful role in the gaming industry. An accomplished marketing rock star for IBM in Cleveland, Bennett was inducted into the iconic tech company’s “100% Club,” an honor reserved for employees who meet their sales quotas. That was even before 1994, the year he was handpicked from his Indiana University MBA program for the highly selective President’s Associate Program at Harrah’s Entertainment. Originally developed to support corporate expansion by introducing talented MBA graduates to general management within the gaming industry, the program has grown to include functional tracks in marketing, slots, operations, and planning and analysis. Like a medical residency, the President’s Associate Program candidates rotate to gain expertise in all aspects of their chosen field. Once complete, graduates are placed in management positions. Call it Casino U.

Of the program, Bennett says that some of his youthful experiences helped him stand out during the interview process. “I had already been exposed to gaming because I grew up in New York City and made trips down to Atlantic City with buddies,” he says. “When I was interviewed alongside my business school colleagues I was able to talk the business more intelligently. At least that’s what I told myself.”

Bennett worked in a menagerie of management positions for Harrah’s, including playing an instrumental role in the opening of the organization’s permanent casino in New Orleans. Of the city’s recent woes, he says, “It was very disturbing to see the devastation that took place in New Orleans. It’s even more heartbreaking to see how long it is taking to rebuild certain parts of the city, particularly the Ninth Ward.”

After nine years at Harrah’ and the Majestic Star Casino, Bennett found himself in more northerly climes as the vice president of slot operations at the MGM Grand Detroit. Three years after that, in 2005, he was transferred to Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. That is where he is today, and as a member of the executive committee, he is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the casino’s $100 million slot operation.

Of the change from the Grand to Mandalay Bay, Bennett says, “Both properties are fantastic. Mandalay Bay is off the beaten path, so therefore I consider it to be more of a ‘come and stay’ property. People come here with a distinct purpose of utilizing one of the many awesome amenities the resort has to offer. Mandalay Bay’s location is not conducive to attracting tourists walking up and down Las Vegas Boulevard. MGM is located on a busy corner and therefore receives more pedestrian ‘foot traffic.’ Although MGM has a large array of convention areas, Mandalay’s primary focus is on attracting convention business.”

Bennett has seen enough years pass to have some perspective on the industry’s story arc. Of all the changes he’s seen, Bennett says the greatest is the proliferation of gaming. “I started in the industry in the early ‘90s, just when legal casino expansion was just starting throughout the Midwest,” he recalls. “Only a handful of states had legalized casinos, and Indian casinos were just beginning to flourish. Now legalized gaming is everywhere and continuing to expand. State legislatures are realizing the benefits that gaming provides in the form of inflow of revenues from gaming taxes, creation of jobs and overall economic growth.”

Going forward? Bennett sees this very same proliferation as one of gaming’s greatest challenges. He says: “This over-capacity issue is prevalent here in Las Vegas. Every property has eroded margins by aggressively discounting rooms and offering more and more gaming incentives to have people stay at their particular property.”

As for his own area of expertise—slots—Bennett’s experience watching the sector eclipse table games in revenue importance has been “phenomenal.“ “The main reason I pursued a career in slots is because I recognized the slot industry’s growth potential as well as its importance to the property’s overall performance,” he says. “Slots have very strong operating margins and therefore are a major contributor to property EBITDA. I’ve been fortunate to see it on a much larger scale. In the Midwest, slots has been a much stronger revenue generator for a while. Most recently, when I was the VP of slots in Detroit, slots generated over 80 percent of the entire property’s revenue.”

In the coming years, Bennett thinks that one of the biggest challenges facing slots will be finding ways to cater to a younger generation obsessed with interactive games and activities. He says, “I watch my kids play video games and see that everything is interactive, me vs. you, mano-a-mano. This is the type of entertainment the younger generations have grown up with, and the gaming manufacturers—and perhaps more important, the gaming regulators—need to keep pace.”

Bennett thinks the “under 30” generation is not now, and won’t soon be, satisfied sitting in front of a slot machine playing alone. Yet, he says, “This group is our next wave of moneymakers.”

Like most slots VPs, Bennett is excited by a future of server-based gaming (SBG), albeit while harboring reservations. He explains: “Although server-based gaming is considered the wave of the future, questions remain with regard to how quickly it will establish itself. In my opinion, although some applications associated with SBG are cool, many of its benefits are not recognizable or realized by the customer. Server-based gaming benefits operators with its ability to offer a library of programs that can be changed on the fly with little manpower. I don’t see SBG significantly changing customer gaming behavior with the same impact that introduction of the bill validator and TITO technology had.”

He adds that current customers are leery of a casino’s ability to instantly switch up the games offered, and that “Customer acceptance will take a while.”

If he was not a slots VP, what might Bennett be doing instead? His original plans were to enter the education and coaching field and to eventually become an athletic director for a major university. He says: “My college football coach discouraged it, telling me that the real moneymaking jobs were few and far between and that it would take me an awfully long time to begin making good money. At the time I never thought I would end up making my career in gaming. I always dreamed of making a career in sports management and, in fact, thought about obtaining a master’s degree in that field. I’m glad my coach discouraged me.”

Just how much of a consummate slot professional is Bennett today? When we ask him what his favorite game is, he answers, “My favorite slot is whatever machine has the highest net win per unit on my floor.”

When he’s not on his floor, Bennett has his hands full raising two teenage sons. He says he’s fortunate to have a very close relationship with his father and wants “that same between me and my boys.”

And of course there is that love of sports. Bennett says he is a “diehard” follower of the New York Giants, Mets and, yes, even the Knicks. Although he lives in Vegas, he tries to see his teams either in New York or at a West Coast away game. As for how serious he takes his fanship, he says, “Don’t talk to me on Monday if the Giants lost the previous day.”

Bennett isn’t kidding about this passion. When we ask him about the pre-season injury to the Giants’ quarterback, he comments, “Eli is tough. He’s not known for piling up big stats like his brother, but he has the same number of Super Bowl rings. Not many people realize that he led the Giants to the playoffs his first five years as the team’s starter. I don’t know many quarterbacks who can claim that. He wins. That’s all that matters. Although the Giants have the seventh toughest schedule out of 32 teams, they’ll be fine. They address some of their needs on the defensive side of the ball.”

So, word to the wise, don’t use “How ‘bout them Giants?” as a throwaway comment around the VP.

Finally, we put one of the great gaming quandaries to Bennett. Hollywood loves making movies about gambling, but why hasn’t it made a great movie about slots? Bennett says, “Slots just hasn’t been as spectacular and glamorous as table games. Although we have some large players, slots traditionally don’t attract the amount of high rollers that table games get. That’s the stuff that sells in Hollywood.”

But, he adds, “If they do make a movie about slots, I want Denzel Washington to play me.”

Yes, Mr. Bennett, don’t we all?

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