The Oneida Nation’s Turning Stone Resort Casino in upstate New York marked a new milestone in its 21-year history last spring by transforming its casino floor in record time with powerful systems technology designed to take its customer service and player rewards to new heights.
This technology, coupled with other Turning Stone initiatives, is keeping the resort ahead of the curve in an increasingly competitive landscape. The Oneida Nation turned to Konami Gaming and its Synkros system to unlock the ability to deliver the newest gaming machines and to recognize and reward patrons for their play on those machines and for every dollar they spend with the tribe’s array of businesses, on and off the casino property.
The investment in Turning Stone’s new system as well as in its 360-degree loyalty program is all about the guest experience, said Steve Murphy, vice president of technology. “The vision that the Oneida Nation has and the ear that it has to the guest is something that you don’t see an awful lot in this industry,” he said.
That property-wide attention to the guest experience extends from Turning Stone CEO and Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter, Murphy said. “His vision is to have an impeccable guest experience and be a world-class resort. That’s what we strive to provide here, and we’re looking at every possibility in how to create that experience through both staying on top of best practices for the industry as well as listening to our guests.”
The decision to replace Turning Stone’s account-based cashless gaming system called the Oneida II system grew out of feedback from casino players who expressed frustration at having to wait in often long lines in order to place cash onto their player cards. The Oneida II system, installed in 1993, was cutting-edge technology that enabled the casino to legally offer Class II video gaming machines under the state regulations at the time. “The State of New York had a broad prohibition [at the time] against slot machines so we developed the concept which has some patents technologically of how you can create a Class II environment and reproduced it in a machine. It was enough to allow us to have machines on the floor,” said Halbritter, who has served as chief executive officer of its enterprises since 1990.
It was the beginning of a tremendous success story for the Oneida Nation’s gaming enterprise. “Back in 1993 we opened this operation after negotiating with the state to do a gaming compact. We were the first legal casino in the state of New York,” he said. “We started with this facility and then it just kept growing and we put the funds back into the ground. We have close to a billion dollars in the ground now.”
This latest investment in the systems technology responds to guests’ frustrations with the account-based cashless system, Murphy said.
By installing the new system, Turning Stone now can offer an experience more like that found in Las Vegas casinos and give players much more variety in the games they play.
But beyond the ability to accept cash at the machines and offer both video gaming machines and traditional slots, the new, robust system enabled Turning Stone to offer an industry-leading 360-degree loyalty program to reward its guests.
Players can earn points at the point of sale for most of the Oneida Nation’s enterprises, including its Turning Stone golf courses, restaurants, retail shops, entertainment venues, hotel and spas, and soon will be able to reap points at the tribe’s convenience stores and other venues, including at a nearby lakeside marina.
The investment in the system and the 360-degree loyalty program shows the Oneida Nation and Turning Stone’s respect for its patrons. “It actually goes back to our cultural heritage, which is that you treat people who are in your home like family,” Halbritter explained. “In a business application, having that knowledge about what your guests want is so helpful because you do want to please them; you want them to be happy.”
Treating guests like family is a principle the Oneida Nation instills in its employees, who are mostly local residents, Halbritter said.
That treatment is something the Oneida Nation and Turning Stone takes pride in, and it also makes good business sense. “No matter how good a property you build, in today’s age you can go to so many places with great hotels and restaurants and experiences,” Halbritter said. “I think it’s important to distinguish yourself by how you treat people. That’s a key foundation for our future.”
Delivering that guest experience differential through transforming the gaming floor’s system and instituting the leading-edge loyalty program was no small task. Having Konami as a partner was crucial, Murphy said. “We knew what we wanted to have in the end as a guest experience, and Konami allowed us to reach that objective. The partnership that they showed to this organization and the commitment to what we were trying to achieve really, I think, set them apart from everyone else.”
In the case of the loyalty system, one of the major issues is how to create an infrastructure that brings together many disparate systems to be able to produce the outcome the Oneida Nation was looking for—the accumulation of all those points in one single location.
“I think that’s the part that really sets this organization apart is we really believe everything is important to the guest. Whether it’s spa spend, retail spend or anything else, we want to make sure that’s being accumulated for points,” Murphy said.
Getting It Done
Envisioning the goal was one thing; reaching it was another, especially under an accelerated timetable. “We wanted this change immediately. We wanted to bring what our guests were asking quickly,” Murphy said.
Planning for the implementation began in earnest in November 2013 and continued up through the actual March installation, which took place over about a 10-day period. “We got everything done over the week, didn’t touch it over the weekend and went live on a Sunday night,” Murphy recalled.
It involved nearly 20 different vendors and those vendors, along with oversight and certification from gaming lab and regulatory personnel, provided some 90 personnel onsite to roll out the new system and the loyalty program. It entailed, among other changes, the replacement of the bingo system, the Oneida II slot management system, the casino management system, the upgrade of some 1,085 existing slot machines and the deployment of about 1,000 brand-new slot machines. For a time, both the Konami and Oneida systems ran parallel while the gaming machines were converted or replaced, averaging 300 machines at a time, in specific sections of the floor.
As the teams worked on a section, that part of the floor would be draped and roped off, which led to questions from guests who were excited to learn of the new games and ticket-in, ticket-out gaming style.
Some of the conversions were more complex than others, he said. Murphy actually had to get on the phone and call for reinforcements from across the country to help with one vendor’s conversions.
The result is a fresh new gaming floor featuring some of the industry’s newest games and progressives. “The floor has got so much energy on it now,” Murphy said.
The loyalty program is being rolled out in phases that will continue to add in points of sale throughout the Oneida Nation enterprise. “We’re very proud of what we’ve put in place and continue to grow that across the enterprise,” Murphy added.
Players, for the most part, have embraced the new technology. “They’re excited about the new games,” Murphy said. “It gives us an opportunity to kind of stay on top of what providers are doing.”
One product Turning Stone is considering is Konami’s Titan 360 multiplayer game, currently available at only a handful of properties across the U.S. “Konami has been a valuable partner so whatever they have new we’ll certainly take a look at.”
Exit 33, Turning Stone’s multi-venue entertainment area, offers a variety of musical acts to please a range of visitors.
Exit 33, Turning Stone’s multi-venue entertainment area, offers a variety of musical acts to please a range of visitors.
Competition on the Horizon
Turning Stone executives also hope the improvements will help the resort weather increased competition as New York officials prepare to grant as many as four upstate New York casino licenses in a state that already has five tribal casinos and nine racinos.
“From the day we opened I always told our team we always want to think about our business and what we do as if we have a property across the street,” Halbritter said. “It will affect us. It’s always been expected, and that’s part of the reason for the transition from the Oneida II system to the Konami system. That’s in line with our understanding of the more competitive environment that we’re going to have.”
Halbritter noted Turning Stone is somewhat insulated because it has established itself as a destination. “That was part of the strategy too so that we have more to offer than simply the opportunity to do gaming.”
Over time, Turning Stone has added amenities and entertainment offerings that appeal to a wide swath of customers. In addition to the hotel-casino, golf courses, tennis courts and spas, the resort includes an upscale boutique hotel called The Lodge, the nightclub Lavo, new restaurant offerings and Exit 33, a new area of the property that includes several music venues, including country-western-themed Tin Rooster, the Turquoise Tiger piano bar and The Gig, a rock venue.
Halbritter also said applicants for the new casino licenses seem to be realizing that gaming’s proliferation means their smartest route for success is to focus on a more local demographic, instead of a more regional reach that could just cannibalize existing business. “It doesn’t make any sense to slice the pie thinner, and tell yourself you’re having more to eat,” he said. “I think people realize that and so that’s why they’re looking at a more local demographic when they’re building which makes sense because if you’re not the only game in the region, you have to think more about that local demographic because that’s more available to you.”
Halbritter and Murphy both stressed that Turning Stone is not resting on its laurels but continuing to make moves to ensure it holds and even grows its market share.
“We are more driven here than in any place I’ve ever been. Everything is about the enterprise and making it better,” Murphy said. “We don’t want our guests going anywhere else so we continue to enhance their experience. If, by chance, they do go over there, it’ll be world-class here and they’ll come back immediately because we believe we have the best product of anyone because of our amenities, our world-class restaurants, our gaming experience.”
Every day, Vice President of Gaming Operations Guy Renzi witnesses firsthand how customers are reacting to the new loyalty program and the new vibrant casino floor.
“We have had an overwhelming response from our guests,” he said.
Under the old system, gaming manufacturers had to customize their games to be used at Turning Stone, he said. Not all of them did that, so the casino was limited in the variety of games it could offer.
“Once we changed over to the Konami system, obviously we were able to get those products here, which was a new experience for the guests,” Renzi said. “And we also are able to offer a new jackpot experience for our guests by linking up with wide area progressives.”
The slot floor now has a more appealing mix of higher volatility games for core gamblers, more so-called entertainment games that tend to offer more time on device and mechanical slots that the property was never able to offer before.
Some longtime players initially missed the older games that could not be upgraded to the new system, Renzi noted. “You know, we moved their cheese, but at the end of the day our guests realized we heard their voice… it was a reinvestment for them, and they appreciated it.”
Another plus of the new system was the opportunity to offer on-demand tournaments through Konami’s system and to add Multimedia Games’ TournEvent product, said Steve Mahler, marketing director. These types of new experiences can help deliver higher revenues, he said.
The Konami system and the new loyalty program it enabled allow Turning Stone to take marketing to a new level, Mahler said. For one thing, it meant an end to the way free play had been handled. Before the new system was installed, players had to have two cards: their regular card on which they placed their gaming funds and a separate card for free play. “People love that free play is now on their account and they can download whenever they want.”
Beyond getting new games faster, the casino now has more flexibility to swap out underperforming games “because [before] it took so long to get our machines complied and converted.”
Turning Stone is also taking advantage of the newfound flexibility to hone in on what works best on the gaming floor. “We’re doing a lot of that optimization right now, testing themes, swapping themes out and moving them around,” Mahler said.
The casino is also using social media to ask players what they think of a new game or what other products they would like to see on the floor, Mahler said. “It’s just opened up a whole new thing for us to be able to really optimize what’s working for people.”
Some of the system’s tools, such as a dashboard that lets executives see usage and trends anytime and set comparison benchmarks, are paying dividends. “I think we’re starting to get the groove of the new tools and what we’re able to do with them,” Mahler said. “We’re also doing better targeting in our incentives because of the Konami system.”
Konami’s True Time Display also is proving invaluable in allowing the casino to communicate in real-time with players. “If things are slow, we will often use the True Time to give them a little boost,” he said. “With the dashboard, if you’re seeing your performance is starting to slip and it’s not a good reason, you can use the True Time to just chuck out something—earn another 100 points and you’ll get free dinner or whatever you want—to try to get your day back.”
Perhaps the most telling sign of the new system’s success came in early September. “We had the best Labor Day ever,” Mahler said.
A Proud Partner
For Konami Gaming, the project was particularly personal, as both Chief Operating Officer Steve Sutherland and Sam Constantino, director of game sales and systems business development, are from the Utica area in upstate New York area where Turning Stone is located. “It’s where my wife and I raised our kids,” Sutherland said.
Constantino, who is based in the area, keeps in close contact with Turning Stone executives and spent many hours and days on property, particularly during the installation.
While he let Konami employees know he had that vested interest in Turning Stone, Sutherland said he made sure they understood the importance of demonstrating that level of commitment to every customer and with every implementation.
“It was really an opportunity to show that that’s the baseline,” demonstrating that vested interest with their casino partners by always striving to raise your game, he said.
Konami appreciated the opportunity to partner with Turning Stone on the project, which Sutherland said was one of the more complex and sophisticated systems implementations.
“Going from a completely cashless environment to a bill-based, ticket-in,ticket-out solution is very extensive,” he said.
Despite the challenging aspects, Sutherland said the installation “would definitely rank up there as one of the best because all parties worked together very well in getting it done.”
A section of the Turning Stone slot floor.
A section of the Turning Stone slot floor.
The Turning Stone installation presented an opportunity to demonstrate some of Konami’s strengths, including its software applications and robust hardware. “From the hardware standpoint, our technological infrastructure, we can pretty much guarantee 99.99 percent uptime,” Sutherland said, noting Konami offers seamless upgrades each year, including one major and four mini updates “without having to send people onsite or disrupting the casino or dropping the casino floor.”
“On a busy New Year’s Eve or Friday/Saturday night, the floor does not fail, it does not drop. It just doesn’t because of our architecture,” Sutherland said. “And then you mirror that with the software suite that we have” that provides the tools necessary to make possible that 360-degree view of the patron.
In a growing competitive market, Turning Stone can differentiate itself from other casinos with its ability to reward patrons for gaming and nongaming spends. “There’s no limit to their ability to do that in real time,” Sutherland said.
Konami looks forward to continuing to work as a partner with Turning Stone, he said.
“They’ve got a powerful tool, and we can assist them in using it more. To me that’s very important too,” he said. “Right now we’re just at the beginning phase of the relationship, but I know that the door’s open, that we can further that relationship, and I hold them in the highest regard. They have a great team.”