Another tectonic shift is coming to Las Vegas casinos, and we’ve got an exclusive look at what’s in store.
Back in Sep. 2016, we first reported comp drink validation systems were being installed at all casino bars with video poker at Caesars Entertainment resorts.
The purpose of the comp drink validation systems is to ensure guests are playing enough to warrant free drinks. Getting free drinks, of course, is a longtime tradition in Las Vegas casinos.
The bartop drink validation system measures a guest’s rate of play, and shows a red light or green light to bartenders. Green light, you get your free drink. Red light, you need to either step up your play, or pay for your drink.
Reaction to our original story about comp validation systems was strong, made local and international news and was not especially positive.
In short order, though, just about everyone realized (including this blog) that such systems have no effect on the typical player. They merely serve to deter those who want something for nothing, and provide bartenders a tool to do what they’ve always done—provide free drinks based upon a guest’s rate and level of play.
Now, the company that makes and installs the drink validation system for bartops, Las Vegas-based Ardent Progressive Systems & Games, is about to field test a variation of the system for slots across the entire casino floor.
Albert Tabola, an Account Executive with Ardent, says his company currently has developed the next generation of comp drink validation devices, and they’re poised to implement them in thousands of slot machines across casino floors throughout Las Vegas and beyond.
Here’s a first look.
“Gaming approval has been given, so now we’ll be able to move on to the casino floor machines,” says Tabola.
At the moment, the company has about 1,000 drink validation units on bartop video poker machines. Slots on the casino floor can number in the thousands, from about 1,000 in a smaller casino to upwards of 3,000 in a Strip resort.
The benefit to casinos is fairly obvious. Ardent says one of its casino clients has already saved $1 million in comped drink costs at a single location.
But is there a case to be made drink monitoring has benefits to customers as well?
Tabola and the casinos say “yes.”
For starters, Tabola says his company’s Comp Anywhere comp validation system “will hopefully eliminate some of the arguments and headaches the cocktail waitresses encounter.” Customers looking for freebies without playing have long been a frustration for front line casino employees.
Giving cocktail servers a tool to easily determine if a player has earned a comp could dramatically speed up drink service for gamblers. We would be a huge fan of that particular outcome.
Drink validation systems have already proven useful in deterring customers from taking up machines they’re not playing.
“If you’ve been in a casino, you know them, you’ve seen them,” says Ardent’s Tabola. “They play a penny, then sit and wait for the cocktail waitress. We’re trying to solve the operator’s problem of players trying to get something for nothing.”
While Tabola acknowledges some guests are resistant to the use of validation technology, he’s seen reactions evolve as staffers and customers become accustomed to the machines.
“The feedback from casino staff has changed dramatically since the machines were first rolled out. I remember when we first installed these, the bartenders said, ‘This is just another whip you’re cracking on me,’ but after two to three months, they’ve said, ‘This is actually really great, I love this because it lets me clear my bar out of the people that are taking up space.”
The bottom line is there are lots of places to spend time in a casino, but machines are intended for those who are gambling.
So, business and philosophy aside, what rate of play does it take to keep the drinks flowing?
On the current machines, it’s about $4-5 “coin-in” per minute. That can sound daunting until you break it down.
Tabola clarifies, “That’s not as much as it sounds. If you’re playing max bet on a video poker machine, that’s $1.25 a hand. So, if you play four hands every minute, then you’re fine. Typically, they’re playing 15-20 hands a minute.”
He says, “As an example, out of every $20 you play, let’s say the ‘hold’ is 10%, so the casino gets to keep $2. Well, if it costs them .80 for a beer, for a couple of beers, that’s $1.60 out of that $2. That leaves .40 to pay for the salaries, the benefits and everything else. That’s not a lot.”
This is typically the point in our drink monitoring stories when people scream, “Everything is ruined. No more free drinks in Las Vegas!” Ironically, comp drink validation systems may just have the opposite effect.
They may actually save the tradition of free drinks in casinos.
“In the end,” says Tabola, “it’s not that casinos don’t want to give comped drinks, they want to do that. This gives them a way to measure that out and get those drinks to the right people.”
He concludes, “This technology helps make it feasible for the casinos to continue to provide complimentary beverages and not see them say ‘we’re not doing this any more at all because we can’t control the costs.'”
It’s what Vegas insiders have known for some time. Las Vegas casinos are taking a long, hard look at all their loss-leaders, and everything is up for grabs, including free drinks.
On a related note: Our feeling for some time has been that the practice of comped drinks should end in casinos altogether. We have a fondness for a particular brand of liquor, and we can rarely, if ever, get it on the casino floor because of an insidious and widespread practice we call the liquor brand swap. Ending comped drink service would mean we could just pay for our drink at the table, and we’d get the liquor we actually ordered.
In any event, comped drink validation machines aren’t just the future, they’re here and they’re on their way to Las Vegas casino floors.
The light colors on the card-reading bezels have yet to be determined (so we may not be able to use “red light, green light” as short hand for the practice), but Tabola says once field testing is complete, installation of the devices can be done “fairly quickly.”
Ultimately, free drinks in casinos have never truly been free. They’re paid for by gambling.
Soon, casino staffers won’t have to guess if you’re playing enough to warrant a free drink, the process will be automated. And that’s the biggest change in the culture and business of Las Vegas casinos in recent memory, with the potential for an even greater financial impact than paid parking.
We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Update (5/3/17): Thanks to KTNV here in Las Vegas for a great segment inspired by our story.
Update (5/2/18): KTNV did a follow-up story as a 90-machine test starts in Laughlin.