Suppose someone were to tell you that most of the mega-casinos that were built in Las Vegas in the 1990s considerably missed their mark. Or that the casinos in Atlantic City were all built under statutory constraints that made them inherently less appealing to customers than would have been the case had the lawmakers or casino designers understood what kind of environments casino customers prefer. Or that the billions of dollars that are presently being invested in major new casino projects from Connecticut to California, from South Africa to Sweden, are for the most part going to deliver-if not disappointing results-results well below their potential. Or that the most profitable locations for slot machines are in casinos that are not heavily themed, and are where slot machines are found within a maze of gaming equipment, crowded together, with low ceilings, and no visibility or line of sight beyond the immediate area. You might think the person suggesting such heresies should have his head examined. Or should he? For these are essentially the major threads of argument put forward by Bill Friedman in Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition. This is a controversial and challenging treatise on the underlying principles of casino design and casino customer psychology. Mr. Friedman, who decades ago wrote the first definitive book on casino management, appropriately called Casino Management (1974, Lyle Stuart Publisher), has used his years of management experience and lifelong obsession with casino operations to put forward a thesis that cannot be ignored.
At the core of Mr. Friedman's arguments is a belief that casinos should be designed in such a manner as to maximize the economic potential of the facility, and this implies that casino designers must understand which casinos-and areas within a casino-attract customers who play, and who choose to spend their time and money within such areas rather than others. The thesis is based on a number of design principles referred to as the Friedman International Standards of Casino Design. These standards were derived from direct or anecdotal empirical observations of player counts and device performance in "...every major casino in the state [of Nevada] from the start of legal gambling in 1931 to 1996." The standards, which are explained, illustrated, and analyzed in great detail throughout the text, are based on a number of reasonable premises. For example, casinos that look empty discourage play; if a potential customer can see the entire casino from the entrance, there is little mystery to set out and explore it on foot; if a casino has a pathway that runs through it without diverting a customer into the gambling areas, the customer may never step off the path and engage in the action; and customers prefer small, intimate settings for their gambling rather than open spacious areas.
Ultimately, the accuracy of Friedman's hypotheses is dependent upon their empirical validity. This book is scientific, but eccentrically so. The author is only able to draw from limited data sources, some based on personal observations, and so it is not obvious how one might replicate his results. However, his discussion and his citation of casino after casino that seem to fall well within his perspective leaves a disquieting feeling that one would be foolish to dismiss his arguments out of hand. From a researcher's point of view, this book cries out for carefully designed studies based on solid methodology to test the Friedman hypotheses, either for purposes of validation or refutation. If one could correlate head count data, capacity utilization measures, and win-per-unit-per day figures with the Friedman International Standards of Casino Design, then the proofs - if they indeed are there - would emerge.
As one works through the discussions of the Friedman International Standards of Casino Design and their more commonly adopted opposites, one can almost hear the casino moguls, the renowned architects, and the casino managers saying, "Yes, but...." More than any other book written on casinos and the gaming industry in recent years, Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition challenges the orthodoxy. This is never more apparent than when Friedman cites in a 1997 Casino Journal article a claim by a casino designer that good design is where the visitor can see-from a raised entry or with a sunken casino-the whole casino from one spot: "...the most successful places are the ones where people can walk in and say, 'There's something here for me...' " Much to the contrary, Friedman claims that, of the 39 major Nevada casinos that meet this description, every one is dominated by the competition.
This is heady stuff. If Friedman's arguments are right, then modern conventional casino design standards are akin to what 18th century doctors prescribed for many of their patients: bleeding for the purpose of ridding the body of "bad blood." If Friedman's arguments are right, then there are opportunities for casinos all over Nevada, and all over the world, to alter their interior designs and capture market share, and to increase revenues and financial performance even if there is no competition for them to confront. If Friedman's arguments are right, then the designers and architects of modern casinos-who have shown a strong tendency over the years to copy heavily from one another-will have been marching all that time to the beat of the wrong drummers.
Many customer-oriented businesses are plagued by owners, designers or architects who create something that they like, rather than something their customers like. This book develops the same theme. What customers like is expressed more by what they do than what they say. Furthermore, casino management might mistake what impresses onlookers versus what captures playing-and paying-customers. It is important to distinguish between the "walker," who wanders through casinos looking at the decor, the theming, and the high ceilings, and then moves on; and the "player," who sits in front of a slot machine or at a table game, and proceeds to spend considerable amounts of money in the games of chance. If Friedman is correct, then many customers might say they enjoy the spectacular over-the-top mega-casino designs of Bellagio, Paris, New York New York, the Silver Legacy, or The Venetian, but they might be the walkers, not the players. The players may walk through some casinos, but they choose to play disproportionately at the Horseshoe or the Peppermill or the Rio (but not in Masquerade Village!).
Perhaps Friedman's arguments are not correct. However, Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition will shift the burden of proof to the other side. Anyone who carefully reads this book and has an interest in casino performance is going to have to think twice about the Friedman hypotheses. As Friedman notes, for casinos, "...location is the single most important factor, because it determines the size and demographic composition of the available marketplace ... However, interior design (is) the second most important impact... Interior design is far more important in determining potential player counts than management, marketing, and operations combined."
If the above audacious claim is correct, then one might watch the market turn, as casino designs move away from trends that have been around since the 1970s. In the same way as we have seen the last of the barn-like rectangular casinos that were built in Las Vegas, Reno, and Atlantic City in the 1970s and 1980s, we may also see a transformation away from the nouveau barns-the mega-casinos-of the 1990s. In any event, there is no way one can read Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition and then enter a casino without looking at the ceiling heights, the lines of sight, and the layout of the slot machines across the floor and wondering, "How busy would this place be if...."
William R. Eadington
Director, Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming
University of Nevada, Reno
THE FRIEDMAN MANAGEMENT GROUP
Phone: +(775) 372-1271
P. O. Box 373, Amargosa Valley, Nevada 89020, USA