Speaking of Generals, One That Should Have Been, and What My Mom Should Know

So there I am, late Sunday afternoon, heading down 95 South in my rented car, about 7 hours after leaving my home in Reno, listening to Public Radio, glad my trip was almost over.  A press conference with Secretary of Defense Gates, and a general (whose name I did not catch) was playing on my satellite radio and both men were being asked about the resignation of General McChrystal.

The first reporter’s asked both men if it was “fair” for McChrystal to have lost his post, “…since most of the comments that appeared in Rolling Stone didn’t even come from McChrystal, but from his staff….”

Gates gave a polished answer that centered on chain-of-command and insubordination.  Then it was the general’s turn to speak and he said that he physically got sick to his stomach when he read the comments, stating what McChrystal had allowed to happen violated the very thing that makes our military work, the fact that the Commander-in-Chief was a civilian, and the military took its marching orders from the Commander-in-Chief.

The next reporter asked both men if there wasn’t a conflict that had been brewing for quite some time–a conflict between what McChrystal wanted to do and what the civilian administration wanted.  Both Gates and the general restated, more forcefully, that the chain-of-command made such a scenario impossible, reiterating the military takes its orders from the civilian Commander-in-Chief.

Then another reporter asked if the big mistake McChrystal made was to have allowed The Rolling Stone to do an interview, and again both Gates and the general stated that point was completely irrelevant as to why McChrystal had to go.

My first thought was:  Who the heck are these reporters?  Did each of them come with their own agenda of how our military is supposed to work, or were they simply ignorant of the basic tenet that our military answers to civilian dictate?  Then I wondered if these kind of questions came up when MacArthur was fired, or if most of those reporters from that era actually served in the military themselves, and thus they clearly understood what insubordination was and still is…

Unlike the fathers of folks my age (and older–I’m 54 years old), the sand wars we have fought since Bush senior went into Iraq (but not Baghdad) really was an effort of a few–with little sacrifice made “at home”–whereas our fathers and our nation fought  and sacrificed as one in WW II.

Many argue our current lack of collective sacrifice is one reason we have now been entrenched in Afghanistan for 9 long years; to which I would add our national fixation with “winning” makes this “war” impossible as we will never win as long as car bombs continue to kill indiscriminately  and those whose land we have been in now for nearly a decade come of age and decide to strap explosives to themselves to avenge the misery war always brings, victorious or not…

Then I thought about my former boss, and dear friend, B.V. Johnson.  Lt. Colonel USAF (Retired), B.V. Johnson.  Vietnam War Fighter Pilot, B.V. Johnson.  President of Universal Gaming, B.V. Johnson.  President of Aristocrat U.S., B.V. Johnson.  President of Innovative Gaming Corporation of America (IGCA), B.V. Johnson…

I thought about the last time I worked for B.V. at IGCA, and how we both fought together to save IGCA;  how we won most of those battles, but ended up losing the war–IGCA now in the slot machine graveyard, buried somewhere near Sigma Gaming, and the other companies that had–and lost–their moment in the casino gaming industry.

I also thought about the nice e mails I had just exchanged with B.V.:  him telling me how happy he was that he moved from Reno to Tennessee, how good his life was going, and how the drop in elevation made his chronic breathing difficulties more manageable.

There will probably be many of Kenny (Adams’) readers who recognize the name B.V. Johnson.  A few of them will know that B.V. stands for Barrett Verle.  Some of you may know that his nickname, B.V., came when he was a Captain in the Air Force, and there were some 5 Captain Johnsons at the base he flew missions from, and that every time the loudspeaker would announce “Captain Johnson report to…” that all of them would show up until they came up with going by their initials… Hence, B.V.

Some may know of B.V.’s “I love me” room, a room devoted to his long career in the Air Force, a room filled with medals for valor and bravery, a room with pictures of him flying fighter jets, after-burners on, “heading 180 degrees straight up”.  B.V. was always very wary of folks seeing this room, as he did not want people to get the wrong idea about him, that he was some ‘golden boy’, even though he was.

If you have ever met a fighter pilot who flew in battle you’ll know what I mean when I talk about B.V.’s swagger… He could be having a heated discussion with someone one minute, and a couple of hours later buying that person a beer, both of them laughing and talking louder and louder as the empty bottles of beer line up like soldiers.  As a ‘career’ military man, he liked his rituals and ceremony, while he also hated ritual and ceremony.  He could have–and should have–been a general, but as he’ll admit, speaking his mind and not playing politics kept him from ascending what he–and our country–deserved…

My favorite war story is one B.V. finally relented and let me read, a story written by a “back-seater” on a night mission B.V. flew in Vietnam.  The “back-seater”  (the guy behind the pilot, B.V.) wrote how they dipped down below the tree-line on a moon-lit night, taking a lot of enemy-fire, B.V. turning the jet sideways to reduce what the enemy could shoot at as they flew toward their target, his wing-tip nearly scraping the ground, how they could hear their jet taking fire and being hit, how B.V. took aim on the target, shot, and then turned on his after-burners and headed “180 degrees straight up”…

The back-seater than tells how harrowing the mission had been, how lucky they were to not have been shot down, and how B.V. got on the radio and said, “We’re going back in… I missed the target…”

B.V. was (and is still) a fighter.  He likes a good fight, and he knows how to win;  most importantly, he always wins with honor and integrity…

I never served in the military.  My mother’s brother, Uncle Doug (where I get my middle name from), was an Annapolis Graduate, served brilliantly, and prospered mightily after retiring from the military.  I remember Uncle Doug doing one arm push-ups when he was in his fifties.

Uncle Doug wanted to get me into the academy, but it was the 70’s and I was not a big fan of the military;  I was (and still am) what my father referred to as a “bleeding heart liberal”.  Plus, when I was a kid, my father drove me out to a military school, me crying the whole way, promising that I would “be good”, so any mention of military, to me, meant punishment…

Since B.V. refuses to allow Ken Adams (or anyone) do his life history (Ken would do a great job, just as he has with all of his excellent oral history books he has written–if you have not read Ken’s books, you really should), I hesitate in writing about him;  though after hearing the radio interview, I was compelled to…

B.V. Johnson tells many great stories.  I believe all of them are true.  I loved to hear him talk about growing up in Montana:  the story about how he mangled his ankle in a horrible horse riding accident;  the fact he came from a Mormon family;  what it was like growing up on a farm.

But by far, my favorite story is the one he would tell how he killed a prized-sheep by accident while fending off a turkey that was out to get him, with the funniest line always getting me in tears, “Who the hell knew a turkey could climb a ladder?”

I cannot do the story justice, but in the end, B.V. was forced to retreat into the barn to escape the turkey, climbed up the ladder to the hay loft to avoid the bold frontal attack the turkey employed, only to have the turkey climb the ladder like some special forces commando,  leaving B.V. the only ammo he had left, a pitch-fork that he hurled at the bird, and the sheep that pitchfork landed in, and the considerable collateral damage the whole skirmish created… I will admit I felt bad for the sheep, but that’s the ‘bleeding heart’ talking…

After a full career in the Air Force, a career that saw B.V. as a Top-Gun instructor (B.V. used to tell me he never liked Tom Cruise), a fighter-pilot who flew many missions, won many medals, trained many men, commanded scores more, B.V. decided that he wanted to do something to keep him busy, so he went to a slot technical school in Reno, and he then went to go to work for Universal Gaming as an entry-level technician.

I’m not sure how long it took, but I think it was only a matter of less than a year, B.V. Johnson went from slot technician at Universal, to President of Universal.  Those were famous times for Universal:  the legendary stories about Randy Adams (no relation to Ken) and Gary Harris selling Mag 7’s stepper slot machines, and selling them so much and with such ferocity that IGT got Nevada Gaming Control to make its infamous “near miss” ruling, putting the skids to the Japanese company from competing with IGT in the stepper market.

I met B.V. when I was asked to interview for a sales position with Aristocrat.  I was sitting in the lobby, waiting to meet the sales manager, when this guy walks through the lobby, wearing docker pants, a button-up Izod sweater , and a hair cut that looked home-cooked–B.V. Johnson himself, though, at the time, I thought he was an accountant or another worker-bee, and did not learn his name until a couple of hours later when I was escorted to his office for an interview… After spending about 15 minutes with B.V., I knew I wanted to work for him–there was nothing political about him, and I knew he was a straight-shooter.

Those were interesting times at Aristocrat. B.V. had to constantly do battle with Australia;  like many companies that have great success in one market (Aristocrat owned the Australian market), they expect that success to somewhat naturally occur in every new market they enter.

Most of the time I was on the road, selling machines up in Oregon, but when I did spend some time in the Reno office, I would often see B.V. come into work, looking a little tired, and I knew that he had been involved in a late night phone conference that easily could have been conducted late in the afternoon… I truly think there were some Down Under who thought they could wear B.V. out, but, like I said before, B.V. likes a good fight, and there’s no one I’ve ever met who could wear him down…

Okay, so how did I get from driving to Vegas, hearing a radio interview about McChrystal, to telling a story about B.V. Johnson?  Well, the interview was so incredible in terms of the reporters refusing to understand how our military gets its orders that I suddenly realized that I had done the same thing with B.V. when I worked for him at IGCA…

I went to work at IGCA for several reasons:  new management at Aristocrat (lack of stability at the top has bedeviled Aristocrat ever since Lenny Ainsworth was pushed through door) wanted to conduct sales  as if we were an established commodity (hire order takers);  being “rewarded” for running the sales team and increasing sales by 600% while increasing the price per slot machine from $4995 each to $8995, my reward being my compensation reduced by 30%; IGCA had a Linux, pc-based platform it had developed and they were licensed in Nevada (Aristocrat took another 4 years or so before they were finally licensed in Nevada); and, importantly, B.V. Johnson was at the helm.

We did some incredible things at IGCA to keep it alive.  One of the more amazing feats was to get Arizona law changed so that our electronic table games were recognized as 1 gaming position, instead of the 6 stations their gaming board interpreted as law.  This was important in Arizona because “live” table games were not legal, but gaming positions were limited, and having our electronic blackjack, roulette, and craps seen as 6 stations instead of  1 made the economics of selling the units (that sold for about $85K each) hard to justify.

We finally got all the bugs out of the new platform, and our first game, Monster Money, was a top performer every place we put it… It was Harrah’s top “nickel” game, beating out Aristocrat, WMS, and any other video multi-real, multi-coin machine.

But IGCA needed more money.  And that’s where things went downhill, as the major investor and board member decided he had had enough, so we were forced into looking for new investment dollars.  Unfortunately, the guys that came in did so with promises of millions, with fairly good intentions, but problems in their own house that potentially could be problems for licensing.   The whole IGCA downfall has many more details to it, but that’s not the point.

The point is that there was a key time when I forgot the chain-of-command with B.V.  Yes, I was a Senior VP, and B.V. relied on me speaking my mind, but I really fought “the system” when the new investors came in–I refused to take any orders from them until the deal was closed and they had passed licensing, and I was being my normal antagonistic self.

Now don’t be confused about issues of licensing and B.V. Johnson.  He knew I was right about some of the things I was saying about the new guys having no say in our business until the deal is done, and no one was more strict on compliance issues than B.V.  But I took things too far.

One day B.V. and I were staring at the big white board he kept in his office;  on the board was one side for “money coming in”, the other side was “money going out”… I don’t even remember what the issue was, but B.V. said he was going to do something and that if I didn’t like it, I could go “f” myself.  I got all upset, and didn’t understand that at that moment I was supposed to soldier up and follow orders.  I lost track of the chain-of-command, and I was insubordinate.  I’ll gladly be insubordinate to false authority or folks I don’t respect, but B.V. had true authority–the type great leaders posses–and I deeply respected him.  I was way out of line, and I should have been busted down to private, if it were the military…

Okay, here’s the other reason I write this story:  to honor the living… A little more than a month ago Tim Parrott died, and, like B.V., he too was a war hero.  Tim’s story is just as inspirational as B.V.’s, but I’m not sure I ever read any accounts of his heroics (flying helicopters, carrying out wounded, taking enemy-fire).  Tim was a private man, and, so is B.V.  But B.V. still lives, and will probably outlive many of us out of sheer determination and will.

The other reason I write this is that I went to see my Mother after some meetings I had in Las Vegas–she lives in San Diego area, and her Alzheimer’s has not only stolen most of her mind, but now her body is betraying her too, and that time is drawing near where she will dissolve into nothingness and die…

I wish she could read this story and know that her son “did good”, and that her son is friends with a living hero, B.V. Johnson, that her son is a buddy of a true general, or one that should have been…

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You have to think of it as a globe

I was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, in 1956.  Park Ridge is also the hometown of Hillary Clinton.  As far as I know, she and I never hung out together around the crib, but I do like to mention this fact-of-little use around my politically right-angled friends,  just to needle them, knowing full well that they will almost always start gushing about their gal from Alaska, Sarah Palin, as if Hillary and Sarah were worthy of equal consideration…

Okay, so I’ll admit:  that was a pretty obscure way to get to my next point;  and despite what many of you think might be some awkward foreshadowing about a political discussion, this posting has nothing to do with Hillary, Chicago, or Sarah.   Actually,  my story is more about being born 1956, and 20 years later when I worked up in Alaska, but mostly about how we can all work together if everyone understands (and mostly) plays by “the rules”…

When I was a kid, playing with the other lily-white kids, in what was called a ‘upper middle class neighborhood’, whenever some toy we were playing with broke, someone in the group would invariably yell out, “Made in Japan!”.  Those words were the ultimate, as the kids say now (or was it ten years ago?) “dis”…

While it probably would not have mattered where the toys we broke came from (as most of us were fully capable of breaking any toy at any time… I, for one, was the recognized Superman of Toy Breaking), Japan always got the blame.

In the early-to-mid-60’s, World War II was still in the lexicon (Vietnam was not yet considered worthy of marching in the streets with draft cards ablaze); and it was not uncommon to hear our fathers talk about “Japs”.  Many of the products that came out of Japan at that time were nowhere near the quality we have come to expect from present day Japan, a process that arguably began with products from Panasonic (Matshusita), Honda, and other Japanese companies who made sure quality was consistent and reliable.  In fact, one could argue that the recent problems with Toyota have as much to do with expectations of superior products from Japan as it does about the problems themselves…

Fast forward to 1978, my final summer working up in Alaska (Bethel) in the salmon industry, and you’ll see me working for a company called Kemp and Paulucci Seafood.  Paulucci was Jeno Paulucci, of Jeno’s Pizza Roll fame;  Kemp was Lou Kemp, childhood friend and road manager for Bobby Zimmerman, a.k.a Bob Dylan.  It was my second summer working for Kemp and Paulucci, my third summer overall in the vast tundra where Bethel sat .  The work was hard.  The pay was great.  Danger was everywhere in that cold cloudy water, and how I lived through the numerous close calls with sure death has its answer blowing in the wind.  I was rolling, and I was stoned…

It’s amazing what 24 hours of sunlight fools the body into believing, and I would spend 16 – 18 hours a day in a 29′, flat-bottomed skiff, powered by a big ol’ Volvo Penta Six inboard, navigating up and down the Kuskokwim River, buying fish eggs from the Eskimos in villages with names like Napaskiak, Kwethluk, Akiak…  Those eggs (roe) were brought back to Bethel–where the Kemp and Paulucci barge was anchored–and I would off-load the eggs (sometimes 1000 lbs a day) at the barge to be processed by a group of 10 or so Japanese workers who were brought in to brine the eggs and box them up for shipment to Japan.

The Japanese used the eggs as part of their staple diet, pouring the salty little red things (that look just like the bait we use to catch trout here in Nevada) over their starchy white rice, a meal stock-full of protein and things that make people live long, healthy lives.

At the barge we also processed salmon we bought from the Eskimos in what were called “seasons”.  Seasons were generally 6 hours in length (from 6pm until midnight), and during that time it was legal for the Eskimos to sell salmon they caught, with the rest of the salmon they caught during the summer used for subsistence.

There were long stainless steel tables where the salmon started their next journey.  Guys like me, young kids for the most part, some on college break, would stand at certain stations along those long cold tables, and we used to fly Eskimo women in from outlying fishing villages to help process the fish.  The women put us to shame.  They worked longer hours between breaks, and they laughed and sang strange songs in Yupik, a language that sometimes sounds like someone who had a bad cough and sometimes made sounds like a song bird.

Station number one was where the heads were cut off, after their beheading, the fish were slid down the table to where someone else sliced its long, almost always silver, belly (eggs removed if they were female), and then the salmon were washed clean and loaded in these instant freezer room, a room so cold that none of us could stay in there for more than 15 or 20 minutes without turning stiff like the fish we lay on long tin pans.

After only a couple of hours in “the cooler”,  the fish resembled big bowling pins: when two of them were thrown against each other they sounded like one someone making a 7-10 split;  their fins, stiff little razors, caused serious injuries if one didn’t pay attention, and it was not uncommon for one of those fins to slice through the thickest army surplus jackets that we all seemed to be wearing those days to try and keep warm, and we wore gloves that barely fought off frost bite.  Breaking a finger was a common injury, and only compound fractures got any sympathy from the tough kids I worked with who came from Duluth, where Kemp and Paulucci had its headquarters.

Freezer duty was punishing, and if you worked in there more than a couple of times a week, it meant you had broken some rule, pissed off the foreman, or were going through an initiation that the crew put all new-comers through.  Those frozen fish were then arranged in a  wax-coated cardboard box, those boxes were filled to hold about 120 lbs of fish, and then those boxes were thrown down the hold of the barge.

The first couple of weeks all this hard work would make us stronger; and while the first week it would take two guys grabbing each end of the box to get them down in the hold, by the second week or so, one could do this by them self.  Soon that strength would be sapped by all the long hours of work, and then it was back to two guys necessary to move them around, and there are few things more depressing than feeling that fatigued knowing that only half of that night’s catch had been processed yet.

Those frozen fish would then be hoisted out of the hold when the big ship from Japan somehow made it up through the very narrow channel of the Kuskokwim–a curvy river with 20″ tides and sandbars a big as football field at low tide.  And after a day or so of loading up the big ship, off it went to Japan, a journey that I always imagined full of cold winds, big waves, and the type of fear that comes from being all alone on a deep stormy sea, a fear that stays with you no matter how big the vessel…

That last summer I worked in Bethel the word came down that “consultants” were coming in to improve production efficiency, and when they arrived, I was surprised to see that all of them were from Japan.  After much inquiry, and maybe a joint or two shared with Lou, I learned that Kemp and Paulucci was not really owned by either Kemp or Paulucci, but, rather, the fish processing operation was owned by the Japanese!  I also learned that almost all the other salmon processing plants in Alaska were owned by the Japanese.

One night (with the sun still shining brightly), there was a big argument that commenced between Lou and the Japanese.  The usually soft-spoken Japanese, I later found out, were angry that Lou and the rest of the fish-house owners (who weren’t really owners, but just really there to offer their American-sounding names) up and down the vast  western edges of Alaska were bound to the rules about the number of salmon that could be bought commercially, and the number of pounds of roe that could be processed.  The Japanese could not understand why there were limits imposed by State biologists, and why we Americans did not simply find ways to get around these limits…

The limits on fishing, of course, were imposed to try and preserve the fishery for years to come.  In fact, I never went back to Bethel after 1978 because the amount of money being paid for salmon roe was starting to tempt folks to catch salmon only for the valuable roe.  My job had been eliminated by an effort to preserve the fishery. Plus, I had blown out my knee my last year up there when a big piece of timber fell on my leg during a storm that can only be described as a hurricane, the timber was part of a futile attempt to build up a seawall… What we were trying to protect by building up that seawall escapes me, and it certainly escaped Mother Nature:  the seawall, along with my knee, was smashed to smithereens…

So between the bad knee and the fish poachers my preferred way of paying for college was over.  The poachers that were catching the salmon and tearing the eggs out, leaving the fish to rot, were never the Eskimos.  The Eskimos always respected the most important law of all:  the law of nature–the essential practice they had practiced for thousands of years, a conscious practice that kept everything in balance, a (tough) way of living that provided their subsistence not only for that day, that year, but, hopefully, for generations to come…

The Eskimos called us white folks “Gussecks”.  From all I can tell, this comes from the Russian word “Cossack” .  I do know it was not a term of endearment.  Some of the white folks called the Eskimos “Mo’s”, and this too was not one of laudatory affectation.

If one takes the Kuskokwim River out to the Bearing Bay, one can almost see Russia, and the villages mentioned above, like Napaskiak, had churches that looked Russian, and many of the Eskimos “white name” were things like Ivan and Boris.  So you end up with guys like me, from San Diego (where I was attending school), working with guys from Duluth (who could arc-weld before they learned how to ride a bike), working in Alaska, buying fish and fish eggs from Eskimos, with those fish going to Japan;  and, in theory, everyone making a living…

If the Chinese are coming here to the U.S. to “invade” our gaming industry, perhaps there is a lesson that can be applied from looking at the “fishing limits” that are in still in place in Alaska.  Not to say that Chinese are the same as Japanese experience I had in Alaska–far from it…

However, if the rules of how one gets a gaming license are upheld–as appears to be the case in the stated justification with MGM’s problems in AC due to Pansy Ho’s father–then I reckon the real lesson is that we all we’re all connected, and that rules can help us all work together without destroying the world’s future, and that not everyone can play in a privileged game like the casino industry until those rules are satisfied…

For those who know me, and know how much I abhor rules for rules’ sake, and how much I detest false authority, having me advocate living by rules sounds like some sort of defection–like a guy from the 60’s who abandoned his principles once he entered “the rat race” and started to earn a little dough… But, then again, I really am not adverse to rules–rules are what really makes most sports my own, and many others who love sports, a sanctuary of fairness.  Life is not fair, they say, but in baseball there’s a line that denotes when things are a foul.

One of my dearest friends to this day is a guy named Jake.  Jake and I worked together in Alaska, as I did with several other friends from college:  Stan, Jimmy, Mike, Rich, Karl, Bruce, Linc, and some other guys with American-sounding names that were born from the baby boom.  Jake used to remind all of us how much further west Bethel was to the ‘lower 48’–he used to say that you can’t think of places like they appear on the globe unless you made sure to continue to turn that globe to get the real perspective…

Having the Japanese own the fisheries in Alaska seems to be still be working, and most will say this is because the rules have been enforced.  No one has told the Eskimos that they need to cut back on their subsistence fishing, just as no one should be trying to change the cultural roots of gambling amongst the Chinese.

Having Chinese own casinos here in the US should work too, as long as they follow the rules… And, we need to stop this belief that we somehow own something, and that ownership is permanent.   We need to think globally, and all of the players in that globe need to not only take temporary ownership, but to also believe they can attain a piece of the pie, just as long as we always give it back, and, hopefully in better shape than what we got in the beginning.  Most call that progress.  Using “pie” in the analogy makes it unfortunate, as I am not sure if I want a piece of pie after someone has used it, but you know what I mean…

I warned y’all last week that this story was fishy;  and, however clumsy as my linkage with Park Ridge, Alaska, Japan and China may seem,  despite all our efforts to think otherwise, we’re all connected.  And, I believe, the more we embrace that connection, the more we continue to ‘turn the globe’,  and the more we think of things in terms of how they are mutually beneficial–complementary…where “winners” and “losers” can live another day–the better we’ll be in not only the gaming industry, but in all industries, including the industry of life…

Can I have a witness, or is this grounds for excommunication?   What do you think about this great subject Kenny has brought up about China?  Will this be something my home girl Hillary should intervene on, or is gaming slipping back into the shadows, not worthy of State-to-State debate?  While Ms. Ho cannot help who her father was, you don’t need to be a pansy…  Is your input valuable?  You betcha!

Rex

Willy Loman and That Road Thing

When I tell my version of my life’s story, or at least the part about how it came to be that I now run my own (very) small business, I often tell people that I didn’t want to end up like Willy Loman, from Death of A Salesman: driving off the road of life; nothing but distorted memories of accomplishment;  deep dark secret(s) that forever altered an entire family’s lives…

Unlike Willy, my deep dark secrets were cast away nearly 17 years ago…when I quit drinking.  So at least that improvement on Willy’s story was taken care of several years before I left the corporate world and started my own gig, The Stock Answer, a couple of years after we all survived Y2K!

I titled my little guest appearance on Ken’s blog, Notes From the Road.   This whole experience has offered me a chance to wonder if using that name was not something that Willy Loman would do:  trying to relive glory days that never really happened…

I mean, who knows?  Who knows if what I saw in Las Vegas with a group of Australian Club Managers was what was really in play, or if my observations were clouded by all my time in this industry?   Who knows whether the angst I felt was as desperate as that which I detected in the operators eyes, or if my own eyes have grown jaundiced and unreliable, and when I speak of desperation I speak of my own?

Sure, there is no doubt that things in Las Vegas are not good right now.  Another look at that glass would say that things are not only not good, but, rather, that things are quite bad…

The numbers are hard to argue with, and any repositioning of the dire nature of things is simply not possible… Even pep talks from the likes of Steve Wynn are falling on deaf ears, so any observations by me or any other person of just how bad things are not like the distorted truth that Willy offered up…

If one looks at the billboards in Vegas one sees the usual banter:  Garth Brooks, all sorts of Cirque, late-night dancing with shiny girls and pretty boys;  but look closer, and one will see a big market that is fighting mightily for things like bingo players, “senior citizens”, and free slot tournament aficionados…

Even the Strip Casinos are offering up all sorts of marketing programs lifted from a Denny’s Restaurants playbook, and maybe this desperation will yield results, because the marketing of a Denny’s customer is a whole different ballgame than a campaign for a steakhouse that brags how much a piece of meat costs, with that marketing message sure to include the close proximity to sexy night clubs after a lavish meal, where more slabs of meat are promised to be on display, within touch…

After all was said and done with all the properties we visited–from Mandalay Bay to Encore, City Center to Wynn, Red Rock to Sam’s Town–it became clear to me that those properties who at least tried to instill fun (real fun–not the stuff feigned at some of the properties like the Rio), those properties that made an actual connection with the customer, like the El Cortez on East Fremont Street, those were the properties our group liked best…

Our group loved not only the presentation of Queen at the Fremont Street Experience, with all of its amazing lights and great sound system, but more so they loved that everyone stopped for a moment to share in that experience, and that real fun can be as simple as a bunch of people looking up at some bizarre archway of lights, mouthing the words “We will, we will, rock you!”…

For anyone else out there who is a fan of Death of a Salesman, the best version, of course, is the actual play itself, written by Arthur Miller;  however, both on-screen versions that had Lee J Cobb as Willy, and a later version that had Dustin Hoffman playing Willy are great renditions of this play.

Though there are distinct differences in the way Cobb and Hoffman played this role:  Cobb allowed us to see his character of being more of a “man’s man” (in the scenes we never see except for his retelling of his version of those who were stopping him from achieving The American Dream), where he interacts with a world he would conquer if only he could get people to like him, whereas Hoffman, to me, was always more pathetic, a guy who was always the victim of his own making…

Who knows, maybe 20 years from now there will be a new play that percolates into our psyche, a play called Death of a City, and it will chronicle the rise and fall of Las Vegas… I don’t know who writes that play (certainly not me!), and who the actors would be;  but if such a story is written, it will probably be because Las Vegas has tried to change the reality of what true success is.

And there is this chance that those gaming companies that are delusional like Willy will find themselves in a ditch, axles broken, with tread marks on the pavement as proof of where the vehicle left the road…

Or am I just another Biff?

Notes from the Boulevard

Good news for Ken Adams faithful:  the Australians enter Las Vegas International later this afternoon and emerge in Brisbane, Australia on Sunday, so my guest blogging to “chronicle” this trip draws to a merciful close.  I have newly gained admiration for Ken’s work.  This daily blogging thing is not as easy as Ken makes it appear, and I am sure most of you will notice that distinction even more when Ken returns and normalcy descends…

My apologies for missing a beat on the Notes from the Road… I’m just now reading Ken’s emergency fill-in from yesterday as last night found me finally getting back to my hotel room rather late, and completely drained.  It was a ground-hog day experience from the day before…

But enough for the woe is me concerto.  The positive new to report is we finished off the tour in great style with a memorable afternoon at The M Resort, and it proved a perfect way to finish a week full of visits, discussions, and learning opportunities–a week neither I nor the Australians will probably ever forget…

I owe Kenny and the Australian group at least one more reflection (note) from this trip–a critique and final thoughts–and I will send this out later this weekend after I finally get home, but today’s post will focus on my final full day with my new friends from Australia, and it was a full day indeed…

I just now called the group I am hosting ‘my new friends’:  that is not a casual description, ‘friends’…  As I told them all last night, as I offered up the first of what became multiple toasts made around the table:  spending 7 straight days with the same people, all of us crammed into van, long days, all of us engaged in discussions and treating each moment as an opportunity to learn,  spending 7 days in conditions like, I told the group, either breeds love  or it is the perfect cauldron to create contempt…

And, as I told the group, in my awkward toast, I will forever think of each of them as friends, and I sincerely hope to maintain contact with each of them, for years to come… Truly.

The day began with a trip to Cannery North Casino, a “locals” casino in the North Las Vegas.  A couple days earlier we did an unguided tour of Cannery East (they are right down the road from Sam’s Town on the Boulder Hwy); the group had many questions and lack luster thoughts of that property, so I was curious to see their reaction to Cannery North.

We met Tim Miller from the Slot Department at Cannery North and he did an excellent job of taking us all around the much bigger (than East) property.  Tim is a one of those wonderful gaming vets who been working in the trenches of casino floors for a couple of decades.  Like most with that many years under their belt, he has worked at several properties, and Tim possesses the type of knowledge and perspective that generally comes with that type of work history;  he’s long time Nevada straight-shooter, a good guy, and someone the Australians liked very much…

Cannery North–unlike many of the properties we visited–has bingo,  and Tim took us to the Bingo Parlor to meet with the Department Manager.  The Australians were very interested to hear how Cannery ran its Bingo operations and what the room provided to the bottom line.  I have to admit, the impact they assigned to Bingo–with its overflow and cross-gaming in slots–represented a significant profit and the old “river of customers” and it works well for them…

From Cannery North we went to a local eatery out in the other side of town, The Lodge at Fort Apache, off of Russell Road taking the 215 West.  We went to this spot to have some lunch, but also to meet with another casino veteran, and friend, Dale Hambleton.  I asked Dale to spend a couple of hours with the group because Dale brings informed, unique perspective to running a successful slot floor, and Dale also has a track record that warrants people interested in improving their slot operations listen to what he has to say… Dale is very thoughtful, methodical in his approach, a great coach, and a very nice person to work with.  Two months ago he left Cannery Casinos after many years with them and many successes on his resume…

Our discussion with Dale was especially interesting because Cannery Casino was the target of a Crown Casinos (Australia, as in their national treasure, Kerry Packard) purchase–a purchase that did not go through (putting over $300 million into the Cannery coffers when the Crown pulled out).  A process that saw Dale spending the last two years working closely with the Crown folks.  It was an experience that gives Dale a real life perspective on the melding of practices he has developed over the years, and methods that the Crown folks brought to the process, and this discussion was very productive and one that our group appreciated immensely.

And we finished our day off at The M Resort, my personal favorite casino in all of Las Vegas.  The M’s attributes represent a long list of architectural feats, logistical genius, great people, and fantastic product… But for me, the thing that says it all, is that I am always comfortable when I am at The M, and that is a feeling I seldom–if ever–truly feel in any casino…

We were met at The M’s elegant hotel lobby by two M marketing executives, Scotty Rutledge and Ben Bond.  Both of these gentlemen provide the analysis of the vast amounts of data all casino produce, and it is their job to translate that data into meaningful information that can then be used to cater to their existing customers while also finding ways to attract new ones.  Scotty and Ben spent considerable time taking our group through a presentation on the tools their team uses, and I (an old marketing guy myself) and the group were thoroughly impressed with what these two guys know, their intelligence, the business intelligence tools, and their professional demeanor and friendliness.  Anthony Marnell III (the “M” in the property’s name) has done an excellent job of not only building a world-class facility, but he has also attracted some of the best people the industry has, and Scotty and Ben are indicative of Anthony’s committment and vision…

The group was granted special permission to visit the surveillance room, all of them knowing just how special that opportunity and privilege is, and then we went to the top of the property to experience one of the best restaurants in all of Vegas (in my opinion), Veloce Cibo…

During the week it became a reoccurring theme that the places our group liked most tended to not be the glitzy Strip properties, but, rather, those places were things were less inhibited, less staid–places where people appeared to be open about having fun, experiences like those we encountered down on Fremont Street, and The M Resort is anything but Fremont Street, but the group thought very highly of the M Resort, and it is interesting that this property emerged as one of their favorites…

When we do the final analysis of the trip–forthcoming in the next couple of days–I will hopefully have had a little time to digest what this trip’s “take aways” were, and I suspect the discussion will attempt to identify what it is at The M and Fremont Street that our group found most desirable… On the surface, the two appear to be in conflict, but are they really?

Notes, Road, Wrecks

For years we have watched as the MGM City Center project went from a series of press releases, artist’s renderings, and ceremonial shovels to what seemed to be half-a-decade of construction, traffic nightmares, and a section of the fabled strip evolve and make all around it seem out of context, perhaps obsolete…

What was the original price estimate?  4.6B?  While most smug prognosticators moved that final tally to 5 Billion, most of the learned thought it would work, and most of the industry thought MGM was best positioned and had the resources that would allow them to cash in handsomely…

So after all these years, all this commotion, an investment that swelled like some tumor to what many think is some 12 Billion dollars, and all the financial fog that rolled in, stayed, and continues to distort the way we look at Las Vegas, MGM City Center’s ARIA opened about three months ago to what this old marketing guy perceived as lackluster fanfare…

And now comes my confession:  I did not step foot in the place until just two days ago…

Didn’t go to City Center until the other day?  How can that be?  After all, I’m am in the gaming business;  and certainly I’ve been to many openings:  some grand, some not so grand.  Yet there were no new properties opening that I can remember that came in with a price tag over 2 billion dollars, and none whose architecture, shapes, depth, and sheer Sheerness was beyond words like pedestrian words like ‘magnificent’…

Couldn’t I have at least checked it out once?  At least once during the dozen or so trips I have made down here since ribbon-cutting champagne flowed?  Nope:  it took three months (and, to be honest, me hosting a group from Australia) for me to finally check the place out…

I told Ken (Adams) a while back that while there was tremendous ‘buzz’ created when The M Resort opened less than a year ago–with accolades flowing freely for that project–I never heard any one talk about City Center… Not the casual, “Have you seen ARIA yet” or comments about server-based gaming.  I didn’t even hear people talking about the facility itself, the $40 million in artwork that adorns the property, the restaurants, hotel, or even customer service… Why?

Well, after getting a personalized tour of the property from Jacob Lanning (Director of Slot Operations, and the guy who guided the server-based rollout–no small feat), all I can figure is that MGM still has not developed a story-line that captures all that ARIA and the entire City Center project represents.

Jacob acknowledged all the obstacles and problems his team faced in making sure server-based gaming works, and he was completely honest about all the challenges they still face as they refine what this paradigm shift represents to the gaming industry.  Clearly, the evolution to server-based gaming is going to be very slow, and it is still debatable if it will truly take hold and will be something that customers demand.

But, make no mistake:  MGM will continue to improve its implementation of server-based gaming, and that story will continue to become more compelling to slot players, and when (and if) the industry does migrate to this new way of delivering slot products, MGM should be in a great position to capitalize on this substantial capital investment this shift demands…  Then, I think, there will be this scramble (one that many may not have the funds to compete with) to catch the leader and not be left in the dust and blown away by the winds of change…

Word to the wise:  don’t put off visiting City Center like I did;  plan a trip to Las Vegas if only to see this ‘magnificent’ facility, or at least make sure to include it as one of your stops the next time you come to the city synonymous with sin (sin being a word that endures our love/hate relationship with the notion:  we love it in ambiguous terms, but hate it when it is applied with specifics).

Come to Las Vegas and see for yourself that MGM City Center is truly a remarkable experience that has earned your visit, and come to your own conclusion as to whether this project represents a way for MGM to regain its luster and leadership role, or perhaps align yourself with those who look at this project as the proverbial straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back–a camel that may be wandering lost in a Dubai dust storm, a camel in search of an oasis…

Notes From the Road

Due to operator error (that would be me), my first official update from Vegas did not get posted until late yesterday afternoon.  Though I have not heard any official verification, rumor has it that this delay caused considerable havoc in many of lives–some poor folks entire day wasted while that sat patiently staring at Ken’s site:  waiting, waiting, waiting–and all I can say is that I truly regret causing all of the despair and concern…

So let’s bring y’all up to speed on what the group has seen and experienced–the first posting on this site only covered day one–last Friday–and we have seen and done quite a bit since then.

On Saturday we visited Mandalay Bay, had lunch at the Venetian, and walked through Wynn’s properties, including Encore… Our group appreciated all that those properties had to offer, and it is always an incredible process to walk these properties and realize how their layouts and facilities are designed to accommodate moving large groups of people;  however, by time we got to Encore I heard from more than one of the group that “something was missing”…

That night we went downtown to eat (Tony Roma at Sam Boyd’s Fremont Street Casino) and watch two Fremont Experience shows (the last being a salute to the rock group Queen, which pleased the Aussies very much), and the ones that expressed something being missing at the Strip Resorts turned to me, pointed to the people milling about and having fun, and they said, “that’s what was missing at those places on the strip:  real people having real fun…”

On Sunday we went out to Red Rock, and though this is a beautiful property and a place I would want to stay if I were spending a week on vacation in Las Vegas (because it is so peaceful and relaxing at the Resort), there apparently weren’t many who shared my tastes, as the property was very quiet (though it was early morning–maybe the crowd all stayed up late and they were catching up on their beauty sleep), and the thing that always seems to make these resorts work was missing:  customers…

From Red Rock we went to Sam’s Town on the Boulder Highway, and the differences in casino floor layout between Sam’s Town and Red Rock (or even the Strip Resorts) were dramatic and definable… Sam’s Town, according to most in our group had a much more exciting casino floor, and they kept asking me why the Strip properties did not use as many signs above slot machines as Sam’s Town did, and all I could tell them was the signs at the strip probably offended the aesthetics of the folks who designed these beautiful properties, and the signs that Sam’s town used were designed to drive play on the casino floor, whereas the signs at Mandalay, Wynn, and Venetian were more about keeping the property pretty and maintaining some sense of design.

From Sam’s Town we then went to Green Valley Ranch (like Red Rock, another Stations property) and the group got a chance to see how retail and casinos can coexist;  and while the group like Green Valley as much (if not more) than Red Rock, they all said that Sam’s Town seemed like a more fun place to gamble, and they especially liked shopping at Shepler’s, the legendary western apparel store where one can find some really nice cowboy boots and clothing at some really nice prices…

Yesterday, Monday, we visited ARIA at City Center;  this visit deserves its own special report, and I will be posting that report later tonight… Right now it is time to go pick up the group–we have another full day of things to see and people to talk with, and I better grab some coffee before the long day begins in earnest…


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