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Viva digital Las Vegas

December 20, 2013

(Published in TTG – 30.1013)

As Hospitality Technology Europe 2014 announces Randy Dearborn, MGM Resorts’ vice-president multimedia and guest technology, as keynote speaker, Matthew Parsons finds out what he has in store for delegates at next year’s show

Vegas isn’t just neon signs. MGM Resorts, which owns 10 properties on America’s premier playground, The Strip, boasts 50,000 digital signs across its portfolio. From seven-inch screens on the casino floor, to 260-feet-high video walls, there is just one man who is in charge of keeping the information flowing.

Randy Dearborn has notched up 20 years at MGM, and seven previously as audio engineer for Disney. He is at the same time IT expert, publisher, marketer and accountant.

More than gaming

Dearborn has helped set up a wide range of digital signage at MGM Resorts over the past two decades, starting with signage showing simple animations at Treasure Island.

“At first, it was all about the wow factor with plasma screens,” he recollects. “But then it became about saving costs on printing, not having to employ people to put posters up.”
And as the price of TV sets dropped year after year, Dearborn says this made his budget stretch further.

Now his role, far from being concerned with just giant screens, calls for more creativity. “The finance department are increasingly asking: ‘Where’s the value in them?’” he muses. And this is where delegates at next year’s HTE will benefit, hearing how digital signage has moved on from flashing up the next show, or a jackpot winner, and can now prove to be a real revenue driver.

Toasting the tablet

One area Dearborn is particularly excited about is food and beverage. Although he has a team of 30, a new F&B digital group is about to be created purely to analyse data coming from MGM’s iPad menus.

With iPads in place for restaurant drink menus, Dearborn says he can increase pricing “with a flick of the switch”. This dynamic pricing is useful for when, say, a conference is in town and there are lots of delegates ready to spend with their corporate credit cards,” he argues.

Meanwhile, the digital data will help the F&B team to choose which wines to stock. “I can see how people choose their wine – we can see every click. We’ve got $17 million in wine inventory; now I can tell our buyers which ones to focus on, so we get bulk discounts, then we can drop prices,” he reasons.

Meanwhile, extra revenue can also come from having some drinks sponsored – with a company logo easily added.

With digital pricing “done properly”, he estimates that MGM can generate an extra $100 million in revenue. There are hurdles to overcome, however, with staff training the main issue to ensure continuity across the group’s eateries. “You have to keep the same nomenclature. The average length of stay for a guest is 2.6 days, so we haven’t got time to educate people on new systems. It has to be as simple as possible.”

Publishing model

For a resort group like MGM with such a large empire, it’s surprising to hear Dearborn sing the praises of something so small: the Mac Mini.

“Several years ago, we started working with Four Winds Interactive – a new company at the time – and they helped write software to power the Mac Minis. There are 2,000 of them across our resorts,” he says.

“Later, we did a deal with Adobe to create a ‘central repository’ filled will all our design assets, which can be pushed out and resized to be displayed across all of our different devices, whether it is websites, email or digital signage. It’s real horsepower.”

As well as being publisher, real-time marketing also comes under Dearborn’s remit. Filling seats is important, and he likens his job sometimes to “selling bananas”.

“I’ve got 14 showrooms to fill,” he says. “If a seat doesn’t sell, then it’s a rotten banana. It’s gone and I can’t get it back. So if a show isn’t selling too well, I need to push offers to certain devices nearby, with new prices.” Meanwhile, his digital team also touches on customer service, via social media.

At the MGM Grand, Dearborn placed a Twitter feed on the video wall behind the reception. It was meant purely as a distraction for guests checking in or out. “After all, on a Friday night you can have as many as 3,000 people checking into a 5,000-capacity hotel,” he says. “Some guests used the Twitter feed to complain if they experienced bad customer service. Rather than take the Twitter wall down, we thought, ‘what better way to hold staff accountable?’ It’s just another thing that we didn’t plan for.”

Dearborn enthuses about guest rooms, which he believes are getting “smarter and smarter”. Already remotes can control not just screens, but curtains, “do not disturb” signs, temperature and so on.

But soon smartphones will take control, for example using mobiles as room keys. The e-wallet function of a smartphone is another trend he believes could soon take off.

More intelligent in-room advertising offers more untapped potential. In future, he aims to have more relevant advertising.

For example, high-spending clients would see Rolex watches advertised on their TV screens. At next years HTE, Dearborn will use his experience to help delegates answer three questions: what are you trying to do with your digital platform; what are your hardware and software options; and how can you streamline your content?

“Even though your company may have the best technology, if the consumer doesn’t get it, and adapt, then it’s pointless,” he says. Paying attention to this keynote speaker next year might just improve your company’s chances of hitting the jackpot, whatever your sector.

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