Life on the Edge

By Abigail A. Lorden Editor | January 01, 2007

As playgrounds go, Las Vegas is tops. Masses come to Sin City wanting no less than fabulously excessive entertainment and to be spoiled rotten. And for the casinos, competition is fierce.

In Las Vegas, to compete and compete well, it's all about differentiation. The drive to stand-out has resulted in the creation of an Egyptian pyramid next to a medieval castle; a recreation of the New York City skyline and  a model of the Eiffel Tower. Resort casinos are pulling no punches when it comes to the "wow" factor, each building bigger and more impressive venues than the last.

For Steve Vollmer, vice president of technology and chief technology officer for Las Vegas Sands Corporation, parent company of The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, standing out is all about who's got the best IT clout.

"Las Vegas is a very tech savvy town," Vollmer says. "We're all doing the same things, though some are better at this or that than others."

Boldly going
Vollmer's approach for The Venetian is to be on the cutting edge of new technologies and systems, being the first to test and the first to deploy.

We like to ride the edge," says Vollmer. "We don't want to hurt ourselves, but we like to be first because we get to influence products and have them designed the way we want them." This approach gives Vollmer an advantage, he believes, allowing for more of what his team needs and letting The Venetian set the standard.

Riding the bleeding edge can be a little painful, Vollmer admits, but is worth the gain. "You get to put your spin on the product. Otherwise, when it's handed to you, you get what you get."

As firsts on the Vegas strip go, The Venetian has a long list: first to have in-room fax machines and high-speed Internet, first to install a full-blown cellular phone system in a hotel, and most recently, the first to offer kiosk stations with boarding pass printing and a luggage drop, allowing guests to bypass airport check-in lines with select carriers.

The Venetian is also working on a multi-function kiosk that will allow guests to purchase show tickets, print hotel maps, cash-out slot winnings, change larger bills, and function as a full-service ATM. Initial deployment of the integrated kiosk is scheduled for rollout in early 2007 with approximately 20 units, and true to form, The Venetian will be the first to offer such a solution.

Airport lines, no longer
Through a partnership with Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, The Venetian introduced Airport SpeedCheck Advance last August. "We extended communication lines from the check-in system at the airport to our hotel. We're now the first hotel on the strip authorized to take guests' bags from them at the hotel, provide them with a boarding pass, and allow them to report directly to airport security," explains Vollmer.

To use the service, which carries a $20 per passenger fee and is administered by Bags To Go Enterprises (www.baggagecheckin.com), guests bring luggage to the Airport SpeedCheck Advance Kiosk, located in The Venetian's convention center. Currently, Bags To Go Enterprises has agreements with US Airways/America West Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines and is pursuing contracts with other carriers.

As with airport check-in rules, all FAA regulations are enforced. Guests must provide, in person, a valid government-issued ID. Luggage is kept in a secure area on property until such time that it's escorted to the airport and sent through security. The service does not apply to carry-on bags.

"When the team at McCarran Airport explained the fundamentals of this service and how safe and convenient it would be for our guests, we didn't hesitate to sign on," explains Paul Pusateri, senior vice president at The Venetian. Perhaps its most appealing benefit, users of the service can avoid long airport lines and arrive at the airport one hour in advance of their scheduled flight time, as opposed to the suggested three-hour pre-flight arrival time.

Speak easy
In an equally bold move, The Venetian activated the first in-building wireless system in Las Vegas, making wireless communication accessible throughout the property. Like most large structures, The Venetian is constructed of steel, concrete and stone; materials that can, and did, block cellular signals.

"We knew there were some major dead spots inside the hotel where coverage was either weak or non-existent because we'd had complaints from guests and our own team members," says Vollmer. In 2001, four major cellular carriers (Verizon, Nextel, Sprint, and AT&T Wireless) approached The Venetian about installing an in-house cellular system and Vollmer agreed. "When the carriers offered to install a system to eliminate the dead spots, we were all for it," explains Vollmer.

A typical in-building wireless system incorporates an on-site carrier base station plus a hub, distribution cabling, and remote antennas that supply distributed coverage. In addition, The Venetian's cellular providers had very specific technical requirements, including the ability to accommodate any carrier, the ability of each carrier to separately manage its infrastructure and the ability to accommodate future enhancements, all in a cost-effective solution that preserved the hotel's aesthetics.

Based on these criteria, the carriers chose the MetroReach and LGCell systems from LGC Wireless (www.lcgwireless.com). LGC's active architecture supports any number of carriers with high performance, independent management, and low installation costs.

Due to recent mergers and acquisitions, the carriers managing equipment at The Venetian today include Sprint/Nextel, Verizon, Cingular, and T-Mobile. In all, the system includes more than 80 hubs and more than 200 antennas to provide coverage in all hotel rooms, restaurants, gaming areas, theaters, the Grand Canal Shoppes, and other facilities. The flush-mount antennas in the ceiling have been painted to blend in seamlessly with the frescoes that are part of the hotel's dÃÆ'Æ'Õ©cor.

"We don't realize how well the system works until an antenna goes down or there's a problem with an expansion hub," says Vollmer. "Then we get complaints. As far as I'm concerned, in-building wireless is no longer a nice-to-have feature; it's a must-have feature. There used to be a rumor that the hotels would never allow cell phones in casinos, but now people can't live without their Blackberries and cell phones, no matter where they are."

In addition to receiving exceptional cell phone reception, Venetian guests may also access other wireless applications, enabling them to make room and restaurant reservations or book show tickets.

Bringing it all together
Accomplishing these firsts is no easy task, given the property's immense size and vast business operations. Like most mega-casinos on the Las Vegas strip, The Venetian is more than just a hotel-casino. In addition to its casino floor and 4,027 guest rooms, the property houses two major entertainment venues, 17 restaurants and cafes, 500,000 square feet of meeting space, The Grand Canal Shoppes retail center, the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, a night club and a spa; and since it is Venice after all, it also offers a canal system complete with gondola rides.

The property's massive 120,000 square-foot gaming venue provides for approximately 35 percent of revenue, leaving 65 percent of revenue coming from entertainment, room bookings, restaurants, shopping, etc. With so many variables in play, and so much revenue at stake, being on the cutting edge would seem like risky business.

For Vollmer and his team, a relentless commitment to one thing makes it all possible: total, seamless integration.

The biggest piece of the integration pie is the hotel's property management system (PMS), LMS from Agilysys (www.agilysys.com). "Everyone thinks the casino system is the center point," says Vollmer. "But it's the PMS system that's Rome." The system tracks everything, including such back-end functions as accounts receivable, as well as check-in and check-out, online reservations, the point of service, concierge services, and is even tied into tracking activity at the slot machines.

"I'm very proud of the integration level that we've reached," says Vollmer, pointing to the systems' abilities to communicate with each other as well as the level of stability his staff has been able to achieve. System communication has allowed for conference guests to have a schedule of events transmitted to their rooms, for example. Even the check-out process is further streamlined. "When you check-out from within your room, the system sends final paperwork to the room via the in-room fax/copier/printer," says Vollmer. No need to allocate labor to delivering folios directly to guests' rooms.

Looking ahead, The Venetian is in the process of building another 3,000 room tower that will bring its total room count to just over 7,000 by the end of this year. For Vollmer, 3,000 more rooms means 3,000 more opportunities to be a pack leader. "It's my goal that we continue to be the best at staying on the cutting edge."

Vollmer attributes the successful blending of cutting edge systems with total integration, in part, to his 25 years of experience with trying different approaches and seeing first hand which ones work. "I've been very cognizant of watching processes and looking at departments move pieces of paper around.

"The key to successful integration is to listen to the systems' users and learn what works, and what doesn't."

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