Smiling Through the Mask

September 1, 2020
September 1, 2020 Tom Puckett

Smiling Through the Mask

Delivering on Brand Experience in Las Vegas

As a tourist economy highly dependent on the personal and financial health of the whole country – of the entire world, in fact – Las Vegas stands as an essential, real-time case study in pandemic-era operations strategy for hospitality brands. Beyond casino gaming, which many are surprised to learn accounted for only about a third of total pre-crisis revenue on The Strip, the re-opening of Las Vegas should illuminate best operational practices for everything from hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, taverns and retail enterprises. All are emerging in a physically concentrated, contemporaneous manner here.

Though musical and theatrical performance venues, as well as professional sports stadiums and arenas, remain out of the mix for now, our ability to operate other public-facing businesses responsibly in the meantime will accelerate the return of these larger venues.

This abundance of attractions creates a unique, massive, and highly visible public challenge, and the world is watching how we handle it. We must relish this challenge, and leverage it into an opportunity or risk falling to a new normal that simply can’t support the massive development investment that has been made here, nor the level of operational investment in employment needed to sustain our people and our economy.

The most compelling chapter in our brand narrative, the story that quickly needs to arise from Las Vegas, is one of state-of-the-art, even futuristic health and safety technologies that make us among the safest places on the planet. In the meantime, we wipe down machines. We wear masks, and constantly beg guests to do the same. It’s not enough. This is Las Vegas. We do everything bigger and better. Until we do, though we might not be able to fully control our destiny, we can influence it with operational imperatives guided by clear-headed brand principles.

Early on, the mask emerged as the most visible, and, unfortunately, politically fraught symbol of pandemic precaution. Whatever your opinion of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment and safety procedures, these measures are the new reality, and are likely to be with us indefinitely. We can choose to view our mask wearing as a gross injustice wrought by government overlords, or we can see it for what it is: a minor inconvenience, a small sacrifice that allows us to remain open for business. Grousing about it spreads an insidious infection of negativity that undermines the core emotional premise of Las Vegas hospitality, which is to provide a positive, joyful experience. That experience might be tailored from the fabric of big nights in the casinos, shows, dining and so on, but it is sewn together by the personal touchpoints each of our guests experience. Successful hospitality enterprises understand that winning at each and every point of personal contact with the guest is an opportunity to drop a pebble on the positive side of the experience scale. By the end of a visit, we want the weight of all those pebbles to overwhelm any logistical frustrations, gaming losses, or overcooked steaks that may have been part of the experience.

Requiring masks for guests is a mandate that comes from on high. Normalizing mask wearing, and defusing the sense of nuisance, injustice or simple annoyance a customer might feel as a result, falls to our front line service ambassadors. If we hate wearing masks, it shows. And the resentment is infectious. Fortunately, so is positivity. A mask is not a cross to bear; it is a symbol of our commitment to the well-being of our guests. Wear it with pride. Smile through the mask, and our valuable guests are more likely to do the same.

Instill Mission Clarity

Crisis always begins in confusion, but in surprisingly little time it tends to inspire clarity. What is insignificant falls by the wayside, and what matters most suddenly becomes so apparent and obvious we wonder how we ever overlooked it.

One certainty is that Las Vegas has re-opened into a buyer’s market. A new Las Vegas must now arise, perhaps one with more of the old Las Vegas attitude in play. A Las Vegas with a promise that goes beyond our prodigious physical plant to distill and crystallize everything we’ve ever learned about hospitality. After at least a decade of depersonalization, quantification, and revenue maximization algorithms, our guests are going to turn from revenue units into actual people again. The customer will once again be king in Las Vegas. When this is genuinely acknowledged, and not just given lip service, we will be able to overwhelm patrons with operational and attitudinal distinctions that accrue to their benefit, fulfill our mission as hosts, and build a compelling brand reality based on operational truths.

Though service with a smile is imperative, genuine customer-centric operational changes must be part of the equation as well. Will we have the COVID-19 crisis to thank for the demise of resort fees, which are perhaps the ultimate, disingenuous violation of the Las Vegas master brand? Will paid parking, which has especially aroused resentment and spurred alienation of local Las Vegans, and is essentially a disincentivizing tariff on our vital California drive market, become a welcome, permanent casualty of the crisis? Is there a happy medium between giving away alcohol on the casino floor and $20 martinis? The emergent practice of adding a “Covid Fee” to bar tabs might be the most egregious idea yet. It manages to bundle three brand-damaging messages in just two little words, simultaneously begging for sympathy even as it reeks of opportunistic price gouging, and, worst of all, reminding each and every precious, recovery stage guest that they are partying in a place under threat of plague. With this self-inflicted wound, we’re popping the escapist, fantasy bubble we work so hard to create for our guests.

Before this crisis, our greed was already showing, born of boom times arrogance abetted by the demands of polishing earnings reports and justifying the return on immense capital investments. It’s time to check that, and look more than a fiscal quarter into the future. This town was not built on greed, it was built on giving. Giving guests value, whether they were dropping quarters at Circus Circus or playing baccarat at Bellagio, was a core tenet of the Las Vegas brand. We were once confident that not squeezing the last nickel out of a guest today meant they could come back with a dollar tomorrow.

Help Employees Become Brand Believers

Imagine returning to work after a lengthy furlough and finding most of the people you worked with are gone. On the one hand, it’s good to be wanted. On the other, people have a hard time feeling celebratory when their friends are facing career and financial tribulations. Survivor’s guilt is a very real emotion.

It’s a tough time to expect people to shine. But shine they must, for the sake of their employers, the future of their laid-off colleagues, and their own sense of personal satisfaction. Managers of front-line employees must rise to the occasion, and help their charges understand how vital they are in this critical battle to restore Las Vegas to its former level of prestige and prosperity. It takes a genuine sense of mission to provide real motivation. Each customer-facing employee must believe their personal role is vital to the cause. We’ve never asked more from our employees. In turn, we’ve never needed more from the managers who guide them.

When it comes to brand narratives – and make no mistake, this pitch to our employees is a brand narrative – facts and explanations will only get you so far. Tactics that evoke powerful, motivating emotions must be skillfully included in the mix. Each property desperately needs a current brand narrative that leverages adversity into an opportunity for heroism for employees even as it promises a more important and appreciated role for guests.

Operational imperatives to protect the health and safety of all is a good start. But it’s only the ante in this game. It’s time for leaders to lead, and that means winning hearts, not just commanding compliance with job descriptions.

Prosperity breeds complacency. Adversity is where heroes are born.

Just as the Mirage marked the beginning of a new Las Vegas over thirty years ago, how Las Vegas behaves as a destination and as a brand in the face of the COVID-19 crisis marks the beginning of the new era we now enter. Far from destroying humanity, this crisis can actually restore our humanity, putting us on a path of truth, integrity and personal fulfillment that had grown elusive during boom times, when it became easy to take our customers for granted, and to forget the employees working directly with our customers are all walking, talking expressions of our brands, not just warm bodies filling shift positions.

There is no greater marketing force than empowered, engaged people who believe in a brand because they live the truth of the brand. And because our coming new prosperity will be earned and internalized by everyone on our front lines, the power in our brands can be real, and honest, and lasting. The lights will shine brighter than ever, and they will illuminate not a lone champion who has saved us with a stroke of brilliance, but rather thousands of front-line heroes who are committed to living the truth of the promise in their brands.