Q&A with Ismael Barrera, Corporate Director of Slots for Gila River Resorts & Casinos

TG&H: What has been your career path to the Corporate Director of Slots? How did you learn your trade craft?

IB: After I received my degree in electronics, I started at Gila River Resorts & Casinos in 2003. I went to a technology job fair with the hope of landing a position with Motorola or Raytheon. I had never thought of working at a casino, but Gila River had a booth at the job fair and I submitted my resume. When I was offered a position as a slot technician, I thought it would be a fun experience, but my plan was to get back into telecommunications after one year.

Within six months, I was promoted to Technician II and eight months later, I became a Senior Tech. With the construction of the new Lone Butte Casino in 2007, I was fortunate to be promoted as the Slot Technical Manager. In 2011, I was given the opportunity to be the acting Slot Director at Lone Butte and with the support of senior leadership, I became the Director of Slots at Lone Butte. In 2017, I was given the opportunity to be the acting Corporate Director of Slots. Later that year, I became the Corporate Director of Slots for Gila River Resorts & Casinos. The Gila River leadership team recognizes and values work ethic, which has been a blessing for my career.

I believe that my education in accounting and electronics was key for my path to the Corporate Director of Slots. The accounting side helps me with slot metrics, statistics, budgets, and negotiations. The electronics education helped me with working on slot machines and understanding today’s technologies.

TG&H: Old school casino floor design was similar to a warehouse: confusing row after row of slot machines; it was almost like a maze. Gamblers really had to know where their favorite machines were located. Describe your strategy to create a comfortable and magical floor experience that encourages time on device for players.

IB: Some casinos had, or still have, rows and rows of large banks. We at Gila River have strategically configured the slot machine banks to make them comfortable and easy to navigate for our guests, meaning, smaller banks, carousels, tripods, and defined walkways. We have also created sections, such as the video poker, high limit, progressive link, and low denomination sections, which make it easier for our guests to find.

TG&H: How do you use data to make decisions about what slot machines get on the floor, which ones are pulled, and how to meet the needs of your players?

IB: It’s all about our guests. I look at occupancy and what games are popular – that’s one of the main KPIs and main drivers when analyzing data. Our gaming floors have an offering for all guests, from low denomination to high denomination, video poker, bar tops, mechanical reels, ETGs and classic games. I spend hours of my day analyzing data and optimizing all segments of our floors. Often, we compare data between our properties to decide if we should make similar changes across all locations or keep those unique to each property.

Our players are very passionate about slots, and we never want to get in the way of what they enjoy when they come here. We want to build on what they enjoy when they come to visit us, whether that be by adding slots that show high occupancy, removing ones that don’t, adding more space for comfort, or trying out new games.

TG&H: What are you looking for in new games, and what’s on your list that you really wish slot manufacturers would produce?

IB: We’ve requested games to be a little bit more ergonomic and a little bit smaller. In the last five years everything has been large size games. We can strategically place these games in areas that need sightlines. I’m looking forward to this year’s G2E to see if the OEMs introduce these types of cabinets to potentially bring to Gila River. I am also interested in games based on the “Australian math mechanics.” It seems that games with a medium to high volatility have been a success and last longer on our floors.

TG&H: What do you think is most critical for your players at Gila River? How do you oversee your slot product to give your players what they want?

IB: I would say that time on device and guest service are critical to our guests’ experience. We also offer an excellent player reward program, THECard, where guests can earn free bonus play, cash back, dining, gifts, tickets to major sporting events and concerts. We go all-out to provide guests with an unforgettable experience where they can own their moment.

TG&H: What does the gaming floor of the future mean to you?

IB: My hope for the future is that guests can book resort accommodations, order, and pay for a drink, place a sporting bet … all from the slot machine. Technology will always evolve but providing guest service now and tomorrow is paramount at Gila River.

Our guests have also shared that they enjoy the changes we have made to the casino floor over the years, including the non-smoking environment.

TG&H: How about skill-based games? Is that a thing in the past? Do you think it’s a good idea?

IB: The only skill-based game that remains is video poker. I’ve experimented with a few skill-based games in the last few years, but they have not resonated with guests.

TG&H: Does Gila River have cashless gaming systems in place yet?

IB: Not at the moment, but we have the infrastructure to deploy it. We’ll be ready whenever it’s time to implement that offering.

TG&H: As far as creating excitement on the slot floor, outside of the games themselves, do you have any promotions with marketing or any fun promotions that are outside of the box?

IB: On top of all the marketing campaigns and weekly promotions, I work with the marketing team when we launch new games. Sometimes OEMs bring models to promote games, where we host events to showcase the new games. We also do regular giveaways, including T-shirts and marketing items, which our guests love.

Recently, Gila River was the first to market slot influencer, Brian Christopher’s, new game in Arizona. The event was a huge success with hundreds of guests who came out to meet and celebrate with Brian.

TG&H: And how about sports betting and free-to-play online games?

IB: At all three of our locations, we have state of the art BetMGM sportsbooks. Additionally, we have the BetGila app, powered by BetMGM, which allows guests to mobile sports bet on the Gila River Indian Community.

Over the past year the sportsbook has been a great success. Before sports betting was legal in Arizona, our guests would travel to Las Vegas. Now that we have this offering, it’s convenient for our guests to come place bets, watch games, and enjoy all of our amenities at Gila River.

TG&H: Are your slot players also sportsbook players, or do you find that they’re different guests?

IB: Now that sports betting is available to our guests, we’ve seen a crossover of both segments. Guests come here to either play slots or place a sporting wager, but while they are here, they also want to learn and experience our other gaming offerings.

TG&H: You’re constructing a fourth casino, Santan Mountain. You have a blank slate to work with. What are you doing differently on the slot floor?

IB: I have gaming data on over 3,600 games from our three properties. I’ve analyzed those numbers carefully and came up with a very well-balanced mix. There will be a game at Santan Mountain that will appeals to each of our guests. The new casino will have a high-limit area with private restrooms, a cashier’s cage, and a bar with a beautiful view overlooking the Santan Mountains. Unlike typical casino layouts, Santan Mountain will have floor to ceiling windows with lots of natural light and spectacular views. The gaming floor will also have an ETG and video poker area. The slot machine banks will provide comfort for our guests with defined walkways and easy access to ATMs and marketing kiosks. Santan Mountain Casino will also have a BetMGM sportsbook.

TG&H: You’ve also introduced table games at your properties; how did you make space for them?

IB: Yes, we have table games, and it has been a year since we introduced baccarat, roulette, and craps. The reception from our guests has surpassed our initial forecast.

TG&H: The entire world, let alone our casino industry, is struggling with labor issues. How do you retain and hire new team members for the slot department? Do you have a creative package that you offer that might include different schedules?

IB: We recently implemented the four-tens style workweek to our schedules, giving our team members the opportunity to have a three-day weekend. Our benefits package is undoubtedly one of the best in Arizona, which includes our 401(k) and superb health insurance provider. We also recently adjusted wages to stay ahead of the competitors in the market.

To find out more about Gila River Resorts & Casinos, please visit www.playatgila.com

Christine Faria 50 Articles