RFID Keeps Tabs on Vegas Bartenders, and Soon Could Track You Too

RFID tags are on their way to becoming ubiquitous in hotels and casinos, helping to bring new levels of personalized services and employee tracking.

In the city that never sleeps, RFID tags are also on the job 24/7. The technology is on its way to ubiquity in hotels and casinos, helping to bring new levels of personalized services. But the tiny tracking chips are threatening some long-standing practices as well—such as the tradition of giving bartenders generous tips in order to get generous drinks.

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Tucked away in the pouring spouts of the bottles behind bars at MGM Mirage resorts and casinos are RFID tags that measure the flow of liquor, producing data that links to point-of-sale systems. The chipping is part of the loss-control system at MGM Mirage (it has RFID in some casino chips as well), which has 55,000 employees and serves tens of thousands of guests daily. But it is a relatively minor example of how technology is being used, according to Tom Peck, MGM Mirage's senior vice president and CIO. The company has some big plans to deploy a range of technologies that will change how services are delivered.

And MGM Mirage is moving aggressively to expand customer services with new technologies, pushing vendors to refine them as it works to open its $8 billion CityCenter here late next year. The complex will include 2,650 private residences, boutique hotels, a 4,000-room hotel and casino, and spaces for retail.

Peck, who appeared at a Gartner Inc. ITexpo forum with Aldo Manzini, MGM Mirage's executive vice president and chief administrative officer, envisions a seamless network—from algorithms that can predict customer wants to systems that will respond to newly arrived hotel guests by automatically turning on lights, adjusting blinds and setting the television to the customer's preferred language. All of it will happen through fiber networks and ZigBee, a short-range wireless network technology in rooms.

Peck wants these systems not only in CityCenter but in its other complexes as well, and the company has labs working on the issues they raise. For instance, integrated room technology needs a network switch, and upward of 10,000 switches will be installed behind walls—switches that give out heat and will break, he said. "We're actually measuring ambient heat and working with vendors to generate the next product that doesn't exist today," said Peck.

Another new technology will be room keys that not only open doors, but also keep track of customer preferences and gaming play. But Peck says that this type of technology, which includes RFID and a computer chip, will also likely be "opt-in," since some customers may not want to be tracked.

The business goal, said Manzini, is to be able to use technology to create an experience as close to a personalized concierge service as possible for a very large number of customers, "and the only way we can accomplish that is through technology."

All this information has to go somewhere, and the company has some 85 million records that are replicated in real time—an information jackpot in its own right.

"Knowing what happened in the past is interesting but not really relevant," said Peck. "What we want to be able to do is predict the future." Predictive modeling of the hotel's guests' activities and requests makes the algorithms that sit on top of the data warehouse a "killer app for us," he said.

Casino operations are, in some ways, very similar to banks, inasmuch as they're heavily regulated by the states and federal government. Any technology that affects guests or cash flow has to be certified by authorities who examine systems in their own labs, which is a three- to six-month process.

Consequently, the MGM Mirage can't afford to allow its various entities, which include the Bellagio, MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, to head off in their own tech directions. But managers of each of its properties are responsible for the results, so the company wants to ensure that they have the flexibility to meet unique customer needs.

"We want to encourage properties...to be autonomous and come up with ideas, but we're very centralized from a technology perspective," said Peck, and that's because of support issues and regulatory requirements. "We like to deliver centralized tools" that managers can choose to adopt, or not.

This story, "RFID Keeps Tabs on Vegas Bartenders, and Soon Could Track You Too" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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