Within a few months, you may be able to walk into certain Pennsylvania casinos with no money in your wallet, never touch an ATM machine, but start playing slot machines.
That’s because Boyd Gaming Corp., which owns Valley Forge Casino Resort, and Penn National Gaming, owner of the Hollywood and Meadows casinos, are in the vanguard of the gaming industry’s transition to cashless transactions.
On recent earnings calls, executives of the two multi-state gaming companies touted their separate plans to put their Pennsylvania casinos at the forefront of national efforts to end total dependence on use of cash for gambling.
The conversion to gamblers’ use of money accessed by loyalty cards or smartphone wallets has been a goal of operators for years and gained new momentum from the COVID-19 pandemic, with all of the health concerns surrounding it about contacting the same materials and surfaces recently touched by scores of strangers.
If gambling funds can be stored and used on customers’ own devices, industry advocates say, it will simply bring casinos in line with a funding format to which their younger demographic has become accustomed in their other transactions — whether buying a cup of coffee or anything else.
“We’re certainly not forcing customers into this,” said Blake Rampmaier, Boyd’s senior vice president and chief information officer. “It’s something if they choose to use it, they can. This type of functionality is becoming more well-used and understood and accepted by consumers in multiple industries.”
CEOs want to start as soon as they’re allowed
In an interview with Penn Bets, Rampmaier elaborated on comments that Boyd President and CEO Kevin E. Smith made on a Feb. 16 corporate earnings call.
Smith described how the company had partnered with Aristocrat Technologies on the BoydPay cashless digital wallet that has first been implemented at casinos in Indiana and Ohio and is under testing in Nevada. The company hopes to add it in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Louisiana by end of March, subject to regulatory approval.
“Over the course of this year BoydPay will become a true digital experience, a cashless wallet available on smartphones, used to pay for everything we offer in our properties nationwide,” Smith said.
“Longer-term, this digital wallet will have functionality beyond the walls of our properties, as we work to integrate the BoydPay digital wallet into our online products,” he added. “This integration will allow us to create a seamless experience for our guests between digital gaming experiences and our traditional properties, creating the opportunity to stay engaged with our customers wherever they choose to play with us.”
In Penn National’s own earnings call this month, its president and CEO, Jay Snowden, told analysts to expect a Pennsylvania launch in the first half of 2021 of the company’s three C’s: “Our new cashless, card-less, and contact-less technology which will improve efficiency and provide a guest experience in line with other industries historically frequented by younger demographics, which we expect also to drive further incremental revenue for us.”
Snowden has talked previously about the inefficiency involved in moving all of the paper bills around casinos, with the need to track, store, count, and report them in a way that would be exponentially faster and safer through digital means.
“We can’t move fast enough on this as an industry,” Snowden said last year, and the American Gaming Association has a campaign in place promoting the conversion, with guidelines for how casinos and regulators should go about it in a way that serves the interests of operators, consumers, and law enforcement, with its perpetual concerns about money laundering that can take place in casinos.
The first phase involves familiar loyalty cards
Rampmaier said that from Boyd’s standpoint, the conversion available to customers at its properties such as Valley Forge would be accomplished in phases.
The first phase would enable players to use their debit or credit cards, or cash deposited at the cashier’s cage, to fund accounts connected to the company’s “B Connected” loyalty card program.
Currently, players can sit down at a slot machine, insert their loyalty card, and if they don’t want to use cash to gamble, they can use their PIN code to access any credits they’ve been awarded from past play or comps. The new system will enable Valley Forge customers additionally to access funds they may have previously deposited in their account, or else can deposit anew electronically while sitting at the machine.
“You put your B Connected card into the slot machine and an additional screen pops up, notifying you you have funds in your wallet there and asking how much you want to bring down into the slot machine,” Rampmaier explained. “It’s a virtual account. … When you withdraw the card from your session at the slot machine, the funds can go right back into your cash account. And you can move back into digital accounts at any time.”
It means no more getting up from the machine if your money runs out in order to stroll to the nearest ATM for more cash. That’s not necessarily a good thing, according to some leading advocates of responsible gambling, who believe such necessary pauses in a losing gambler’s activity can discourage them from getting carried away.
Rampaier notes, however, that the new technology would provide means for patrons to establish limits in advance on how much in funds they permit themselves to access from their accounts in a given period. That’s a feature similar to the responsible gambling options available on iGaming sites, which online operators tout as a way of controlling excessive spending and which has not traditionally been available in brick-and-mortar casinos.
Smartphones can replace use of card in future
The new way to use its loyalty player accounts for slot machine play is just the first step of a broader program, Rampmaier said.
In subsequent months, customers would be able to access funds in those accounts to play table games or to purchase meals or make use of other amenities in the casino.
Additionally, technology developed for the B Connected mobile app will eventually enable customers to use their smartphones for a contactless experience of accessing funds at the slot machine, tables, or restaurants without producing their card. That will provide the full capabilities for casino guests that they can find increasingly in the rest of society.
“This has been on the road map for four or five years. … COVID has certainly sped this up,” Rampmaier said. “We know customers are enjoying more contact-less experiences in other industries, whether it’s Starbucks or Target or swiping your phone over the machine at the gas station. … If this is something that appeals to you, you will now have this opportunity or choice. Our whole goal is to make the experience frictionless.”
Rampmaier said the company has some estimates on how much of its gambling volume will convert to the cashless form and how quickly, but it is not willing to publicly divulge them.
And first, state regulators have to sign off before the new options become available. Rampmaier said regulators in general have been receptive thus far, while naturally having questions about how the new process works, how customers control it, what options they have, how financial reporting to the state is adjusted, and so forth.
Boyd is optimistic of gaining approval from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in the first quarter of the year, Rampaier said, while allowing the wait could stretch beyond that and “we’re happy to launch when they give their authorization.”
The board’s staff has been having discussions with Boyd/Valley Forge and other operators on how to apply the regulations previously adopted by the board covering the issue. There is no timetable yet for any operator to receive approval and start the conversion, as no formal applications have yet been submitted, said board spokesman Doug Harbach.
“Our staff has had productive discussions with a number of licensees about programs that would enable cashless transactions,” he said. “In all conversations, we have told licensees that when they are prepared for us to review specifications, make a submission to us so a review of the system can be made and internal controls over those systems can be developed.”
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