“You're only as good as your last comp." -- Henry Pisano, vice president of player development, Seminole Hard Rock Casino
It's Friday night and fists of black clouds are pounding the sky above the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida. Rivers of rain flow over the edges of the roof covering the main entrance, making it appear as if buses and cars are arriving through a waterfall. Jonathan DeFilippis, a player development executive for the casino, is watching from the lobby. His eyes dart back and forth between his Blackberry and the incoming vehicles.
"They should be here any minute," he says, referring to a bachelor party we've been tracking all night.
First their flight was delayed in Maryland, then re-routed to Orlando because of the storm. Their connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was held up and then a transport van had to be arranged to take them to the casino. DeFilippis has been monitoring the progress and altering plans every step of the way because the man hosting the bachelor party is one of his major "players" -- a high-end client who needs to be taken care of.
A casino employee carrying a wooden wine crate stops in front of us as the lobby door opens. The sound of thunder briefly interrupts the infinite loop of ringing slot machines. DeFilippis takes out his notepad and double checks to make sure the six bottles in the crate are from the winery he requested.
"All set," he says to the employee. "I just emailed you the address. Let's ship them first thing in the morning."
The bottles are a birthday gift for a player; not a "big player" but a “regular player” who, like the incoming bachelor party host, gets taken care of.
The little details about what a client likes are what a casino host lives off. A favorite wine, a preferred cigar brand, a cut of steak, a lucky table, a sports team ... these nuggets of information we all reveal about ourselves during casual conversation are currency to a host. You like the Philadelphia Eagles? If you're a big enough player, they'll fly you down, give you a room and get you tickets for when they play the Dolphins. You like The Eagles' music? How about a photo with the band and a Q&A session after a live performance? You like real, live eagles? Next time Jack Hanna's in town for a show maybe they can set up a meet and greet.
If you give the casino enough action, almost anything is possible.
"It's reinvesting based on play," DeFilippis tells me. "It's actually a simple formula. There are two columns. One column says how much you play; the other column says how much that play is worth in terms of compensation to the casino. We base what we can do for someone on that and we try to make everyone have the best experience possible."
Depending on how much you play, that experience could simply be a complimentary dinner. Or it could be a comped jet, a comped room, a comped evening with your idol and comped tickets to the biggest sporting events in the world.
Henry Pisano, vice president of player development for the casino, and the living embodiment of everything you expect an old school casino host to be, explains it like this:
"The biggest events that we host aren't for an instant return on investment. They're to foster a relationship with our best players and to build a loyalty between us and the property. We want to let a player know that we're here for them, just like any other business. It's just that we sell more 'wow' than other businesses. We're an entertainment company."
Take, for instance, the BCS national championship game in Miami in January. Rudy himself wasn’t pulling as hard for Notre Dame to get into that game as the guys in player development were.
"When Notre Dame made that game, it was showtime," Pisano says. "We didn't care about any other team making that game except the Irish because no team has a bigger fan base and alumni base. As soon as they got in, we put together a strategy. We contacted our players who were sports fans in general and Irish fans in particular. We arranged for limos and travel. We bought over one hundred and twenty tickets for the game and we set up something special for our clients ... We hired one of the greatest Notre Dame players of all time, Joe Montana, to come hang out here for a night. He's a friend of ours and he came here and signed balls, took pictures, talked about the BCS game and basically gave everyone a great experience. And that's what it's about. Presenting our clients with an experience they can't get anywhere else."
On a given night, men and women like DeFilippis and Pisano can receive upwards of 200 phone calls, texts and emails from players. They're like 911 switchboard operators who offer luxury services instead of emergency assistance. Reservation requests, table deliveries and spa treatment wishes arrive in bursts. The Blackberry buzzes like it's receiving an endless stream of Morse code. Night after night, the phone is never off and the charm is always on.
Every guest is greeted as if the casino host has been waiting all day to see them. Big smiles, big hugs, big back slapping. The secret, however, is that the excitement and energy is real.
"You have to love doing this," DeFilippis says. "And you have to love taking care of the people you build relationships with. The thing I had to learn is that my relationship with them is part of their experience. I could be having steaks with a client, playing a round of golf, going to a football game ... You really do become a part of each other’s lives."
On cue, a player saunters up to DeFilippis and gives him a hug -- maybe his 30th hug of the night. He recently had his first son and the congratulations have been pouring in.
"These people really do become your extended family," he says.
He looks down at his phone, then at the lobby, then across the casino. He just received a text and I can tell he's making some sort of calculation in his head and finally he makes up his mind.
"Let's go," he says.
As we fast-walk through the casino, we get looks that I'm sure he has become immune to by now. After all, a regular casino guest sees two guys in suits moving with purpose through the gaming floor and they're inclined to think something big is happening. In this case, one of our major clients for the night would like a table at Council Oaks, the Hard Rock's steakhouse, and we want to greet him at the door and get him a prime seat for his prime rib -- even though the restaurant is packed.
Dozens of players look up from their table games or slot machines as we weave our way through the main casino floor. While every single client is valued as a customer of the casino, I can't help but think we're in some gambling version of The Matrix. The average person on the floor who is playing dollar slots or $15 blackjack hands has almost no idea about the real world of high end comps that's swirling around them.
They can't simply text their host to provide a hotel room or a limo ride home. They don't have a "guy" to call if they're feeling sore and want to book a quick massage. They can't just walk into the VIP Plum Lounge and eat gratis. If they want pizza, they have to go to the food court and get a slice themselves. If a restaurant is booked, they have to eat somewhere else. Seeing the other side of the equation is a bit like being unplugged by Morpheus.
We arrive at Council Oaks and immediately walk into the kitchen to tell the restaurant manager who's coming. He confirms that we'll have a table ready and just as we exit, the player arrives with her daughter, fresh from the spa. Another big hug hello, another big smile, another "how's the baby?" DeFilippis has been doing this all night. We take the client to her table, shake a few hands with other players on the way out and head straight back to the lobby just as the bachelor party arrives.
The main player heads straight for DeFilippis and despite the nine hours of travel time, he's fired up and excited to see us. We take the guy and his buddies over to the concierge lounge, where he shows DeFilippis off. With the help of a few casino assistants, we check them in, give the appropriate guys their player’s cards and send them toward the elevators.
"I've known that guy for a long time," DeFilippis, says. "We go way back. I even know some of his friends now. I always want to do right by him. I know I can't control the weather or flight delays, but if we can make it easier on them, they'll have a better time here. That's all I want to do. Now let's get back to the slot tournament."
Amidst the general chaos of your average Friday night, the Hard Rock is hosting a $250,000 slot tournament, where several of our players have entered.
The room hosting the slot tournament is the size of a high school gym, with slot machines on one side and five-star food and drinks on the other. Models dressed up as peacocks roam the room and there's an MC who announces each round of the tournament. We slowly walk the row of slot machines, shaking hands and asking each of our players if they need anything. The contest takes place over three rounds and everyone starts out with the same amount of money after buying in. The person with the most money in each round after a certain number of spins moves on. The winner gets a quarter of a million dollars.
Between rounds we meet up with some of the contestants in the high stakes slot room. We check on what they need and several ask DeFilippis about the $150,000 blackjack tournament the following week.
“You should come back for the blackjack tournament,” DeFilippis tells me. “You gotta spend more time here with Henry. He taught me everything.”
I agree to do it.
Henry Pisano is DeFillipis' mentor and a legend in the Florida gaming business. He's from Newark via Italy and he's fluent in English, Italian and the slick cadence of a guy who has seen it all. He's quick with a one-liner and even quicker with a quality putdown if ball busting is in order. He handles the highest of the high-end clients and many of the celebrity interactions involving the casino and major players.
A history of the biggest events he's hosted is in lockstep with the history of south Florida sports and entertainment since the Hard Rock's inception in 2004. For instance, when the Miami Heat acquired Shaquille O'Neal, Pisano and the Hard Rock team instantly mobilized.
"When Shaq came to Miami, everyone in South Florida wanted a piece of him," Pisano says. "So we took on the sponsorship for the Winterfest boat parade. Shaq was staying at our hotel and we had a meeting with him at 1:30 a.m. in the conference room right after he signed. During the meeting we offered him the Grand Marshal spot in the parade. He said 'yes' on a handshake and we started that relationship. Down the road we threw him a big birthday bash where money went to his charity and the stars aligned for us. We've worked with Alonzo Mourning and his charities and we have events lined up with Dwyane Wade for later this year. We've had events with Dan Marino and nearly every local star. We've done three Super Bowls, two BCS bowls, a Pro Bowl. All of it."
And the events he sets up aren't exclusive to sports. The Hard Rock hosted the entire cast of The Sopranos on the evening of the show's HBO series finale. While the rest of the country was getting Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" stuck in their heads, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli, Stevie Van Zandt and the Bada Bing crew were in a private room with Pisano celebrating the show's conclusion.
"That was one of those ‘wow' experience things I was talking about that we somehow pulled off," he says. "We had a viewing room for the cast and then we threw a party for 800 of our closest friends. The cast stayed and signed autographs and met with people and it was great."
Neither Shaq or Paulie Walnuts was there on this particular night, but a small contingent of Miami Dolphins players have gathered in the high stakes blackjack room next to the $150,000 tournament that's taking place. The tournament is reserved for a certain level of gambler, with the winner getting $150,000 and the runners up each getting $10,000.
Pisano has several players in the contest and we're on hand as the first round begins. I help him check certain players in and while I'm doing that, he's making the rounds with everyone from the pit bosses to the dealers to see how things are going.
But the tournament is just one of maybe half a dozen subplots we're dealing with this evening.
The largest of which is the matter of expensing the Miami Heat Experience from Game 2 of the NBA Finals. That little event involved travel, rooms, luxury suites, tickets, food and drinks for dozens of Hard Rock's biggest players. While the hands of blackjack are being dealt, the player development team is having an impromptu meeting between the man in charge of credit, the accountant and a few other cogs in the machine.
The goal is to make sure each department has their books in order. It's a hectic process that eventually leads to a walk back to Pisano's office for a few members of his crew to straighten out the numbers.
Pisano's office is decorated with photos and memorabilia from the hundreds of events he's been involved with at the casino. Yet despite the glamour and the glitz, when it comes to the business end of the gambling business, he has to sit down at his computer, call up an Excel spread sheet, and reconcile the numbers with his staff. If you didn’t know what the discussion was about or where it was taking place, the scene could be occurring in any office anywhere in the United States.
Once things are squared away, Pisano pulls me into the conference room to show me the itinerary for the off-season. Since the casino is in Florida, many of the regular players are snowbirds, or people who winter in Florida but spend the rest of the year up north.
"During this time of year it's important that we travel and get out and spend time with our clients," he says. “Starting in two weeks, we’re going to be in Virginia for a golf tournament, then we’re taking some clients to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game against Tampa Bay, then we're going to Toronto and Montreal, then we’re hosting a night at a Yankees game for some of our friends. We have a little break, then we're taking clients to a Cubs game in Chicago, then to the track in Saratoga and from there we’re going to the Mayweather fight in Vegas with some of our biggest players.”
There are maybe a dozen other smaller events on the calendar, with a roster of which player development executives will be going to which ones underneath each. The perks of the job, seemingly, are endless. Then again, so are the hours. Pisano has been at work for over ten hours today and we need to head back out to the casino floor for the next few rounds of the blackjack tournament, which isn’t even close to finished.
Along the way he starts telling me about the $10 million poker tournament the casino will be hosting in a few months.
“You gotta come back for that tournament,” he says, excitedly. “Biggest guaranteed payout in the world. There will be some major players here for that one.”
Without even thinking, I find myself saying that I'll be there. And that’s when I realize the power of the "wow" experience Pisano keeps mentioning. Whether you're a high roller for life or a host for a night, the "wow" keeps you coming back for more.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.
Stars Who Got Big Break In Sports Movies