- Many restaurants and other businesses have gone ‘cash free’ in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Paper money and coins are notoriously filthy though the risk of contracting a virus from cash is unknown.
- The gaming industry is one of the last strongholds of cash based transactions.
As the US gaming industry begins to reopen following coronavirus caused shutdowns one of the primary selling points for casino customers will be health and safety. The major US unveiling their plans to provide greater protection to employees and guests over a month ago focusing on improved sanitation, social distancing and educating staff on coronavirus detection and response procedures. The question now becomes will this be what brings gaming patrons back to casinos in Nevada and elsewhere?
In a broader context, many gaming industry experts are looking at how the entire ecosystem could change in response to COVID-19. It could cause a long standing ethos of the industry to be flipped on its head. For decades, the general game plan was to figure out ways to attract people to the casino–via promotions, events, comps, buffets, shows and even services like paycheck cashing. The rationale was obvious–the more traffic that comes through the property the more money that ends up in gaming coffers. That is likely to change dramatically in the near future as casinos go in the opposite direction, looking to establish revenue streams that *don’t* require that customers be physically present.
So far, there are a few longtime vanguards of the casino industry that have been resistant to this trend. One is the ubiquity of smoking in gaming properties. This would seem to be an obvious way to address health and safety concerns but there’s been little move to further restrict smoking. That probably has to do with broad anti-tobacco policies in gaming jurisdictions in Las Vegas that have eliminated smoking just about everywhere but the casino gaming floor. In other words, this is a problem that doesn’t really exist and the gaming industry is resisting anti-smoking scolds using the pandemic as an opportunity to advance a pet agenda.
THE CASH FREE FUTURE COMES TO THE CASINO FLOOR
Another vanguard of the gaming industry could be more ripe for change. The casino floor is one of the last environs remaining where ‘cash is king’. Las Vegas residents understand this dynamic completely, particularly when they move elsewhere and realize that it’s not easy to change a $100 bill in the middle of the night. I seldom carry much cash now that I live in South Carolina instead using options ranging from credit cards to my Bitcoin wallet. When I lived in Las Vegas, I seldom left the house without $2,000–usually twenty $100 bills–in my wallet.
The genesis of the gaming industry’s focus on greenbacks is unclear. Some jurisdictions have viewed it in terms of responsible gambling. The thinking is that the added step of physically putting cash into a machine is a deterrent to compulsive gambling that wouldn’t be there if players could simply stick a debit card in a slot machine. How much validity there is to this dynamic is unclear but it has been cited frequently by regulatory bodies nationwide.
Fortunately, this bias against cash free gaming could be eroding in the face of several more compelling trends. The first–and most immediate–is the simple reality that cash is filthy. While the specific risk of transmitting a virus in general and the COVID-19 coronavirus in particular is unknown the role of germ transmission via cash is undeniable. The secondary trend at play is the need for greater social distancing as noted above. Gaming companies are seeking revenue streams that don’t require physically having customers in the casino. This will create an even greater emphasis on mobile casino gaming, sports betting and poker. Obviously, insisting on the use of cash just isn’t conducive to remote betting.
THE MOBILE WALLET COULD BE THE NEXT PHASE IN CASH FREE GAMING
Gaming regulators might be uncomfortable with the physical act of sticking a debit card into a video poker machine but there is less resistance for a technology that is familiar to offshore sportsbook players and Bitcoin enthusiasts: the mobile wallet. On one level, it’s not much different than using cash to buy casino chips–players use cash, debit cards, bank accounts, etc. and convert a specific amount into a financial instrument used for gaming. There’s a lot of ways to facilitate this from using the mobile wallet to generate gaming tickets at already existing casino kiosks to the more elegant solution of just using a cellphone’s NFC or Bluetooth functionality to deposit and cash gaming credits similar to using Google Pay at Starbucks.
Curiously, there hasn’t been much activity on that front at the regulatory level. Nevada has one of the country’s most robust gaming oversight ecosystems and according to Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Morgan there’s been a surprising dearth of new technology initiatives to reduce the use of cash:
“I’ve been pretty public saying that I’m open to looking at new ways that technology can help attract new customers and be beneficial for not only the industry but even for responsible gaming measures as well. Since COVID hit, I haven’t gotten any more increases to address or discuss new technology for cashless wagering than I did prior to it. But I’ve always been open to discussing it and looking for different ways not only to make gaming and gambling more enjoyable or more accessible.”
This could change quickly once the gaming industry reopens for business and particularly if driven by consumer demand. In a recent Las Vegas Review Journal article Scientific Games gaming division CEO Matt Wilson noted that the pandemic has created more interest in cashless options at the operator level who are now viewing it as part of a broader emphasis on keeping casinos santized:
“These operators are spending a staggering amount of money in resourcing to keep casinos sanitized by deploying employees to wipe down slot machines, elevator buttons, everything you can imagine, to make surfaces as sterile and safe as possible.”
“But when you think about the (fact that the) financial instrument we use to transact on the gaming floors is cash … how many hands have been on a dollar bill? It’s the surface that gets touched the most, and it seems the way for us to circumvent that potential health hazard and do it in a way that consumers in the world already are transacting in probably every other industry in their lives.”
Sam Zietz is the CEO of Grubbrr, a company that develops cashless payment options. He thinks the recent move by many restaurants to eliminate cash transmission could be prescient–particularly among younger generations of consumers:
“The dirtiest thing in a restaurant is cash. Do you want the person who’s touching cash then touching your food? Probably not. Especially in the hypersensitive post-corona world.”
The trend toward cash free dining was gaining momentum even before the Coronavirus pandemic and has only accelerated as consumers are coming to expect an emphasis on reducing the risk of disease transmission. It’s not clear how much of this is a ‘top down’ initiative by the dining industry and how much is being driven by consumer demand. The gaming industry has a tendency to resist unpopular changes until they have no option–for example, the unctuous trend toward charging for parking at Las Vegas casinos. Gaming companies remained steadfast despite countless complaints but the business demands forced on them by the Coronavirus pandemic has quickly brought free parking back to the Las Vegas Strip. On the other hand, there’s been no move to eliminate the equally unpopular (but lucrative for gaming properties) resort fees.
On a practical level, there’s an important distinction to be made between parking fees and resort fees. Parking fees are impossible to miss and immediate. Resort fees are more subtle as they’re hidden in the small print of hotel folios and credit card bills. In a land based gaming establishment, there’s nothing more immediate and obvious than the abundance of cash transmission. Likewise, it’s impossible to not realize that with so many hands touching this cash there’s got to be a more expedient and safer solution. If consumers begin to demand it, you’ll see gaming companies quickly change their ways.