As casinos around the world prepare to power back up after the coronavirus shutdown, the most vital question of the day is how to do that safely, for customers and employees alike.
Technology is beginning to answer that question with prototype products like Plexiglas dividers for slot machines and tablet-sized devices to take a guest’s temperature. But the challenges go way beyond taking temperatures and separating customers. Keeping gaming chips sanitized, separating table game players and constant sanitizing of the surfaces on slot machines that are six feet apart are among the immediate challenges, and that’s just in the casino.
The hospitality operations of casino-hotel properties face an even more daunting challenge in keeping guests safe and healthy in the months to come, as researchers work toward a vaccine that could lead to relaxation of many of the restrictions that will be in place when the industry reopens.
There is widespread belief that innovators will step up with new technology and inventions that will allow casinos and hotels to reopen and welcome guests safely. To that end, the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has launched a program to award a total of $1 million in grants to develop new technologies to safeguard the health of patrons of the hospitality and gaming industries.
The Lee School Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is a collaboration between the business school and its main benefactor, the Ted and Doris Lee Family Foundation. Prize winners will use the Lee School Prizes to develop and bring their concepts to a Shark Tank-like investor marketplace made up of leading corporations, private equity firms and angel investors. Solutions can be brought from concept to market in a few months, and under the program, solutions and products must be brought to market within 12 months.
The program was announced by foundation trustees Greg and Ernest Lee, sons of Ted and Doris Lee, who established the first endowed professorship at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, and started the foundation that endowed the business school with a $15 million donation. The business school was renamed the Lee School in recognition of the support.
Greg Lee also is chairman and CEO of Eureka Casinos, the casino operator founded by the family with the flagship Eureka Casino Resort in Mesquite, Nevada. The family sold the property to its employees in 2015, making it Nevada’s first 100 percent employee-owned casino.
Lee worked with Andre Carrier, chief operating officer of Eureka Casinos, to create the Lee School Prizes to award development grants to innovators and entrepreneurs.
“Greg Lee and I have worked together many, many years,” said Carrier in an interview with GGB News, “and we found ourselves asking each other, what is the right way to be of service in this moment? What is it that the community needs?
“And this time, when we were contemplating community, we were thinking not only our Las Vegas community and our Nevada community, but really looking at our industry as a community—those 330 million people who make their livelihood globally in the hospitality and tourism world.”
Carrier said he and Lee crafted the program after looking at what had been done in other times of crisis. “Usually, it is innovation and entrepreneurial community that rises to the moment,” he said, “and though clearly, that space is more relevant in the health care community sector, there is a need for innovators and entrepreneurs to find a way for us to build a bridge between the moment we are in right now—as we await when we will be permitted to reopen—and the point where we get broad-based vaccination.
“There are simply things we will have to do better, in order to give our employees confidence that they are working in safe conditions, and to give the guest—the traveler, the fan—comfort that their experience can be more about fun, and less about fear.”
Spreading the Word
The Lee School Prize Committee will be accepting submissions for grants through July 5. A committee comprised of the deans of UNLV’s schools of business, science, engineering and hospitality, along with industry experts, will judge submissions and select prize recipients. The Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation within the Lee Business School will then prepare those entrepreneurs to accept investments from the Lee School Prize.
Participation is open to all, globally. Carrier says he hopes to get a variety of industry and academic stakeholders involved. “Certain universities have centers for innovation and engineering, and business divisions and departments, and we hope the academic and institutional community gets involved,” he said.
“We hope the startup community gets involved, and we’ll make great efforts to reach them. And we hope that existing businesses who, not but for this crisis, would consider a new product line, may see this as an opportunity to come forward with either a variation of existing products, a variation of the use of their manufacturing facilities, or perhaps even a product they once invented some time ago that simply wasn’t topical.”
Carrier says the Covid-19 crisis has changed the marketplace in ways that were not conceived before the pandemic hit.
Before the crisis, he said, “the market wasn’t ready for a disposable single-use pillow. They had invented it, but the market wasn’t interested in it. And suddenly, the market is very interested in that idea.”
Single-use pillows in the hotel and high-speed chip-cleaning equipment in the casinos only scratch the surface of the challenges of a safe reboot to the casino-hotel industry.
“Clearly, thermal cameras are going to become very topical,” said Carrier, “but put that thermal camera hat on, and say, how do you make that a business process? What systems and equipment do you need to actually work through guests, so to speak, as they arrive? How do we make that feel like a hospitality process and not like a hospital process?”
The smaller challenges lead to larger ones, he added. “We may need to, for the first time in the casino business, label entries and exits,” Carrier said. “We may need technology that helps us manage that effectively, so we know when people come in and out, or come in the out door… Those are simple things, but how will we manage that process?
“There are dogs that have been trained successfully to smell malaria. Are there dogs that can be trained to smell Covid? Perhaps.”
Carrier added that the challenges go far beyond the casino. “We have to put on our hotelier’s hat,” he said. “There’s a host of issues people want to know about the sanitation and safety of their hotel experience. How will we check people in and out? What software will help us to schedule people so they’re not queuing up in the lobby? What will people expect from their pillow, from their sheets, from the sanitation process used in the room?
“We’ve seen partnerships announced with Lysol. Are there new, practical processes and equipment and chemicals that can be brought to bear that have not been used before? How will they see the speed of the housekeeping process; how will that affect the turn of the room? I think all of this information is needed, and systems will need to be put in place to support the products.”
The challenges go beyond even the hotel, to the support structure that is the engine needed to get people to a resort destination and back home safely. “We’ve got to get people to and from,” Carrier said. “How will we go through the process of boarding an aircraft, and how will we get through the process of taking people’s temperatures, and how will we behave in airports? How will we seat an aircraft? How does airline software maybe have to change to respect social distancing?
“These are the kinds of things that innovators should contemplate. We have talked about software solutions and Plexiglas solutions, microbiological fabrics and dogs that smell corona. This is why you put out innovation prizes. Because what you and I can conceive is limited to you and I. When you spread the word, the possibilities are limitless.”
Submissions are now being accepted through the program’s website, LeePrize.com, which will also provide a running report of prizes awarded.
As submission begin to arrive, the Lee School Prize program is finalizing the membership of its Prize Committee, which will make the final determination on grants. “We have a remarkable prize committee,” said Carrier, “not only comprised of the deans of the schools of Business, Hospitality, Science and Engineering; but we have been able to reach out to the leading minds and entrepreneurs in the industry. And nobody has said no to the invitation to participate on the Prize Committee.”
Getting to Market
The size of the development prizes will vary, but all will be tailored to the same purpose—getting an idea from concept to market in the shortest time possible. “That will be the role of the steering committee and the Prize Committee in the coming months,” said Carrier. “The private equity community and the angel (investor) community are already fairly engaged and watching this process. And they’re good at knowing the right amount of money to give a startup entrepreneur versus someone who’s really in the ‘pre’ stage, without even a beta yet.
“You could have something be the most promising idea, but where they are right now, $50,000 would be a ton of money, because they need to build a prototype.”
Carrier said he’s hoping the best ideas will have a snowball effect in getting to the market quickly. “What makes this process different is that we ultimately are going to get to an investor and an end user marketplace,” Carrier said. “And in that moment, people will have their opportunity to either become strategic investors or end users of the product. It will accelerate the supply chain.
“If we came up with a way to use UV light to clean money and count it simultaneously in a high-speed process, say the machine’s built. If what’s necessary to bring it to market is the money to build it, and operate the business—to have the cash flow—the other piece that clearly would support the wisdom of the investment and give the investor comfort is, do you have any orders? If the gaming community shows up and says, ‘Give me 10 of those,’ it’s much easier for that investor to take the step necessary to further finance this young startup.”
Carrier predicts that eventually, a vaccine will bring about more normalized operations for resorts, but the Lee School Prize is designed to get the industry do that point as safely as possible. “The prize is about that bridge period of time—the quiver to fight this invisible enemy, and keep our economy moving in the best possible form, in light of our social responsibility and the public good,” he said.
“The magic of this moment is that if we’re all in this together, let’s help each other together by sharing this. If the message didn’t get out to the people it needs to get to to invent these products, it’s all for naught.”
In the Lee Business School’s press statement announcing the award program, UNLV President Marta Meana commented, “If there was ever a crucial moment for the university and the business community to partner in search of innovative solutions, this is surely it. The Lee Family Foundation’s impetus and generosity in this venture is just the spark we needed.”
“Our world has been given a great challenge,” said Carrier. “It’s time for innovators, industry and entrepreneurs to respond urgently, answer the bell, and deliver the ‘eureka’ moments that will invariably lay the bedrock for the new path forward.”