At the bar, a pair of Ve­gas casino giants use tech to up the ante for free drinks

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ANDREA SACHS andrea.sachs@wash­post.com

The free drinks at casi­nos make ev­ery­one feel like a win­ner. How­ever, two casino be­he­moths are killing the buzz: At select prop­er­ties, MGM Re­sorts and Cae­sars En­ter­tain­ment are no longer pro­vid­ing gratis cock­tails to bar pa­trons who are drink­ing and yakking more than drink­ing and gam­bling. The new mantra: must play for a cock­tail.

“We are mak­ing a con­certed ef­fort to re­ward our larger-spend­ing cus­tomers,” said Rich Broome, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Cae­sars. “This dis­cour­ages peo­ple who are just look­ing for a free drink.”

At the mo­ment, the new pol­icy ap­plies only to casino bars with video-poker machines. (To clear up any mis­un­der­stand­ings, the bars never pro­vided com­pli­men­tary drinks to non-gam­bling guests, though the rule was not al­ways en­forced.) Af­ter a short trial in late 2015, Cae­sars in­tro­duced the comp no­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem at nine prop­er­ties through­out Ne­vada, in­clud­ing those in Las Ve­gas, Laugh­lin, Reno and Lake Tahoe. Within the last year, MGM has rolled out a sim­i­lar pro­gram at MGM Grand and TopGolf, an en­ter­tain­ment venue on the Strip. A com­pany ex­ec­u­tive said that MGM could ex­pand the pro­gram to its casi­nos in New Jersey and Mis­sis­sippi. (Gam­blers in Michi­gan and Mary­land don’t have to worry; by law, they were never al­lowed free al­co­hol.)

“In the 1950s, the in­dus­try was try­ing to in­cen­tivize,” said Alan Feld­man, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of MGM Re­sorts. “Now, it’s a re­ward.”

To earn a drink at the bar, guests must play a cer­tain amount of money over a set amount of time. At Cae­sars, once you reach the min­i­mum level, a dis­creet green light will flash as a sig­nal for the bar­tender to start pour­ing. Broome said that Cae­sars’s sys­tem av­er­ages out to $4 a minute, and the light starts blink­ing af­ter two min­utes of play. Each drink is worth about $10 — the value of a Johnny Walker Black or Smirnoff vodka but not a top-shelf malt scotch.

“If you don’t keep up the four dol­lars per minute,” he said, “it will start flash­ing red.”

To re­store your green­ness, you will need to feed the me­ter.

MGM uses a sim­i­lar sys­tem, with printed vouch­ers in­stead of lights. Feld­man didn’t pro­vide a spe­cific mone­tary fig­ure but ad­vised cus­tomers to ask the bar­tender how much money they need play to re­ceive a free drink.

“This isn’t a way of try­ing to in­duce fur­ther gam­bling,” he said, but is meant to ac­knowl­edge a cer­tain breed of cus­tomers.

Be­fore the new ar­range­ment, the bar­tenders had to mon­i­tor the video-poker ac­tiv­ity while also con­coct­ing cock­tails, ring­ing up tabs and ban­ter­ing with cus­tomers. No sur­prise that some vis­i­tors sipped with­out pay­ing or play­ing.

“The green-light pro­gram elim­i­nates the guess­work,” Broome said.

Now ex­posed, the freeload­ers can ei­ther court Lady Luck at the bar or re­pair to the casino floor, where the booze still flows freely.

DAVID BECKER/REUTERS

While free drinks might still freely roam the casino floors, select MGM and Cae­sars prop­er­ties are polic­ing harder at the bar.

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