Danny Ocean and his 10 accomplices would be no match for the information technology and surveillance crews at Cherokee Nation Enterprises.
With more than 3,000 gaming devices across all CNE cites, ranging from games to voice-over IP phones – not to mention a total of 4,100 electronic and 135 table games across seven casino locations – CNE finds itself with a pretty big cash box in need of a good watch dog and a heavy-duty lock.
With a staff of over 100 watching the casino 24-7, officials at the CNE IT and surveillance departments said they are keeping good guard.
Eye in the Sky
The goal of the employees in CNE’s darkened surveillance room – one wall of which is covered in video screens guarded by a series of locked doors and hallways – is asset protection, said Brandon Hill, surveillance supervisor.
The number of cameras on the Cherokee Casino Resort premises is a closely guarded secret, but “it’s well over 800,” said a surveillance staff member.
All maintenance and testing of surveillance hardware is done by Cherokee Casino staff – no work is outsourced. If a hard drive fails, it is replaced as easily as changing a cassette tape.
“We are at least 3-4 years ahead of the industry standard, especially here in Oklahoma,” Hill said.
Surveillance hardware at Cherokee is fully digital – which means no fumbling with VCRs and videocassettes for Hill and his crew.
“We can catch a person in the building, and we can get the money back,” Hill said. “With the digital system, it’s easier to do that. When you talk about videotapes, you have to find the tape first, and then rewind it. A 4-5 hour review on a video tape can take maybe 20-30 minutes, digital.”
The ability to record video and snap photos from virtually anywhere on the casino property comes in handy when attempting to recover losses at court.
“If a case goes to court, it’s difficult to get a good idea of what happened from reading reports,” Hill said. “So we’ll take pictures of them doing it, and we’ll attach it to the case so the judge and prosecutor can actually look at the picture and know what was going on.”
Getting the job done well in the surveillance room at Cherokee seems like a pretty tall order. But, Hill provides plenty of on-the-job training.
“I wouldn’t hire someone and expect them to come in and sit in front of a monitor and find someone cheating or stealing without the proper training,” Hill said.
Surveillance training at Cherokee involves learning not only how to play and deal Poker and Blackjack, but also how to cheat the house.
“They can get an idea of what to look for when they’re actually monitoring the tables that way,” Hill said.
Hill’s goal is to quicken the pace of surveillance technology against the rate at which criminals invent new cheating strategies.
“Cheaters try to stay one step ahead of surveillance,” he said. “They’ll come up with new devices and new scams to try to beat us.”
“Even that,” Hill said as he pointed to the reporter’s recording device, “could be used as a card counting device,” along with keyless car entry remote controls, cigarette lighters and cell phones.
“There is a lot of technology out there, both on our side and on the cheaters’ side,” he said.
The cost of surveillance equipment and staff might seem silly to some, Hill said.
“Somebody looking at it from the outside might think, ‘Why would you spend so much money on something like this?’ But, looking at it from working in surveillance and being around it everyday, I don’t think you can put a price on what it can do for us.
“It has saved us so much money, I think that within a year the equipment probably has paid for itself,” he said.
Keeping Tabs on the ROI
Guarding against flimflams and hackers aren’t the only cool things the techies at Cherokee get to do. CNE IT professionals are charged to help focus marketing and customer service efforts, as well.
New technology can track gamers and their preferences with systems like the Player’s Card or ticket-in-ticket-out, TITO for short, and gather customer data without the annoying surveys. Cherokee was the first casino in northeastern Oklahoma to market with TITO technology, said Steven Bilby, director of information technology at Cherokee.
The Player’s Card program is used “to get points for playing different games. We have that on the electronic games as well as the table and poker games,” said Patti Duckworth, senior manager of applied services. “We learn a little about them and can give them better benefits on things they like the play.”
“Our player tracking system is second to none,” Bilby said.
The intent of the player-tracking program is to find loyal customers and treat them like royalty.
“We want to bring them back so they can come here and enjoy our table games, our electronic games, and afterward they can go have a steak at McGill’s on us,” he said.
A future goal is to enable Cherokee customers to be able to use the Player’s Card at the hotel, smoke shops and travel plazas.
“To have that kind of breadth would be very, very new,” said Glenn Thompson, senior manager of enterprise architecture and security.
Tracking What’s Hot
Player tracking technology also tells the casino what would be popular before it spends big money on games and events that may not drive traffic on the gaming floor.
“It helps us do much more focused offerings of the types of things that really interest customers, rather than doing it blindly,” Thompson said.
TITO technology creates a seamless casino gaming experience for the customer, Bilby said.
“Historically, the player put cash in a game and would have to ticket out,” Bilby said. “The customer would have to go back to the cage to get cash, and then go back to the game to put the cash in. There was this circular path from the game to the cage and back to the game again.”
“It really disrupted our players’ entertainment experiences.”
Implementing TITO technology, which worked its first day at Cherokee Casino Resort nearly six months ago, was no small undertaking. Due in part to a lack of an imitable example, the endeavor lasted 18 months.
“In Las Vegas and Atlantic City, this technology has been fairly standard for a few years,” Bilby said. “In this market, it was not. We had to figure out how to make it work with our types of games.”
Cost of Operation
The cost of managing and operating the 175 servers between the seven Cherokee Casino locations isn’t exactly chump change.
“We manage those boxes, including patches, updates, hardware replacement – all the components,” said Todd Gourd, senior manager of network and infrastructure. “That includes data center management – ensuring that it’s climate controlled, and repairing the boxes so that when one breaks, we’re right on it.
That makes for some utility bill. To boot, the cost of hardware at CNE spans a wide range. Within networking systems alone, devices can cost from $3,000 to $300,000.
“Very simple equipment may cost us a few thousand dollars, up to the core routing equipment, which could cost several hundred thousand,” Gourd said.
The techies at Cherokee are working to secure the casino both from the outside, in and from the inside, out.
“Because we’re a casino, there are some unique aspects to our security landscape and the problems we have,” said Thompson. “Employees are limited to the things that they’re absolutely supposed to be able to do. That’s a huge undertaking.”
Security is not high on the list of priorities for many growing businesses, many of which are preoccupied with growth strategies and returns on marketing plans. But, as the stakes get higher for a growing CNE, “you start thinking about it a lot,” Thompson said.
“We go through several penetration audits to ensure our environment is as safe and secure as we can make it,” Bilby said.
Because the tech department at CNE wants to enable employees to do their jobs “cheaper, better, faster than anyone else,” Bilby said, all Cherokee properties are outfitted with wireless networks. The tech department uses products like Air Fortress, a high-end encryption tool, to restrict outside access to sensitive customer information on the corporate network while still allowing hotel customers to benefit from Wi-Fi service.
“We use the same technology as the U.S. Army to secure that wireless network,” Bilby said.
Building casino security is the relentless pursuit of being a step ahead of the bad guys.
“You don’t have to be sitting in our parking lot or on our physical campus to get access to us,” Bilby said. “We’re trying to defend ourselves against the rest of the world, so we’re constantly trying to keep up with those who are trying to attack us.”
“We want our customers to not only feel safe here on our property, but also when they’re doing business with us that we are keeping their data very secure and holding it very close to our belts,” Bilby said. “The cost is secondary, because if we weren’t secure, our business would be hugely impacted.” ?