Casino Confidential: Interview with a secret shopper who investigates casinos

Last year, we brought you the secret conference-center shopper. This year, we present the secret casino shopper: a hospitality expert who is hired by consulting firms to visit casino properties incognito and evaluate the attendee's experience.

Successful Meetings: How did you get into this business?

Sonja Phillips: I started with Hilton in 1976 as a hotel operator, and eventually worked my way up to sales, then I went over to Sheraton, took time off to have kids, and got back into the business as a consultant. I've been a casino shopper since 1995, and I've shopped casinos from the Bahamas to Biloxi to California. The only state I don't work in is Nevada, which requires that casino shoppers be affiliated with private investigators.

SM: How does shopping a casino differ from other types of secret shopping?

Phillips: Casino shopping is the cream of the crop of mystery shopping. That's because, unlike with hotel and conference center shopping, note-taking is restricted. There are cameras everywhere; the eye in the sky is watching you. So a casino shopper has to be experienced, knowledgeable about the games she's playing, and have exceptional observation and memory skills.

SM: Describe a typical casino shop.

Phillips: It starts when I pull up to the valet parking. I check the time I pull in and the time the valet arrives and opens the door. I note what he says and his description. I go inside, where I note the bellman's name and description, go up to the front desk, check my watch to see the time I get in line, and note how many people are ahead of me and how long it takes to get waited on. That's to see if the casino is meeting its service standard, usually a one- or two-minute wait per person. I also note how the check-in person interacts with me.

By the time I get to my room, where I write everything down, I've probably met five employees, and I've memorized their names, descriptions, what they said, and the time they said it. The tricks of the trade are mnemonic devices like rhymes and word pictures. I'll apply a word to a person, so when I think of the word, it brings back their name and description.

After I write everything down, I go downstairs to the casino and go through the whole procedure again with the player's card desk, security, and so on. Then I play on a slot machine for 30 minutes, memorizing what time I sat down, the machine's number, whether it's working properly, and so on. I order a drink, note how long it takes for the server to come back, and what she says. When I finish my slot play, if I have any money left I take my bucket or ticket and check the service on that.

With the table games, I have to keep track of the dealer rotation and watch the "pit": Are they calling out the buy-ins, change, and payouts? I also watch for dealer integrity, to make sure they're not padding their tips. I make sure their banter is appropriate: Are they not talking enough, talking too much, making off-color jokes with ladies at the table?

SM: What's the hardest game to shop?

Phillips: Craps. You have to keep up with a fast-paced game as well as the "box" (the person who oversees games, wins, and payouts), the "pit," the "stick" (the person who rakes in the dice and sends them out), and the two dealers at either end of the table. It's not for the novice shopper—it's a lot to remember!

SM: How do you manage that?

Phillips: Concentration, memory games, and bathroom breaks. The bathroom stall is the only place I can record all of my mental notes. I keep a small notebook in my purse and use that, as well as a handheld device.

SM: Do you shop meeting services?

Phillips: I have. I'll call the property, ask about bringing a group, and see how the staff does the sales pitch and the quote. I look for efficiency and enthusiasm—how quickly they get back to me, if they give me a list of activities for gamers and non-gamers, if the package includes group discounts, transportation, or other perks. I also evaluate any marketing collateral or brochures I receive for timeliness, clarity, and accuracy.