Eldorado Casino can't afford to gamble on IP-PBX telephony upgrades

Michael Morisy, News Writer
With telephony powered by an 18-year-old PBX on its last legs and replacement parts harder and harder to come by, the Eldorado Hotel & Casino and Silver Legacy Resort were in need of a serious communications overhaul. But with little tolerance for downtime in the frenetic world of a 24/7 casino, what is the best upgrade path to ensure continuity for customers while giving a solid path for feature growth in the future?

That was the question confronting Cindy Carano, executive director of the Eldorado, and Peter Broughton, IT director of both establishments (the Eldorado owns a 50% stake in Silver Legacy Resort, lending itself to a joint upgrade).

To make matters more complicated, the IT team lacked

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the experience or expertise in telephony to execute or even plan the upgrade, with staff members knowing just enough to keep the old equipment alive and ordering the spare parts as needed.

"We knew we had to do something, and we knew it was a huge investment, but none of us had the time to do the research that we thought was needed," Broughton said. "The first [vendor proposal] was a list of parts and pieces, and it was all Greek to us."

So the casinos delayed the upgrade, but it was a strategy without a future: Outages were occurring, and the legacy vendor, NEC, said some parts for the ancient system were no longer available, even on the secondary and used markets.

So Broughton and Carano reached out to a consulting firm, Hospitality Automation Consultants, to borrow the expertise the casinos lacked.

It was not an easy decision at first because culturally the IT organization was accustomed to relying on its in-house expertise to get things downdone.

"We struggled a lot with that," Broughton said. "We feel pretty tech savvy, and we do a lot of things in-house because management supports a good IT staff."

But ultimately, handing over the operation let Broughton's team focus on its core competencies while leaving telephony specialists to sort through bids that would meet the casinos' needs today while leaving opportunities for growth in the future.

"Without having a consultant to get us through the project, I don't know where we would've ended up," Broughton said.

The consultant worked with the casino teams to define project needs, he said, and after putting out a new request for proposal (RFP), a number of quality proposals came back.

Eventually, the teams decided to go with NEC again, upgrading their legacy systems to the SV8500 Communications Server, NEC's enterprise IP-PBX.

Broughton said the company decided to stick with NEC because of the service they had received previously, as well as the company's ability to meet the casinos' current and future needs.

Not only did Hospitality Automation Consultants manage the switch seamlessly -- Broughton said most users noticed nothing except when a tech upgraded their actual phone -- but the consultancy helped identify low-hanging fruit that Eldorado could take advantage of immediately now that the telephony system's core was all IP.

For example, the casinos' call centers were traditionally TDM, meaning operators had to look up customer information manually. Now, transferred calls come straight through an IP system that tracks who is calling when, and how long they are on the phone, and can connect call center agents directly with the information they need to make the guests' stay comfortable and memorable.

"They have for the first time live information on what's going on with usage and overflows and average time-per-call and calls-per-minute," said Les Spielman, CEO of Hospitality Automation Consultants. "We're definitely looking towards the future features as well."

Roberta Fox, a senior partner at communications consultancy Fox Group, said overhauls like Eldorado's were tricky and, particularly in heavily regulated industries like gambling, excellent candidates to bring in the extra help an enterprise needs.

The outside perspective can be doubly helpful since the choices made at the time of the deployment will have a long-range impact on future options.

For example, while Eldorado was looking primarily for a PBX replacement today, it might want converged communications services in the future so a guest could potentially start checking out over a television prompt and then seamlessly escalate to a phone call to answer a billing question.

The wrong technology choices could cut off opportunities down the road, but at the same time, Fox warned, it's best to focus on incremental steps in the beginning.

"Casinos will take steps at a time, and usually won't make quantum leaps unless there's a new building," she said. Anything more aggressive puts uptime at risk, which would have devastating effects on almost any casino's bottom line.

Thoughts on this story? Suggestions for story ideas? Contact article author Michael Morisy via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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