Chickasaw Nation exclusive: Are we seeing a turning point for Tribal operators?

December 5, 2023
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Deputy Secretary, Operations and Service for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Commerce, Scott Emerson speaks to Gaming America about its new partnership with Anaxi and how important the customer experience is for the Chickasaw Nation.

How did the partnership with Anaxi first come about? 

Here in Oklahoma, we've enjoyed class II gaming for a very long time. So we've had a strong relationship with VGT now, the class II arm of Aristocrat, for many years, and we have a great understanding of server-based gaming. I remember going to the London ICE Show in 2012 and that was our first dabbling into this kind of mobile gaming market, and we did a lot of discovery. Then there were a lot of things that had gotten in the way legislatively and so we put it on a shelf, but once the pandemic came around, there became this renewed interest and I believe it was because of the strong relationship we had with VGT and the understanding of what the power of class server-based gaming could do. 

Looking from a very logical perspective, if the doors are closed, there's certainly space outside of the doors that we could start to work ourselves down and actually help develop something, but then it comes down to who's the partner? We have several class II partners, but we also understood the backbones and the power they had from the non-US market, because we know we're lagging several years behind. We just began the conversations and eventually got connected all the way and from there, we had several iterations, and here we are today with the launch this week.  

Anaxi, of course, is part of Aristocrat. How much has the company supported you since the partnership began?  

I think it started out where it was a three-party partnership working along the Chickasaw Nation, Aristocrat and then Anaxi as it was forming at the time. When we started this, it wasn't even quite formed yet and so it seemed like three of us and then by the time we got about halfway through, it was just us working specifically on the engineering and development side of it; to really produce the product and it felt like a two-party partnership I would say at the time. 

Obviously anytime we ever needed anything, the communication level between Anaxi and Aristocrat, they had a lot of changes that happened within that three-year period of time, and it was always seamless and very consistent back to us. We always knew who we were speaking with and who we could go to if we needed to resolve anything.  

Looking deeper into this new partnership, can you explain more about this mobile on-premise solution? How is it going to help the whole experience for your players? 

Being in the beta stage in the Chickasaw Nation, we're very iterative with most of our products. If you looked at WinStar over the last 20 years, the number of changes, they were all incremental, it was just about that incremental growth and really incremental customer experience along the way too. This gives us the opportunity to extend the gaming experience, but also even with this very early stage of somewhat limited titles... the popularity of those titles and the Aristocrat Class II/VGT Gaming Platform is just so extremely popular with our patron base. 

So, while it may only be on for on-premise, food and beverage space, we have convention space that's available, we'll eventually have extension into other of our amenity areas. But I think it's to continue to give optionality to our patrons. We love our brick-and-mortar patrons and they're going to be on-site, but we want to get them the most options available for what they desire for their gaming experience. 

You talk about options there. In what other ways is the Chickasaw Nation trying to differentiate itself from other Tribal operators?  

You know that's an interesting question. We really try to stay focused on our region and our patrons. We do so much research into our customer base, we pay attention, and we have great friendships with many other commercial and tribal operators. Especially in the Tribal world, we believe that the rising tide lifts all ships, so we work very closely together on expanding whatever technological opportunities we can. I think it all starts with that customer experience, though. What is the flow when they enter, even before they enter our brick-and-mortar? How easy can we make all these options available?

So, it's more about listening to them, garnering what their expectations are, then trying to match up to that and really I think this particular project a lot of times we'd like to not be the number one to a particular space in our area; we like to sit back and maybe be number two, let everybody else work out anything that may need to be adjusted, but this was one we felt so strongly about from the very beginning and we felt we had the proper understanding of what it would take to launch it.

It's about the flow of the customers, what makes the process the easiest? That's going to be from fintech to gaming options and then we look forward to continuing to grow with Anaxi and developing what this product looks like. This is a very introductory stage one and there's going to be a breadth of opportunity to grow that which is going to further provide that optionality. 

It's quite interesting when you say you don't mind being second. Is that a case of you don't mind waiting, you don't mind not being the first, to be the best? 

We want to take the opportunities when they come to us and where we know we have the strength. But in my 21-year career, the gaming environment has changed so much that we have continually had to bring in new resources; to be able to set ourselves up for success and understand if it's not working well on day one, it's going to be a turn off to that patron base: so that's our first and best shot. We are very stringent on our regulatory aspects and so we work very well with our Tribal gaming regulator, we get them involved day one and we're very protective and very conservative of what we're willing to try to implement.

We want to make sure as many of the checkpoints can be done in advance and it's also a quicker time to implementation if we allow somebody else, we ourselves may not necessarily be straight out of the box. We're always probably going to have to develop a little bit more to meet our own needs and the guidance that we utilize in our regulations.

Do you think we're seeing more of a turning point in recent years that more Tribes are offering online gaming compared to before?  

I think it's going to continue to grow. I don't know the current count, but I do know of a few existing tribal projects that are going on within other Tribes that are moving toward the development. I believe pretty strongly that, while it may not take over brick-and-mortar completely, mobile gaming has obviously been around for a long time and there's much more to come; I think just as generationally we progress. 

Our final question is what have we got to look forward to from the Chickasaw Nation in 2024?  

Chickasaw Nation just as a whole, we've never stopped growing it feels like and we are opening a new property here in Oklahoma with 1,000 games in an 89-room hotel; so that'll be a big part of our 2024. WinStar, we just launched our new 6,500-seat event center this summer, we opened a new six-acre pool, we have a 25,000-square-foot spa that just opened this past year. So we're really just beginning to realize what those assets are going to provide when we look specifically at WinStar, but for the Chickasaw Nation we always focus on our great employees and we again love our patrons. We always look forward to speaking to them and really trying to match what their expectations are for us, and then also set our own expectations at a very high level to provide the best service we can.  

So obviously a very busy year would be the best way of putting it! 

Yeah, I think just from my time, I've sometimes become numb to it because it just hasn't stopped. Twenty years ago, I started with the Department of Commerce having 800 people, and now we're over 6,500 people. I've been at that for quite a while and, you know, we had a handful of gaming operations and some of them in temporary facilities. Now we're looking at 25,000 gaming machines in our footprint and it’s a lot, but again, sometimes we become numb to it after a while, so it's just progress forward and that’s the only thing we look out for. 

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