ICology: challenge of internal communications in a casino

Ep# 1, Mamie Peers with The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

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Episode Transcript

Chuck: Welcome to our very first edition of ICology. I'm your host, Chuck Gose. Again, I’m really, really, really excited to kick-start this podcast. I'm guaranteeing that if you're a fan of internal communication, employee engagement, and technology, you'll also be a fan of this podcast, fingers crossed. When I was thinking about who I wanted as a first guest, one name came to mind. They couldn't do it, so we’ve got Mamie Peers on. I'm kidding, I'm kidding. Mamie was the first person that came to mind; we have a lot of fun. Welcome, Mamie, to the ICology podcast.

Mamie: Thank you, Chuck. I'm honored to be your second choice as a guest.

Chuck: Well, one of the reasons I wanted Mamie on here, other than, of course, her being awesome, is because of her presentation she made in Las Vegas. So this past March, Mamie and I were both part of Ragan's Best Practices in Digital Employees Communications event. And in my opinion… I was in the audience. I did not speak, just sort of helped MC the show a little bit; but from my impression, Mamie stole the show. It was an amazing blend of information, lessons learned, and a little bit of humor sprinkled in. But I know that not everybody has been to Vegas [inaudible 00:01:44] or honestly knows a lot about Las Vegas and the industry there. So Mamie, why don't you talk a little bit about what makes Cosmopolitan different as well as your role there at The Cosmopolitan and the team that you work with?

Mamie: Okay, great. Well, we are a hotel and casino in the heart of the Las Vegas strip, and we're an independent hotel. So unlike many resorts in the city, we are owned and operated by a single owner, Blackstone. And we have about 3000 rooms and… or almost 3000 rooms, and about 5000 employees; we call them CoStars. Three pools, 17 restaurants, 15 retail stores and an event center that's beautiful, it's called the Chelsea. We have about 300 seasonal employees. So that gives you a scale of what we're talking about.

The Cosmopolitan opened in December of 2010 when the market all across America was experiencing a recession. When we opened we knew we had to be different. We saw an opportunity to compete in a way that Las Vegas hadn't seen before. So we thought a lot about who we needed to be, and what we needed to be. We realized, we needed to create trips to Vegas that wouldn't otherwise happen. So we looked at the market and we said, "You know who we would like to attract? We'd like to attract the curious class." And so we defined everything we do around our target psychographic. So this group of individuals that we think are creative, inventive, imaginative, artistic, broad minded. These are just some of the words we used to describe them. They're interested in the arts, in events. They're adventurous, and love foreign foods. So we designed everything at The Cosmopolitan around that individual, including who we aim to hire.

So some of the things that we do at The Cosmopolitan that make us different than the competitors that are right next door is we, for example, have an interactive art program. So we have artists and residents who live with us, and work here with our guests in P3 Studio. We chose to use in our lobby, for example, Digital Art that changes regularly. Every minute you could probably head down there and see something new and different every time you come to The Cosmopolitan. These are some of the things that set us apart. Does that answer your question, Chuck?

Chuck: I remember during your presentation you showed a really interesting chart that showed… what you called it, the psychographic. I love that word. You showed a chart where Cosmopolitan was very different from the other Vegas hotels, and then since then, since 2010, you guys have noticed a shift where other hotels are beginning to copy what you guys have done.

Mamie: Yeah, we’ve had a number of competitors enter the market that aimed to… that are using art in the same way that we might use art or a similar way, and who are offering some of the experiences that we offer, have put animals in their ads for example, and offering similar buffet experiences or mimicking the signage that we use. And so we're challenged by the real estate and saying, "How do we stay different, and stay ahead and lead culture?" That's what we aim to do rather than reflect it.

When new resorts started to open now that the market has picked back up just a little bit, we're always thinking, "Gosh, what do we need to do to stay ahead and continue to be design driven, and spirited, and vibrant?" That's how we would define ourselves. And continue to push out into the edge of this quadrant that we developed to stay ahead of the market and to continue to attract our guests who really like to see new concepts. They're interested in experiences they can't get anywhere else, and that's what we would like to provide. So if our competitors are offering it, obviously we need to think of something new and different.

Chuck: All right, so you are the senior director of internal communication there at Cosmopolitan.

Mamie: Yes.

Chuck: I know a lot of other communicators that would like to know how teams are structured, who's involved. And I know your responsibilities are sort of blended beyond that. Just talk a little bit about that internal comms function and how it works at a hotel and resort, and casino.

Mamie: Yeah. I report to the Chief Marketing Officer, Lisa Marchese, who reports to our CEO, Bill McBeath. And our team is right now composed of… there are three of us: myself and two managers. We aim to be extremely diverse in our technical skill set so we can all get out and take a photograph if we need to. We can all edit HTML to at least a basic level. We also partner with a couple of contractors, individuals when we need to shoot video, for example, or work on some other compelling campaigns as necessary.

But the advantage of us that we have at The Cosmopolitan is that we turn the outside in. So we use a lot of external assets that we use with our guests, with our CoStars, so it's a distinct advantage. Of course anyone can do it, but we happen to have quite a bit of creative assets at our fingertips. Because we like to treat our people, our CoStars, like customers and our guests, we use our creative, our external creative quite a bit and use the same spirit, the same content that we use to inspire the curious class to come check us out. We use the same kind of information to keep our CoStars engaged in the company.

One of the key differentiators for us… people can mimic our signage, they can mimic our rooms, product. They can maybe mimic our pools, but one thing they can't mimic is the experience that they get when they arrive. And that's driven by our CoStars and what they deliver when you get here. That they're authentic, they're genuine. Our people truly love our guests and are aiming to help them experience Vegas in a different way. So we'd like to keep them highly engaged so we use our external creative to do that. In the same way, to peak curiosity of our guests, that's what we aim to do internally.

Chuck: And so that's a great segue because one of my favorite stories about something you did is using some of that external creative and bringing it internal. So when we were at this Ragan event in Las Vegas, we had a break for lunch. Mamie spoke right after lunch, and we had a break. So packing up lunch, getting ready to go upstairs, and Mamie just said in passing, "Sorry, I've got to leave. I've got to go feed the bear." And it was one of those things, I'm busy, and she said it and was gone. I thought to myself, I'm thinking, did she just say "Feed the bear?" like surely I've misheard. Is this some sort of weird Mamie phrase or something I didn't understand, a Vegas term? But no, she meant feed the bear.

We all get back up to the conference room, and we walk in, and there is a grown man in a suit with a bear head, wearing a bear head on top and nobody knew what to expect. It was cool but creepy. The bear walked around the room. He didn't talk to anybody. I know that's probably like the old mascot rule. They can't talk. He would sit by people, he would stare them down, he would hand them a business card and say, "Meet me online." People were interest but also sort of put on edge a little bit. So I've set you up for this, Mamie, but why don't you talk about your bear?

Mamie: Okay. Well, he turned down my cannoli, by the way. I want you to know.

Chuck: Which says what kind of bear he is.

Mamie: Yeah, I guess he's a healthy one. I don't know. And he was, actually. He’s quite fit. So one of the things we try to do with our guests and with our customers is first of all break through the clutter. So I think the thing we often miss is communicators. When we're thinking about stuff we're like, "What's our message? What are we trying to get across?" That's important, but we always layer on top of that, "How are we going to make people just interested," so they even care so that they click through. And we do that. One of the ways that we do that is we blend offline and online. I like to surprise people. We like to do things that people didn't see coming.

Chuck: Which you did a good job of at the event.

Mamie: Yeah, I think I did. I freaked people out a little bit, but then once we… and you guys experienced it a little out of context. When you came in you might not have noticed the movie that was showing also on the screen, a film that we created for Tropfest. We were host to Tropfest, which is a film festival. We invited all these people that love to see independent new films, short films, to The Cosmopolitan. So anyway, we hosted that film festival and The Cosmopolitan wanted to be part of it so we partnered with a team to create this video of the bear and the luchador. I asked if we could actually use that for internal purposes because we had a costume. We were like, "Well, what should we do?" Our customers ride the shuttles as they come in so what could we do? Should we turn the shuttle… we had a benefits campaign, so we needed everyone to sign up for benefits. But the problem is people signed up at the last minute. The last week of open enrollment was a nightmare for the HR team, who then has to go in and finish people's enrollment online.

So I said, "Why don't we change a bus into a benefits bus?" We were like, "Oh, we could have disco balls, we could have some music, and surprise CoStars on their way in with massages or whatever as they come in on the shuttle." But then we thought, "Well, that's kind of complicated. We might not be able to pull that fully off. Why don't we put a bear on the shuttles?"

Chuck: Because of course, why not?

Mamie: Why not? Why wouldn't you? And why doesn't the bear carry these mysteries business cards? Because in the Tropfest film that we created, this bear and the luchador stuck out in the desert together. And it's a silent film. They don't say anything; there's just music. And there's a bag of money and there's a phone and CoStars, we roll that. We had been rolling that on the shuttles every now and then just to get people talking and to make them think, “Gosh. What? Huh? Why?” And so CoStars are always like, "What's with the bear and the luchador? What are they doing out there? I don't understand the plot. I think they're stealing something or they're plotting together." So it's a lot of curiosity around what the bear and the luchador are doing.

Then when the bear popped up on the shuttles in person and handing out business cards saying "Meet me online" and "It's time. Are you ready?" Co-stars were cracking up. They were taking photos with the bear on the shuttles, and posting it to our social internet site. But they also got an in-home mailer, so they got a print piece at home that just said "It's time." And then they open it up and the bear and the luchador were on that print piece. And it was like, "It's time to make a choice for open enrollment." It was a really interesting piece that looked a lot like the invitations we send to our guests who visit The Cosmopolitan. They came in a very nice envelop, it looked like an invitation to do something, not a benefits letter.

And so CoStars were like, "Oh my gosh. This is too funny." We also brought the bear into meetings and the bear would just be sitting in a room, and then he would walk around and pass out things. So anyway everyone was laughing about benefit… like oh my gosh, yes, I’ll meet you online. And of course HR had far, far, far fewer people waiting until the last minute. Because everyone just wanted to get online and find out what the bear was up to, why he was involved.

We do a lot of stuff digitally, but popping up in spaces is part of what we do here to break through the clutter and just to blend offline with online. When you've got people who aren't at computers all day like housekeepers and dealers, you have to think gosh what's going to make them stop for a second and be like, "Oh, yeah. I need to do that. I want to do that." And so we use a bear.

Chuck: No, like I said, it made no sense when people got in the room. Then when you explained it everybody was like, "It’s genius." Everybody has those in every annual event communications. How do you get people to pay attention to it this year, versus what they did last year, versus the next year? And I think that showed a great example of how this external branding that you guys have, which for people who haven't seen any of The Cosmopolitan commercials… my wife and I were watching TV one night, and one of the commercials came on. And it doesn't seem like your typical hotel commercial, so it sort of draws you in. And at the end, it reveals The Cosmopolitan brand. And my wife was like, "Oh. Now I see why you like staying there." Because it's very provocative, and very intriguing. I think you've even shared the terms “Playfully seductive” with me before.

Mamie: Oh, yeah.

Chuck: That really sends that message home of how you guys have taken the external and the internal and blended them together for one experience, for both employees and customers. I think that's a great example of that. One of the things that fascinates me about the hospitality resort and then you throw casino into there with you guys, is the variety of employees that you have. So talk about, quickly go through a rundown of the different types of employees you have but then the challenges of reaching them.

Mamie: So we have anywhere from, of course, CFOs and financial analysts. We have a lot of analysts in the business and house keepers, chefs. We have part time banquet CoStars who come in for big events and meetings that are hosted here and conferences. We also have dealers who have 20-minute breaks and are here for 6 hours. And they might work at another resort, too. We also have musicians. And we have partners who come in. Several of our restaurants are owned by us, but they lease space from us where we have a partner relationship. We also have people who come in and build new stuff for us, or if you do pop up experiences. So we have a wide range of people who work with us.

I think a distinct advantage that we have is that we are one resort. We have the property that we can use, we have physical assets we can use, but most of our… only about 35% of our population is actually on a computer. That's a huge portion of our strategy — making sure everything is accessible on mobile devices, within one click. So one thing we did was to improve our knowledgeable and helpful score. So we do a guest satisfaction survey, so we find out how happy our customers are with us. And in those surveys when I first arrived four years ago, one of the things that we needed improvement on was how knowledgeable and helpful our CoStars are.

And so we developed our social internet that’s available on mobile. And we created Today which is available in one click from any mobile phone. So Today is one document that's online. It's basically a web page that's accessible via a log-in. It’s one click on mobile, and all CoStars can see all the top news for the day. They can see our occupancy rates, they can see all the groups we're welcoming into the resort. They can see pool hours, restaurants that are opened or closed, and events that are happening that night, all that from one click on mobile. Then they can of course click deeper to find facts about the casino loyalty program, our rewards program called Identity Membership, but we make all that available in one click of the finger.

And then they can also comment or say anything on our social internet. I think sometimes industries are pretty conservative in how much they want their people to engage with and add information or say things within the company. With our social internet we call Clive, we let anyone say anything and do anything and post anything. For example today, I hardly even edit, my team just takes a peak at it each night just to make sure nothing's wrong with it, that it's still working, but it's all the business lines so about 35 people contribute news to that, but anyone could contribute news and edit it and publish it, so that it’s just there. We kind of decentralized our approach to information management, too, but it makes it so that our CoStars have a voice in the company, which makes them more so… today if there's something on today that they have a question about, they can just say, “Hey, when is this happening?” or “Why don't you add this to this document? That would be helpful to me.” So very rapidly we were able to increase our knowledgeable and helpful scores form 69% satisfaction to 81%.

Chuck: And that was probably largely done just by removing the barrier, right? You said one click, that they have access to information that makes them a more empowered employee whether they're working at the pool or just need to know the pool hours or answering a guest's question or whatever that might be. Now, from a measurement… because a lot of communicators always want to know about measurement. How many people look at it? Do you guys have any number? Do you know, not necessarily what percentage of your workforce because like you said you've got people, some part time some full time, different hours. Vegas is 24/7, so how do you guys monitor or measure how effective that is other than those scores that you talked about?

Mamie: We look at clicks on the page. In general, we have about 67% of the organization that’s logging in regularly to check that page and other pages. Of course, Today has the most hits but there are also many other things that they're going in to look for and we track all of that. So we track our click throughs on emails that we send to the organization. We test new headlines. This week we're going to send an email with two different headlines and we track that… we just started using a product called Quantum to look at our click throughs.

The thing with Today too though, it's also accessible. We produce a print piece that's available as an attachment that all the departments can download and print for their teams, they can also attach their news to it. It’s just a Word document that they can add their news to. There are hundreds of CoStars like our security CoStars who have Today in their pockets. For example there are about 200-300 security CoStars who are looking at it via print each day, rather than on mobile phones. We have some restrictions on how you use mobile during the work day. And all the Pit supervisors have it on their iPads behind the table games that they're dealing to.

Chuck: So a lot of companies are… you hear a lot about the death of print and print being in decline but I'm one of the people who still sees that there is a tremendous value to print. So it's interesting you bring that up and talking about the balance of print and digital being a key component for you to successfully [inaudible 00:22:50] to employees.

Mamie: Yeah. We also are really, really opt in so our social internet is opt in. It's optional. If you want to use it, you can; if you don't, you don't have to. But also we don't print 500 copies of Today every day. That decision is made at the department level. We thought about putting Today on the shuttles so as CoStars are riding in, they could pick up a print piece and read it but because of one of our brand tenants is to be world aware and to reduce our impact on the world, we do try to limit print. If you want a print piece, certainly you could print it out for yourself if you need that in your role, but we allow for that flexibility. We know that it's a need in some areas so we just create the option. It's a little more work for us but it’s worth it to make sure that we're getting information to people in the medium they prefer; not just the mediums that we want them to use.

Chuck: Fantastic. So let’s go back to a little bit of that external to internal and that playfully seductive branding that you do. Let’s talk about pick up stories. Again, we talked about benefits being one of those annual communication activities that every company has to do. It’s vital, and it's important, but people struggle with creativity around it. With pickup stories, you guys have sort of taken a spin on another activity that's not annual but almost a daily or hourly reminder that you need to send employees, but you guys chose to have some fun with it.

Mamie: Yeah, we need to keep the resort clean. I mean all resorts. That's a really high priority for us and for our guests.

Chuck: Vegas customers aren't known for taking care of a resort very well either.

Mamie: Sometimes. Sometimes they're immaculate, and sometimes they're having so much fun that yes, you're exactly right. So we are here to help. We wanted to compel everyone to clean up, it's just part of the job that should be a habit for us when I walk around a resort. Even when I'm at Bellagio here or wherever, I find myself wanting to pick up glasses and cups and trash because that's just part of who you should be as an employee in hospitality. I mean I pick up little tiny pieces of trash.

So anyway how did we get there? We were like, "Okay, clean as you go." Okay, let’s have that. Just clean as you go. They’re like, “That's really boring.” I mean, sure, everyone can clean as you go but is that really going to compel people to clean up? I don't think that's going to change behavior. Okay, what else would do it? We said, "Who are we? What do we aim to be?" And we use our brand tenant of being playfully seductive and we said okay what would make this playful and we decided to use pick up stories as a theme, like pickup lines. This is how we launched it.

We show up at a meeting… I have a group that I used to call The Bureau. This is a great team of a mix of CoStars who basically help us elevate communications across the resort. We develop and we hang out with them; they're our good friends and we teach them about communications, likewise they teach me and my team about the business. So anyway we partner with them, and we killed the lights in the room. We had dim soft lighting and an executive meeting with all of the leaders. We played Marvin Gaye. I had a microphone, threw trash all over the room, like champagne bottles, apple cores, just whatever we could find. We just brought a bunch of trash and was littering the room.

We challenged all of our leaders to think of a phrase, think of a line to pick up this trash. Turn this stuff into objects of your affection. What would you say? And so you would be… oh my god, they had so much fun. They were dying laughing and they were writing their pick up stories and we encouraged them to post it as a status update, take a photo of the item, and then post it as a status update to our internet. That was how we launched this campaign called Pick Up Stories. We had pictures of spills in the resort and the headline was "Oh, how I slipped and fell for her." There was this confetti that we shoot out into our night club every night, the Marquee Night Club and sometimes the confetti ends up making its way to the floor all across the resort. The headline there is "They said I had to take them all." We made it okay to pick up more than just one thing at a time.

Anyway, we made it really fun and funny to pick up, and we had little videos. We just wrote… The Bureau and my team we just sat down one day at lunch and just had fun writing pick up stories. We would reveal the glass that this person was actually talking about a dirty glass, a short round glass with lipstick stain on his collar, he was just irresistible, a CoStar just couldn't resist to take him to the back of the house. And so immediately people were like, "Oh my god, I can't pick up this gum wrapper without thinking something dirty about it."

I have a couple of quotes from other ones, like this guy, our director of talent engagement said of an apple core, he said, "I stumbled upon a lonely fellow. He was a bit fruity, but at his core he was a lovely treat. I just had to pick him up #pickupstories." So we had a tag that we associated with it. It was fun. But it made everyone laugh. What was cool to me and probably the highlight of my career was when the Public Areas Department, these are CoStars who clean up everywhere around the resort. That's their job. They came in to this meeting, the same meeting where I had the Marvin Gaye music and they all popped in one day, like 30 of them, we actually have many more than that. They came in and they had this huge thank you to me personally for encouraging everyone to care about the resort and to help them out.

Chuck: Well, and it made it fun. Everybody knows that picking up trash is not fun. It’s not interesting. And like you said, the clean as you go is probably the typical thing that a lot of companies might use because it's simple and safe. But it was the engagement. I'm talking about a score or a number, but that individual engagement where people knew what they had to do, but yet you can still have some fun with it. So I think that's an amazing story. I think too if you could, go in to a little bit more about The Bureau. Because I think what's fascinating about that is you've also uncovered some talent there at the resort that otherwise a company would not have known about.

Mamie: Yeah. As a resort we aim to attract the curious class. We likewise want our employees to be creative, inventive, artistic, and imaginative so that this isn't just a job for them. It’s more than a job; it’s an opportunity for them to make their mark. When we opened in 2010, there were a lot of resorts that were going through tough times and the city was going through tough times. I mean the economy was in a bad place, but we saw that as an opportunity to just get the very best talent we could. I designed The Bureau to really leverage the talent and to recognize the talent that we have in the organization. To create an elite group of CoStars who get the inside scoop on what's going on, who help us think through how we can be more effective as a team.

I bring in photographers or videographers, or artists and leaders who can teach our CoStars how to take great photos or how to create a compelling video or how to write fun headlines. We had Nellie O'Brien, a media trainer, come in and teach them all how to have tough conversations because sometimes we do that in hospitality or with each other in businesses. When she comes in to train our executives, I say, "Hey, can Nellie spend two hours with this team, too?" And just to enrich their lives and to keep them engaged and to give them tools they can use to accelerate their career here and elsewhere if they want. But really, they give us so much and so our goal is to give back to them.

Some of our CoStars in The Bureau have really accelerated their photography skills and have a passion for that now. If I need a good photo, I know 10 CoStars here who can get us a good photo. I say, “Why don't we invite them to this event and see if they're willing to take some photos for us?” And they come back with the most amazing images. So it's about building that community here and that's what we're all about, too, is recognizing who we have here and getting them involved in whatever we can to make them part of the community. And they appreciate that too because now, if a front desk agent for example gets to take a couple hours of their shift and go do a photo shoot with us, they see their photos published everywhere, they love it. It’s a good way to diversify their experience as an employee, too.

Chuck: It gets them involved in other aspects than just their one job. They're able to see that bigger picture which helps them sort of connect the dots. I think it also shows like you said, you're a team of three but you're really a bigger team of dozens, if not even more than that, of sort of pro communication and communication savvy employees who are your eyes and ears out there.

Mamie: Yup. Exactly. And they help us write headlines. When we were working on our feature service campaign, they helped us create a lot of headlines and funny stuff, like tasteful, not tacky and images that would go with that. They helped us understand the issues that each department, at line level, are facing. And they can tell us, “Look. That message really isn't sinking in or that really didn't work because of this, or here's what I would try next time, or that was hilarious,” and I loved it. They lighten our load.

Chuck: Well, that's good.

Mamie: Another fun thing that we do, too, is… I was thinking we should do… we need some kind of communication training so that I can help new leaders transition between how everyone else is doing it and how we do it here. A key differentiator for us is how we do internal communications in our internal culture. So I want new leaders when they come on board to realize that we're not a memo culture. I don't want to ever see a memo again, but rather than just saying, “Okay, here's a communication training class. You come in, you sit down. We teach you about memos,” we use the memos as a metaphor in a memo make over competition. I have, every once in a while, an underground memo makeover competition. We might have Moscow mules memos and munchies that I basically get four divisions to bring in their worst example of communication. That's a qualifying entrance into the event.

So they have to bring in just something terrible, a really bad piece of communication and then we make it over during the event. We have fun, but that's my metaphor for how we do things differently like I want to see color, I want to see fun headlines, I want to see you break through the clutter. I want to see some offline activity combined with a really cool poster. So we have so much fun and it's just an hour to 45 minutes where we give them an intro to the brand. We make over their memo and they're like, "Oh my god, you will not believe this. We are so embarrassed of this." It makes it okay to talk about something that's just terrible, and to turn that around. That's another fun platform that we have to be playful, but also to get some… to change the culture in business that we're in.

Chuck: Well, that's fantastic, Mamie. I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to be here on this inaugural podcast, the first ever ICology podcast. So if anybody's out, you go to Las Vegas or you're thinking about going to Las Vegas, definitely check out Cosmopolitan and check out where Mamie works. If you visit all the other hotels, you will get a sense and a feel for how Mamie and her team have empowered and engaged the employees to where they are living that brand, and it will have a different feel than other properties that are on the strip. Mamie, again, thank you very much for being on the show today.

Mamie: Thank you, Chuck. It was a lot of fun.