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This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Comps at B&B Ristorante, a Gulfstream on call, a villa at Caesars Palace — these are among the perks bestowed by Las Vegas’ fabled “hosts,” a catchall for the fixers who cosset a casino’s highest-rolling gamblers with freebies. It used to be that only ultra-profligate “whales,” willing to risk $100,000 or more in a single spin of the roulette wheel, got the royal treatment. But improvements in marketing analytics now allow casinos to target smaller fry with lavish inducements to play — and keep playing, until they inevitably lose. Because in Vegas, the more you lose, the more you win, but only if you know how to play the game. And that’s where a host makes all the difference.
Whether employed by the casinos themselves under the euphemism “player development” or working as freelancers, hosts leverage their wealth of connections around town to score clients not only the standard Vegas perk package of free rooms, booze and meals, but also VIP tables at hot clubs and restaurants, front-row seats for sold-out championship fights, prime tee times at the best courses and pretty much anything a player desires.
Although a far cry from today’s aggressive goodwill hunters, casino hosts have been a part of the Las Vegas landscape from day one.
“Initially, the owner or manager personally welcomed players to downtown gambling halls,” says David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “With bigger operations on the Strip, the specialized role of host developed in the 1940s.”
Today, says Schwartz, “If the player is big enough, they will do everything up to and including showing up at their home unannounced with expensive gifts. It is a very competitive business, and the players know this, so they tend to get what they demand.”
So what constitutes a “big player”?
Casinos use a formula called “theoretical,” which takes into account a player’s wager per hand, average hands per hour, amount of time played and skill.
“We judge what kind of player you are,” says Nick Ippolito, vp player development at the soon-to-open Downtown Grand casino. “Just because you beat us doesn’t mean we don’t want you back. The theoretical was devised so we can see the guy put the time in to lose or win $10,000. We want you to put in hours.”
You don’t have to be courted by a host — a casino will provide one if you ask. And Ippolito says hosts can be extremely generous with their prized players. “I’ve seen hosts buy players cars, take them on trips anywhere in the world — those are the benefits of being a million-dollar player,” he explains. “And whether it’s a million dollars over a short time or over a lifetime, loyal players are rewarded.”
Independent hosts are unaffiliated with any particular casino and maintain an address book rich in big players. They connect with clients through personal relationships and referrals and are typically paid a commission by the casinos. Among the top indies are Al Deleon, Steve Lazar, Scott Phillips and Scott Bronson.
“A premium player gets the world,” says Bronson, a Los Angeles-based independent who services a film industry-heavy clientele. “I love getting to know my clients and then pulling off the impossible for them,” he says, “whether that’s having a famous chef prepare room service or getting them the best table at one of the nightclubs. I also like seeing them win.”
While the average player comes to Vegas twice a year, Bronson says that his players visit between four and six times a year. “A host provides the best restaurants and nightclub tables so I don’t have to deal direct and run the risk of non-personalized service,” says Stardust Pictures producer Justin Levine. “In a casino, a player already has enough working against them.”
Casino hosts also work directly with nightclub owners and their staff to create experiences off the casino floor.
Says Eli Pacino, partner in Las Vegas’ 1 OAK nightclub, “I treat everyone that walks into my club well, but obviously there’s more attention that goes to people that spend a lot more money.”
Recently Pacino created a personalized extravaganza for Andy Samberg‘s bachelor party. “He’s got a group called The Lonely Island. They did a song called ‘I’m on a Boat’ with T-Pain. So we built a boat and did a big presentation. There were two busboys holding the boat and a girl inside. We played the song, and they thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen.”