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5/13/2013
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Vegas Resorts Bet On Location-Based Apps

Location-based apps might be the wave of the future, but Cisco and MGM Resorts advise deployment must be preceded by careful planning.

In the movies, characters flow effortlessly through Las Vegas' neon-bathed streets. The real Sin City, though, is a different experience, marked by labyrinthine casinos, circuitous shopping malls and crowded escalator after crowded escalator.

To bridge this disconnect, MGM Resorts has partnered with Cisco. The hospitality management firm, which operates close to half the major hotels on the Las Vegas strip, is using Wi-Fi and location-based mobile apps to bring some of the silver screen's simplicity to the real-world experience. Though most things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas, the new tech's influence stretches far outside the city's glitz and glam, providing a case study for the questions and challenges businesses will face as they deploy an evolving generation of customer-facing apps.

The MGM Resorts project involves two broad halves. First, the organization spent the last few years upgrading the Wi-Fi infrastructure throughout its properties, enabling guests to connect their devices not only in their rooms, but also as they move from one of the management firm's properties to the next. Second, it has begun building mobile apps that leverage this pervasive connectivity to improve the guest experience.

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At face value, mobile apps and Wi-Fi aren't exceptional. But since last fall, Cisco has been touting how Wi-Fi can be used to improve in-venue experiences by allowing apps to tailor their content to the customer's location. Thanks to the approach, a given app can move beyond generic information and instead offer personalized, targeted content at the exact moment it is most useful to the end user. As Cisco sees it, businesses stand to gain not only through increased sales from better-engaged consumers, but also by effectively monetizing the Wi-Fi infrastructures they already maintain for free.

Cisco VP Rob Soderbery said during his Interop conference keynote that these location-aware apps are part of a new breed that will change the way people interact with devices and data. For its part, MGM Resorts is moving methodically, starting with an app specifically for its Bellagio resort before moving on to its other properties.

The app, which is available for iOS and Android, uses Meridian's AppMaker software and Secure Location Engine cloud server along with Cisco's Wi-Fi network to allow guests to search the hotel's amenities and opt for location-specific alerts -- such as when they're in the vicinity of a given type of restaurant, or a venue that's offering discounts. It also offers turn-by-turn navigation to visitors as they roam throughout the property.

In an interview at Interop, John Bollen, senior VP and chief digital officer for MGM Resorts, suggested that for all the benefits new apps and technologies can offer, businesses must plan carefully before rushing in.

MGM's process began, he said, when customers began carrying smartphones and tablets. When clunky laptops were the personal device of choice, Internet connections could be restricted to guest rooms. But as mobile devices proliferated, he explained, property-wide Wi-Fi access started to make sense.

What made sense after Wi-Fi was deployed, though, was more subjective. "Everyone sees how they benefit from Wi-Fi," Bollen said, adding that he constantly tells business units, "Calm down. We can't do everything at once."

For example, if an app tracks a guest's location and sends that guest a targeted message, who writes that message? Bollen explained individual hotels might want to alert guests to great deals -- but this could easily lead to one MGM property cannibalizing sales from another if the plan isn't executed with a corporate-level perspective.

Bollen also mentioned the importance of "not creeping people out" and of deciding whether to give guests one consistent experience that encompasses entire properties or pockets of experience that focus on individual venues.

Bollen also cautioned against using technology for its own sake. He said that one vendor suggested using near-field communication (NFC) technology to allow customers to pay restaurant bills. The waiter would bring the bill on one device, which would then use NFC to transfer the information to the customer's smartphone. The customer could then review the bill, input a tip and use NFC to transfer the information back to the waiter's device. Bollen asked why MGM would use such an approach when simply signing the bill, though old-fashioned, is so much simpler.

Despite this planning, Bollen, who said the technology is still in early stages and could expand in many directions, is already seeing benefits. Even before the new app launched, for example, the improved Wi-Fi infrastructure had led to fewer customer complaints and fewer refunded resort fees.

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