Mastering The Game

By: Brian J. Barth


When you pull up to the Bellagio, the five-star casino resort in Las Vegas, you pass an eight-acre man-made lake with roughly 1,000 fountains that come to life in an hourly show of music and light, dancing and spraying in a spectacle that rises 460 feet in the air. You then enter the lobby, where an enormous, kaleidoscopic installation by Dale Chihuly—more than 2,000 hand-blown glass flowers—hangs down from the ceiling like a vortex. You feel as though heaven must reside on the other side.

After settling into your room, you must decide which of the many attractions to take in: The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Garden, and O, Cirque du Soleil’s permanent show, are among the top options. By day, you can unwind at the resort’s world-class spa and browse the selection of 20-plus luxury boutiques; at night, choose from six decadent nightclubs and lounges, plus a smorgasbord of culinary adventures ranging from farm-to-table fare to small plates by Julian Serrano, the Michelin-decorated chef.

Oh, and, there’s also gambling.

If the Bellagio were your textbook for casino design, it could be titled The Design of Magical Kingdoms. What happened to the dim, smoke-filled halls lined with guys who look like they just stepped off the set of Bugsy?

Old-school casino design—low ceilings, no clocks or windows, and maze-like carpeting leading you from one gaming area to another, now referred to as “gaming” design—was pioneered by Bill Friedman, a gambling-addict-turnedcasino- manager and a consultant to scores of casino developers across the globe. Friedman, a Las Vegas native, literally wrote the book on the topic, several actually: Casino Games, Casino Management, and Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition.

“I lived through the Golden Era of Las Vegas when the remnants of the organized crime gangs that had brought in booze during Prohibition basically built The Strip,” says Friedman. “Casinos mesmerized me from the first time I walked into one as a child. They were completely different than what we have today, both in the markets served and in the way they are designed and operated.”

In fact, casinos of the era would come to be criticized for some of the very things that made them work in their day, aspects of design that wouldn’t be recognized as important until years later—24-hour-a-day energy consumption and the negative effects a lack of natural light and fresh air can cause among them.

Friedman spent his career analyzing the relationship between interior design and casino profitability. His model was to create a dense labyrinth of gaming spaces that focused on the needs of serious gamblers, not casual tourists. These were places you could literally get lost in, which was exactly the idea. He believed expansive rooms, open sight lines, and elaborate décor diverted people’s attention from what casino owners of the day wanted them to do— gamble. In Friedman’s mind, the gaming equipment was the décor. Hotels, entertainment, and other amenities were part of the package, but these were a sideshow, often operated at a loss, to the casino floor.

In the 1990s, the “playground” school of casino design, which emphasizes open, resort-like layouts and elaborate interiors, began to take root. This approach, which persists today, still caters to serious gamblers, but attempts to reach a much wider audience: tourists, conventioneers, bachelor and bachelorette parties, wedding groups, and pretty much anyone else looking for a thrilling destination. Gone are the low ceilings. Natural lighting is in, as are “barns”—casino lingo for large, open gaming floors designed to create a sense of wonder. And, gambling is just one of the many attractions. At a number of today’s casino resorts, the whole family is welcome; mom, dad, and the kids all will find something of appeal. Revenue from the gaming floor is still important, but it doesn’t make or break the entire operation as in days past.

“My job is to create emotional excitement that endures—spaces that are so layered that they are as much fun to walk in to the 200th time as they were the first time.” — ROGER THOMAS, WYNN DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT

The Bellagio often is cited as the pinnacle of playground design. Roger Thomas, executive vice president of design for Wynn Design and Development, who created the Bellagio’s interiors, says his philosophy is pretty simple—though it is anything but formulaic. “My goal is to create an experience that is so appealing, so comfortable, and so stimulating that my guests want to come back for more,” explains Thomas. “They realize it is unique because all the components are unique, and, if they’re going to get it again, they have to come to us to get it. My job is to create emotional excitement that endures—spaces that are so layered that they are as much fun to walk in to the 200th time as they were the first time.”

To do so, Thomas builds full-scale models of key sections of each casino project—typically, “a slot area, a pit area, and a pathway area,” he says— before the design is finalized. “It can be a two-year exercise of changing carpet, lighting, furniture, paint—tearing everything apart and putting it back together. We leave no stone unturned in our search for the most extraordinary gaming space on earth.”

His approach certainly seems to be working: The Bellagio pulls in four times as much revenue per guest room as the Las Vegas average.


For decades, the casino industry was synonymous with Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and a smattering of other gambling outposts. Today, casinos are legal in every Canadian province and in all but nine U.S. states. As a result, the scope of casino design has greatly expanded. While the Bellagio is a stunning case study, it had a construction budget of $1.6 billion; in contrast, the vast majority of casinos are far less extravagant.

“It’s easy to believe that Las Vegas defines what a casino is, but that is the tip of the iceberg,” says Gordon MacKay, co-founder of the Toronto-based hospitality design fi rm mackaywong, which has 14 casino projects under its belt and another 14 in the pipeline. “Most of the casino facilities in the United States and Canada can’t afford to invest the kind of money they do on The Strip. The marketplace is focused on a few large destination casinos, but, in reality, most casinos are reliant on local clientele. The investment is modest.”

Beyond the bright lights of Vegas, common themes in casino design quickly dissolve into site-specific, market-specific realities. What works on a First Nations reserve in northern Manitoba, Canada, is a far cry from the secret sauce of a riverboat casino in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but a number of questions commonly arise in the design process. One hurdle comes up almost immediately: to theme or not to theme. Or, more to the point: How overt should the theme be?

Overtly themed casinos—think Caesars Palace, which is essentially a monument to ancient Rome—were a staple of the Bill Friedman era, but such obviousness is less chic today. “It used to be casinos were designed on the principle of making it look like a UFO just landed in the middle of a farmer’s fi eld. It was all about being exotic,” reveals Mackay. “Then, the pendulum swung completely in the opposite direction and everything was dark woods and beige walls.” Now, the trend is somewhere in the middle. Mackay says casino clients today want the design to tell a story, but “in a subtle and sophisticated manner.”

Place-based storytelling is definitely en vogue, he adds. “We’re not going to do a Tiki hut concept in Hanover[, Ontario]; we’re going to look at history and cues around Hanover as a place and start to develop storylines that resonate in a meaningful way within that context. That being said, we just did a casino renovation in Winnipeg[, Manitoba], that almost has a subtropical feel. We didn’t go in there and put fake palm trees all over the place. We took more of a warm climate architectural approach and infused it with cues that emotionally put you in a place to feel good about being there. That’s meaningful in a place like WinnipegWinnipeg, where people appreciate a retreat from winter city mode.”

Casino clients today want the design to tell a story, but “in a subtle and sophisticated manner.” — GORDON MACKAY, mackaywong

Some larger casinos dispense with a central theme altogether. “Because our customers have varying tastes and preferences, many of our offerings differ considerably from each other in terms of their design and presentation,” notes Richard Taylor, president of Niagara Casinos, a company that operates Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara, which are both perched alongside the massive waterfall on the Canadian side of the border.

Taylor views this differentiation as a way to cater to multiple client types—men, women, aging boomers, millennials—which increasingly is important to the success of large casinos. “It allows us to provide a host of options for our guests, based on their preferences and tastes,” he says. The consistency of experience, in this case, comes through maintaining the same level of quality throughout the site. “Back-of-house operations are handled by the same people to ensure that we are able to provide a coordinated level of service. So, while the surroundings may change depending on what aspect of our resort a customer is visiting, they always will receive the same level of care from our staff.”

In this way, the design of casino resorts differs little from other hospitality contexts. The complexity arises largely from combining so many elements into a single development that has seamless transitions and feels like a cohesive whole.

“We are doing much looser gaming floor layouts with fewer slot machines and lots of little lounge spaces, beer gardens, and areas for group activities.” — NATHAN PEAK, HBG DESIGN


Materials palettes are a major concern in casino design, not just from the perspective of aesthetics, but durability: Casinos typically operate 24 hours-a-day, 365 days per year, so the flooring, wall coverings, fixtures, and furnishings need to be tough as nails.

There also are exacting requirements specific to the trade. Lighting above the game tables must be bright enough for the folks who monitor the surveillance cameras for cheaters to see what’s going on, and the light fixtures themselves must be positioned so they do not interfere with the cameras’ sight lines. Thomas developed chandeliers with cameras embedded in them specifically for this purpose.

One of the most consequential decisions an interior designer will make on a casino project is the choice of carpet; it is rare to find a casino that uses any other sort of flooring in the gaming area. Elizabeth Bonner, creative design director at Durkan (part of the Mohawk family of flooring companies), says carpet and casinos have a long and colorful relationship. “The tradition is to use highly colorful and illustrative patterns on the gaming floor. It’s part of what transports you to a different place.”

Despite various conspiracy theories relating to casino carpets—some have postulated that wild patterns are employed to camouflage any chips that fall to the floor, which the casino then rakes up and pockets—Bonner clarifies that the tradition actually has very practical underpinnings. Casino floors take a beating from foot traffic and spills, so the more convoluted the pattern, the less likely the eye is to notice stains or wear and tear. “I call it the meatball factor, the idea that you can drop a meatball anywhere on the carpet and you can’t see it later.”


Zany carpets are one tradition that remains in casino design, even as many others fl utter away. In addition to the trend toward expansive resort-style layouts, casinos are looking to the future with things like sustainable design. LEED-certified casinos are on the rise, and Las Vegas is becoming known as one of the greenest cities in the country, a movement led, at least in part, by its casino magnates. Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ontario, recently installed a biogas digester to convert organic waste to energy. And, suppliers like Mohawk are doing their part: Definity, the company’s highend 24-tone carpet line favored by casinos, is made from recycled plastic bottles.

But, perhaps, the biggest change afoot in the casino world is designing for millennials. The question is how. So far, this demographic has not proven to be particularly interested in gambling. They do love games, just different ones than what casinos traditionally offer, according to Nathan Peak, a principal at HBG Design, a fi rm with offices in Memphis, Tennessee, and San Diego that specializes in off-Strip casino projects. “Millennials are interested in interactive games more than the insular experience of a slot machine,” he says; above all else, they are looking for a social experience. “In our recent casino projects, we are doing much looser gaming floor layouts with fewer slot machines and lots of little lounge spaces, beer gardens, and areas for group activities.”

HBG is taking this concept a step further by designing areas adjacent to the gaming floor specifically for non-gambling games. This includes venues for eSports, a meteorically popular concept in which rowdy video-game tournaments are conducted in a stadium-like environment, complete with cheering crowds and age 21-and-up concessions. The casinos of the future very well may be about gaming in the broadest sense, not just about the type that involves bets.

Emily Marshall, interior design discipline leader at HBG, says the good news is that millennial tastes actually dovetail perfectly with one thing that casinos have always excelled at: “They want a unique, immersive experience. Millennials don’t display many of the specific habits and patterns of the previous gamer generation, but this is one thing they do have in common.” Playing games, after all, is at its core a healthy—and universal—form of escape.


Casinos across the continent are setting positive examples by making sustainability a priority. From energy efficiency to waste reduction to cleaner indoor air and more, the future for these gaming palaces is decidedly green. Following are just a few examples of exemplary sustainable efforts.

• In 2016, Niagara Casinos earned the Greatest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Award from the Niagara Sustainability Initiative (NSI) for reducing its lighting energy consumption and absolute carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 736 tonnes between 2014 and 2015.

• In 2015 alone, Wynn Resorts diverted 17,369 metric tons of waste from the landfill and reduced water consumption by 30,020,000 gallons over the prior year.

• At Cascades Casino Kamloops, heating and cooling on the gaming floor is provided via specially designed custom heat recovery ventilators. The ventilators ensure the stale air leaving the building preheats the air coming into the gaming area from outdoors; the system saves both natural gas for heating and electricity for cooling.


The casino hotels of yesteryear were largely an appendage of the casino itself: colorful, theatrically themed, and sometimes a bit rowdy. Today the opposite is true. “A growing trend is to design the guest rooms as a sanctuary,” says Nathan Peak of HBG Design. “When people come to casinos, they want to have fun; but, when it comes to the overnight stay, it’s about getting away, having a quiet resting place. So, it’s important in a casino development to have a buffer between the high-activity zones and the resting, replenishing zones.”

Peak is a fan of using biophilic features—elements that mimic the soothing effect of the natural world—in casino hotels. At a Native American-run casino on Bainbridge Island (just north of Seattle in Puget Sound), for instance, the fi rm employed the tribe’s traditional artwork, which has a naturalistic, meditative feel, as a design motif, along with materials that are indigenous to the area, such as warm-hued cedar wood and smooth river stones. “Biophilic design is all about creating a connection to nature,” explains Peak. This might translate literally to a stunning view, he adds, or simply the use of a “monotone, highly textured palette. We’re not using a lot of bright colors in our casino hotel interiors; the emphasis is on more of a muted feel with lots of natural finishes.”

Equally important to this trend is sound or, more to the point, a lack of it. Sound-proofing insulation in the walls helps, but a recent technological innovation is catching on among casino developers as a way to completely turn off the clamor that comes with a festive 24/7 venue. In November 2017, a new sound masking system called MODIO, designed specifically for hotel rooms, debuted. This is no ordinary white noise machine, says Niklas Moeller, vice president of K.R. Moeller Associates Ltd., the Canadian company that invented it. Technically speaking, white noise is a sound composed of “a wide range of frequencies that are all broadcast at the same level. Many people actually find it hissy and grating.”

MODIO, in contrast, provides a custom mix of different frequencies that effectively drown out aberrant and annoying noises from outside the room. “We can configure a customized sound profile for each room design based on its size, furnishings, and acoustics,” explains Moeller. “Casinos are looking at it as a way to deal with the sound of entertainment venues, noise from The Strip, and guests with varying round-the-clock schedules. Since the launch, we’ve had almost unmanageable levels of interest from hotels all over the world.”

Peace, serenity, and a connection to nature; three things The Strip’s earliest patrons never would have expected to find.