Anybody that’s lived and worked in the Caribbean will probably agree that it’s not for everybody and that only those who are willing to compromise, adapt and appreciate the unique beauty of each island will survive and prosper. I have seen many expats come and go from the islands despite their impeccable resumes, solid business plans and good intentions. Why do they leave? For some it’s as simple as the heat, for others its home sickness, but for the majority it’s because they are unwilling or unable to accept the complexities and challenges of day to day island life. My first job in the casino business was on the Caribbean island of Curacao and for a single guy in his early twenties it wasn’t just a job it was an adventure…. and who wouldn’t want to live 30 feet away from, and have a front row view of, the beautiful Caribbean sea? Oh, and I forgot to mention the place was rent free.
I started off as a slot technician but did pretty much everything that was remotely technical (and sometimes not) in the Casino. A typical week would start off with the slots drop which included removing bill stacker boxes and coin buckets, weighing and wrapping the coins, and verifying the count. During the week it would be maintenance on everything Casino including the slots, count machines, CPU boards, power supplies, AV systems, surveillance cameras, office equipment, Bingo equipment and even electrical fixtures. We would also fill in for slot attendants and do whatever it took to keep the operation running smoothly. My favorite part of the job was the preparation and installation of new slots equipment as it was always satisfying to see the end product of a job well done. It was a great learning experience that I often refer to today while training and developing slots teams. I often ask myself why I enjoyed it so much and what it really comes down to is the management fundamentals that apply to any successful Casino no matter where the location. Below are a few of the basics that I learned at the start of my tales of the Caribbean in Curacao
- Strong leadership – The slots manager was a great mentor who led by example. He taught us everything from the essentials of how to program and set up the machines to the importance of customer service and creating value for the customers. He practiced honesty, integrity and professionalism and expected nothing less than the best in return.
- Team Work and staff development – From day one the company vision, values and objectives were made clear so we knew what was expected and worked together to make it happen. It was really that simple and the whole process of “making it happen” would include innovation and building custom made solutions to improve department efficiency and improve customer service. The management team also knew the benefits of developing a strong team and gave us the necessary opportunities training and tools to succeed.
- Accountability – We all worked hard but were held accountable for our own actions. This created a sense of urgency and responsibility that served to strengthen the team’s focus and ability to perform at a higher level of efficiency
- Respect and compassion – Every team member was part of the casinos success and the management team recognized a job well done. The resort owner was very accessible and his larger than life character knew the importance of a loyal and dedicated staff so treated everyone with respect and compassion. Everybody was encouraged to do a great job and reach their full potential
- Great benefits and compensation package – The executive management knew that to attract big players and run a successful business they needed to hire staff that they could count on to get the job done so they made sure that our compensation packages were competitive and our performance bonuses worth going the extra mile for. The results more than justified the expense and the property was one of the most successful on the island.
- Don’t be afraid of the competition – There were a lot of Casinos for the size of the island and competition was fierce. We embraced it and saw it as an opportunity to build a stronger and more sustainable business. We were never afraid of the competition, we used it as a learning tool to maximize our potential and were given permission slips to have fun while doing it.
The basic ingredients for a successful casino are pretty much the same on a universal level but there are external factors such as import duties, gaming taxes and advertising laws that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction that have a direct impact on a casinos ability to compete with other similar markets and still remain profitable.
All that being said my tale of the Caribbean wouldn’t be complete without a description of island life and of some of the characters that make Curacao so special. To give a better perspective I’ll start with a brief description of the island, its population and some of the ups and downs of island life.
About Curacao – Curacao is a Caribbean island that forms part of the group of Windward Islands and is located 55km’s off the coast of Venezuela and occupies an area of 444 square kilometers. The 2 official languages are Dutch and Papiamento (which is a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English and French and African languages). Other spoken languages include English and Spanish. The main ethnic groups are the Afro-Caribbean majority and the Dutch, French, Latin American, East Asian, South Asian and Jewish minorities. The population is just under 150,000.
Advantages – Good weather all year round, some of the best diving sites in the Caribbean, Tasty fresh seafood 365 days a year, beautiful beaches and a wide range of entertainment, F&B and Casino offerings. The duty free shopping is another good reason to visit Curacao. Most people can speak, at the very least, Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish and English so there are no excuses for not being able to communicate. One of the best parts of living there was meeting some of the many different people from all over the globe that called Curacao their home. It made it impossible not to meet someone that you didn’t have something in common with.
Disadvantages – On a small island like Curacao life can become claustrophobic for some people due to the fact that the island is so small. If you’re used to the fast pace of city life and all the conveniences that go with it you will definitely need to be able to change gear and get used to doing things the island way and adapting to life without a lot of the creature comforts that you would otherwise take for granted. The cost of living is expensive which a lot of people fail to take into account, so it’s worthwhile doing some research before you take the plunge. Another negative aspect of island life is the distance that it can take you from your families, your friends and all the values you hold close. Opportunities for career advancement can be limited on a small island so if you aspire towards greater things it can sometimes mean moving on so make sure you know what you want and can expect for your career beforehand.
Now we move onto the final verse in this tale of the Caribbean (and by far the most fun and memorable part) so allow me to introduce some of the characters that inspired me and opened up the doors to a whole new world of endless possibilities.
- Casino Security – One of security supervisors was nicknamed Giant and believe me when I tell you that he was well named. He was a really nice guy who loved his job and got on well with everybody. He was also a big ladies man and could often be seen surrounded by the female dealers who seemed hooked on his every word. He was indeed a giant, but when he had to move quickly to handle a security threat he did so with effortless speed and style…
- Cage and Credit manager – A real gentleman of the highest order who always had a smile on his face. He was very professional and took his work very seriously but always made time to talk to everyone and help whenever and however he could. He was always impeccably dressed and was yet another favourite with the ladies and was admired and respected by all.
- The Slots manager – His brother was the reason I came to work in the Casino business and we stay in touch to this very day. He was a hard worker who inspired and motivated us all. He gave us the necessary tools and support to succeed as technicians and taught us some of the fundamental values of what it takes to be successful as a company and as a team. Although he worked a lot he always made time for us outside of work and barbecues on the beach were a common occurrence. He knew the importance of a loyal team and did an excellent job of inspiring us all to reach our full potential.
- The Expat community – There were a lot of expats working in the Casinos at the time mostly from The UK and South Africa. On such a small island it’s important to get on with each other even if you did work for the competition. We all used to hang out together and never saw ourselves as competition. We were more like a band of gypsies that were enjoying the island life experience.
- The Casino Players – The heart and soul of the casino business and the heart and soul of this Casino tale of the Caribbean. We were in a locals market Casino so I had the privilege of getting to know a lot of them. We had a huge bingo following and a mistake could mean setting the bingo hall on fire (this actually happened). The marketing manager who was in charge of the bingo was verbally attacked on several occasions and had to be escorted by security when leaving the Casino. The video poker players were mostly Chinese restaurant owners / workers who would basically spend the night in the Casino (and even fall asleep at the machines). They never caused any trouble and all they asked for was tea and free cigarettes. The regular slots players swore night after night that they would never return as our machines never paid but somehow always came back the next day!!!! The high denom. players were always taken care of and we would even move machines from one location to another for their convenience. We all knew they were an important part of the business and made sure we exceeded their expectations. The late night crew, as we affectionately named them, came in after 4am after all the other casinos on the island had closed. A mixture of hustlers, taxi drivers, casino workers, party goers and night club owners would all make their way to our Casino for their final taste of life for the evening.
All unique individuals that offered a unique perspective regarding the true meaning of island life. I can say with all honesty that it was a privilege to be part of this real life Casino tale of the Caribbean and if you’re the kind of person that likes to travel and experience life to the fullest I strongly recommend moving away from your comfort zone (at least for a little while) as the experience can only help you grow and help you realize that taking life a little less seriously and enjoying the simple things a little bit more are what life is really all about.