Steve Cyr was a midwestern boy with big dreams. He originally moved from Salina, Kansas to Las Vegas to attend UNLV for hotel management. However, after experiencing the glitz and excitement of casino life, he pivoted towards casino marketing as a host.
This is not the type of marketing we are learning in the classroom at Stern though. Mr. Cyr’s focus was hunting for big whales through sometimes unorthodox means. “Whales” are high-rolling gamblers. These men and women are betting anywhere from $500,000 to $3-4 million during a single casino visit. One night of these whales winning can crush a casino’s quarterly profits, but this is not typically the case since the casino has the house advantage.
Steve Cyr has worked as a host for more than 30 years at some of the biggest casinos’ in Vegas; including the Hilton, Caesar’s, Desert Inn, The Palm, and the Golden Nugget. He has some A-list clients – such as Michael Jordan and Larry Flint – as well as other high-rollers, whose identities cannot be revealed. He runs his own consulting firm called ISC Consulting, which links professional casino hosts and their whales to various casinos in Vegas and across the world. As an entrepreneur, he has taken advantage of many business opportunities in the entertainment industry, and has even been the subject of a book, Whale Hunt in the Desert by Deke Castleman, which is a required reading for Operations in Entertainment.
We first met Mr. Cyr on a Tuesday night at Stern this January, when he surprised both the class and Professor Chernoff by flying in on a redeye from Vegas to answer our questions about the book and his life. His explanation for the last-minute trip was that the Q&A was much easier in person than over skype. That class was followed with a week of classes by Professor Chernoff and meetings with entertainment industry executives in Sin City, itself. Mr. Cyr helped guide our experience through Las Vegas and was gracious enough to give me time for an interview there.
(Some answers have been edited for clarity with permission of the interview subject.)
You consider hosting more marketing than operations. Why is that?
I am more interested in the player development aspect of business. I thrive on bringing in the new clients. I have no interest in maintaining a casino’s day-to-day operations. I can’t be in the pit. I don’t have the personality for that. Too much of a talker. Marketing continues to grow the business and that’s where I flourish.
In the book and in hearing your professional experiences, it sounds like the majority of these big “whales” and the hosts that bring them to their casinos are male. Why do you think that is?
Without getting too much into stereotypes, I feel like if women are going to “blow their money,” they will more likely do so on a vacation with friends or family or on expensive jewelry and clothing rather than throw it away on a table. That doesn’t mean I don’t have female clients, they just don’t stupidly gamble to the same extent or lose as much. A lot of my big whales are men who just want to show off how much money they can drop.
You clearly are very good at networking, which is a key to success in all industries. Do you have any advice for those of us who are trying to hone that skill?
Networking is my whole career. I push myself to go to as many different types of events as often as possible. For example, I go to book clubs, plays, and marketing happenings. I like to engulf myself in different pursuits that challenge me. I give my business card to everyone. I must go through a thousand cards a month. I say yes to every opportunity. Nothing is too small and no person is too unimportant for me to talk to. I don’t email, I call. I am relentless. I wouldn’t say I’m book-smart, more street-smart, but yet I have a book written about me, and I’m featured as a part of Cornell University’s Hotel Administration program and this Vegas operations class at Stern.
How much do you estimate you have made for casinos over your 30-plus-year career?
I would guess I have made Las Vegas casinos over $100 million during my time here.
What is the most you have ever witnessed a “whale” lose in a single day?
$7.3 million over 16 hours. It was a marathon of gambling. It was a momentous day for me because I work on commission, a certain percentage of how much players lose. I bought my last car on that commission. That night, the casino owner and I cut the felt from the table to frame and hang on his wall. He gave me the dice. The whale was upset, but it was not a life-changing amount of money for him.
On the other end, the most I have ever seen a whale win in one day is $5 million. That definitely changed profit margins for the casino that quarter.
What are some of the most unusual methods you have used to entice big-time gamblers to come to your casino and then to maintain his or her loyalty to you?
I once had a craps table personally made for a whale and drove it from Las Vegas to Montana to his ranch. He had never met me but his gambling reputation made him infamous in Vegas. I loaded the table into a U-Haul and drove it personally to him. After that, I was his host for the rest of his life.
You gave us some great business tenets during the Operations in Entertainment course. What are they and can you tell us why they are so important to you?
Be patient with people. That’s a hard one for me, but it is something I focus on continuously improving.
Be consistent in decisions. That does not mean that you always do the same thing. It means that your actions and decisions align with your purpose.
Help people be successful. Train the right people. I surround myself with people whom I consider smarter than me. I see my weaknesses and surround myself with people who can complement that with their strengths and vice versa. It makes us an effective team and me a decent manager.
For more information on the life of Steve Cyr, read Whale Hunt in the Desert, by Deke Castleman, which can be found here. Operations in Entertainment: Las Vegas runs every January by Professor Harry Chernoff. More information on the course can be found here.