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Behind The Scenes Of MGM Resorts’ Digital Transformation

For MGM Resorts, digital transformation has been about addressing the gap between marketing and IT–a gap that the company’s chief digital officer, Kelly Smith, calls “digital product capabilities.”

According to Smith, digital product capabilities depend on engineering, design, and product management. “Those three things together form the engine block of a digitally savvy company,” he told CMO.com in an exclusive interview.

Powering that engine is, of course, software. That’s why MGM has focused its digital transformation on building the in-house capability to develop great software to differentiate the guest experience, he explained.  

“All large companies today of any significant size are on a path to becoming a software company,” he said, pointing to companies such as Aribnb and Uber as setting a precedent for this. “And, as such, the rest of us have to get really good at the craft of making software.”

The Formal Commitment
MGM has been focused on digital transformation for a number of years now, but momentum picked up about a year ago with the formation of Digital Ventures, a business unit within the company focused on developing exceptional digital customer experiences.

MGM hired executives in engineering, design, and product management to lead the charge, making a formal commitment to addressing digital capability. This “organization,” as Smith called it, sits alongside IT and is designed to “energize the transformation agenda.” It is also tasked with supporting the development of digital capabilities.

“MGM is no different than any other company with this size and scale in that it’s hard to be as agile as you want to be,” Smith explained. “What we’re trying to do with Digital Ventures is push the notion of agile, moving quickly, updating to the App Store once a month at a minimum, and automating all of the technical processes so that we can push updates or feature enhancements to the website quickly.”

Agile Marketing And Development
Indeed, the company already has moved from an eight-week delivery cycle on the web to four weeks, with the aim of eventually being able to push updates weekly or even daily. “Velocity goes hand in hand with digital transformation,” Smith said. “This we know, and it is something that we’re spending a huge amount of time focusing on.”

Methodologies from agile software development have been key for MGM in attaining this velocity, Smith said. The company brings different counterparts from within the organization together virtually, using Jira, for two-week development sprints.

“We are able to move to market with digital capabilities faster and more efficiently,” Smith said.

Since moving to agile, the rating for MGM’s mobile app has gone from about 1.7 stars in the App Store last year to 4.7 stars today. “That puts us in line with the big players like Hyatt and Hilton Marriott,” he said. “I would say that when the team really pulls together, you can drive noticeable improvement in a very short period of time.”

Of course, Smith said, everything that MGM does is rooted in data insights. Today, a big focus is using those insights to support the company’s ability to deliver personalized experiences.  

“We know the puck is going in a direction where personalization, automated marketing, and trigger-based marketing is the future,” Smith said.

Big Investments
As part of its digital transformation, MGM has invested heavily in four key areas. The first: getting the company’s digital touch points, including the web, mobile, e-mail, and kiosks, to a superior level of customer experience. But in order to do so, the company needed a deep knowledge of its customers, which is why marketing technology became the second big investment for MGM.

The third has been about improving self-service and giving customers a digital means to do anything, like ordering towels or reporting a facility issue. The fourth big investment, Smith said, is in emerging technology, such as artificial intelligence, chatbots, and wearables. Each one of these four pillars has its own team of people who are part of the Digital Ventures organization.

Underlying all four investments is a heavy focus on mobile, according to Smith. The reason? Smith said that if there is a common denominator among all of MGM’s customers, it is the mobile phone they carry with them everywhere they go.

Transformation Far From Over
According to Smith, MGM’s digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. The transformation is ongoing. And as the company undergoes its journey to take on more characteristics of a software company, it increasingly finds itself competing for talent with other companies that are already technology innovators, Smith said. In just the past year, MGM has brought on executives from companies such as Microsoft, Intuit, NCR, Zappos, and Starbucks.

Additionally, there are many newly created roles within the organization today that didn’t exist just one year ago, such as VP (platform) engineering and mobile app designers. Yet these job titles are commonplace within a traditional software company.

“We’re looking for digital athletes–people who are comfortable with a bit of ambiguity and who are T-shaped in that they have both depth and breadth in more than one tech discipline,” Smith said. “But more than anything, we’re looking for what I call ‘cross-functional curiosity’ because it’s important to understand the diverse nature of MGM’s business.”

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