John’s many IT responsibilities include overseeing infrastructure, networking, custom programming and future innovations. He joined The Cosmopolitan in June 2020 after serving as SVP & chief digital officer at MGM Resorts International, and vice president of IT media operations at NBCUniversal. Hospitality Upgrade recently sat down with John to discuss his background and career, get his perspective on hospitality’s future, and talk about a few non-business topics.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Where did you grow up?
JOHN: I’m from the Bay Area in Silicon Valley. Being born and raised in Northern California, I didn’t know how great it was until I left. That area has so much natural beauty and offers so many things to do. During my teen years, the economy there was also booming. My high school was next door to Sun Microsystems, which is now Facebook’s headquarters.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Did you have a high school job?
JOHN: I had several summer jobs, from construction to retail. A friend’s dad was in the business of flipping homes before it became popular. I would often do odd jobs, from picking up supplies to cleaning up the construction site. I also worked at a couple of retail stores at the nearby Stanford Shopping Center.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Where did you go to college and what did you study?
JOHN: I have a BA in Communications from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an MBA from the University of San Francisco.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Tell me about your first job.
JOHN: I got my first real job while I was an undergraduate in college. This was back in the day when people didn’t have laptops; they used word processors. We had a Macintosh-based computer lab on campus where students could type their term papers and learn how to operate various programs. I worked there as a trainer. Around that same time, websites were taking off and I put together the first website for UC Santa Barbara. That led to my interest in exploring new areas of technology. I now serve on the Communications Department alumni board of the university, and it’s amazing to go back to campus and see how much things have changed. The computer lab is long gone. But it was a fun place to work, and it’s where I got my start.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: How did you get into the hospitality industry?
JOHN: I was working at NBCUniversal as vice president of IT media operations when one of my colleagues accepted a job as CIO of MGM Resorts. They needed someone to lead the technology program at CityCenter (now Aria), the 16-million-square-foot mixed-use complex on the Las Vegas Strip, and I was asked to join the team. The opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that big was just too good to pass up. We weren’t stymied by outdated infrastructure or equipment; everything was new and exciting. I led that technology implementation and then moved on to serve as chief digital officer for MGM Resorts for seven years.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: What kinds of technology innovations have you implemented at The Cosmopolitan to help safeguard employees and guests during the pandemic?
JOHN: We quickly created a COVID Tracker questionnaire and integrated it into our employee database. Employees were issued a purple star (on brand) if it was OK for them to return to work based on their COVID screenings, which not only protected staff and guests but also helped us manage COVID cases. The questionnaire eventually grew to include a vaccination record and safety tracker. By early May, more than 80 percent of our workforce had been vaccinated, with each vaccination card verified through our COVID incident response team. We’re proud that we were among the first casino-resorts to receive approval from the Nevada Gaming Control Board to open to full capacity.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: What do you like most about your job?
JOHN: The best part of my job is seeing how technology improves the guest experience. Being a luxury property, we always want to provide personal service, but we also need to have contactless options for guests who prefer minimal interaction, especially now. Guests increasingly want to bring their own content and use their own accounts and devices to stream, and we have a system that allows them to do that. Guests are also embracing QR codes, kiosks and other self-service options like never before.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: What do you see as your biggest challenge other than recovering from the pandemic?
JOHN: One of our biggest challenges is IT maintenance. The sheer size and scale of our operation is huge, and any change—from upgrading revenue systems to implementing routine patches—can affect the business. We’re also open 24/7/365, so there’s no good time for maintenance. Another challenge is security. We have to be diligent and make sure data is secure and protected all the time, for customers and employees.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Much of your professional life has centered on digital transformations. Tell our readers about that and address its importance in the hotel environment.
JOHN: First off, I believe the term ‘digital transformation’ is overused. It’s really about making things easy for guests and removing the friction that frustrates them. We’re doing a lot of that at The Cosmopolitan. For example, we have a digital chatbot concierge named Rose that does an excellent job of offering convenience to guests. Should they opt to interact with her, she can tell them when their rooms are ready, take orders for fresh towels, or make reservations at any of our food and beverage outlets. We’re also rolling out mobile ordering at our Opium show and pay-at-table at our new Superfrico Psychedelic Italian restaurant. Both use QR codes that guests simply scan from their phones for self-service, but full-service is also available. Everything today must be both. It’s about letting guests do things their way. Digital doesn’t replace service; it enhances it.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: What’s the next big IT project at The Cosmopolitan?
JOHN: Network and data center upgrades. As more services come online, more network and compute power are required. Also, more things have an IT component. For example, right now we’re testing a hybrid craps game that uses a digital table to provide information about the game in progress and assist those who are new to the game. This isn’t something that’s coming in the future. It’s happening now
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: What’s the next big ‘IT thing’ you see happening in the hospitality industry in general?
JOHN: I think augmented reality will become a routine part of the guest journey. It will be used pre-trip as guests check out the resort; during the trip for way-finding and discovering things to do at the property; and post-trip as guests leave the hotel and navigate the journey home. AR is already being used successfully in group and convention situations, and I think we’ll start seeing it on the individual guest side too.
HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Tell me about the state of Las Vegas right now.
JOHN: Vegas is great! Our community has embraced safety, so that guests can enjoy the city and its activities. At some venues, visitors are using the CLEAR app to show their status. There is also a lot of testing. Events are happening again, from NFL play to music festivals. It’s a big challenge, but we’re adapting. Vegas has had other challenges throughout the years, and it always bounces back.