Joe Ness isn’t your typical technology manager. As the executive director of entertainment for Peppermill Casinos, he’s not only responsible for overseeing the staggering array of screens throughout the company’s six properties, he also gathers the content displayed on them: 8K footage that transforms the resorts’ interiors into grand vistas.
“We’ve created a Windows of the World thing that makes us unique,” Ness said. “We travel around the world and create our own content. We’ve spent $35 million on LED screens for our properties—probably even more than that now—and display all this content as part of our architectural trademark.” And, when he’s not globetrotting to capture shots of exotic places, he’s designing and managing the premium technology deployments that bolster the company’s allure as a travel destination in its own right.
A Sound Start
Like many in the industry, Ness’ road to AV began with music tech. “I’ve always been kind of a gear head,” he said. “It started back in the ‘80s when I was in college and playing in a band and DJing, and was attracted to the technical side even more than the performance side of things.” After graduation, he moved to Reno, NV from the Midwest and worked as a sound engineer, and later went on tour with a company contracted by MTV and began doing camera work as well. “I traveled all around and started to get involved with bigger systems, bigger technologies,” he said.
This led to work for AV contractors, and eventually, starting his own integration firm, Quantum Audio Video. By the mid-2000s, his company was the main AV contractor for Peppermill’s flagship property in Reno, the city’s top-of-market resort. “We were doing all of Peppermill’s work, from the sportsbooks to the showrooms, to the cabarets,” he said. “It culminated with having the Peppermill Corporation purchase my business back during the recession of the late 2000s, and they brought on all my guys.”
Since then, he’s been in charge of AV for the company, which in addition to the 1,600-room, AAA Four-Diamond Reno resort, also includes five other Nevada properties, including one in Las Vegas.
Ness said that Peppermill’s owner fosters a culture in which great ideas can thrive. “To stay up with technology, we’re lucky enough that the owner really puts his money where his mouth is on the AV side,” he said. “Part of our motto here is ‘Don’t be afraid to swing and miss.’ We give a lot of power to the AV team to come up with ideas. I get a lot of my ideas, technology wise, from the guys who work under me. They see something, and then I pitch it to the owner to decide whether or not that’s technology that works for us.”
And so far, Ness and his team have made mostly the right calls on cutting-edge tech decisions. “We never adopted 3D, and I’m glad we didn’t,” he said. “We went 4K everywhere, and that is the deal.”
When it comes to designing system upgrades, Ness has a number of industry contacts to call on. When the Reno resort was planning its sportsbook upgrade, Ness visited the Wynn in Las Vegas to see the technical aspects of their installation. “There’s a pretty good camaraderie with guys in the business,” he said. “I was able to see what they did and then we put our own twist on it.” Part of the twist was meticulous preparation and execution: unlike the Wynn, which closed its sportsbook for three months during its overhaul, the Peppermill continued operating throughout the duration of its installation. “And it only took us ten days to integrate the whole thing, including AV, touchscreens, booths, and everything because we had it so well organized.”
Central to Ness’ design philosophy is a focus on the complete solution, and not the individual technology pieces. “The key is trying to understand what your end product is, and not get all wrapped up in any product or brand,” he said. “It’s being aware of what’s happening and engineering around a solution and an end result, rather than around any one product."
To drive the ever-expanding audio and video deployment at the resorts, Peppermill employs a robust IT backbone. “We have a campus of fiber optic networks and switch gear and IT rooms that connect everything right now, including our content management and our content creation,” Ness said. Networked technologies include the sportsbook screens, which run on Crestron DM NVX solutions; the editing station for the Windows of the World content, which features a half-petabyte NAS server for all of the 8K footage; and hundreds of BrightSign players that play out content on more than 115 LED video walls at the Reno location alone.
None of this would be possible without a solid relationship with the IT department, and Ness is very close with Peppermill’s director of network systems, Nate Estes. “I speak with Nate probably daily,” he said. Currently, the casino is working to upgrade its overhead music and paging to a QSC Q-SYS system. “When we’re in the process of shopping out a system like that, I’ll bring Nate into the picture, tell him what we’re doing, what we already have, the network we’re already using, what we’ll be changing with this new system being implemented. Then he’ll see what we need: what kind of switches, what bandwidth, what kind of control access, what kind of overlay.”
As in most any technology deployment running on a network, security is critical. “One of our competitors in California was hit and they got into the POS system, and they had to shut down for a week,” he said. “It was a $200 million hit. So you have to have a strong relationship with all of the departments, especially your IT department. They’re the ones who manage our backbone, we tell them what we need, and they manage the security points everywhere. I’m lucky in this respect that I get to leave the security end of things to IT and I don’t have to worry about that.”
Sometimes the need to keep things locked down can be a bit of a burden. “I can’t always have my best wishes because of security,” Ness said. “There’s extra steps that make things a little more cumbersome because of security, and that’s just how everything is in the world. If you want things to be perfectly easy to use, then you’re probably more than likely in a security risk situation.” For example, IT has eliminated removable media from all of the AV stations, except for the content editing systems, which run on a separate network. “That’s a pain in the butt, but you have to know what our IT guys are dealing with, and the possible huge problems that could happen in the event of an IT breach,” Ness said.
However inconvenient the restrictions, Peppermill’s IT department maintains a system that enables Ness and his team to deploy technology with peace of mind. “We have hundreds of BrightSign players that are all on the network and we push content to all of our properties all around the state,” he said. “So if we travel to Morocco and I get 500 new clips edited and titled, we’ll push those to the different formats: panoramic, column, horizontal, vertical. We put them in, put them in a watch folder, and all of that content gets pushed to all of our properties via IP.”
Besides the Windows of the World content, Ness operates an extensive informative signage system including menu and touchscreen systems driven by Scala software. “We have hundreds and hundreds of Scala licenses and we’re constantly pushing content,” he said. “Especially with COVID, we were pushing a new message every day. With our Scala network, you can push certain messages to certain screens at certain times of day,” enabling him to do things like direct large crowds exiting concerts to the proper escalators and exits.
There’s even networked tech in the rooms: according to Ness, Peppermill was the first large casino in Northern Nevada to put Chromecast systems into the guestrooms. “It’s complicated because everything has to be addressed and you have to have a crazy robust wireless network,” he said. “We have access points for every two rooms in our hotel here in Reno, and we have 1,600 rooms."
“If you want things to be perfectly easy to use, then you’re probably more than likely in a security risk situation.” — Joe Ness, executive director of entertainment for Peppermill Casinos
Ness’ job is about as multifaceted as work gets for AV/IT directors. Half of his time is spent overseeing the casinos’ systems and working to improve them. “We’re constantly upgrading, and I’m involved in a ton of projects,” he said. “We’re constantly going through the construction phase of things.” On the operations side, Ness manages a group of 25 AV techs, 15 full-time TV techs that provide 24/7 support for guest room televisions, and half a dozen senior techs to handle more advanced work like Crestron and Q-SYS programming and video wall maintenance and troubleshooting. “It’s a bit of a triage every day; it’s fast paced,” he said. “It isn’t always as road-mapped as you’d like; a lot of times you’re chasing problems, and a good chunk of my day is devoted to just doing what has to be done.”
The remainder of his time is devoted to the creative side of things: producing media for the Windows of the World displays and menu touchscreens. “I travel all around the world: I’ve been to Everest, I’ve been to Patagonia, I’ve been to Antarctica, all over China, Australia, New Zealand,” he said. “We have a library of tens of thousands of 4K, 6K, and 8K images that we display. They’re basically locked-down video shots of like a waterfall, and it looks like a picture, but the waterfall’s moving.”
Ness and his department are also involved in producing content for Peppermill’s website. For example, when the casino was permitted to reopen after COVID shutdown last June, the team immediately shot and edited footage of the sanitary measures the resort had invested in to ensure public safety.
The Road Ahead
While much of the world is still making the transition from analog to AV over IP, Ness is already imagining a landscape beyond that. “I don’t know what the future is, but I completely envision wireless everywhere, streaming everywhere,” he said. “The Cat-5 cables [will start] to go away, even in professional AV at some point. We still have it, but I see it starting to go away, because it’s happening in homes. And the homes are where the technology is starting now.”
Whatever innovations are around the corner, you can be sure to find the finest of them in Peppermill’s properties. “We like to think we’re unique in what we do here at the Peppermill when it comes to AV,” Ness said. “We’ve got an owner who trusts us and gives us an open book on what we want to do, and he writes the checks. It’s really cool to be part of making something successful, even in tough times.”