Faces of Gaming: Anika Howard — From Harrah’s First Interactive Employee to CEO of Wondr Nation

January 28, 2023 1:36 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
January 28, 2023 1:36 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Anika Howard has always been in love with technology.

As the first interactive employee for Harrah’s, Howard was part of the tech vanguard that uploaded sweeping additions to modern technology in gaming. And as CEO of WONDR NATION, Howard is stretching the edges of tech in gaming entertainment. Along the way, she discovered that technology is a great equalizer and a way to bring people together.

Howard has worked at such notable players within the gaming space as Foxwoods Resort Casino, International Game Technology, and Caesars Entertainment. WONDR NATION, dedicated to expanding emerging technology into innovative styles of immersive gaming entertainment, is a digital entity of the  Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns Foxwoods.

Howard received the Patty Becker Pay It Forward Award from Global Gaming Women and was named one of the most Influential Women in iGaming by iGB magazine in 2021. She received the Bronze Stevie Award for the 2020 Marketing Executive of the Year, was named one of the “25 People to Watch for 2018” by Global Gaming Business magazine, and won the “2018 Women of Achievement Award” from the Nevada Women’s Fund.

Howard is the co-founder and co-chair of African Americans in Gaming, sits on the board of directors for Global Gaming Women, and chairs its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee.

First Interactive Employee

“During my President’s Associate rotation in Harrah’s New Orleans, I worked on the grand-opening website as a passion project. The great things about the President’s Associate program include building lifelong friendships, getting a full appreciation for all the work and coordination that go into casino operations, and having the unique opportunity to work and build relationships with senior leaders very early in your career.

“During my rotation, I had a great conversation with Marilyn Spiegel, who was head of HR at the time. I shared my vision and many of my observations from a technology standpoint and how I thought all these things would be very cool to implement. Literally within a week of that conversation, I received a call from the corporate office and after a series of interviews, I was hired as Harrah’s first interactive employee,” Howard recalled.

“As the corporate internet-marketing manager for Harrah’s, I started out as a team of one. I think when you’re that young and bold, you don’t really have a sense of wow, this is a big thing. Hospitality and gaming, even now, are very high-touch personalized experiences, so it just didn’t compute that technology had its place.”

Centralizing Operations

“Harrah’s decided to centralize all operations,” Howard explained. “Most companies go back and forth between centralization and decentralization. At that point, there wasn’t a strategy. Some casinos had websites, but the information, functionality, and who managed them were all different. They wanted to streamline all of it and create websites that are basically what you see today.

“My job was to meet with the casinos that had these disparate sites, work to understand their needs, and convince them I could create an experience that their players would want,” Howard remembered.

“We found that at the end of the day, although everyone believed that what they needed was unique, recurring things did come up. Everyone was concerned about loyalty, making sure that there were ways to use their amenities, and making sure there was a central tool they could access to make changes that were important for their properties. The solution was creating a central system that empowered the properties.”

Harrah’s to Caesars to IGT

As Harrah’s became Caesars, Howard worked the technology side of the prominent acquisitions at that time. Then she moved to GTECH, which became IGT in 2012, “in time to launch ilottery in Illinois and later Georgia,” Howard said.

“The skills are highly transferable. Igaming, ilottery, and most of the work in the interactive space are interrelated. At that time with lotteries, everything was retail-ticket based and they needed the ability to purchase tickets online. I led the team that developed the requirements to launch both the website and the mobile app,” Howard related.

Howard went on to lead IGT’s efforts to launch sports betting and igaming in North America, working closely with the MGM team to launch the initial PlayMGM sports betting in Las Vegas, shortly before PASPA was repealed.

With her vast experience adapting technology to casinos and hospitality, I asked Howard what she sees as the next phase of tech in casinos.

Augmented Reality and AI

“Two things I’m obsessed with now are augmented reality (AR) and ChatGPT. Both can have a major impact on the player and guest experience,” Howard said.

“Social-media filters are the most relatable examples of augmented reality. AR overlays a digital experience within a physical real-world experience. You don’t need any special equipment, just your smartphone, and the possibilities are limitless.

“Open AI released ChatGPT in November 2022. It allows you to have a seemingly knowledgeable conversation on just about anything. It learns and adopts based on the training data it receives and while it’s not smart enough to replace humans, it’s very impressive.”

Howard is investigating ChatGPT for functions such as customer service and check-in, onboarding and training team members, directions, and call- center operations.

“There are many very practical applications for the gaming and hospitality industry, from providing information on shows, making dinner reservations, registering for tournaments, and handling customer-service issues. I’m looking forward to exploring how this technology is used going forward,” Howard stated.

WONDR NATION

“WONDR NATION is the newest entity for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. The tribe wants to diversify and capitalize on the legalization of online gaming and sports betting in Connecticut. We’re a gaming- entertainment company and our focus extends beyond igaming and sports betting to social gaming and esports. The future is online and the ongoing challenge is creating authentic and engaging experiences that tap into the things that people really want to do and relate to,” Howard said.

“WONDR NATION is committed to creating a center of excellence by taking what we’ve learned, sharing with other tribes, and creating a talent pipeline that allows tribal members to actively and competitively participate and contribute to the innovation happening in the industry,” Howard stated.

“I think I’m unique, in that I have this lens where I understand operations, appreciate the technology, and work well with marketing. That’s something only a handful of people can really do well.

“We want to share the knowledge and make sure that we’re giving young people and new executives the opportunity to learn using rotation programs like the President’s Associate program, but focused on digital, so we can make sure people, especially tribal executives, can have that foundation,” Howard stated.

WONDR NATION is working with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society on a youth-focused program, WONDR Smart Labs.

“AISES works specifically and exclusively with tribes. They have this amazing curriculum and integrate a technology curriculum into tribal culture.”

Leadership, Revenue Streams, and Diverse Voices

“I have three core objectives: build a strong leadership team so that we can create a solid sustainable business for the tribe; make sure that we create multiple streams of revenue that can sustain the tribe and diversify long term; and amplify diverse voices.

“The third one is an ongoing theme for me. There is always an opportunity to create a platform that allows us to introduce new voices into the dialogue. When we’re talking about igaming and sports betting and as we’re looking at new game concepts and formats like esports, I really like the idea of bringing in younger team members. We’re not going to come up with the answer; It’s going to be someone who lives it, breathes it, loves it, and grew up with it. Esports enthusiasts can see some things in a way that I can’t. I want to cultivate and encourage that talent and give them a place,” Howard said.

African Americans in Gaming

Howard is also the co-founder and co-chair of African Americans in Gaming, which she established with former Caesars Entertainment coworker Alex Dixon.

“I always struggled with being the first, only, or different, and it’s a lonely existence — to always be either the first person, the first Black person, kind of the oddball in the group. When you’re early in your career and you’re trying to figure out your place, it’s lonely.

“One of the things we wanted to do was create an organization that to connect African Americans with this network of resources. That’s really the genesis. We want to let people know that they’re not alone and there are other people that they can reach out to for questions, support, opportunities, and just understanding,” Howard said.

Cutting Edge

Throughout her entire career, Howard has displayed a talent for converting cutting-edge technology into new gaming products and systems. As an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, she  also uses her influence to amplify diverse voices.

Passionate about how tech innovation and diverse voices can transform player experiences, Anika Howard is a tech ahead in the gaming industry.


Entries in the Faces of Gaming series:

Tom Osiecki is a casino consultant who writes an occasional column for CDC Gaming Reports called Faces of Gaming, about interesting and engaging people in the gaming industry.

Tom Osiecki is a marketing and management consultant for Raving Consulting and can be reached for consulting engagements at 775-329-7864.

If you know of a fascinating personality in the gaming industry you would like to see profiled, please send Tom Osiecki an email at tosiecki@cdcgaming.com