Faces of Gaming: Willy Allison — From New Zealand bloke to world game-protection leader

September 16, 2023 6:00 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
September 16, 2023 6:00 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Willy Allison is a world-renowned game protection and surveillance expert who grew up in Invercargill, New Zealand, a town literally at the bottom of the world. Next stop Antarctica.

How a bloke from New Zealand went from the bottom of the world to the top of one of the world’s best game-protection conferences is quite a story.

Along the way, Allison has been a dock builder in shark-infested waters, traveled to the United States at 19, was a theme park fortuneteller, and married an actual Kentucky coal miner’s daughter before starting a job in surveillance in 1987 at Jupiters Casino (now the Star Gold Coast) in Australia’s Queensland.

Today, Willy Allison owns the annual World Game Protection Conference. He also publishes the Monitor Room, an online newsletter on security and game protection, has a podcast called “Pan Tilt Zoom” dedicated to surveillance, operates an international surveillance consulting company, and publishes articles and videos on game protection.

Oysters, Cold Winds, and Lucky Kentucky

“In terms of geography, Invercargill is one of the lowest cities on our planet. It’s known for sheep, oysters, and Antarctic winds. It looks a little bit like Scotland. New Zealand is a beautiful country where they filmed the Lord of the Rings, but it’s kind of a boring place to grow up.

“My father is Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand from the Polynesian race. Hawaiians, Samoans, and people from all over the Pacific islands are Polynesians. Our Polynesians in New Zealand are called Maori. My mum is Pakeha, which means European. In New Zealand, you’re either Maori or Pakeha.

After moving with his family from New Zealand to Australia at age 16 and influenced by American television, Allison decided to travel to the United States.

“With people from Down Under, Australia and New Zealand, it’s almost a rite of passage to see the rest of the world. I think it’s because we’re so isolated from the rest of the world. I wanted to start with America, then move on to Europe,” Allison said.

While traveling through the States, Allison ran out of money and visited an aunt in Kentucky, which proved to be influential in his life in several ways.

His uncle was a Vietnam vet turned police officer who met his aunt while on leave in New Zealand. He helped shape Allison’s way of thinking.

“My uncle said to me, ‘One of the great things about America is the rule of law.’ That stuck with me. The rule of law is a very important right for society. He was a wise man. He was highly educated and a vet. Just listening to his stories was influential for me,” Allison said.

During the last week of his six-month visa, Allison met Jo.

“She was from a little town called Hazard in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. She was literally a coal miner’s daughter. I said, ‘I’ll stay in touch. Please wait for me. I’ll go back to Australia. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get back here. I’ll work three jobs.’ And I did. I thought, well, the best way for me to stay in America is to apply for a student visa at the University of Kentucky, where she was going to school.

“I had to study. I had to take SATs. I had to fly to Sydney and go through a whole bunch of hoops for that to happen. But it happened, and that allowed me to go back to Kentucky and be with her. After six months, we eloped, got married, and moved to Australia.”

Intro to Surveillance

While Willy and Jo were living on the Australian Gold Coast in 1987, the Conrad Hilton Jupiters Hotel and Casino opened, and he applied as a dealer. After a stressful interview with a casino manager, Allison received an offer to work in surveillance.

“They asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about working in surveillance?’ I said, ‘Well, what is that?’ ‘You know,’ they answered, ‘it’s those bubbles on the ceilings.’ Back in those days, they had 18-inch bubbles.

“They said, ‘There are people in them. They watch over the casino, making sure nobody steals and cheats.’

“I said, ‘Okay. That sounds really interesting.’ I got the job. I decided that this was what I wanted to do. What I love about casino surveillance is catching bad guys,” Allison said.

Ambition and the Travel Gene

After four years at Jupiters Hotel and Casino, Allison took on a surveillance position on a high-stakes gaming ship out of Singapore.

“Of all my casino experience, nothing molded me more than working surveillance in that environment. It opened my eyes to the world of Asian high-roller gambling.”

Fueled by ambition, the travel gene, and a supportive wife, Willy took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves in an expanding global industry. Over a 15-year casino operations career, he worked in Australia, Asia, South America, and the United States.

Ultimately, Willy and Jo wound up in Las Vegas, where, thanks to his experience in high-action Asian play, he landed a surveillance job at the Mirage.

“Vegas was trying to move into the world of whales, those massive baccarat players from around the world. The timing, like everything in life, was just right. I got the job.”

While working at the Mirage, Allison quickly realized that owner Steve Wynn enjoyed showing VIP guests his state-of-the-art surveillance room.

“Steve Wynn’s little toy was the surveillance room. He was like, ‘Let’s go up and have a look at my secret room. All these people are watching my money.’ I met Michael Caine, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sidney Poitier. I enjoyed that. You felt like you were an executive working with him.”

After the Mirage, Allison spent time opening Treasure Island as a casino floor supervisor.

“I was part of the opening team. I enjoyed it, but to be honest, I enjoy surveillance better. Surveillance has its fingers in every pie of the whole casino resort operation,” Allison recalled.

Star City

“In 1995, I got the call for my first surveillance director position. It came from my very first mentor. He’d just taken a senior asset-protection role for a management team building the first casino in Sydney. He wanted me to open and run surveillance. I jumped at the chance. My bride was pregnant with our first. This was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“During my six years at Star City, we opened temporary and permanent properties. I have fond memories of my days on the harbor. I learned a lot about project management and took away an everlasting impression of the importance of professionalism, leadership, integrity, and relationships. I also discovered the ‘learning culture.’ Our company was really into education and professional development. They invested in their people. My team and I were always doing training and taking courses. I was honored when, in 1999, they chose me to attend the University of Nevada Reno’s executive-development program. It was a great experience that whet my appetite for continuing education,” Allison wrote in his biography.

Allison moved to Argentina to work in a boutique-casino operation but was forced to leave after the economy tanked. He took a position in sales for an Australian digital recording company. Eventually, starting in 2010, he started his own surveillance consulting company; he spent the next few years consulting on surveillance issues internationally, during which he did 87 two-day seminars.

World Game Protection Conference

I asked Allison where he got the idea for a conference dedicated to game protection.

“One of the things that struck me while I was a sales rep for vendor technology is that America didn’t have a forum, a place, an event to go to see all the technology. There was a gap at that time for the specific niche topic, game protection. There was a need for an expo to bring everyone together in the same place, so that people could compare the products. I saw a lot of operations and I often thought that I could do that better. I thought about education too. At the heart of it, there was a lack of information and education. So I created it. I quit my job and we started the World Game Protection Conference in 2005.

“In February 2006, at our first show, our keynote speaker was Steve Forte, who’s a legend in game protection. He’s the man,” Allison declared.

During the early days, Allison was trying to juggle consulting worldwide with the conference and looked to his wife Jo to produce the show.

“Jo was there for the first one, and I could never do this without her. I’m just the front guy. She’s the one who organizes the show. It keeps getting bigger and more involved. She does all the work.”

Weeks ahead of the World Game Protection Conference in 2020, Las Vegas and the rest of the gaming world shut down, causing a two-year gap without a conference. When it returned in 2022, Allison developed a new format that focused on education and training.

CORE Training

“We added a training component to the conference, a full-track program on what I call ‘foundational topics’ for surveillance, the fundamentals that you should know if you work in the risk and asset-protection side of this business. It consists of eight three-hour seminars. They’re not all surveillance; we have table-games protection, electronic-games protection. It’s called CORE training. CORE stands for Casino Operational Risk Education.”

On the third day of the conference, Allison expands to bring in outside influencers to talk about such relevant topics as money laundering, security, surveillance, compliance, cyberattacks, and human trafficking.

“I like to call it ‘the campfire.’ That’s where we have some panel discussions. We look at hot issues, like sports betting, human trafficking, a bunch of things. We get insiders to sit around and talk about what’s happening in their operations, and hopefully, we can come up with some best practices,” Allison said.

Trending in Asset Protection

I asked Allison about the trends in surveillance and asset protection since he started the conference.

“Technology has changed the world in all sorts of good, bad, and ugly ways. People responsible for asset protection look at the bad ways.

“What’s changed? Social networks. With the amount of misinformation out there, it’s a battle for an educator to convince people to really think about what they’re seeing. An example is the biggest scam this year, the social-engineering cage scam. It’s highly organized, and it’s costing casinos millions.

“This is how the scam works. A group of individuals go online and find out the ins and outs of a casino operation and the specific people who work in it. They target cage supervisors. They call them, usually during the weekend when it’s really busy, and pretend to be their boss.

“They pretend to be the CEO through social engineering, which is the art of conning people. They intimidate them by saying if they don’t get cash immediately, the lights will go out. They get them to put a million dollars in cash from the vault in a bag, walk out of the casino, and meet them in a parking lot miles away.”

The scam is enabled, Allison explains, “by people wearing their lives on their sleeves on social media.” Allison says. A cage employee going on vacation might send out an email listing the name, phone number, and email address of the interim manager. Then, the person temporarily in charge is targeted.

“Every now and then, when you think you’ve seen everything in the business, something new comes along. It’s a sign of the times,” Allison said.

Monitor Room

Allison also publishes an online newsletter called The Monitor Room. “It’s a compilation of news events regarding game protection, security, and risk awareness in casino operations. It’s free, but you have to sign up for it. It’s subscriber based.”

Interested professionals who sign up for the Monitor Room receive a list of 10 news stories featuring reports on security incidents that occurred in the casino world. To the non-compliance/security-trained eye, it’s amazing to see how frequently casinos make the news cycle with incidents of theft, robberies, natural disasters, and much more that demonstrate the need for casinos to pay attention to what can go wrong daily.

“Pan Tilt Zoom”

During the pandemic, Allison again realized that an annual conference would benefit from a more frequent discussion vehicle to fill the gaps. Thus, he created the podcast “Pan Tilt Zoom” with co-host Darrin Hoke.

“It’s a surveillance name. There are two types of surveillance cameras: fixed cameras that sit there looking at one thing and pan-tilt-zoom, or PTZ, cameras. To look this way, we pan. To look that way, we tilt. To zero in, we zoom.”

“Both Darrin and I have over 35 years of global experience. We’re two old surveillance guys, both retired from the game. So we can say whatever we want and how we want, what we think. It’s very rare nowadays because it’s very difficult to get guys behind the scenes and surveillance to say anything.

“We can take a look at what’s going on around the world, dig down, and zoom in on that topic for an hour. First and foremost, it’s educational. What we’re doing is feeding off the Monitor Room. Something big happens in the Monitor Room? We go, okay, let’s have two surveillance guys talk about it. We try to give advice based on what we know, and we try to build it into an educational podcast that comes out every two weeks,” Allison said.

“That brings us back to education. That’s what we are. Right? I’m always trying to produce different ways for getting that message across. It’s a progression. Read the Monitor Room every week and stay aware. Every two weeks, if there’s a topic that you’ve always wondered about, tune into the podcast and you can ask us a question. Once a year, try to attend the World Game Protection Conference. That’s where the big guns are. So it’s a natural progression.”

Willyallison.com

If you want to learn more about Willy Allison’s early days, you can read his highly entertaining autobiographical article on his website, “Willyallison.com.” It’s worth the read.

You can also access the World Game Protection Conference, sign up for the Monitor Room newsletter and Pan Tilt Zoom podcast, read Allison’s articles, and watch videos about surveillance.

Not bad for a bloke from the bottom of the world.


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