When you qualify for a PokerStars Championship or Festival, or just buy in, and get to the venue, there's no mistaking you're in the right place.
When you enter, the place is lavish with PokerStars logos. Banners left and right, huge PokerStars spade logo stickers on every other wall and every TV around shows an animation with PokerStars chips spinning around.
If you reach the right door, a massive registration desk awaits. There are separate lines for qualifiers, people that still need a PS Live card, and there's an information desk.
There are TV screens that display the schedule or tell you where your table is. In the tournament room, you'll find tournament clocks on beamers and TV screens, and turning on your Wi-Fi lets you connect to the special players network for free internet.
"It's just about being organised, and I'm definitely organised."
For all of that to become a reality, PokerStars has event managers. For events in Latin America, the United States and the Bahamas, that's Maria Paula Montero. Montero is one of the earliest employees of PokerStars, having worked for the company for 13 years.
Initially, she was a manager at support, coordinating with a team of support staff. When Black Friday hit, the company had to make some shifts and a lot of people made horizontal moves to new positions within the company. Montero applied for the position of event manager within the PokerStars Live team and got the job.
Going in, she didn't have any experience.
"I studied law and graphic design, so that has nothing to do with what I do now," she said. "My boss at the time thought it was something I could learn because it's just about being organised, and I'm definitely organised."
After countless events in countries all over Latin America, Montero is as experienced as can be nowadays. While she's trained, that doesn't mean it's an easy job.
Before the players get to a location or have even heard about an event taking place, there's a months-long process she goes through.
Today, in PokerNews Behind the Scenes, Montero gives us a glimpse of what it takes to set up a big live event.
A New Destination
PokerStars has already hosted a lot of events in the destinations that the PokerStars Championship and PokerStars Festival events now go to. Panama, for example, has already been the destination for five LAPT events. But if a destination is truly new, a lot goes into the planning.
It all starts with a business market investigation to see what the region is like. The first criteria is whether or not poker and poker tournaments are regulated in the region.
If poker is regulated, the next big question is how large the poker market is. From there, Montero examines if there is a strong local player base to make the events more successful and then considers the hotels, the infrastructure and the neighbourhood to make sure players can find enjoyment outside of poker.
The Live events team figures out the laws that are in place in a country, sees what the tax situation is like, and determines the costs for importing and exporting things. This all takes place well over a year before an event is scheduled to start, as these things tend to take time.
"They really want us to come to their hotels and casinos to host our events."
When that investigation concludes and that city or region is found to be a viable option, they make a pros and cons list.
"For example, a big pro for Panama was that they have the USD here, so the majority of people won't have to go to a currency exchange," Montero explained.
From there, the team starts looking at specific venues. One of the most important things for the venue to have is a casino license as PokerStars partners with them to help them host the events under their license.
"The hotel can be beautiful and the food can be great, but the casino and gaming side of things is also of extreme importance when making a decision," Montero said.
Most of the times, just a couple of venues meet those first requirements. Then, the meetings start.
"We contact them with our plans and ask them if they're interested," she said. "Usually, we already have dates in mind in accordance with our calendar. We ask them if they have space available and go from there."
Usually at this point, the casinos are competing for a slot.
"They really want us to come; they're fighting over us," Montero said. "It gives you an advantage when negotiating.
"It's like when you have a bunch of guys that all want to date you," she continued with a smile.
As part of the negotiations, Montero, together with tournament director Mike Ward and business developer James White, visits the venues.
"We check everything from the rooms and room service to F&B and we pay special attention to the internet and facilities," she said.
Just the venue being commendable isn't enough; the surrounding area needs to be in order as well.
"There need to be enough restaurants in the neighbourhood and enough other facilities," Montero said. "Those things add up; they come for the poker but it's an all-in experience. If the poker is good but the hotel is bad, players aren't leaving with positive thoughts. If the hotel is super good, but the poker isn't good, same thing."
"They come for the poker but it's an all-in experience."
As the team decides on a specific venue, they take a closer look at all the details. Montero and Ward see how many tables they can fit and how many rooms they can use.
They inspect the rooms, see if the food is up to par, and see what kind of support is available from the hotel during the event.They also have to make sure the breakfast runs till later than 9 a.m., since poker players work long days and won't get up too early.
"From there we make a decision of which hotel we're going with," she said.
While PokerStars, for example, has hosted three LAPT events in the Sortis Resort in Panama City before, with the event now being a PokerStars Championship event, there are a lot of new things to consider.
"I have to work with the hotel very closely and manage our expectations and requirements," Montero said. "We can have 100 players or 400 or 500 players and we need to be prepared for both situations."
Hosting Poker Tournaments is Expensive
In the case of PokerStars Championship Panama, a lot of things involved with setting up an event like this do cost money. The staff PokerStars brings over need work permits, and once there, they must consider branding, inventory costs (taking into account imports and exports) and the 110-megabyte dedicated internet connection.
Put the hotel rooms for staff and their meals up top, and the bill grows even more.
In Europe, PokerStars has one set of everything: cards, tables, branding, chips, computers and a whole lot more. When an event wraps up, all that is loaded into a truck that drives it to the next stop, from Barcelona to London to Marbella and Prague, to name just a few of the PokerStars destinations. In Latin America, it doesn't work that way.
"Here it would be more expensive to have a truck and transfer the things from Chile to Uruguay to Panama and what not; the taxes are too high," she explained. "So I have a set in every place."
PokerStars has storage units in every country they host an event in and have separate sets of everything for each location. That means, for most of the year, the inventory is in a warehouse somewhere, and it only comes out when the tour comes to town again.
As soon as you enter a PokerStars Championship or PokerStars Festival hotel, there's no mistaking you're in the right spot.
In most cases, the venue has been redesigned entirely with PokerStars banners everywhere and the PokerStars logo on each and every pillar.
"Branding is such an important part of our events," Montero said. "It's part of the very early stages of setting up an event."
When Maria visits a new venue, she takes a camera with her and snaps hundreds of photos. She sends all of them over to the PokerStars Studio in charge of creating visuals, together with the floor plan she receives from the venue.
Everything the player sees on their journey from the entrance to the tournament room is covered.
The studio then creates a mock-up version, based on those photos.
"I show that mock-up to the venue to see what is OK and what's not," she said.
The next step is taking exact measurements with a digital measurement tool, so that all the banners and branding fit perfectly. The production of all the banners and branding is in the hands of an Argentinian company called Sasami, who PokerStars has been working closely with for years.
"The studio sends me the high-resolution files and Sasami produces everything and sets everything up," Montero said.
"Being event manager in this region of the world is a bit different compared to some other places."
The PokerStars Championship Panama started March 10 and ran through March 20.
Montero arrived March 4 and didn't leave until at least three days after the championship concluded. On March 5, Montero and a team from Sasami worked together with Ward and the IT team. As the start of the event approached, more staff came in to help set everything up.
As the event went on, Montero oversaw that everything ran smoothly with the event: the casino and the hotel. The poker part is up to the tournament director, registration is up to colleague Julio Chavez, but everything else is pretty much Montero's responsibility.
Most of the time, it's smooth sailing, but hiccups do occur.
By now, Montero knows the ropes and, without trying to jinx it, says she hasn't had major problems in the last couple of years. She has seen it all though.
"I've had cards being delivered five minutes before the tournament started, not enough chips, branding that for some reason got wet, lights that were burned. We've had all sorts of issues," she said. “Being event manager in this region of the world is a bit different compared to some other places.”
At this point, it's a well-oiled machine that rolls out events following a strict procedure. The trick, Montero said, is to buy more time than needed.
"If I need a company to take stuff to the casino and I really need it by the 10th of March, I'll tell them I need it by the 10th of February," she said. "I'm always buying myself more time."
Montero takes every precaution and has a backup plan for everything, even a local supplier on speed dial if the initial contractor doesn't come through.
When any festival is ongoing, Montero is always available during the events to support all the different areas. When she finally gets home, she sleeps for a full day. But after that, a new event awaits.
"The players are always first and foremost our attention."
Soon preparations for the next PokerStars Championship Bahamas will get underway again. Despite some
disgruntled players voicing their disapproval of the Atlantis Resort this year, the venue will return to the schedule next year; PokerStars still has a contract.
"Yes, we're going back to Atlantis next year for sure," she said. "PokerStars has always done a really good job in listening to players, pleasing players and trying to make that they have the best experience. We do everything based on that.
Players are PokerStars' first priority.
"We're constantly making a conscious effort and ask ourselves what we can do to make them come back," she said. "The players are always first and foremost our attention. We work very hard to give them the best experience."
For what concerns the schedule of PokerStars Championships, Montero said it's a constant learning experience.
Starting times, guarantees, venues:
everything is up for review. "We'll be constantly reflecting on what works and what doesn't," she said. "Our minds are open to new things."
Next up for Montero after PokerStars Championship Panama was the PokerStars Festival in Chili May 22-27.
After that, the first event listed on the PokerStars live website Montero is responsible for is the PokerStars Festival in Uruguay in September.
More announcements are coming.
"You guys will hear from us soon," Montero promised. "There's much more to come, so stay tuned!"
* Photos of Maria Paula Montero by Neil Stoddart, branding photos by Carlos Monti and René Velli