Touch of 'Old Vegas' needed for casinos to survive

Feb 5, 2013 3:01 AM

Special to GamingToday

Though some may debate how much of a gambler a casino operator should be, few would argue the most successful casinos were founded by inveterate gamblers.

Benny Binion was a poker player. Jackie Gaughan was a bookmaker. William Harrah and Steve Wynn both started in bingo. As their operations grew, many sold their gaming operations to corporations. And though these corporations have now become the largest gaming companies in the world, it is open to debate whether their visitors enjoy a better experience.

With the rise of the corporation and the computer in gaming, the personal touch that built these conglomerates has been buried under tons of data, numbers and cold statistics. It is imperative to look beyond the numbers if these companies are to survive in today’s competitive field. With the advent of online gaming, now is the time for these companies to revisit their roots. Their very survival may depend on it.

As I stated in my first article, numbers are what built Vegas, but if you want to reach the next level, you need to look beyond numbers. The customer is the soul of any business, and the visionaries of the gaming industry understood that. In the 80’s, Mel Exber, the long-time owner of the Las Vegas Club, did something that has stood out among my gaming experiences.

Mel was on the floor every day greeting his customers in the sports book. When he saw I was tying up his window, he personally came up with a solution. He opened a private window for me every Sunday at 9 a.m. to bet. That kind of personal touch is rare today.

On the opposite end of the customer service spectrum, I saw a customer ask for a comp for a drink in the newly-opened Venetian Race and Sports Book operated by Cantor Gaming, and I watched as the supervisor of the sports book pulled out a ticket to fill out. It took a couple of minutes, and two people had to be involved – the supervisor and the ticket writer.

I could see the expression on the customer’s face. This is an example of the disconnect created between the customer and casino staff in the modern-day casino. It seems like a bean counter hidden in some office in another state created this rule because anyone who understood the psychology of gamblers would never implement a procedure expedient for the business at the expense of the customer experience. Another episode I will never forget occurred at Foxwoods.

The president of the property personally met my limousine and opened my door for me. I have been in casinos all over the world, and this gesture still stands out to this day. It showed this casino executive put extraordinary effort into making his customers feel special. He gave me a key to the VIP room, and I was treated like a king. This was unheard of for someone who was just a poker player. The power of personal touch cannot be overstated.

Let’s go back to the sports book for another situation where the over reliance on the computer perpetuates this disconnect between the casino and the customer. Say a customer walks up and bets $5,000 on one game.

The ticket writer and sports book manager love this ticket and treat this bettor like royalty. He always asks for a comp and gets it, but the player behind him who bets the same amount but spreads his money between horses and parlays is an action guy worth far more than the professional bettor who bet only $5,000 on one game.

This is where understanding the psychology of gamblers comes in. If you can fill your casino with these action players, you will be a great success. They are more valuable to you than the professional bettors because they are not trying to beat you. They are having a good time spending money in your casino. But on the computer screen, these two players may look the same.

Human intuition is required to distinguish the two. This is how the computer can come between the customer and the casino. Without using common sense to look beyond the numbers, these action players are often overlooked to the detriment of the casino’s bottom line.

Technology can never replace human intuition, and this is why. Say there are 2,500 hundred rooms in a hotel and 4,000 people on the property. The goal is to turn the customers already in that casino into lifelong visitors. All casinos have high-tech marketing software that puts all their customers’ data at their fingertips – what games they play, where they are from, etc.

But you have to go beyond the numbers to mine this treasure-trove of information. For example, if a property is in Las Vegas, California addresses are invaluable. The visitor who is there for a one-time visit is not as valuable as the player from Fresno, California. Casinos need to do a better job at harnessing the power of geographical data to target their customers. Information without action is useless.

Imagine the power of personally calling the customer while he is still on property and offering him a free room on his next visit instead of just sending an impersonal email when he gets home. In this technology age, players are bombarded with email offers from casinos daily; you want him to delete those other offers.

There are three parts to a customer: the acquisition, the stay and the departure. However, most casinos just concentrate on one – getting them to the casino. It is essential to concentrate on all three, especially the departure. Most people check out on Sunday, but most senior-level executives are off on the weekend, and by their absence they are missing a vital opportunity to nurture a personal relationship with their players. These executives think the same thing: I will look at the numbers on Monday and send them a thank you card.

Most are unwilling to make the extra effort to meet personally with their customers on a Sunday. I propose the exit is the most overlooked part of the customer experience, but by focusing personal attention at the departure, casinos can turn a visitor into a lifetime customer.

Here is a perfect example: A player loses $10,000 after 40 hours into his stay. It is now Sunday morning and he wants to have breakfast, but he has no comps left. The casino host has to be able to look beyond the numbers and recognize the player’s future value. This player is already in the house.

According to the computer, he has used all his comps, but he lives three hours away and based on his annual income of $200,000-300,000, he can visit a few times a year. Does the host look beyond what the computer says and use her judgment to extend him another comp? What she does at this stage of this customer’s visit is vital in turning him into a lifer.

That is why I say the exit strategy is even more important than the arrival. If customers are the soul of a business, employees are the heart. When Caesars World was one of the most successful casino operations of its time, Kirk Kerkorian raided their corporate staff, most notably Bob Moon and the late Terry Lanni.

Hiring Terry was a brilliant move because he was a person who understood the psychology of gamblers. He loved the horses. I had the pleasure of working during Terry Lanni’s tenure at the MGM. And like Steve Wynn, he was a visionary because he understood how to look beyond the numbers.

These executives are experts in recruiting and developing the best and brightest who can implement their vision. When a player has a special request, the percentage of no’s usually outweighs the yes’s. But the yes people are the ones who can drive a casino’s growth.

To develop these employees, casinos not only have to have the usual incentives, but they need to create an escalating reward or bonus system for those hosts who can drive repeat business. Executive management has to recognize and develop the yes people who can look beyond the numbers and empower them to do whatever it takes to add that personal touch to turn visitors into loyal customers. This can make the difference between the success and failure of a casino.

The computer has been a boon to the casino industry. Casinos now have a wealth of information at their fingertips. But what has been lost is the human touch and passion that built them, and they have been replaced by a relentless drive for profits and efficiency.

At what cost? The computer transformed gaming once. Today it is on the verge of revolutionizing the way people gamble forever. And the brick-and-mortar casino will never be the same.

Robert Turner, a legendary poker player and billiard marketing expert with over 30 years of experience in the gaming industry, is best known for inventing and creating Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and California in 1986.

Turner also created Legends of Poker for Bicycle Casino and the National Championship of Poker for Hollywood Park Casino, both in 1995; World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker, in 2000, and Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002. He is an expert in both casino and online gaming marketing and player development.

Currently, he is working with his new companies Crown Digital Games, developing entertaining and engaging apps across all platforms, and Vision Poker, a poker marketing and managing group. Robert Turner can be reached at [email protected].

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