Cashing on comps

May 23, 2005 5:10 AM

The recent rush toward casino mega-mergers has some players nervous. They view consolidation in the gaming industry as both a blessing and a curse — simultaneous linking of more properties but affording fewer options in the process.

And the soon-to-be-completed Harrah’s-Caesars marriage raises many issues. Harrah’s boasts the country’s most extensive player rewards system while Caesars has a death grip on the high-roller market (Caesars Palace is one of the few Strip casinos that still generates more revenue at the tables than with its slots.)

Can the wedding of two divergent philosophies form a lasting union? For many players, comps are a way of life. But the business of counting slot points and rating players has gone corporate.

There’s no way to predict how the mergers will affect (adversely or otherwise) comps and high-roller play. But players who enjoy casinog gaming say good deals are out there just for the asking.

"Always ask for comps," advises Terry Wagner. "You never know when they will give them to you, and usually you’ll easily get comps for buffets and coffee shops with only one to two hours of play at, say, $5 average bets. At worst they will say, ”˜Sorry, you have to play some more.’"

By the same token, only suckers play just for comps

"If they say you need to play longer to get one and you want to leave, leave," Wagner says. "It’s silly to sit for half an hour betting $5 to $25 a hand to get a comp for two $9 buffets.’’

"Some of those ”˜free’ T-shirts you see around town actually cost people $2,000," adds one longtime local casino player.

Comp policies vary widely from casino to casino. Sometimes they even differ within a single chain of hotels. And the rules, ultimately, are flexible.

"It’s an arbitrary area. It depends totally on the player and the situation," said a PR specialist on the Las Vegas Strip.

Aside from slot club guidelines, which are spelled out in detail, casinos guard comp policies as state secrets. Information on player demographics and the number of cardholders is "proprietary," that is, something even stockholders will never see.

"That would be revealing our database," said one gaming executive.

Nonetheless, the competition for high-end players has lifted the veil somewhat.

Two sets of high-roller suites — the Mansions at MGM Grand and the Villas at Bellagio — have been featured in news and television reports. These exclusive pads, ranging up to 12,000 square feet, are available gratis to million-dollar gamblers. MGM even furnishes one well-heeled player with a $200,000 Ferrari 456M.

Industry sources estimate there are no more than 1,000 high rollers who merit such pampering. So the real action is focused on lighter wallets. The Las Vegas Hilton, for example, raised a few eyebrows when it downscaled its Sky Villas, opening them to $250,000 players.

Think ”˜link’

In the meantime, resorts are enticing gamblers to up their bets. Harrah’s has perhaps the most sophisticated network of players clubs that offer progressively more perks based on play. One tier gives retail discounts and priority access to rooms and shows. Another level adds priority check-in and preferred restaurant and seating. A third brings personal VIP hosts, free room upgrades and show tickets.

Seamlessly linking its resorts across the country, Harrah’s allows players to accumulate points and move up in the comp standings. The company also has corporate tie-ins with Visa card, Hertz and others companies where outside purchases net additional credits.

Station Casinos also links its properties with its Boarding Pass program. "Harrah’s is the national model, we’re the local model,’’ says a casino manager at Palace Station.

But bigger doesn’t always mean better. Amid ongoing consolidation, comps vary widely — even among the same corporate properties. Wagner played dollar slots at Harrah’s for two hours and received a $15 food comp. Six hours of equivalent play at the Rio yielded more than $100 in food comps and $30 cash.

Players say it’s important to get on mailing lists to maximize comp potential. Locals, who often get different offers than out-of-towners, routinely receive coupons for three- or four-times slot points. Out-of-towners, meantime, may get coupon sheets good for $25 plus free dinners and free rooms.

To get on the gravy train, table players, including video keno players, should ask to be rated whenever and wherever they sit down. Veteran bettors say the request should be made to the floor person/pit boss who works behind the dealer.

Join the club

Whatever the game and wherever the property, savvy bettors advise joining the slot club first. Even for non-slot players, that gets you onto comp lists. And some of those lists have a long shelf life.

For instance, you may never sit down at a slot machine, but it’s possible you’ll get in the mail coupons for free or two-for-one meals, or invitations to play in free tournaments.

Slot experts recommend getting sets of two or more cards and giving one to a friend or spouse. Players will also put their extra card into an adjacent machine; if someone sits down without a card they’re playing for them.

Historically, casinos have varied widely in their comp policies. Sometimes it seems that being player-friendly is a cyclical thing. At the best places, even the most moderate bettors can pile up free food, drink and rooms without breaking a sweat.

Yet with merger deals spinning faster than the reels on a slot machine, a good play today could be a bust tomorrow.

"I think that all casinos are tightening up,’’ says an official with the International Casino Players Association, a loose alliance of 15,000 bettors, many of whom don’t think twice about wagering $5,000 a day.

The source, who requested anonymity, added, "With increased competition from the Indian casinos in California and other areas, the casinos should be making it easier to get comps and reduce the hold on the machines to allow customers to play longer and have a good time so that they will come back.’’

While casinos rarely discuss details of their comp programs and payouts, every gambler has a first-hand opinion. The consensus is that downtown and smaller casinos are far more liberal on comps; for instance, four hours of table play at $25 per bet will land a free room while upscale resorts require $50 to $100 bets.

But wherever you bet, bicoastal players say pit bosses in Las Vegas tend to write comps more quickly — and for less — than in Atlantic City.

"On average, based on win per day, a slot machine pays for itself in 100 days,’’ said a casino insider. "For the rest of its useful life, it’s gravy. Basically, the longer you sit in front of one, the more you lose. Next to prostitution, it’s the world’s greatest business. There is no other business in world where people budget money to lose to you.’’