Casino cops targeting customer thieves

Jun 24, 2008 7:02 PM

Gaming Insider by Phil Hevener | So much for so-called time honored traditions … as in casino hosts grabbing customer lists as they go out the door, heading from one job to the next.

Times seem to be changing, or are they? Perhaps it is a matter of degrees.

It’s not cool any more, to paraphrase the explanation of a veteran casino boss, who says those in charge have been rethinking attitudes on the subject. The process has been helped along by certain landmark moments such as Donald Trump hiring a senior executive away from Steve Wynn in the early 1990s. A lot of noisy and extended legal action ensued before everyone involved eventually got back to being best friends.

No one wants to get involved in one of those messy situations, not that the flurries of legal actions and threatening letters has slowed the efforts of casino hosts to maintain their "personal" lists.

But last week’s New Jersey action offered a view of the attitudes associated with the business of reaching out to players and protecting anything that a casino sees as an edge. Three former Atlantic City Tropicana executives have been indicted on state charges they left the Trop with customer lists containing more than 20,000 names, a list worth more than – now hold on to your hat – $100 million.

"What?! That’s crazy," sputtered a casino industry veteran who offered some thoughts on the case with the condition that he not be identified. "I would not pay a nickel for a list that must have been as old as this one was."

Another casino executive couldn’t resist a smirk at that thinking. "Ask him how much he might pay for a current list."

But reality being what it is, both men agreed many, maybe even most of the names on the Tropicana list are probably duplicated in the databases at any number of other casinos.

And one of them added, "I don’t want to talk to a host who tells me he has a big list from his last employer. Something like that tells me he’ll do the same when he leaves me."

But haven’t casino marketing people or hosts always been hired on the basis of their customer lists? And how does any one casino claim exclusive rights to any one customer? And what’s okay and what is not okay?

Atlantic City veteran Roger Wagner gave the Tropicana situation some thought before saying, "A personal Rolodex with a few hundred names in it is one thing, but 20,000 names, well . . . (he gives it a chuckle) that’s probably a little over the top. I don’t think any host anywhere could claim to have that many names in his little black book."

Veteran casino executive Vic Vickrey agreed. "People have been doing this for years, but what those fellas probably did was take too many names."

Dean Harrold, a veteran of high-level gaming positions in both Atlantic city and Nevada, who now runs Las Vegas-based Olympia Gaming, admits to a personal familiarity with both sides of the issue.

He remembers recognizing customers at the Philadelphia airport, people who were headed for an Atlantic City competitor. What he might do was extend a friendly arm and steer the customer toward a waiting limo that whisked him off to whomever was Harrold’s employer at the time.

All the customer cared about was the best deal he could find.

There are even stories of hosts riding the Concorde looking to meet customers on their way to Atlantic City. That sounds like a pricey bit of casino marketing, but it was part of an anecdote that came my way several years ago.

There’s been a lot of marketing money spent chasing a finite group of people.

Former Tropicana chairman Paul Rubeli told me of running into a good customer of the resort during a busy fight weekend in Atlantic City. He asked if the player needed a room. The player said, no, he was just fine, thank you, he had rooms at four casinos and proceeded to pull the keys out of his pocket and showed them to Rubeli who hid his surprise as he told the player to have a good time.

More recently, Harrold found himself considering the prospect of legal action against a host who jumped ship and took a lot of proprietary information, including the gambling and credit histories of customers.

"Customers were wondering how their personal information got into the hands of this other casino."

It’s a casino war, and all’s fair. We’ll see if Atlantic City attacks on a new front.