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Playing for comps

Jul 27, 2004 4:58 AM

The recent rush toward casino mega-mergers has some players nervous. They view consolidation in the gaming industry as a mixed blessing or even a curse — the simultaneous linking of more properties could lead to fewer player options or — worse — fewer comps.

The Harrah’s-Caesars marriage raises specific player-tracking issues. Harrah’s boasts the country’s most extensive player rewards system while Caesars has a significant grip on the high-roller market (Caesars Palace is probably the only Strip casino 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. And they’re afraid that if counting slot points and rating players becomes a corporate exercise, they’ll soon be paying for their buffet dinners.

At this early stage, there’s no way to predict how the mergers will affect (adversely or otherwise) comps and high-roller play. But players who frequent Las Vegas resorts say good deals should remain 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, Wagner, a Philadelphia native who posts consumer tips on the web as "Miss Craps," says only suckers play just for comps. "If they say you need to play longer to get one and you want to leave, leave. It’s silly to sit for half an hour betting $5 to $25 a hand only to get a comp for two $5 buffets.’’

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

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.

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.’’