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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Casinos Lose with Marketing Experiments

19 July 2005

LAS VEGAS -- The casino promotion looked bizarre enough.

"Ever thought about having a concealed weapon permit?" the beginning of an e-mail to casino customers read. "Now's your chance to do just that."

The e-mail, sent this year by the Avi Resort and Casino in Laughlin, advertised a "concealed weapons certification weekend getaway package" for $149 including a two-night hotel stay, classroom instruction, firing range qualifications and a state gun permit.

The promotion wouldn't have been so bad had it not occurred in a city in which people had been shot and killed inside a casino, Reno-based marketing consultant Dennis Conrad told a group of casino marketing officials gathered for a conference in Las Vegas Monday.

In 2002 three were killed and dozens injured inside another casino, Harrah's Laughlin, when shots were fired between rival biker gangs during the annual biker rally in Laughlin known as the River Run. The incident became the worst casino shooting in state history.

The Avi promotion was one of several Conrad criticized as the worst casino marketing gimmicks devised in the past year, although Conrad didn't name the culprits. Some of the bad marketing efforts had already received negative media attention.

Avi casino representatives did not immediately return phone calls.

During the session, Conrad also revealed what he believed were several of the year's best casino promotions.

Conrad, president of Raving Consulting Co., has critiqued casino promotions each year for the past several years at a marketing conference presented by Ascend Media Gaming Group, a Las Vegas company that also publishes several casino industry trade magazines.

Conrad revealed more success stories than failures at the conference but still said he is surprised by the number of large companies that are "stubbing their toes" with marketing experiments. Overall, he said, casinos are more sensitive to advertising that might offend their customers but the failure rate is still high because of the sheer volume of promotions generated by casinos and the fierce competition for customers.

Another casino promotion said to be in bad taste used a character from the classic children's stories by Beatrix Potter to advertise a gambling event.

The event was entitled "Peter Cottontail in search of the money trail" and included a flyer with a cartoon-like drawing of a bunny rabbit.

Conrad said such promotions can anger not just people who don't like casinos.

"People in your community (will) beat you over the head," he said.

Last year the Tennessee Lottery ran ads that promoted giving lottery tickets as Christmas gifts. The ads featured a puppy and holiday icons and were not only upsetting for religious conservatives but were simply tacky, Conrad said.

Caesars Entertainment Inc., which was swallowed by Harrah's Entertainment Inc. last month, was responsible for at least two of Conrad's worst promotions in the past year. The most notable was a promotion at its Belle of New Orleans riverboat that involved a character called "Loose Slot Louie," who claimed that he had personally loosened up the casino's slot machines by 30 percent.

The promotion backfired when the man hired to play the "Loose Slot Louie" character -- a former rodeo clown -- sued Caesars for $8 million for using his likeness without his permission. Gamblers also are fairly skeptical of promotions that claim to increase slot pay frequency across the board, Conrad said.

"Your customers won't believe you," he said. "It's an expensive and risky experiment. You've got to be prepared to go to the wall with it."

Conrad revealed some examples of savvy marketing pitches and said they generally outnumber the failures.

He praised Harrah's for several of the pitches, including the "Ultimate Girls' Night Out" attraction at the Rio, featuring a lounge next to a Chippendale's theater and another promotion called "Winning will find you" that used GPS chips embedded in winning Coca-Cola cans. Another Harrah's event that scores big with gamblers allows customers to schmooze with casino executives.

Some casinos are pursuing growing trends, he said. Conrad mentioned a cross-marketing strategy between a tribal casino in Oroville, Calif., and the Boomtown Reno casino to attract customers who go back and forth over the Nevada border to gamble.

"If you don't have several relationships (with casinos) in markets where your customers are going, I think you're missing something," Conrad told marketers.

He also praised a poker fantasy camp hosted by professional poker player Howard Lederer at the Palms in Las Vegas, saying it offered a chance for players to network with pros and other perks.

Many casinos are simply putting in poker tables without aggressively capitalizing on the white-hot poker trend, Conrad said.

"People paid about $3,195 each for this event and 156 people showed up. Do the math," he said.

Conrad gave kudos to Internet casino for its goofy, attention-grabbing promotions such as buying space to advertise on a pregnant woman's belly and on a man's forehead.

Among other things, the offshore casino paid $600,000 to name a new species of monkey after its casino and bought a vial of urine that was fished out of the trash and supposedly contains a positive pregnancy test for pop star Britney Spears.

"They have established themselves in a highly competitive environment in ways that are just weird."

He also highlighted a small tribal casino near Coos Bay, Ore., for selling something besides its slot machines.

The Mill Casino began offering landscape art by a tribal artist for sale in its gift shop and advertised the prints on the back of its hotel keys.

Conrad called merchandising "the next wave" in the casino business. Customers are interested in buying things associated with the casinos they visit besides the usual gifts, such as dealer uniforms, he said.

Selling such items will become more important "as markets mature and we find it harder and harder" to compete for gambling dollars, he said.