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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

New Loyalty Cards Show Allure of Local High-Limit Gamblers

1 December 2004

High-rollers at upscale Strip resorts are accustomed to lavish meals and accommodations along with tickets to shows, boxing matches and other perks.

Station Casinos Inc. and Harrah's Entertainment Inc., known for aggressive marketing programs but not high-end luxuries, have recently upped the ante by creating upper echelon loyalty cards that single out people for VIP treatment. In exchange, players in both programs are gambling tens of thousands of dollars per person per year based on how much area slot machines typically pay and keep.

Unlike other typical casino promotions, the cards were introduced quietly and without fanfare to certain customers rather than via mass mailings, posters or banners.

The programs are another sign of the burgeoning high-limit audience in Las Vegas, which isn't confined to the Strip and is likely fueled by an influx of well-off retirees, said Jeffrey Compton, a casino consultant in Las Vegas.

"There is a high-limit audience in this town," he said.

Casinos are taking pains to keep high-rollers happy, which is tricky because gamblers may wander to a competitor after they have enjoyed all the best a company has to offer, Compton said.

"They can get bored," he said. "They've slept in all their rooms and they've eaten in all their restaurants."

About six months ago, Station Casinos introduced a fifth level in the company's "Boarding Pass" loyalty card program. The card, which is called the "Chairman," has already attracted nearly 200 players who qualify for the kind of perks that aren't typically reserved for local gamblers. Such players can receive limo service to and from any Station casino, seating in "private" viewing areas of movie theaters and VIP tickets to any live event at a Station property, among other things.

Chairman card holders must accumulate at least $750,000 in points every three months to keep up their membership in the high-roller club.

Those points equal dollars gambled, including winnings, over time on slot machines or at table games. The amount players are expected to lose to the casinos likely varies widely, though players in the Station program could be losing from $90,000 to $180,000 per year, on average, based on Gaming Control Board statistics showing that some slot machines in Las Vegas can keep from 3 percent to 6 percent or more of gambler bets.

Players gambling on higher-limit slots at $5, $10 or $25 at a pop can quickly accumulate points, Compton said.

A player betting a $10 machine that plays five "coins" at a time is betting about 500 hands an hour at $50 a hand, he said. That means the player would only have make five trips to the casino per month playing for two hours per trip, he said.

That's still a surprising amount of action for a locals casino, said John Robison, author of "Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots."

The 2001 opening of the company's Green Valley Ranch Station casino in Henderson, the most upscale Station property to date, may be attracting more high-limit players to the table than in the past, Robison said.

Players move up the five Boarding Pass levels based on how much they gamble and how frequently, which entitles them to more perks such as free meals and points to gamble with. Chairman card holders are entitled to around $1,000 worth of points each month, Station spokeswoman Gina Lateef said.

Harrah's Entertainment Inc. introduced its "Seven Stars" program over the summer. The tier, which now contains more than 5,000 players, marks the fourth loyalty card in the company's "Total Rewards" system.

After several years of having a three-tiered system, Harrah's decided to introduce a higher level after its highest level, called "Diamond," became too broad, Harrah's spokesman David Strow said.

"We wanted to make sure that the customers at the very top received an unprecedented level of customer service," he said.

Players must accumulate at least 100,000 credits per year to qualify for the Seven Stars program compared with only 10,000 points for the Diamond level. Gamblers earn one credit for every $5 gambled in a slot machine or every $10 in a video poker machine.

At least 1,000 players have joined the program since it started, Strow said.

"As soon as these players stick their card into a machine, hosts will know about it and they will receive personal service immediately," Strow said. "They don't have to wait in line for anything."

The exclusivity of such cards is part of their allure, Robison said.

Customers may similarly covet the elusive American Express credit card for big spenders known as the "Centurion," he said.

At Station Casinos, service remains the primary draw, Lateef said.

"People love their points but it's more about the treatment you get when you hold the higher level card -- your host greeting you by name, getting preferred seating at restaurants, getting your favorite meal," she said.

"You don't have to spend millions of dollars in our casinos to be treated like a VIP like you do on the Strip," she said.

Most well-run slot clubs eventually "go platinum" to make customers feel more appreciated, Compton said. Having a personal touch is the most important part of that relationship, he said.

"It's not just being Santa Claus with a comp book, it's knowing who (players) are and treating them like human beings," he said. "If you start to take your best customers for granted you will lose them."

New Loyalty Cards Show Allure of Local High-Limit Gamblers is republished from