Heralding the holidays
Heralding the holidays
Traffic-boosting promotions and events help some properties avoid the Christmas blues
In years past, the casino industry during the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas resembled Death Valley on a summer's day-not a living soul in sight. Customers had more on their minds-family gatherings, holiday shopping, office parties, and charitable endeavors-than gaming entertainment.
Other than hanging a few holiday decorations and making a few charitable donations to the local community, casino managers traditionally took those days to reduce staffing levels and scale back marketing efforts. In most instances the resources were conserved and centered on large New Year's Eve and New Year's Day celebrations when customer traffic returned. Indeed, although Las Vegas averages 2.6 million visitors each November and December, the bulk arrives in early November for large conventions and late December for New Year's.
"Traditionally, there was never really much activity during the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "It was always slow enough that casinos took the time to refurbish showrooms or perform other maintenance to their properties and gear up for New Year's."
In today's hyper-competitive casino environment however, properties can no longer afford such down periods, and marketing personnel are scrambling to come up with traffic-boosting promotions and events. Most admit that this is no easy task. Mark Birtha, the director of casino marketing at The Venetian in Las Vegas, said the two to three weeks prior to Christmas are the most challenging marketing period for the resort.
"We look at that time as a chance to do some creative things for our customers because we're usually so busy the rest of the year," Birtha said. "We'll do a 'Tournament of Champions' and bring all our slot club winners back to determine an overall champion. We look at those weeks as an opportunity."
Dennis Conrad, a casino marketing specialist, said properties have two trains of thought during the slow holiday season-make some cosmetic showings or market aggressively.
"Some places would cut back on staffing levels, have a Christmas tree lighting ceremony and make some charitable donations to be a good corporate citizen," Conrad said. "Others might do some sort of promotion with a Christmas theme, offering cash prizes and do certain events just to fill up otherwise empty rooms. Even with these two extremes, there were always properties that did promotions that were everything in between. The holidays have always been a tough time to market."
Conrad said that in decades past, Las Vegas casinos tried several approaches to fill rooms during the holidays. One promotion targeted customers who normally wouldn't receive complimentary room nights by offering them free lodging while they competed in daily slot tournaments, all of which carried a holiday theme. He said the rooms would have gone empty otherwise and the customers received value for their loyalty.
One local-oriented Las Vegas casino, Conrad recalled, offered free gift-wrap services to slot club customers when they visited the properties. Other properties offer buffet specials, such as Hanukkah-themed buffets to entice Jewish customers.
"You can't compete with Santa Claus," Conrad said. "You try and do things as a way of saying 'thank you' to the community and your loyal customers."
Targeting the loyal
Restaurant discounts, two-for-one packages, special room rates and large jackpot reward possibilities were several ways Amy Fanter would entice customers to visit Lake Tahoe casinos over the holidays. A former casino marketing executive and now a promotions writer, Fanter said holiday offers need to be special and appeal to a casino's loyal customer base.
Fanter said December offers various ways to entertain and reward both customers and employees. Some players, she said, appreciate the chance to win or redeem points for holiday-type gifts. In a recent newsletter put out by Conrad's Raving Consulting Company, Fanter authored 31 ways to generate holiday promotions that not only make customers and players feel good, but will generate additional handle.
Such ideas include having managers write personal notes to good customers, operate a canned food drive, sponsor a toy give-away to needy families or offer holiday-themed gaming and food promotions.
"You need to make it a killer offer, one that will get bodies into the door," Fanter said. "The holidays are the right time to be generous with various offers and giveaways. Especially to your loyal crowd."
For smaller, locals-oriented properties, such as in the South, Midwest and in non-tourism based areas, the holidays mark a perfect time to give loyal patrons a reason to visit, either via holiday promotions, food specials or gaming enhancements. Jennifer Lund, a principal with Lund & Manasse Advertising in Las Vegas, said smaller casinos could offer incentives during the holidays without going to tremendous expense.
"In the smaller, more remote casinos, the holidays are a great time to give customers special opportunities," Lund said. "It doesn't make sense to advertise outside of the casino. It's best to spread the word from within and to your loyal database."
Lund's company operates a Web-based advertising site, www.myinhouseagency.com, where smaller casinos can design their own marketing posters to be used throughout the property.
Relying on retail
Another aspect that has helped Las Vegas during the slow November-December period is shopping. Several resorts-The Venetian, Caesars Place, Aladdin included-have destination retail shopping malls that attract customers during the holiday shopping season.
Ralenkotter said shopping, which ranks as the second-highest non-gaming expenditure by Las Vegas visitors, ties in with the holiday theme, as have the attitudes of today's casino customer. Many people, he said, use the long Thanksgiving weekend as time for a quick getaway.
"The shopping experience has helped shape the Las Vegas brand and the quality of shopping offered here that, along with the rodeo and the bowl game [see sidebar], have given people reasons to travel during what had been slow periods," Ralenkotter said.
During the holidays, large shopping malls can serve as an additional arm for the casino's marketing department. The Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian helps the property fill rooms during the slow period with its weeklong Carnevale celebration, which includes holiday-related activities.
Dawn Britt, entertainment manager for the Grand Canal Shoppes, said the holidays are actually the slow period for the mall because the customer base is more tourist-oriented. However, working with the Venetian's casino marketing department helps bring in casino customers, while the mall also markets to local audiences during that time. Casino marketing at the Venetian works with the mall and other aspects of the property-restaurants and the Canyon Ranch Spa-to create an overall experience for
Atlantic City has also caught the retail bug with properties such as the Tropicana and Caesars adding high-end shopping attractions. The result could increase customer traffic during the holidays.
"When Caesars Palace added the Forum Shops, everyone said no one would go to the Strip to shop," said Dennis Gomes, president of resort operations for Aztar Corporation. "Obviously, this hasn't been the case and I think we're going to see the same benefits in Atlantic City."
Bucking the trend
Casinos take advantage of special events like the National Finals Rodeo to ramp up holiday business
Twenty years ago, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and several of the major Las Vegas Strip and downtown resorts banded together to lure the National Finals Rodeo away from Oklahoma City. The 10-day event has long been considered the "Super Bowl" of professional rodeo, crowning individual and all-around champions.
The rodeo has been a holiday season boom for Las Vegas since, averaging some 175,000 visitors annually during the 10-day run in early December. The rodeo also brings along the yearly PRCA convention and the Cowboy Christmas Show, a holiday shopping bonanza. The influx of country western fans associated with the National Finals Rodeo allowed Las Vegas showrooms to remain open.
"What the rodeo did was to bring a lot of activity to Las Vegas during an otherwise extremely slow time period," said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the LVCVA. "It's changed much over these past 20 years. There, casinos do a lot more promotions and the rodeo was a major turning point in allowing Las Vegas to market toward customers in the month of December."
Other special events can help drive business as well.
In 1992, Las Vegas added a college football bowl game in the weeks following the rodeo. Teams from the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences compete and the game averages about 20,000 attendees, giving another marketing boost to the community's resorts. Followers of the participating schools will make the trip if teams are in geographically amenable locations, such as the 2003 game pitting Oregon State versus New Mexico.