At 47, Ginny Shanks has a youthful appearance, a sweet smile and a courteous demeanor.
She also has keen perceptions and a very sharp mind. No wonder that in her 25 year career at Harrah’s Entertainment, she progressed from a junior executive with the company’s Reno’s in-house advertising agency to its most senior corporate marketing executive.
When Shanks started her Harrah’s career in the early 1980s, the corporation operated only four casinos. Nearly a quarter century later, thanks in part to her efforts, Harrah’s has become the world’s largest gaming company, generating more than $7 billion in yearly revenue through the operation of 50 casinos worldwide, including Caesars Palace, Flamingo and Bally’s in Las Vegas and Harrah’s, the Showboat, Caesars Atlantic City and Bally’s in Atlantic City, N.J.
During her time at Harrah’s, Shanks was responsible for maximizing value of the company’s key strategic brands - Caesars, Harrah’s, Horseshoe, the World Series of Poker and the company’s extremely successful Total Rewards player loyalty program. In addition to serving as the architect for Harrah’s corporate brand strategy, she oversaw sports and entertainment marketing, strategic alliances, market research and nationwide casino promotions.
Although Shanks recently left Harrah’s to spend more time with her family, her long-term success at the company has not gone unnoticed. Shanks, a recipient of Harrah’s Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Performance and the company Corporate Excellence Award, will receive the 2008 Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award, past winners of which include John Romero, Jack Binion, Phil Satre and John Acres. The award ceremony will take place at the Casino Marketing Conference, to be held in July in Las Vegas.
Praiseworthy performanceShanks’ peers say the award is well deserved.
“Ginny is one of the most innovative, smart and driven women in the gaming industry,” said Marilyn Winn, president of Bally’s, Rio and Paris. “During her 25-year career with Harrah’s Entertainment, she held positions in both corporate and property marketing. Ginny consistently understood customer behavior and how to motivate customers to spend discretionary dollars for gaming entertainment. She was able to crystallize our many brands in an easy to understand way that drove trial and interest in our target market. Ginny was a role model to so many of our female leaders throughout the organization and in gaming.”
Tom Jenkin, president of Harrah’s Western Division, noted Shanks certainly has earned the right to be the first woman to receive the Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I have watched Ginny’s career develop from a junior executive at Harrah’s Reno to the corporate senior vice president of brand management where she was instrumental in the evolution of Harrah’s sports and entertainment marketing strategy, especially in establishing the World Series of Poker as one of the company’s most successful and recognizable assets,” Jenkins said. “She also oversaw strategic alliances, market research and nationwide casino promotions.
“Ginny has proven herself over the past 25 years in the gaming industry to be an extremely creative marketer, an admired leader and a trusted mentor to many of her peers. Throughout her career, Ginny has been asked to do an astonishing variety of tasks and always did so with enthusiasm and passion. Her knowledge and dedication was key in Harrah’s ascension to its current position as the industry’s largest and most admired company.”
Maggie Nation, vice president, brand marketing for Harrah’s, notes Shanks is a rare example of a multi-faceted leader.
“Some leaders are functional experts - you gain knowledge and insights from simply absorbing their expertise. Others are masters at building and maintaining relationships throughout every level of an organization - your ability to ‘get things done’ improves simply by watching how they manage relationships. And others still engender loyalty by knowing how to put people first. Ginny is that rare leader who encompasses all of the above. She possesses industry expertise, a flawless ability to manage relationships in a manner to optimize results while never forgetting that every business is a people business.”
One who is especially delighted that Shanks is the recipient of the 2008 Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award is Dennis Conrad, president and chief strategist of Raving Consulting Company.
“I’ve known Ginny for 20 years. She and I go way back,” Conrad said with a laugh. “She’s entirely a Harrah’s person.”
Conrad, who worked with Shanks at the Holiday Casino in 1989, describes the longtime Harrah’s vice president as a powerful executive who is extremely effective simply because she’s extremely \ approachable.
“It doesn’t matter if she’s talking to a senior executive or a junior staffer,” Conrad said. “She’s very comfortable giving the straight scoop, and not everyone is comfortable in that role.”
Total packageHarrah’s executives privately noted that Shanks was one of the few staffers who was not afraid to question or disagree with Gary Loveman, Harrah’s CEO.
“I believe good companies hire people for both their brain and their voice,” Shanks said. “This is a belief I’ve held since my first days at Harrah’s. If I had a different opinion than Gary, I had to have a well-reasoned argument. But in the end, I think he appreciated my candor because no one person has all the answers.”
One Harrah’s program that no one argues is extremely successful is Total Rewards. Shanks explained that under Loveman’s leadership, Total Rewards has generated tremendous results.
“When Gary joined the Company in 1998, he was very focused on knowing the customer better in order to deliver an experience that was aligned with their preferences and status within the Total Rewards program,” she said. “Under Gary’s leadership, the Total Rewards tiered-card program, identified the company’s best customers and provided them with exclusive benefits and preferred access. This allowed Harrah’s to clearly recognize its best customers while giving others the aspiration to reach the next tier.”
Two reasons why the Total Rewards program is so successful are portability and access, Shanks explained. “Rewards carry with you and can be used at any HET casino across the country. As a Total Rewards member, you have access to a wide range of gaming and non-gaming offerings. Everything from shopping at the Pier in Atlantic City to front-row seats at Bette Midler's new show at Caesars Palace - with Total Rewards, customers have access to an unprecedented set of experiences.”
Quick riserShanks understood early on how to market the brand and capture the attention of potential customers. Throughout the late 1980s, she conducted successful advertising campaigns promoting the company’s two northern Nevada properties, and she was named Advertising Account Executive for Harrah’s Reno in the late 1980s before being transferred in the fall of 1989 to Las Vegas to be sales manager for the Holiday Casino.
For Shanks the timing was perfect as The Mirage was scheduled to open in November of that year just across the Las Vegas Strip.
“At the Holiday, we learned how to market opportunistically,” Shanks said. “I was working with Dennis Conrad, and we started the Party Pit, which offered customers a fun and relaxed low-limit blackjack pit and was counter programmed to what the Mirage was offering. It was very successful and captured a great deal of traffic. Customers would hear music that welcomed them to our doors and see people of all ages having a great time.”
Within a few years, Shanks was promoted to the position of marketing director for the property and then to Harrah’s marketing vice president. When Loveman came on board in 1998, Shanks was named vice president of marketing for the corporation’s Western Division, becoming the first woman to serve in that capacity. She was responsible for Harrah’s Entertainment casinos in Nevada, Arizona, California and Colorado.
While her ascension to the top echelon of the corporation within little more than a decade was certainly noteworthy, Shanks noted Harrah’s has hired and promoted many talented women over the years. “Harrah’s hires talented people, and the decisions on whom to hire and promote are not based on gender,” she said. “They’re based on experience and results.”
In 2003, Shanks moved into the corporate offices of Harrah’s Entertainment as senior vice president of acquisition marketing. In that capacity, she was responsible for advertising, national promotions, strategic alliances and public relations.
Growth challengesIn those early years of the millennium, Shanks’ calendar was packed. In 2004 and 2005, Harrah’s Entertainment acquired key brands - Caesars, Horseshoe and World Series of Poker being the most notable. With Caesars, Harrah’s now had a premium offering for Total Rewards members in Las Vegas.
“This acquisition also allowed us to greatly expand our footprint in Las Vegas with Paris and Bally’s and in Atlantic City with Caesars and Bally’s,” Shanks said. “The Horseshoe acquisition provided Harrah’s with market-leading casinos in Chicagoland, Tunica and Shreveport/Bossier.”
Shanks described the Horseshoe as “just a great brand.”
“Its focused, simple, relevant brand promise: ‘Make It Right For The Gambler’ resonates with customers and is easily understood and reinforced by Horseshoe employees,” Shanks noted.
Harrah’s paid $44.3 million for the Horseshoe and World Series of Poker brands. Shanks said it was money well spent.
“The World Series of Poker was a great event brand when we first took over the reins in 2004. Our goal was to take the WSOP from an annual tournament into something that lived beyond the five weeks when it was played,” Shanks explained. “With 40 casinos across the company, we started the WSOP Circuit. This allowed other HET casinos to run poker tournaments under the WSOP brand while providing players with access to the world's most prestigious poker tournament. We then created an all-star event to showcase the sport's best players after the WSOP concluded in the summer. The Tournament of Champions was born with our great partners at ESPN. Lastly, given the popularity of poker at the time, we knew there was an audience for WSOP-branded items and thus, we created a merchandise line that was carried in major retail stores. All of this has led to the WSOP brand being the clear leader in the world of poker.”
Looking aheadShanks was asked what she believes has remained the same and what has changed in the casino business in recent years.
“One of the most enduring characteristics of the business is in the area of customer service,” Shanks said. “Most people still choose their favorite casino, not by how big or luxurious it is, but instead by the relationships they have with the people who work there. This has been a hallmark of Harrah’s for years and is why properties like Harrah's Las Vegas have been so successful for so long."
What has changed dramatically over the two decades is the non-gaming side of the business. “Gone are the days of the 99-cent shrimp cocktail, entertainment as a loss leader and non-descript hotel rooms,” Shanks noted. “Instead, casinos are now seen as entertainment destinations complete with celebrity-inspired restaurants, top-of-the-line accommodations, shopping malls, branded spas and the list goes on and continues to be redefined, particularly in Las Vegas.”
As for the future of gaming, Shanks believes leveraging other brands will continue to play a pivotal role in how casinos will broaden their appeal.
“Borrowed equity allows casinos to tap into new audiences, elevate and redefine their own brand while expanding both the gaming and non-gaming offerings,” she said. “You see this today largely in Las Vegas but it’s an emerging trend in other destinations such as the opening of the Red Door Spa at Harrah's Atlantic City and the planned Margaritaville Casino & Resort in Biloxi.”
Shanks believes the next wave of innovation will occur on the casino floor. “So much has already been redefined around the non-gaming side of the business. Yet the actual casino remains similar to how it was 10 years ago."
As for her own future in the gaming industry, Shanks is taking a wait-and-see approach. Earlier this year Harrah’s Entertainment was sold for $17.3 billion to private equity firms Apollo Global Management LLC and TPG Capital LP. Following the leveraged buyout, Shanks decided to cash in her stock options and take some time off and enjoy some quality time with her husband and two sons.
“I know I’ll eventually experience the professional pull to get back into the workforce, but for now I’m enjoying my first summer off since I was 15 years old.”
Learning from the bestHarrah’s Entertainment executives often say company founder Bill Harrah would have loved the concept of the Total Rewards program. After all, it was Harrah who was the first operator to provide free drinks to players and to provide free transportation to casinos.
Bill Harrah died in June 1978, five years before Ginny Shanks, former senior vice president of acquisition marketing for Harrah’s, began her career at the company. But his legacy certainly lived on in terms of how the company conducted business, especially in the 1980s when Shanks came on board.
“The notion of ‘surprise and delight’ was a part of how Bill conducted business on the casino floor,” Shanks remembered. “Stories about him walking the floor, stopping to talk with customers and giving chips to people who had experienced a loss, were legendary. He also paid a good deal of attention to cleanliness and to this day, if any Harrah's employee walks the casino floor and sees trash on the ground, all will, almost instinctively, stop to pick it up.
“Lastly, Bill certainly believed in the theory: ‘Go Big or Don't Bother.’ This was true in how he built hotels such as Harrah's Tahoe, how he devised Harrah's entertainment strategy and how we thought about advertising in the early 1980s.”
Shanks also learned a great deal about the Harrah’s founder, thanks to a family connection. “My husband’s grandfather, Walter Shanks, was the advertising director for Harrah’s in the 1970s,” she said. “Walter knew Bill Harrah, and he talked about him quite a bit.”
Walter Shanks shared many of his and Bill Harrah’s marketing strategies with Ginny. Among them: bold concepts in outdoor advertising.
“At the time the company was heavily into outdoor advertising,” Shanks said. “Harrah’s bought high-profile outdoor boards along the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. It was very expensive, but we were very focused with the message. Harrah’s was all about entertainment, that’s what we advertised and that’s how we separated ourselves from the competition.”