One of the best sessions at this year’s Casino Marketing Conference dealt with creating value for casino customers, especially in these difficult economic times. The session’s panelists - Virginia McDowell, president of Isle of Capri Casinos, Randy Fine, managing director of the Fine Point Group, and Anthony Curtis, publisher of Huntington Press - got into a lively and candid discussion of what “providing value” means. 

It was Curtis who got me thinking (and provided the impetus for this column) when he talked about the benefit of a casino having a “one-of-a-kind, aggressive, signature promotion” that grabs people’s attention and endures over time. As an example, he mentioned the 5-cent beer night promotion at Todd English Pub at CityCenter in Las Vegas, where Curtis’ group spent $1.25 on beer and $160 on food.

That got me thinking about “signature” promotions that I have seen during the course of my casino marketing career, some of which have endured for decades, even to this day. They have included the following assortment of kick-butt promotional winners:

• “Car a Day in May Giveaway” (Palace Station Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, circa 1980s) - One of the first big play-and-earn drawings, this signature promotion was a huge success and spawned a multitude of imitators of car-a-day, car-a-week and car-a-month casino giveaways.

•  The “All You Can Eat Lobster Buffet” (many casinos, including currently at Boomtown Casino Biloxi and Valley View Casino & Hotel near San Diego) - This is the powerful crustacean pig-out, where the casino’s standard buffet adds an “all the lobster you can eat” component for an eye-catching low price.

•  The “24-Hour Steak Dinner Special” (many casinos, but most notably the $6.95 steak special at Ellis Island Casino & Brewery in Las Vegas) - This is simply the great steak pricing deal that has endured at Ellis Island for years and now includes a 10-ounce filet-cut sirloin, salad, green beans, a choice of potato and a microbrewed beer.

• The “99¢ Shrimp Cocktail” (Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas) - Although now $1.99 (with players club membership), this “Feed ’em and reap” promo has been around since 1959, and more than 30 million shrimp cocktails have been served. Often imitated but never duplicated.

• “Free Photo in Front of $1 Million” (Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel, formerly the Horseshoe Club, Downtown Las Vegas) - This concept is simple: get your picture taken in front of a $1 million display and come back in a few hours to pick up your free photo. An attraction and retention device.

• “Play an Hour on Us” (various Harrah’s properties nationwide) - This aggressive promo was geared for new players club members, who, for their first hour of carded slot play, would have any losses (up to $100) rebated to them. Barona Resort & Casino near San Diego later one-upped this promotion with a “Double Your Losses Back” offer for new players club members.

• Free Monday Night Football parties, 50-cent hot dogs, 25-cent draft beers, free football contests, free slot play, $1 million scratch-card promos, hotel room giveaways - These and many other assorted marketing tricks have been used at various times and for various lengths of time at casinos.

So what’s the benefit of a true signature promotion for a casino? Quite simply, it drives traffic, differentiates a casino from its competitors and creates buzz. Sounds like pretty strong value to me. But yet, not many casinos utilize the concept, or else they dabble with it, especially when they are looking for a quick revenue fix. 

If your casino has an appetite for a real signature on a promotion or an offer, let me suggest the following to you:

• If your customers or employees don’t say “Wow” when they hear about the concept, you’ve probably fallen short.

• Signature promotions usually are about “free” or at least incredibly cheap.

• Food (or drink) promotions seem to have good signature possibilities if the item or the offer has undeniable broad customer appeal.

• Good casino promotions take risks. They put it out there. So when devising your own, focus on the benefits of it, not the few customers who will take undue advantage of it.

• Signature promotions should have legs and not be flashes in the pan. So plan for a long-term run, stay patient and make plans for periodic promotion fresheners.

• Remember that even a good promotion is no substitute for a great, integrated, strategic casino marketing plan made up of difference-making tactics.

And my idea for a signature casino promotion - heck, every day just give some unlucky gambler all of their losses back. You’ll be famous.