Raving Consulting Chief Strategist Dennis Conrad provides his insight on the year’s best and worst casino marketing promotions

I’m not sure why I do it – pore through thousands of casino direct mail pieces each year, read numerous press releases, troll on the Internet, heck, casino friends and associates even try to lobby me and influence my selections.

I guess my annual list of The Best (and Worst) Casino Promotions is a labor of love, or a bad habit. But it is gratifying to note that in the 12 years I have been highlighting this stuff, the Best has gotten better (and more frequent). And the Worst? Well it is still incredibly stupid or poorly timed, or not well thought out (and sometimes just plain unlucky).  But I think I do detect a trend where there are fewer Worst casino promotions each successive year. Or maybe they are just harder to uncover.

Enjoy this year’s bumper crop of The Best (and Worst) Casino Promotions of 2008. Do not confuse them with the real casino marketing awards, the Romeros: Recognizing Excellence in Casino Marketing.  Consider my award efforts an attempt to appreciate the unappreciated, to find nuggets of marketing wisdom in the bold innovations of casino marketing risk-takers, and, yes, to get otherwise smart people to stop doing stupid stuff.


Rickles roasts Myron - Golden Nugget, Las Vegas, Nev.

It just wouldn’t have the same appeal, inviting your VIP’s to the “Myron Kuchman Roast” event (even if Myron is a popular executive host). But bring in Don Rickles, the master of the insult, to roast Myron and now you have something.  The Golden Nugget did just that and their VIPs showed up in droves to watch something other than their bankroll take a beating. Holy hockey puck, Myron!

Diamonds in the rough - Harrah's Entertainment Meetings Division, Las Vegas, Nev.

Avid, experienced gamblers who like to spend their money at your casino are sometimes called “rubies,” or “gold,” or occasionally “platinum.” Throughout Harrah’s, they’re known as “Diamonds,” and Harrah’s Las Vegas’ properties realized that some diamonds may not necessarily put cash in the table drop box or C-Notes in slot bill acceptors. Why, they might be those typically neglected meeting planners, whose convention groups represent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to a resort hotel. So Harrah’s created a Meeting Diamond VIP card, a facsimile of its Diamond Total Rewards card that allows convention honchos to zip through the Diamond lines at the property’s hotel, valet, restaurants and showroom offerings for the time their group is at the resort. And why not? Same cash - different cash register.

Sassy Brass Ass - Brass Ass Casino, Cripple Creek, Colo.

You probably could only get away with this promotion in a rough and tumble old mining town like Cripple Creek, Colo., and certainly only if your casino had a name like the Brass Ass. But there it was on the Web site and in the press releases when Cripple Creek’s oldest casino opened its new gaming wing, the tagline “Our Ass Just Got Bigger.” I’m starting to see a joint promotion possibility here with NutriSystem… something like “Lose Your Ass With Us!”

Swim to win - Boomtown Casino Hotel, Reno, Nev.

Sure, we’ve all given away cars, cash, homes, DVDs and… you name it. So Boomtown wasn’t that much different with its July Stars ‘N Cars Jeep Giveaway, except… hey, was that a bathtub they used as a drawing drum? And was that Jack Fisher, the GM, wearing swim trunks and flippers, swimming all night through the “ticket tub,” looking for lucky Boomtown winners? It sure was. So what’s next - the CFO in the dunk tank at the employee picnic?

Where's Waldo - Riviera Black Hawk Casino, Black Hawk, Colo.

It came as a direct mail piece with the message “Personal Photos Enclosed. Do Not Bend.” While your first reaction might have been to wonder what they caught me doing on tape at my favorite Black Hawk casino, you just had to open the darn thing from the Riviera. And just like the accordion photo postcards you buy at the tourist souvenir shops, the Riv’s postcards opened up to show three full-color photos with sexy Las Vegas showgirl-types holding personalized signs, one that asks “Where Have You Been?”, another that says  “We Want To Set The Table For You Tonight!” (with two free buffet offers) and a third that proclaims “Win Big At The Riv, Today!” (with cash coupons). I get it, a mailing to inactive customers, and a pretty damn effective one at that.

Praise the Lord, pass the biscuits - Silverton Casino Lodge, Las Vegas, Nev.

I thought it was a real gospel brunch, but on closer inspection of the Silverton’s Sunday brunch invitation to its VIPs, “Reverend” Rick, “Sister” Carly, “Brother” Jerrod and “Vinny Vegas” weren’t ordained ministers at all, but executives in Silverton’s casino marketing department. But the event was real, the gospel-singing entertainment was authentic, the brunch was delicious and the lure for VIPs was unique and powerful. Hallelujah!

It's a cow, no bull - Lake of the Torches Resort Casino, Lac du Flambeau, Wis.

Sure, you could do any old cash giveaway in August, but if you’re a rural casino like Lake of the Torches, why not have “More Moolah Days” instead? First you buy some cute collectible cow banks as gifts to players just for coming in. Then you throw in a Peel ‘n Win Card, good for prizes and daily drawings where 10 players will each win $1,000 cash. But best of all, you send out a direct mail postcard with a big ol’ milk-brimming cow on it that says “We Have More Moolah For Dennis,” with “Dennis” printed in big, black letters on the cow’s side, blending with Bessie’s spots. Mooooovelous.

Power Payout picture - Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, Lakeside, Calif.

OK, so you’ve given out over $1 million to 794 winners in your Power Payout casino-wide progressive slot promotion. How do you tell your players that? Well, if you are Barona, you put all of the winners’ photos on a single page in the personalized direct mail newsletter sent to your VIPs. Then if you brighten several images of the winners in the photo, you can superimpose an unmistakable Barona “B” over the photo collage. Barona brands brightly (and smartly).

Get well - Palace Station Hotel Casino, Las Vegas, Nev.

In casino slang, “getting well” is usually a gambler’s term for getting even (or better). But the phrase took on a different meaning for Palace Station when it invited its players to a wellness seminar at the casino. Topics such as “Diabetes in the 21st Century” and “Don’t Doze through the Best Times in Life” were covered and lunch was served between the sessions. I’ll bet the event turned a healthy profit.

Rise early and often - Golden Gulch Casino and Golden Mardi Gras Casino, Black Hawk, Colo.

You have to be at least 50 years old and you have to drive up the mountain to Golden Gulch Casino or Mardi Gras Casino between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Mondays to get your quadruple points and free coffee and donuts. Daunting? No way! It’s actually a savvy seniors’ promo. And if you stay past 11 a.m., you’ll get double, triple or quadruple points for the rest of the day, depending on your tier level, and 50 percent off at your favorite Golden restaurant.

Nine is fine - Cliff Castle Casino, Camp Verde, Ariz.

What would you do if you were voted the number one casino in Arizona for nine years in a row? Well, if you are Cliff Castle, you gather most of your employees, configure them as a human number nine and take their picture from a lofty perch as they all cheer and wave at the camera. Then you put it on the cover of your next players club newsletter, so that all your customers see that it wasn’t the facility or the loose slots or the good food that earned this award, but Cliff Castle’s great people. Their tagline says it all, “Always Friendly. Always Fun.” Hang ten, Cliff Castle.

Junk works - Palms Casino Resort, Las Vegas, Nev.

Your casino marketing storeroom is bursting at the seams. You’ve got those flip-flops left over from the pool promo, those cooler backpacks from the monthly direct mail gift offer, jumbo remotes you thought senior citizens would love, photo trays and massagers. What’s a casino to do? Well if you’re the Palms, you give them all away on one day, for 10 hours, as a Summer Surplus promo, where the “Choice Is Yours.” You’ll be laughing all the way to the stockpile, I mean, the bank.

Diamond dandy - Harrah's Reno, Reno, Nev.

Casino marketing departments offer deals around my birthday, my anniversary and all the major holidays. Geez, what’s left?  Well if you’re smart, and trust me, Harrah’s is, you’ll celebrate your top-tier player achieving a renewal of their status for the year, quarter or month.  Harrah’s Reno did this with its special Diamond Renewal Dinner invitation which included a two-night stay, an exclusive dinner and a gift.  It sure beats celebrating the dog’s birthday.

Leap this! - Isle of Capri Casino, Biloxi, Miss.

How did your casino take advantage of Leap Year 2008? Well, Isle of Capri held a human frog race on that extra day in February and used stuffed frogs and large dice to determine who won the $25,000 grand prize in a $50,000 promo that featured t-shirts, beads and lots of winners.  The kicker to the promotion was having customers vote on whether GM Bill Kilduff or F&B Manager Scott Hixon would have to kiss a live frog. I hesitate to think of the promotion they came up with for Easter and its symbolic bunny.

The sky is falling - Seminole Casino, Coconut Creek, Fla.

Remember the ruckus when the government announced a U.S. spy satellite was due to fall out of orbit and come crashing to earth?  Chances are you would recollect the event if you had lived near the Coconut Creek Seminole Casino, since GM Steve Bonner has a giant red bull’s eye painted on the casino and offered to give away $1 million if any of the satellite debris landed on the property.  Now that sounds like a blast!

Birthday code - Southwest Airlines

In keeping with the Best (and Worst) tradition of highlighting a promo from outside our industry, I bring you this year’s birthday card from Southwest Airlines. It’s a picture from the cockpit and the pilot is saying (with each first letter of each word highlighted in red), “Hotel Alpha Papa Papa Yankee Bravo India Romeo Tango Hotel Delta Alpha Yankee.”  You open the card up to see the message, “That’s fancy aviation talk for H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y from all of us at Rapid Rewards.”  I wish my favorite casinos could make me smile like Southwest does on my birthday. 

Crack it open - Unnamed Southwest casino

Most casinos wouldn’t mind players taking a crack at their loose slots or trying to crack the code of their $1 million SCA promotion, but this unfortunate casino made local headlines when a man was busted there for smoking crack cocaine while he played a slot machine.  The news report said this occurred “after another slot player complained.”  Well, the anti-gaming zealots often decry video poker as the crack cocaine of gaming, I guess this actually was.

Wrong spouse - Unnamed Western casino

It really is one of my favorite casinos.  So when I received a Happy Anniversary card and an offer of a complimentary suite and a generous dinner credit to come up and visit, well, honeymoon-like visions danced in my head.  Except instead of including my wife in the offer, the coupons had someone named “Sherry” listed on them, with her player’s card number.  Honey, I swear I don’t know any Sherry; I go up there to play golf. Honey? Honey?

Mystery cash - Unnamed Nevada casino

It arrived as the monthly casino direct mail piece, trumpeting the fact that “You earned $160 in rewards for April.”  Nothing bad about that.  But when you open the brochure to see four individual $20 coupons, each valid during a different week in April, well that calls for Columbo.  Let’s see, four coupons times $20 is $80 in rewards.  But you’re telling me I earned $160?  There’s that damn casino math again!

Punter gone wild - Unnamed European casino

I swear this one is true. An Eastern European man was banned from his local casino for shouting and using bad language. In response, he said he would not eat or accept medical attention until he was allowed to once again play roulette in the casino.  “I have a lot of money on me and I want to play it all on the roulette, but they won’t let me,” the man said. “They say I swear and talk too loud, but everybody shouts in there, especially when losing.  After all it’s not a church, it’s roulette.”  He planned to erect a tent outside the casino and stay there until he was allowed to play or was given back the $6,000 he had lost. Suffice to say his version of an incentive program was far from popular with the casino.

Oops odds - Unnamed Southern casino

It was the classiest of VIP events and a Lexus ES was going to be given away to one lucky patron during this “elegant escape weekend.”  The invitation’s envelope screamed the huge benefit of a “1-in-250 chance to win!”  But then followed the “oops” postcard that the 1-in-250 odds were erroneous and that the Lexus giveaway was open to all players club members.  The casino apologized for the error but what it could have done was given away another Lexus.  Hey, never tick off a high roller, any one of whom could lose enough to pay for the cost of the second damn car. 

The kiddie slot event - Numerous casinos

Everyone knows the slot tournament is absolutely, positively not for kids. No casino would ever go there.  Then why, pray tell, do they insinuate children’s play with marketing concepts such as “School Days Slot Tournament” or “Big Top Bucks Slot Tournament,” complete with imagery that my kids would love? Well you got me, and this “Slots for Tots” messaging continues. I guess I am powerless to stop it, but at least I can award a “Royal Raspberry” every time I see it. 

Now this is a giveaway! - Unnamed Eastern casino

It was an almost-perfect casino promotion. Too bad it happened by accident. The casino in question left a money-doubling feature unknowingly active on a video lottery terminal, so that players on their machine could get $100 of slot credit for a $50 bill, then did not catch the error until two months later (wasn’t anyone watching the machine results?) To add insult to injury, the casino had to reimburse the state the $450,000 that the VLT paid out in error. But hey, what a promotion! Sure, it was a gigantic screw-up, but it likely left a lot of happy customers.  An award awaits the casino that takes the concept and does something similar, only this time on purpose and with regulatory approval.