I’ll admit it, I’ve lost count. This is either the 12th or 13th (or maybe the 14th) edition of my annual labor of love, the “Best (and Worst) Casino Promotions” of the year. Others probably call it something like “Conrad Gone Wild” or “How to Win an Award You’re Not Sure You Want”.

I didn’t mean for this to develop into an annual affair, but it has. Casino Journal once again has the initial preview of the most noteworthy honorees (well, OK, some are “dis-honorees”) and the full list will be released this month at Casino Marketing 2009.

To recap, there is no award process for the “Best (and Worst) Casino Promotions of 2009”. Heck, there are no awards. There is one judge - me. The winners in “The Best” category should feel proud to receive my praise, but they might not. The Hall of Shame (“Worst”) winners will probably hate me (even though I don’t mention them by name), but I am hopeful that they achieved some excellent learning from their stumbles.

My selections are based on an unparalleled network of direct-mail samples, numerous personal visits as both a consultant and player, a wide variety of news and information sources and from the advertising, PR, collateral materials and Web sites of the casinos themselves.

And, oh yeah, much of the “crappy” info comes from a small but reliable cadre of snitches (er, sources) who get some strange high by sharing with me examples of the supreme failures and excesses of the casino marketing wars.

And once again I have attempted to not only highlight the big ideas but also the little things that made a big difference for casino customers, employees and communities.

So here they are, for your learning and entertainment pleasure, “The Best (And Worst) Casino Promotions of 2009”!

The Best

Indiana Live! Casino (Shelbyville, Ind.)

So who better to help open your new casino than Barack Obama? Well, OK, there are certainly some issues in making that happen. But when Indiana Live! Casino opened its new facility with an Obama look-alike (and sound-alike) impersonator in its TV and print ads and on its billboards no one thought “No, you can’t!” So what if the White House soon called and asked the casino to pull the plug on the campaign? The pre-opening PR bonanza had already happened. Economic stimulus package indeed!

Seminole Casinos (Florida)

It was called “See $5 Million/Win $1 Million”. Seminole Casinos built a display case that securely held $5 million (in $100 bills) and rotated it through five of their tribal casinos over two months. Throw in some pretty models and some real burly security guards to go with the exhibit, free pictures of guests in front of the $5 million (downloadable from the Web site) and a free daily “swipe to win” for up to a million bucks (and where every kiosk swipe won something) - and you’ve got a traffic-driving mega-promotion with legs. Somewhere, Benny Binion (originator of the original $1 million display) is smiling.

Barona Resort & Casino (Lakeside, Calif.)

Banks give account statements. Brokerage firms give account statements. So do hospitals. But casinos? Well, if you are the ultra-innovative Barona you do. Barona’s was sent out to each Club Barona member in its year-end “Rewarding Moments” newsletter. The statement listed the yearlong value of each player’s cash offers, hotel offers, food offers and complimentaries received; plus it mentioned the $3,055,323 (who keeps count of this stuff?) in cash and prize giveaways for the year that each member had a shot to win. Why have a players club card? This makes a statement.

Silver Legacy Resort Casino (Reno, Nev.)

We’re not seniors anymore, we’re Baby Boomers! And we have disposable income, and we will spend it at casinos. Especially if, as Silver Legacy did, you host a Baby Boomers Festival. … Say what? Sure, all you need is a Baby Boomer Wine Walk, a “speed-dating” event, an astrological matchmaking party, a flirting competition and a couple of speakers talking about finance, sexuality and health. What else could a Boomer want? Well, maybe gambling in your casino with your Boomer Buddies.

Casinos Austria International

If your company had casinos all over the world and on numerous cruise ships I’m betting they all did promotions, creating a virtual tapestry of local marketing for diverse markets. And if you were Hermann Pamminger, Casinos Austria International’s corporate head of marketing, you’d see the wisdom of sharing the best of the best in a “Promotions Yearbook”. Made up of essential details from promotions conducted at 37 casinos in 13 countries and on 10 cruise ships, the “Promotions Yearbook” speaks to the principle that promotional wisdom should be shared, celebrated and “floated” through the company.

Gold Dust West (Reno, Nev.)

Sometimes the best is just so simple. For Gold Dust West in Reno this recognition-worthy effort came in the form of a personal note card, personally written and signed by a living, breathing Gold Dust West front-line employee named Pamela. The reason for this note? To let me know that I had $15 in cash compiled on my Gold Rewards Card just waiting for me to pick up and put in my hot little hands (and perhaps Gold Dust’s hot machines). Personal, strategic, and it takes only a card and stamp, without reaching any deeper into a casino’s marketing war chest.

Southwest Airlines

Keeping with the “Best (and Worst)” tradition of honoring efforts from outside the gaming industry (whose ideas should be immediately stolen for casino application) I bring you the apology letter from Southwest Airlines. Written to passengers on a flight to Tulsa, Okla., who had to suffer the “bizarre behavior” of an unruly fellow traveler, the note from the assistant manager of Proactive Service Communications (tell me you have a position like that!) contained one Southwest LUV (flight) voucher, an acknowledgement of the “hassle” and “inconvenience,” a wish for “better flight memories” and an expression of appreciation for their Southwest patronage. … Hey, Southwest gets it, and you should too.

O’Sheas Casino (Las Vegas Strip)

If your casino is small and quirky and you’re nestled between the big guys on the Las Vegas Strip you just might have to get a little freaky. And that’s exactly what O’Sheas did by becoming the home of the carny show “Freaks” from the demented mind of X-rated hypnotist and showman Anthony Cools. In one act of “Freaks” a guy loses an eye and later lifts weights with the weights attached to his eye sockets. A woman drinks a glass of wine and then eats the glass. There is a huge drag queen manipulating a grotesque dummy. Not your cup of tea? Maybe not, but its award-winning originality might just draw a few bodies or create a retail opportunity. - “Freaks” sells branded vomit bags at its souvenir stand.

Santa Ana Star Casino (Bernalillo, N.M.)

Moving from the creepy to the warm and fuzzy, I bring you the “Hugging Monkeys” from Santa Ana Star Casino. Held as a Valentine’s Day promo, these arm-in-arm cute critters from just down the evolutionary scale could both be yours for a mere 500 points (while supplies last, of course). More proof that warm and fuzzy can translate into cold, hard cash.

Station Casinos (Las Vegas)

Ditch the fancy Thanksgiving weekend promotion and do what Station Casinos did - give away turkeys and pumpkin pies. Last year at all Station Casinos (that should tell you this is a home run), on one pre-Thanksgiving day, players club members could “Earn 1,000 Points and Get a Turkey” (plus keep your points) and on another day there was a “Free Pumpkin Pie Giveaway, Just for Showing Your Boarding Pass Card”. … Gee, turkey and pumpkin pie to draw customers before Thanksgiving, who woulda thunk it?

Seminole Casino Coconut Creek (Coconut Creek, Fla.)

And speaking of food, there’s the “Dinner in the Sky” promotion conducted by Seminole Casino Coconut Creek. Imagine a huge crane taking 22 guests at a time 160 feet into the air to be served a five-course gourmet meal (from the “200 Leagues Above the Florida Sea” menu) complete with wine, champagne and music. Over two days there were 10 one-hour “lifts,” including the first-ever wedding in the sky. … Now that’s a real high!

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (Las Vegas)

It came as a VIP e-mail invitation - two free nights and a chance to see either Bon Jovi or Kenny Chesney in concert at The Joint. But wait, the shows are “Sold Out,” the e-mail said. But you, mister very special player, “As a VIP can see your choice of one show as our guest.” I know, I know, if they still could offer you a ticket, technically they weren’t “sold out”. But what a great buzz creator for two hot shows and a lesson in perceived value and exclusivity for the Hard Rock’s best casino rockers.

The Worst

Unfortunately, there would be no “Best (and Worst)” without some real lollapaloozas. And this year produced a treasure trove of promotions featuring bad taste, poor judgment, classic screw-ups and common-sense vanishing acts. … The crusty envelope, please!

A video poker bar (Western United States)

Sure, it’s common to have bonus promotions for hitting royal flushes on video poker machines. What’s uncommon, except evidently at this video poker bar, is to offer a pistol (yes, that kind of pistol) as the bonus. “Hit Two Royals in 30 Days, Win a Pistol!” screamed the outdoor advertising banner - complete with a drawing of not one but two revolvers. Someone ought to be shot (no, not LITERALLY).

A North American casino

It happens all the time. A slot player mistakenly thinks they have won a jackpot. But this time at this unnamed casino the lights went on, the sounds went off, and an attendant rushed over to congratulate the winner, who believed he had won $42.9 million, the machine’s top jackpot. But a few minutes later a supervisor rushed over to report it was all a mistake because the machine had malfunctioned. So how do you make it up to the customer? Why of course with the crack cocaine of casino conflict resolution - a free buffet for two. But don’t worry, the comp was later upgraded to a buffet for four when the player complained. … Customer relations jackpot!

A Midwest U.S. casino

So what would you do if your casino misprinted your toll-free number and it rang into another business at all hours of the day with people asking about upcoming casino concerts? Well, if you are this winner of the Casino Golden Raspberry you’d sue the business for whom you created all the hassle with YOUR mistake. OK, OK, it’s alleged that the business owner who got all those calls, after much frustration and not adequate problem resolution, may have started answering the phone with some not so nice words about the casino (including that it “had burned down”). But suing a guy when you made the initial mistake, that’s a poopy PR award winner.

A Western U.S. casino

It came as a direct-mail piece screaming a benefit - “Your Free Play is Enclosed”. Inside it spoke to wanting me to come visit every week in November to “get more FREE PLAY” than I’ve ever received before. (Really, you’d say that about a chintzy offer of five bucks per week?) But wait, there’s more. The exact same direct-mail piece came the very next day with the same crappy offer, and that’s when I noticed the offer (or was it two offers?) was only good on “Monday through Thrusday” (sic). Hey, cheap offer, duplicate mailing, spelling mistake - winner, winner!

An estimated half of U.S. state lotteries

Leave it to our gaming cousins in the lottery business to continue to turn gamblers into groaners. It started as an exposé in USA Today, informing readers that it wouldn’t be too wise to buy a $20 scratch-off ticket in one state lottery’s $1 million “Explosion” game because the million-dollar top prize had already been won. And the state was still selling tickets even though the top prize left available was a mere $10,000. The USA Today article went on to say that “about half of the 42 states with lotteries keep selling tickets after the top prize is no longer available.” Hey, lottery guys, you’re screwing it up for everyone.

A Southern U.S. casino

Casino marketers all should know by now that using the word “Christmas” in casino holiday promotions and direct mail is not kosher as it might offend non-Christians (or even Christians). But no one obviously told this otherwise smart casino that you might not want to get cutesy with your holiday copy writing. So there it was (in integrated fashion, no less) the casino’s use of words and phrases like “Merry Giftmas, the Gifts Yule Love” and “O’Cashmas Tree”. … Casinos getting cute with Christmas? Throw ’em to the lions!

A Western U.S. casino

You just knew that one casino was going to win a “Worst” award for bringing up the recession. Yep, there it was, in a headline-blazing brochure invitation: “$50,000 Stimulus Package! We’ve got relief for you! Exclusive by invitation only.” Complete with a cartoon character Uncle Sam, smiling and waving handfuls of greenbacks. Just what your recession-weary customers want to see - “relief” from your favorite casino if you’ll take their exclusive invitation to come in and first blow your money. … Award-worthy. No doubt.