For one last time, Dennis Conrad of Raving Consulting determines the BEST and WORST Casino Promotions of the past year.



All good thing must come to an end… so to my annual Best and Worst Casino Promotions selections for both Casino Journal and the Casino Marketing Conference in Las Vegas. Simply stated, it’s time (in fact, some my say it’s well past time).

Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s all the paper cuts from opening thousands of casino direct mail pieces. Maybe it’s because I don’t hear the laughter and applause as much anymore.

My Best and Worst Casino Promotions franchise started humbly some 15 years ago as a small part of my panel presentation at the World Gaming Congress and Expo. I thought it would be effective in a discussion of successful casino promotions to name the best I had seen. The next year at the conference, the session was all mine, under the title of the Best (And Worst) Casino Promotions of the Year. The room was packed. Pretty heady stuff.

All these years, I have been the only judge of the Best and Worst. I look for things that are innovative – the seeds of great ideas. I may highlight a killer, big-time casino promo, but only if something really sets it apart. I am as apt to note a quirky guest amenity I find in a casino hotel room as I am a VIP event where the GM not only shows up, but is the entire focus of the show. I occasionally highlight something from outside the gaming industry if I think it has creative business application for the industry.

I present no awards for the Best and Worst. Nonetheless, I have been lobbied a number of times over the years by casinos and gaming vendors trying to make my best list. A news reporter from Las Vegas usually attends my Best and Worst live presentation, held annually at the Casino Marketing Conference, looking for juicy tidbits that might grab potential readers

And a lot of these write-ups seem to come from the promotions I designate as the worst. I realized early on in the Best and Worst creation that there was as much learning in misguided casino promos as compelling ones. I’m still a little surprised by the morbid fascination from otherwise level headed casino executives with the worst awards. It’s probably the same reason drivers slow down to gawk at a traffic wreck.

So here they are, for the final time, in all their innovative glory and soiled failure, my Best and Worst Casino Promotions of 2011.



THE BEST

HOLY SOAP
Choctaw Casino – Durant (Durant, Okla.)
In every guest bathroom at the Choctaw Casino – Durant resort is a bar of “waste reducing exfoliating body cleanser” – with a hole in the middle. Yes, a bar of soap that looks like a small raft with no bottom. The packaging on the soap box touts “the cruelty free nature” of the product (no animal fat), the “natural recycled packaging printed with soy based inks” and the “waste reducing” soap that eliminates “the unused center of traditional (hotel room) soap bars.” A Choctaw Casino – Durant executive told me how much guests love this soap with the hole in the middle. “Wow, they must really be into conservation,” I commented. “Nah,” he replied, “easier to hold in a wet shower!” Genius!



MINING WITH CHILE
Seminole Casino – Coconut Creek (Coconut Creek, Fla.)
For weeks the world watched fascinated as rescuers attempted to extricate trapped miners in Chile. So where did the miners go to relax after the ordeal? Why Seminole Casino – Coconut Creek of course! The casino held a VIP event fundraiser titled “Heroes and Miracles,” featuring the miners and other celebrities. Promotional pictures showed the miners on stage draped in the Chilean flag and playing blackjack in front of a crowd at a Coconut Creek table game, with Coronas and Marlboros generously supplied. Which I guess begs the question: What is tougher--weeks trapped underground or a blackjack hand of 16 against the dealer’s face card?



A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Potawatomi Bingo Casino (Milwaukee, Wis.)
If we can have bowling leagues and fantasy football leagues, I guess we can have slot leagues. At least that’s what Nancy Ziolkowski, Potawatomi’s marketing director, thought when first seeing the slot league concept at Barona Resort and Casino. So every Monday night for six weeks, a sold-out league made up of 40 teams with four players each (and one alternate) played eight minute league rounds, complete with team uniforms, foam hands, crowns, posters and chickens. Chickens? I guess maybe that was because the $29,000 in slot league prize money wasn’t chicken feed. And it sure beats bowling.



COMFY CHAIRS, SMALL SCREENS
TOD Gaming (Oregon)
So you thought all slot games had to be played in standard slot stools on big slot boxes? Well, welcome to the world of TOD Gaming (Time on Device, get it?) where the chairs are big and comfy and the slot screens are the size of an iPad screen. This entrepreneurial company is working with slot pioneer John Acres at an Oregon tribal casino test laboratory to potentially change the face of the slot experience. Patents are pending, as I guess are raves from slot players.



LOVING YOUR CASINO TO DEATH
Cache Creek Casino Resort (Brooks, Calif.)
The dearly departed casino guest’s name isn’t as important as the thought. He really loved his favorite casino, so much so that it was mentioned in his obituary. “He discovered Cache Creek approximately three years ago and was a dedicated visitor to Cache Creek Casino Resort where he made so many friends and acquaintances. He was intrigued by the casino and enjoyed each visit as he said he felt they treated him with such special care.” Wow, an endorsement from the great beyond – I’ve never seen such a testimonial. Now if the deceased could only channel what slot machine is going to hit next.



MANCATION
Harrah’s Tunica (Tunica, Miss.)
Now ladies, don’t give me grief. Over the years of the Best and Worst, I have honored “The Ultimate Girls Night Out with The Thunder from Down Under,” as well as numerous ladies only casino events. So it’s perfectly fine if I honor “Mancation!” at Harrah’s Tunica where male VIPs were invited to a weekend of a Mixed Martial Arts Fight, a golf tournament and sporting clays tourney (both sponsored by Hooters), a Texas Hold’em tournament, and unlimited drinks and hand-rolled cigars.



LEAP OF FAITH
Stratosphere Casino Hotel & Tower (Las Vegas)
OK, so you’re the CEO of a major Las Vegas property and you just opened a $3.4 million Sky Jump that allows tourists (for $100) to bungee jump 855 feet down from the top of the 108th floor. So what do you do? Well, if you’re Frank Riolo, CEO of Stratosphere owner, American Casino and Entertainment Properties LLC, you invite your employees to have a free jump, after, of course, you jump yourself. And that’s exactly what Riolo did, a “controlled freefall” from the top of the Stratosphere. Now that’s hitting the jackpot, of course, if you don’t hit the street!



JUST DO IT
Harvard Business Review (Cambridge, Mass.)
I’ve seen countless attempts by casino companies to get gaming customers to open their direct mail in order to improve response rates--different font sizes, hand written addresses, varying bulleted envelope headlines, stamp vs. meter, etc. But heretofore I have never seen a stamped message on an envelope like the one I received from the Harvard Business Review. “Do Not Discard,” it screamed. And of course, I didn’t. And yes, I opened it eventually. Yes, it can be that simple. “Read This Column” – I think I’ll try that.



COMMUNITY PARK REBUILD
Various Casinos (Lake Charles, La.)
It’s usually hard for casinos in competing markets to agree on anything, but four Lake Charles, La. – area casinos collectively cut a check for $80,000 to help rebuild Millennium Park, which had been damaged in a hurricane. Not only that, Coushatta Casino Resort, Delta Downs Racetrack Casino and Hotel, Isle of Capri Casino and Hotel, and L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort issued joint PR announcements, gave all of their employees T-shirts with the unified message “The Rebuilding of Millennium Park,” committed sweat equity to the rebuild and challenged other local Lake Charles businesses to support the effort as well. Now that’s playing nice in the sandbox!



PARKING JACKPOT!
Casino Nova Scotia (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)
And finally, to highlight that the Best can be inadvertent and come from anywhere, there is this news report from Canada that a Halifax, Nova Scotia woman has been getting free parking at the casino in exchange for $10 of her slot play. “If I’m gambling $10 [before or after her daily business in downtown], I’m not spending any more than I would at the cheapest day-parking lot … and every once in a while, I come out ahead.” In February 2011, parking cost her $80 at the casino compared to $150-$200 at other parking lots in crowded downtown Halifax. Go figure. What will those casinos think of next? Cheap buffets? Free slot play?



THE WORST

Once again, 2011 did not disappoint, as casinos everywhere produced a bumper crop of Worst promotions to make marketing directors collectively blush in shame. The soiled envelope, please!



MUG OF (DIS)HONOR
Unnamed U.S. Casino
I realize that Martin Luther King Day (as well as Columbus Day, President’s Day, Easter and a few other holidays) has had difficulty gaining traction in casinoland as a high profile promotion day, so I would think that if you did hold an MLK Day promo, you would want it to knock your customers’ socks off. So when this offending casino ran an ad with a picture of Martin Luther King himself and the headline “Free Beer on Monday, January 17” (and in small print “Limit One per Customer”), I’m not sure what they were trying to accomplish, other than perhaps to send a stupid message that beer there was finally “free at last.”



2 STRONG 2 B GOOD
Various Casinos in North America
Perhaps it is this recession thing, but in 2010-2011 several casinos got uber-aggressive with their promos, leading to not only unintended consequences, but near disaster. In one case, a camcorder giveaway created a 10 mile interstate highway traffic jam on the road leading to this too generous casino. In another, doubling the value of a certain casino’s reward points for one day produced 15,000 customers at the casino, but also parking lot traffic jams, long lines and $6 million in redemptions, many from club members who took the money and immediately left (future planned “double redemption” dates, at least, were put on hold). There were others, and they happen every year, proving again that if you give away the store, the hordes will soon own it.



CAN YOU READ THIS?
Unnamed U.S. Casino
In the 15 year history of the Best and Worst, I have reviewed literally tens of thousands of casino direct mail pieces sent to actual customers. But never, except in this case of casino farsightedness, have I seen a direct mail letter with a font size of seven. A seven! (Go to your computer to see how small this print size is). What it accomplished, besides eyestrain for me and thousands of other casino customers, was a one page letter of over 1,000 words describing about eight different happenings at the casino. The note also contained several coupons, an address, a marketing executive signature, much confusion, a disincentive to read the damn thing and … a prime dishonored place in my Hall of Shame. At least send a magnifying glass with the miniature print!



HUNGRY?
Unnamed U.S. Casino
In this attempt at whetting the appetites of a certain casino’s best customers, VIPs were invited to a “star-spangled customer appreciation meal” featuring “mouth-watering cheeseburgers, served with potato chips and juicy, sweet watermelon.” So far so good, except … in the photos accompanying the text in the players club newsletter, the cheeseburger appears burnt, the watermelon squares look like cut-up flesh and the potato chips, well, the term “amoebas under a microscope” comes to mind. But the kicker here was that the disclaimer below the dreadfully unappetizing food photos stating “While supplies last.” Appreciation or regurgitation? Anyway, winner, winner!



WHIFF THE WEASEL
Unnamed Casino
And finally, once again a casino managed to turn a truly joyous casino customer moment into a disaster. In this case, the selected winner of a $28,000 car was denied the prize because she couldn’t produce an original Social Security card. The 65-year-old woman’s driver’s license and a photocopy of her Social Security card wasn’t proof enough as her ID. She offered to go home to get her original Social Security card, but the offer was declined. Staff apologized – then drew the name of another winner. Award winning arrogance and public relations ignorance, however!

And that brings a close to a decade and a half of sharing with you the best and worst that our gaming industry has to offer. I think I’ll take a nap now.

SIDEBAR: The best and worst of Best and Worst

Not all of the items featured over the years in my Best and Worst articles or presentations have been created equal. Some of the best have just stood out a little more than others – for their uniqueness, their impact, or their overwhelming appreciative reception from casino guests. And some of the worst over the years have just seemed to carry more shocking ignorance, omissions or insensitivity than others from the Hall of Shame.

There are a number of customer focused innovations on the all time best list, like the rounded shower curtain (first noticed at Little Creek Casino Resort); the construction ear plugs for customers at The Mill Casino Hotel; the in-room amenity basket (with plastic rubber ducky) at Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino; and the Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort CFO riding the Jackpot Bicycle to quickly pay slot jackpots with real flair.

Then there were the all time best classics like Harrah’s St. Louis’ “Swipe and Swap with Sal,” where a harried promotions supervisor got to clean out his promotional closet; Golden Nugget Las Vegas’ “Rickles Roasts Myron” where “Mr. Warmth” roasted a well liked executive host in front of his hysterical high rollers; Indiana Live’s “Yes You Can” grand opening featuring a really good Barack Obama lookalike (so real the White House made them pull the campaign); John Ascuaga’s Nugget’s “Reunion Tour Performance” where two casino hosts reprised their rock and roll band of twenty years ago in the main showroom; and of course, Golden Gates Casino’s famous “G Girls Party Pit,” with sexy blackjack dealers that have become property PR reps.

The worst of the worst over the years has to include the Slots for Tots slot tournament, which although an excellent event for a great charity, used kiddie images in all of its promotional material; a “Rock Around The Slots” event mailer that never mentioned which casino was hosting it; the casino that advertised its key chain giveaway with an ad having a set of car keys juxtaposed in front of an image of a mug of beer; the casino with a (truly great) buffet advertising a price discount with the headline “Buffet Blowout;” and of course, the Las Vegas locals slot bar that had the famous video poker promo “Hit a Royal, Win a Pistol” (yes, a real revolver). There were many other Hall of Shame contenders, but these truly should have been bronzed in manure.

And no Best and Worst final edition would be complete without a shout out to Seminole Casino – Coconut Creek and their out of the box GM Steve Bonner and marketing head honcho Michael Michaud, who over the years have provided a treasure trove of material for my best casino promo list, including the GM Bobblehead promo; the Bernie Madoff watch giveaway (complete with an appearance on Pawn Stars); the Chilean Miners promo, a “Dinner in the Sky” event with 20 VIPs dining suspended in an open air crane contraption 160 above the ground; and the famous “Space Satellite Debris” event where Coconut Creek promised to give away $1 million if debris from a disintegrating Russian spy satellite hit the casino upon re-entry to Earth.

Thank you, Seminole Casino – Coconut Creek! Your truly innovative promotional efforts embody the true spirit of the annual Best and Worst list.