The power of the database, a “Cheers”-like atmosphere, and a good customer value mark just a few of the keys Golden Gaming executive Christopher Abraham employs to unlock marketing success

Christopher Abraham heads up marketing efforts for Las Vegas-based Golden Gaming.

In two decades in the gaming industry, marketing expert Christopher Abraham has gotten around. His resume includes stints at the Showboat in Atlantic City, IGT in Reno, Flamingo Hilton and Acres Gaming in Las Vegas, and Isle of Capri properties in Biloxi, Miss., and Black Hawk, Colo.

For the past three years, Abraham has headed marketing for Las Vegas-based Golden Gaming, Inc., which owns 42 taverns in Nevada – 37 in Las Vegas – and four casinos, three in Black Hawk, Colo., and one in Pahrump, Nev. The company is Nevada’s third largest slot route operator, with more than 2,500 machines in more than 200 locations.

Slot Manager contributor Anne Burke recently sat down with Abraham at Golden Gaming headquarters just off the Las Vegas Beltway to talk about his long career in gaming and what he’s learned about marketing in a down economy.

How did you get into gaming?
Abraham: I grew up in northern New Jersey. My dad used to take me to the racetrack at Meadowlands and to Atlantic City as a kid, so I kind of became enamored with the gaming industry at a very young age. I went to work in Atlantic City on the Monday after I graduated with my economics degree. I started out at the Showboat as a financial analyst.

Why did you switch to marketing?
Abraham: I realized, hey, this is where the fun is. This is where you spend money on different things and get different ROIs, and it was a lot more dynamic than accounting.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about marketing?
Abraham: That database is where you’re going to make your biggest difference. Advertising and promotions are very important as well, but you can really impact your business more in database.

Abraham: The impact is going to be measurable and it is going to talk to the people who are already in your gaming base who have a greater propensity to game. An advertising campaign speaks to so many people who don’t game. If I run a TV commercial, I know 60 percent of those people are never going to walk in my door. When I run a database campaign, I know 100 percent of those people are at least going to read the ad, and it’s going to mean something to them because they have already shown they are gamers and they’ve bothered to sign up for a club.

It is very difficult to measure the impact of spending $6,000 on a billboard, or spending $100,000 on a TV campaign. I’m not saying we don’t do those things – we do them – but it’s very difficult to measure the impact. I know with a database I’m going to see an impact.

How do you reach out to people in your database?
Abraham: Direct mail is the most proven and effective technique. That’s how players have been conditioned over the years to receive their offers. Players expect their mail at a certain time of the month – you get almost regimented to the program, that on the 26th of the month, I’m going to get my offers for the next month. We are [also] branching into new areas of communicating with players. Social media has been very effective for us.

Other than social networking, what kinds of new technology are you using?
Abraham: We’ve created, for our better players, what’s called a PURL, a personal URL. They have their own personalized web site for our company. I think about 1,000 of our customers have opted into that program, where they no longer receive a piece of mail, they receive it on their personal web site.

Golden Gaming's Las Vegas headquarters

With people in such a thrifty mood these days, how do you get them to spend money?
Abraham: You need to give your customers what they want and in this case, they want discounts. They don’t want to pay full price. You’re not going to get that person who comes in anymore, ‘Here’s my credit card, just ring it up. If I’m still sober, I’ll get it [tonight], if not I’ll come pick it up in the morning.’

People don’t want to pay $6.75 for a Gray Goose and seven, they want to pay three and a quarter for it. They don’t want to pay $4.50 for a beer, they want to pay a buck seventy-five. We do a $5.99 prime rib in Black Hawk. It’s a home run. We put 300 people through it a day. We do a two-for-one buffet in Pahrump, and we put 300 people through that a day.

We’re sacrificing margin big-time to create loyalty. We get them in the door with price, and hopefully we throw our arms around them and show them a great time and they’re going to spend what they have with us, and they’re going to become loyal to us.

How do you create the atmosphere you’re looking for?
Abraham: We spend a great deal of time at Golden Gaming in training our bar hosts and our team to understand what gamers are looking for, how to identify gamers, sign them up, and interact with them, to make them comfortable and make our taverns be their home place to game.

We have a program called Golden Gaming University, where anyone [who works] in a tavern comes in and we hold classes and they learn about everything. They learn what’s the difference between scotch and bourbon, what’s the difference between a lager beer and a light beer. We teach them about the database and the club and why it works. We teach them customer service, all of the different things that are a part of the business, how to do a P & L, how the tavern makes money, why it makes money, why it wouldn’t make money, how to understand the finances of the tavern.

It’s really worked for us. The knowledge of our people and the strength of our people, the service, and the atmosphere are going to go much further than anything I can do sitting in this office to drive people into that tavern. That’s for sure.

Taverns are your primary business. That’s an interesting niche.
Abraham: A tavern gamer is much different than a casino gamer. Casino gamers get very little interaction when they walk into a casino. They can play slots, play video poker and cash out without talking to anybody. Heck, it happens all the time.

The tavern player craves the interaction and social atmosphere and the camaraderie they have with the bar host and the other players. They may play in [casinos], but they’re more loyal to the tavern environment. You could call it kind of “Cheersy,” where you walk in, the bar host knows your name, knows what kind of drink you’re going to have. It’s already on the bar by the time you sit down. They know what game you’re going to play, they know what food you like and they know the other people in the tavern, and it’s a very social atmosphere.

It’s what I call the tavern mentality. I try to take that to our staffs and marketing teams in our casino environments. I don’t look at our casinos as casinos; I look at them as big taverns.

Talk about your loyalty programs.
Abraham: We have a rewards system that we’ve built ourselves that’s very unique. We have a bonus called Golden Jackpot, where, if one person hits the four of a kind of the day, everybody that’s logged on at the tavern would win something. It’s a share-the-wealth type of bonus. Let’s say the card of the day is seven, and player A hits four sevens. They’re going to get 20 bucks, all the other players who are logged on, depending on their tier level, will get $5, $10, $25, up to $50. So it creates, again, a sense of community.

We’ve tied it into our media system to where all the TVs and music shut down in the tavern and our celebration music comes up on all of our plasmas. Everyone on the staff gets into it. You can’t find that in a casino.

What else are you doing to drive loyalty?
Abraham: We just did the first-of-its-kind video poker tournament in Las Vegas, where we had 35 taverns compete, and every tavern had a slot tournament and the winner went on to finals, which we had last Wednesday here at Sierra Gold, and it was very successful.

Our happy hour has been the most successful thing we’ve ever done, where we give out half off all drinks and pizzas eight hours a day. It hasn’t been successful from a profit standpoint – we don’t make any money – but it’s been successful in giving Las Vegas people what they want. In this environment, in this economy, we’re thrilled just to have people in the door.

Who are your tavern customers?
Abraham: Working class, white color, blue collar, people in Las Vegas that work for a living and want to come and relax and enjoy themselves. Three, four years ago, real estate and construction were our strongest segments and now those are probably our least strong segments.

How is that reflected in your marketing and promotion?
Abraham: We did a campaign where we did five spots. A waitress was the star of the first, she worked all day, and when she got off work she went out with her friends to PT’s. A blackjack dealer, same thing, worked all day, you know, people giving her a hard time, went to PT’s and had a great time. At that time we said, ‘Let’s endear ourselves to the working class people in Las Vegas and say, PT’s is the type of place for you.’

How has your advertising and promotion strategy changed over the years?
Abraham: Obviously, if you’re starting up a new business, then you want to be heavy in advertising promotion because you’re trying to get as many people in the door as you can. Once your business matures to a certain point you probably need to do less advertising promotion and do more loyalty marketing, such as direct mail and things we’ve talked about.

Now, every once in a while, you can do that and then you realize, well, I’m not getting as many new customers in the door anymore and I need to begin to advertise again. We had that realization probably two or three years ago. As the market began to shrink a little bit, we said, instead of pulling back, and not doing anything, let’s be more aggressive and create share based on who’s left out there and get them loyal to our brand, so when things get better, they’re already going to be loyal to us.

We signed [NASCAR driver] Kurt Busch as one of our sponsors. We had him come in and do a lot of [TV] commercials for us and it was a lot of fun. Daniel Negreanu the poker player did some commercials for us.

But database is still No. 1 in your book.
Abraham: Like I said, if I only had $100 to spend, I’d spend it with my existing customers in loyalty marketing and direct mail and those types of things. [But] it’s unhealthy just to be in database or just to be in advertising. You want to be well rounded.

Sierra Gold is one of Golden Gaming’s tavern brands.

Is Golden Gaming on Facebook?
Abraham: We have 30,000 Facebook friends right here in Las Vegas. What we’ve done is, we’ve personalized the experience so each tavern has their own site and their own friends, and each manager and bar host has their own input into that page. So for instance, tonight, there’s an event at PT’s Sunset, it’s a player appreciation party. That will be on Facebook today saying, make sure you come to our party, and it will be the actual bar host with their picture who is inviting them. You can see Tiffany’s face on there – come join us tonight for our appreciation party. They’re more likely to come if someone is personally putting something out there.

The people who receive this have opted into this, so they’re engaged – it’s a two-way relationship to where they can respond back – I’ll be there, click yes, I won’t be there, click no. It’s much more personal than email. So, we’ve had a great deal of success from the social networking standpoint -- not from a gaming standpoint but from a retail standpoint.

We [also] do that in the casinos. We encourage all of our frontline team members who touch guests to have Facebook pages and have input on the pages.

Your dealers have Facebook pages?
Abraham: At Golden Gates [in Black Hawk], every blackjack dealer has their own Facebook page and it will say, ‘Nancy Golden Gates,’ and there will be a picture of her in her dealer’s uniform. She’ll post what events that are coming up. Every weekend we dress them in costumes. We have a program called the G Girls up in Golden Gates, and they’re attractive girls who deal blackjack, and we do events. Like, for Halloween they’ll all dress up. If the Broncos are playing, they’ll all have Broncos wear and we’ll give away prizes and they’ll be out there Facebooking this stuff, and they have business cards they hand to all the people who play at the table – friend me on Facebook, friend me on Facebook.

That’s never going to happen if I walk into a local casino here. I’m never going to sit down at a blackjack table and have a dealer slide across a card that says. ‘Let’s be friends.’ But that’s something we’ve taken from our tavern experience to our casinos that’s been very successful in creating relationships with guests.

Talk about Twitter.
Abraham: I think we’re just shy of 5,000 [followers], so we’re not as strong in Twitter. To me, it’s not as effective a tool for what we’re trying to do but it’s still a very good tool because people will come in and say, ‘I just ate at Sierra Gold and had the wings and they were great’ and Twitter it out to all their followers. So, boom, we got a good mention. Our chef has a Twitter account, so when he creates the specials for the month – here I created this new shrimp stir fry this month, come in and check it out, that type of stuff.

Who handles social networking for Golden Gaming?
Abraham: We just hired a public relations manager with an extensive background -- as extensive as you can get in two or three years of social networking, social marketing – who is helping us to grow it and to use it. It’s an exciting part of our business. As database marketing was 15, 20 years ago, social networking is at that stage right now.

What’s the funnest job you ever had?
Abraham: Other than my current job, IGT. I did market research, focus groups, testing different game platforms in front of players and getting their feedback, doing competitive analysis, working with the sales team and really developing games, which – it was great fun because it was very dynamic and back then it was very new and I learned probably more in just three short years about what slot players are looking for in games and what keep them in front of machines and it really helped my career a great deal because once you realize what a player wants, it pretty much makes your marketing job a lot easier.

In your marketing and promotions, do you acknowledge the bad economy?
Abraham: Not at all. We’re creating a positive experience for our guests. They’re working hard, probably two jobs, they have a lot of stress in their lives and they want a place to relax and get away, and that’s what we’re providing. Be it our casinos or taverns, the type of message we have is a smiling face, a great, clean, warm, safe, fun atmosphere, great food, quality products, quality experience.

Christopher Abraham

Christopher Abraham is vice president of marketing for Golden Gaming and oversees the Golden Gaming, Inc. marketing efforts in all of its jurisdictions, including Black Hawk, Colorado, Pahrump, Nevada as well as all of Reno and Las Vegas, Nev. Prior to joining Golden Gaming, Abraham was assistant vice president of marketing and advertising for Station Casinos. Prior to Station Casinos, Abraham served as the senior director of marketing for Isle of Capri, and Colorado Central Station in Black Hawk, Colo..

Abraham received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J. before earning a master’s of business administration degree from Monmouth University in Long Branch, N.J. His marketing career has taken him to gaming companies around the country including the Showboat Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, International Game Technology in Reno, Nev., Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas, Acres Gaming in Las Vegas, Isle of Capri Casinos in both Biloxi, Miss., and Black Hawk, Colo., and Station Casinos Inc. in Las Vegas.