It’s still expensive, but the world gets more and more accommodating for valuable slot players, and even the not-so-valuable.

Casino operators continue to refine their customer relationship models, adding new forms of service and customer satisfaction measurement and accountability. The focus on building enduring, profitable relationships is what guides choices all along the line, from employee hiring and training to player rewards and the games customers play. This is nothing new, but the level of rigor and detail applied is growing all the time.

That was clear from a panel discussion at Southern Gaming Summit last May led by Kevin Parker, product manager, Acres 4.0, and a columnist for this magazine.  “Most casinos exist in a fully-supplied market where they and their competition chase the same players with the same games and similar amenities,” said Parker. “The dynamic makes price-based strategies attractive in the near-term, but keeping customers loyal while creating durable profits is a different question.  Today, our basic toolkit, when we discuss our casino marketing program, consists of, among other things, free play, points, matching offers, promotions, print, digital and social marketing, and leveraging property amenities. As powerful as these tools are at attracting players, they don’t ensure a great customer experience, and they will not create loyalty in and of themselves.”

Speakers at the session included Warren Davidson, director of slots, Coushatta Casino Resort; Joe Farruggio, senior vice president of gaming operations, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi; and Osi Imomoh, senior director of operations, Delaware North Companies Gaming & Entertainment. Summaries of their comments follow.

 

COUSHATTA CASINO RESORT

Coushatta is a tribal property in Lake Charles, La., that competes with racinos as well as commercial riverboat casinos. More than 60 percent of its customers come from the Houston area, and the casino is about 45 minutes to an hour further away from its main market than its competitors.

“Our guests are typically about three hours away from us, so we have to do a lot of things to keep them involved with the property,” said Davidson. That includes extending the relationship to where they live. “One of the things we do is events and dinners in Houston for our players there.  It really is about building relationships, and it’s not about driving them to the casino every single time.” By the same token, Coushatta has a partnership with Landry’s, which allows players to use their comps in exchange for gift cards at Landry’s restaurants which are all over the Houston area.

On the service side, Coushatta keeps the floor fully staffed to attend to people’s needs, and uses  information from its dispatch system to track players and ensure that the right people are engaged with players at the right time and that they’re responding to calls as quickly as they can.

“We also put a lot into rewarding and recognizing our employees for going above and beyond for our guests,” said Davidson. “We put a huge emphasis on employee satisfaction. We measure and monitor that and we have been able to raise it over the years. There certainly is a correlation; if employees aren’t happy, they’re not going to deliver great service to your guests. That has translated down to better customer service scores whenever we talk to the guest.” 

To that end, when Coushatta re-implemented and refreshed customer service standards a few years ago, it looked to do it in a way that could be fun. “Your hourly employees don’t want to be watched and that’s kind of what the supervisors have to do, so we made it into kind of a game,” said Davidson. “We rolled it out said, ‘here are the service standards that we are looking for,’ and set up specific times when the supervisors were going to be watching and rating the associates and we rewarded and recognized based on that. We gave some nice prizes out; we turned something that’s usually kind of a negative into a real positive.”

Coushatta has also mined the world of outside consultants for inspiration, including Franklin Covey’s “Four Disciplines of Execution” and Bob Farrell’s “Give ‘em the pickle” program, which has helped considerably with service recovery.

“When I first came to the property, I would see the occasional argument over $5-$10 disputes at the slot machine, when the slot technician would go back into the machine and find out the guest is wrong,” explained Davidson. “We trained our people to give them the $10 and make them happy. Are people really travelling three hours to our facility to scam us out of $10? Probably not.”

Davidson told the story of an elderly lady who went to play a nickel machine, put $20 in, pressed the spin button a couple of times and her money was gone. In fact, she was on a $5 machine, didn’t realize it and was very upset. The manager got her $20, helped her find a nice nickel machine and got her re-started.

“Now we’ve got an advocate, someone who will say they did a great job for me, even though it was the player’s mistake,” said Davidson. “We give them the benefit of the doubt whenever we can. We leave a note on the player’s club account so there’s a history and if someone tries to do it again and again we’re going to catch on to that. When you look at the amount of free play we send to players every month, a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars of public relations expense is money well spent.”

 

DELAWARE NORTH COMPANIES

Delaware North’s Imomoh, now president and general manager at Wheeling Island, was at Southland Park in West Memphis, Ark., which is 35 minutes away from Tunica, for the past five years. “It’s a competitive market that is changing and shrinking,” he said. “What we’re seeing in this market is it used to be regional, but it has truly become a struggle for local customers. You have the casino market in Oklahoma and Missouri is also coming along, so you’re starting to see the Tunica market shrink a lot; it has lost anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of what it used to be, so competition for that dollar is strong.”

Creating brand awareness was a key for Southland. “One of the things that we realized very quickly was that we didn’t stand out,” said Imomoh. “We had to find a way to cut through the clutter. So we were a little edgy with our billboards and weren’t afraid to poke fun at ourselves. A lot of research that we subsequently did showed that our brand recall was very high. If you’re not the biggest in a market, you have to find a way to differentiate your product. And then how do you treat them when they come through the door? We all have basically the same products.”

On the service side, Delaware North has a program called GuestPath which is used at all of the company’s 197 hospitality-oriented locations. The program has a similar set of standards for greeting and thanking guests and operational standards for each position. In addition, Southland does quarterly secret shops through an outside company. And each floor manager is required to perform two, one-minute observations per shift and either do on-the-spot coaching or rewards. “If we’re not consistently coaching, praising or holding accountable, there could easily be a fall off,” said Imomoh. “We also get feedback through online surveys which the guests take anonymously and we respond to them within 48 hours of receipt.”

Southland and Delaware North also have a service recovery program called “Serve,” in which all employees are empowered to take care of guest situations. They are asked to both solve the issue and exceed guest expectations at the end of it. Each associate is given a set of cards; a line-level associate can give up to $50 to a player. “The key thing is to verify/check for abuse,” said Imomoh. “Each comp is logged into the player tracking system, and we track associates to see if they’re using it as an undercover comp program. When it comes to service recovery, there’s a big element of trust that goes into it. You need to look into every situation, but you don’t want to kill the associate’s spirit. As we all know, we’re all fighting for customers and turning them into lifetime customers is a worthwhile goal.”

In terms of providing unique experiences, Imomoh called Delaware North, “probably one of the largest companies that a lot of people have never heard of.” The company operates such venues as the Kennedy Space Center, St. Louis Rams football, St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Yosemite, the Australian Open and Wembley Stadium; plus a total of seven gaming establishments in the U.S. “As a result, we have the opportunity to offer special experiences to our players outside of the traditional club,” said Imomoh.

 

HARD ROCK BILOXI

Farruggio noted that, in addition to the crowded Biloxi market, Hard Rock competes regionally with Alabama and Florida. “The junket business that used to be in our market is not as prevalent as it used to be,” he said. “We’ve added another casino in the past year (Margaritaville) and the market is flat right now. They do about $2 million a month, and that’s come right out of the existing market.  Each casino here on the Coast has taken on its own personality. Don’t ever underestimate training and the relationships that you build with your own customers. Promotions are very important and are relationships.”

With that in mind, Hard Rock Biloxi tries to create events that not only are fun, but are where players get to meet other players. “It’s not anything new, but building relationships is very important especially on the higher end, so gearing your events to your guests is very important,” he said. “We do a lot of market research and ask our players what they like and what they want. It also goes back to determining what your total marketing reinvestment is going to be for your casino.”

The Hard Rock brand is a key advantage. “We feel fortunate about our brand, and that music and entertainment is part of who we are,” said Farruggio. “People who are on the Gulf Coast for the first time usually stop in for a visit us at Hard Rock. That gives us an opportunity to turn them into loyal customers.”

Hard Rock Biloxi offers a wide variety of reward programs that specifically target different segments of its customer base. The property is able to leverage a spa, close to 100 concerts a year, pool cabanas, golf, and Detox, a spring and summer pool party which is unique to the area.

On the service front, the property adopts all service standards of Hard Rock International, which are communicated to each employee from the time they are trained. Success is measured via e-mail surveys conducted by Market Metrix. “We also do secret shops and respond to Trip Advisor,” said Farruggio. “So we monitor several different points and communicate constantly with our employees. We also reward or coach employees as needed. Three out of the last four years Hard Rock Casino has been rated the best facility on the Gulf.”

 Comments from the Market Metrix surveys are answered by all managers and above, depending on the situation. “No documentation comes into our property that isn’t answered,” said Farruggio. “We do focus groups by segment and try to find out specifically what they want. We also try to reach out to people who frequent other casinos and ask why Hard Rock isn’t their first choice.”