It’s unlikely that someone has talked to more casino customers over the years about their likes and dislikes than Michael Meczka, but, then again, anything’s possible.

Meczka
Recipient of the 2013 Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award, Michael Meczka

If they have, then they have spoken to quite a lot of people indeed. Over the lifetime of Meczka’s firm MMRC, now in its fourth decade, the company has conducted more than 1 million individual interviews and more than 1,500 focus groups. And Meczka, who describes himself as “very hands-on,” continues to spend plenty of face time with players.

Over the years since founding the Los Angeles-based company in 1976, Meczka and MMRC have been an indispensable marketing information resource for casino operators, helping to move the industry forward in breakthrough areas such as cashless gaming by keeping the focus where it always needs to be: on the gambler. It is with these facts in mind that Casino Journal and Raving Consulting, co-producers of this month’s Casino Marketing Conference, are proud to name Michael Meczka the recipient of this year’s Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award. 

 

A LIFELONG INTEREST

Successful people always enjoy what they do, and Meczka is no different. “I’ve always been interested in casinos,” the Cleveland native said. “The rite of passage, when you got to be 18, your uncle or somebody would take you to Steubenville, Ohio, to the sawdust joints there. It was something that people did; it was a way of life. People would go to a favorite restaurant, people would go to Steubenville.”

Meczka did a tour in the Navy, where he and many of his buddies were fascinated by Edward Thorp’s book, Beat the Dealer, practicing their lessons at legal and quasi-legal casinos in The Philippines and various other places. After returning, Meczka was beginning his career in market research when he saw an ad for a marketing research position for Harrah’s.

“I applied and would have gotten the job but at that point the position was in Memphis and their properties were in Atlantic City, Reno and Tahoe plus a Holiday Inn in Las Vegas,” remembered Meczka. “The travel was too onerous; it was easier to get to Bolivia from Memphis than to their properties. When they moved their headquarters to Reno, we started to do work for them on a consulting basis; the business just sprouted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We worked on things like guest satisfaction, feasibility studies and location analysis.”

These were the days of two gaming jurisdictions, New Jersey and Nevada, with a population of 200 million in the U.S. to play with. “It was very easy, very sophomoric,” said Meczka. “Everyone made money, but no one knew why they made money. Some people—operators and governments—still think that it will never end.”

 

NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND OLD TRUTHS

Meczka is widely known for his traditionalist warnings about the pre-eminent importance of the gambling product, but he and his firm were also at the forefront of what was the most meaningful technological change the modern industry has ever seen: TITO, or ticket-in/ticket-out cashless gaming. MMRC was retained by International Game Technology (IGT) to conduct player interviews on the process and its findings were the necessary springboard for change.

“People were caught up in the romanticism of coin for the player for a long time; walking around with multiple buckets; everybody thought that was the thing to do,” said Meczka. “The first development was the bill validator, which people thought was a neat idea. But many were reluctant to go that route because we had change people on the floor who were there allegedly to provide service. The people at IGT came up with the idea of ticket-in/ticket-out. So we tested it, and to IGT’s surprise patrons embraced it.”

Players told MMRC that they didn’t have to carry coins, they liked the fact that their hands no longer got dirty and that they could move from machine to machine immediately with the click of a button. Tangential to that, slot machines used to be called one-arm bandits and suppliers were reluctant to take the arm away. But the arm had a natural slowdown effect; you could only pull it so quickly and you could hit the button a lot faster, so people embraced the button. The evolution of the machine came with input from consumers.

“The subtlest thing that came out of this is that time is the ally of the casino and the enemy of the player,” said Meczka. “Casinos were not doing all the time-compressing elements that they could do for the player. Players have a finite amount of time and players want to play; they don’t want to stand in line and they don’t want to wait. What we really learned is that all of those things related to TITO were time-saving devices. And if you look at a casino today, everything that we have, if it makes sense, is a time-saving device.

 “The best thing we could today is figure out the correct time/money ratio. We need to find that blend between hold, machine volatility and coin-in to define value. Player expectations are significantly less than everyone anticipates. All they want to do, for the most part, is gamble and stay in play. They have X number of dollars and they’re willing to give it all to the casino if they can stay in play for their allocated amount of time. The best quote I’ve ever heard is from a woman who goes to Tahoe and claims never to win: ‘All I expect is for those machines to tease me for all the time I’m here.’ She wants to be in action, be excited, and escape. We can do those things.”