Dennis Conrad would be the first to admit that the grand plan for his life didn’t initially involve casino marketing. Growing up outside of Buffalo, N.Y., in the town of West Seneca, the goal Conrad had set for himself was one many younger people still pursue today: he wanted to be a professional golfer.

He honed his game as a teenager, became a scratch golfer at his local country club, and was good enough to win a golf scholarship to Stanford University in California. Once there and playing, he eventually came to the realization that his game was unlikely to land him on the PGA Tour.

“I actually lettered the first year and was good enough to play alongside Tom Watson,” Conrad said. “But my game had peaked. By the second year I was a fringe player and by the third year I hardly played at all. I still enjoy and play golf, but the fact I wasn’t good enough to be a professional golfer was a bit of a rude awakening at the time. So I had to go on to other things.”

These “other things” included a long and distinguished career as a casino marketing executive and becoming the founder, president and chief strategist of Reno, Nev.-based Raving Consulting, a widely respected and influential firm that helps casinos and gaming companies worldwide strategically improve their marketing, service and operations. In recognition of the outsized impact he has had on the day-to-day world of casino marketers everywhere for three decades and counting, Conrad, along with Raving Service President Steve Browne, have been named co-recipients of this year’s Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be given out at the Casino Marketing & Technology Conference, taking place July 14-16 at Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

“It’s hard to think of another person in our industry who has given more of himself to the employees who get up every day and try their best to make customers happy than Dennis Conrad,” said Randy Green, group publisher for BNP Media, the owner of this magazine and the producers of the Casino Marketing & Technology Conference. “Dennis is not only one of the most knowledgeable people in our business, he also puts people first. It’s a combination that is unique and we are privileged to recognize him for it.”

 

SEARCHING FOR A NICHE

The path from disillusioned golfer to Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award recipient was a long, strange trip for Conrad, whose first inclination of a potential post college career involved becoming a social action lawyer in the mode of William Knustler (it was the early 1970s after all), so much so that he applied for and was accepted to law school at Syracuse University.

“The golf career had fizzled and I was lost and confused,” Conrad said. “It was the war years, everyone my age thought the system was all screwed up. I took a class on prison reform and thought I had found my calling. I became community oriented, I was for social action, I saw a purpose.”

However, after four years in sunny California, Conrad decided he would be happier out west and decided to ditch school in the east. On his way back to California he stopped to visit a friend at the University of Iowa where he met Becky, the woman who was to become his wife. Together, they continued going west, traveling in a red mustang and living off her savings of $1,000. They got as far Needles, Calif., before the car broke down and Conrad took a job as a substitute teacher during the weekdays, and as a clerk at an area Motel 6 on the weekends. At the Motel 6, he discovered coupon books for nearby Nevada casinos and he and Becky found themselves going to them once or twice a week.

“I had been to casinos before, I would go to Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe when I was a student at Stanford,” Conrad said. “I didn’t think of it as a career at that time. But in Needles, I ended up playing golf with a lot of card dealers from the local Nevada casinos. I liked their lifestyle, and though becoming a card dealer wouldn’t be such a bad idea.”

Conrad soon broke into the casino business writing keno at the Riverside Casino in Laughlin, Nev. He soon heard rumors that there were card dealing jobs in Jackpot, so he and his wife moved there and spent a winter learning the table games trade. Lake Tahoe, and card dealing jobs at Northshore Lake Tahoe, was the next stop. The couple finally made it to Las Vegas and found table games employment at Horseshoe, California Club, Stardust and Circus Circus. Conrad eventually ended up working craps and other table games at Holiday Casino, which was soon to become Harrah’s Las Vegas. But he had his eye on a bigger and better table games job.  

“I was a craps guy and the really big jobs were at The Dunes and The Sands,” Conrad said. “Dealers there were pulling in thousands of dollars a day in tips. I wanted a job like that.”

But one never materialized. Eventually, Becky tired of the dealing scene and took a job as a real estate broker. Conrad was also contemplating a career change to either stock broker or insurance salesman. However, a new job opened up at Harrah’s Las Vegas that was to change his business life forever; it went by the strange title of Captain Casino.

“The job was to teach people how to play table games,” Conrad said. “It was one of the first table game instruction programs in Las Vegas. As a craps guy, I was extremely good at simplifying the game for people and showing them how to play. Captain Casino was high profile, interesting, and I was good at it. I was packing people in for these sessions.”

His success as Captain Casino caught the eye of then Phil Satre, a fellow Stanford alum who was one his way to becoming president and CEO of Harrah’s Entertainment, who wanted him to expand the program to other properties. It also brought him to the attention of John O’Looney, vice president of operations for Harrah’s Las Vegas, the man Conrad credits for being his marketing mentor.

“John wanted to make stuff happen but had no resources,” Conrad said. “Here I am, Captain Casino, with the official title pit promotions and special events supervisor, doing table game promotions, blackjack tournaments and other events. John said he wanted more of that, but for the whole casino not just the pit area, and set me loose. I was 34 and from that point on casino marketing was my career.

 

A MARKETING LIFE

With O’Looney’s guidance, Conrad eventually rose to the position of casino marketing director. O’Looney eventually left Harrah’s to become general manager of Luxor Hotel Casino Las Vegas, and Conrad was thinking of going along with him when a new opportunity opened up at Harrah’s. The company had recently established the Harrah’s Institute, an internal training program designed to educate company employees and select clients on the finer points of casino gaming, with the goal of creating gaming executives to man the riverboat and tribal casinos starting to pop up around the country. Satre was looking for someone to bring the program to the next level, and Conrad with his education and marketing background seemed a good fit. He applied, was accepted, and became director of the William F. Harrah Institute of Casino Entertainment.

“It was a fancy sounding title, but was really a mid-level job with a high-profile and access to the corporate level,” Conrad said. “I asked for full reign on how the program was to be run and they gave it to me. I sought to give people a down and dirty taste of gaming, teach them what this business was all about. It was hands-on with lots of activity and lots of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.”

As director, Conrad met hundreds of gaming experts and casino executives, valuable contacts that were to help him in later business ventures.

Conrad was happy at the Institute and might have stayed longer than two years if it hadn’t been for an opportunity he felt he couldn’t pass up at Luxor—a chance to finally break into the corporate office, and all the perks that pertain to this level of job. “I was really happy at Harrah’s, but the group that owned the Luxor was undergoing a company-wide re-branding and cultural remake and offered me a position as corporate vice president of employee programs at triple the salary I was making at Harrah’s along with bonuses and stock options. How many chances to you get at a big job like that? So I took it and signed a three year contact.”

Unfortunately for Conrad, the job did not turn out as planned. Soon after he signed, a new management team came in and decided to go in a different corporate direction. Conrad was given the opportunity to choose another assignment, and decided to fall back on his marketing experience and take a position as casino marketing director at Circus Circus in Reno. “I did not like all the turmoil going on in Las Vegas and Reno was becoming Harrah’s north because of all the ex-Harrah’s executives working there. It was also a market undergoing a lot of change and challenges, so it was a good fit for me.”

However, once the contract ran out, Conrad found himself cut loose from that job. He had a decision to make: pursue another corporate level job, likely in Las Vegas, or stay in Reno and find something else. His family wanted to stay in Reno, so Conrad decided to use up his savings and start a new business. Raving Consulting was born.

“My thought was to create a consulting company along the lines of what I did for the Harrah’s Institute… instead of hiring a lot of people, I’ll find the best-of-breed experts in various fields, and work out arrangements where if I take on a job that requires their expertise, I’ll bring them in on the deal. A lot of good people said yes to the arrangement, it was like a free marketing arm for them.”

In addition to providing the best experts in various fields, Conrad decided his consultancy would, “talk honest and candidly and always give people the straight scoop.” He credits this approach with the company’s eventual and ongoing success, but admits to having some luck along the way. For example, Raving Consulting only made $6,000 in its first year of operation and Conrad was considering finding an alternative job when the company’s first big contact landed: helping resolve technical and training issues arising from the establishment of a players club at Windsor Raceway, the first racetrack casino in Canada.

Conrad also had the good fortune of hooking up early with Steve Browne, who he had met at a University of Reno executive development program while working for Harrah’s Institute. Browne proved to be very adept at anything he put his hand to, including customer service training, which was soon to become a bread-and-better business for Raving. “Steve said he was willing to take a swing at everything,” Conrad said. “When majestic Star Casino in Gary, Ind., approached us looking to set up a customer service training program, Browne jumped right in and created the whole thing, from manuals and training sessions to a graduation ceremony. It was the first time as a company we created something from start to finish, and it was big for us. Fast forward 15 years, and we have done hundreds of these programs, all under Steve’s watchful eye.”

Brown also proved instrumental in helping Raving to form a player development business, which has led to a series of highly successful host development programs and conferences around the world.

Raving has also become a force in the conference business, establishing a number of niche-specific trade show events, including Casino Marketing Conference and the Table Games Conference, both of which he sold to BNP Media. “The conference business was an accident—we originally envisioned it as a tool to kick-up some consulting contracts,” Conrad said. “I think really helped put us on the map and establish our reputation as quality industry knowledge providers.”

Despite all this success, Conrad is not one to rest on his laurels. Recently, he became involved with the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3F), which is dedicated to fighting obesity and type 2 diabetes in Native American children. Conrad hopes to raise $1 million for the organization over the next decade. He also continues to write columns for this magazine and books, including Conrad’s Corners: Observations on Casinos, Marketing and Life and Conrad on Casino Marketing.

And he is always searching for new businesses and partners to add to the Raving Consulting umbrella.

 “We continue to look for ultimate partnership for Raving,” Conrad said. “We always want to get to that next level.”