As federally-regulated tribal gaming nears the completion of its third decade, there is a lot to think about.
From a marketing standpoint, “more than just gaming” is one of those things. Tribal nations that are fortunate enough to have a strong gaming business at the core of their economy are looking to the future and they see opportunities that can only be fully realized if they structure themselves for a technologically complex world.
What this means from a marketing standpoint was addressed in a session on corporate marketing at Raving’s Indian Gaming National Marketing Conference earlier this year, in a session that was admirably led by company’s new CEO Deana Scott. The panelists were Joseph Nayquonabe Jr., commissioner of corporate affairs, Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures; and Pam Shaw, COO, Kaw Gaming, Inc. Much of the session revolved around the question of how to give a tribe’s non-gaming businesses sufficient marketing attention when the cash cow is the casino. It’s not an easy question, but the failure to address it effectively will leave tribes vulnerable in the future.
“Nobody even remembers the last recession, but we forget that it was the first recession that damaged Indian gaming,” Nayquonabe said. “We can’t forget the impact that had on our business. Now that we’re in a mature industry, the economic cycle means everything. We didn’t know the last recession was coming but we know the next one is. What are we doing as corporate marketers and as business heads to prepare for that?”
Out of happy necessity, Mille Lacs has probably done more to prepare than most tribes. In the 1990s, the tribe went from zero revenue to doing $100 million in gaming revenue in the course of four years, and added 18 different businesses to its portfolio outside of its two casinos.
“You start closing deals and all of a sudden you have all of these new exciting things going on,” Nayquonabe said. “You build the casino and then you add a convention center, restaurants, bars and I think the natural tendency is to say, ‘now we’re just adding another business,’ be it a hotel, a marketing company, so you just add resources to the existing marketing team. I don’t know that we planned it; I think we just ended up there. Part of the opportunity that we have today is to go through it and analyze how highly functional, or not, that team is. That’s a challenge that we have right now; what do we do going forward as we continue to add to the portfolio?”
A key focus is on human talent, and there, on the corporate marketing side at least, Mille Lacs is looking for three things: People who understand the value and importance of data; how to pull it, manipulate it, interpret it and become a storyteller of data. Next is understanding the full range of digital tactics. “We know that an interactive marketing platform is something that you’re going to have to have,” Nayquonabe said. “People are already doing things to facilitate social games and online casino games.”
And third is strategic thinking. “We’re in a sandbox called Indian gaming,” Nayquonabe said. “The skill is being able to understand what the big brands in other industries are doing that’s going to converge with our sandbox.”
Skill sets don’t always transfer from gaming to non-gaming businesses, and sometimes talent can be unearthed from the smaller niches of a tribe’s economic portfolio. “There are different skills required for a smoke shop or a travel plaza,” said Shaw. “It’s easier if you have $150K-$200K a month to spend on promotions for a casino, but if you only have $1K a month to spend on a smaller business, you have to get creative. I would look for people who have marketing and advertising experience outside of gaming because they definitely have some skills that they can bring in.”
In the meantime, there’s the difficult question of balance: how to prevent non-gaming businesses from falling off the marketing radar when gaming dominates the portfolio. Shaw certainly spoke for many tribes when she said, “In my organization, there is not a corporate marketing function. Our tiny little marketing department is tasked with doing anything we can for all of the tribe’s businesses.”
That was the starting point for Mille Lacs, but they are moving away from it, according to Nayquonabe. “There’s always a whirlwind of things going on around the casino marketer that take attention away from our other brands. So we’re now less concerned with having a highly integrated marketing team and looking at pulling those things apart and focusing on performance.”