Player Loyalty Programs: It's Time to Get Personal
Casinos have what it takes to bring loyalty programs to the next level, but the path to personalization is a team game that takes practice
“We are in the age of expectation. Our customer expects complete knowledge of every spend they make and every click they take and every piece of information they leave about themselves across the organization. We’re not exactly there with that kind of knowledge at many of our properties.”
So said Nicole Barker, senior Raving partner, database and loyalty marketing, speaking at the consultancy’s National Indian Gaming Marketing Conference, held at the Choctaw Casino Resort in late January. Barker and Raving CEO Deana Scott led companion sessions on loyalty marketing that offered marketers a glimpse of what’s possible and how to get there.
Using the ski resort industry as a model, Barker cited a company called Vail Resorts, which has said that data-driven customer development and Loyalty 360, or taking a holistic view of each customer’s behavior and marketing to them accordingly, is important to them. One of the things she said they’re doing is hiring an army of IT experts, data analysts and people who know SQL, who know how to coalesce data to put this forward. They’re hiring people not just with IT skills, but with marketing brains. And they’re putting them on cross-functional teams to accomplish their goals—no longer siloed as IT for IT and marketing for marketing and operations for operations. They’re building cross-functional teams to get this done.
“In the gaming environment, we are currently looking at customers as stick figures, not whole people,” said Barker. “We look at them like they have a barcode across their forehead according to ADT or some other flat segmentation and we’re flipping out offers against it. We need to look at the whole person and the connections that we can make, not only against their slot play but to the spa, food and beverage, the hotel, and to what kind of profile we can build around that. Every player is different but we can batch them in new and novel ways based on proportional spend.”
But when asked if they have access to total customer spend, 80 percent of attendees said they didn’t. The lingering issue is a fragmented systems environment that few operators have committed to integrate.
“I know an IT manager in Las Vegas who is the CIO of his company and manages over 200 different software systems,” said Barker. Even though that’s a common problem and expensive to address, customers are the ones who really pay in the end. “Our customers don’t care about our margins; they don’t care that we make more money from slots than we do from F&B. They know that they come to us for entertainment and when they walk out the door they’ve probably left $1,000, not at the tables but at five or six different outlets. This is our new environment where we play with all of these disparate data sources and none of them play nicely with each other. Not realizing Loyalty 360 isn’t a failure of technology, it’s a failure of leadership. Technology is a process; the end goal of the vision is being able to look at total spend and total expenses against one player. The mammoth task before us is to have the data discipline to coalesce all of this unique and disparate data under one customer ID.”
Other speakers picked up on that theme, and one particular area of opportunity is improved communication between marketing and IT. “It really is important to engage with your technology before you make the purchasing decision,” said Richard Rader, chief technology officer At Oregon-based Seven Feathers Casino Resort. “What often happens with technology is we get it delivered and we’re told, ‘We bought this, now make it work.’ That creates a lot of resistance in the IT department. They have this thing they had no say-so on; it’s not in our strategy or our infrastructure model, and now we’re being pushed to make this thing work correctly. Whereas if they had come to the technology department before and said, ‘Here’s how I want to enhance our operation, here’s what the vendors are saying, how can we move on this strategy?’ And a lot of times the answer isn’t buying the new thing, it’s we have that already, you weren’t aware of it, it’s in this one component or module of already-acquired software, let’s go back to our partner or vendor and get some more training on how to use it correctly.”
Scott said, “It seems casinos aren’t doing enough planning as organizations to really map out what they’re trying to create overall and to bring everybody together to discuss how we get to that ultimate goal, the engagement pyramid with personalization at the very top, and how do we weave these things together. Is that IT’s role to create that journey or who needs to be involved to make it happen?”
“The entire leadership team needs to be on board or it’s not going to work,” Rader added. “Having one department try to implement something like that when the other departments haven’t bought is not going to end in success. They need to articulate the business needs and see what fits into our portfolio and what doesn’t. We’re a pretty small property and our IT department supports over 140 different applications. That’s a lot. So if marketing brings us another application that they’ve already bought and installed in a certain area and now they say, ‘IT, we want you to maintain it.’ That’s a tough sell for IT. Does it even comply with our security procedures? In the end, if something goes bad or there’s a vulnerability or it doesn’t work the way operations wants it to, who gets blamed? IT. One thing that we’ve mandated is before something gets installed in our network: it has to go through a technology review. That has helped us quite a bit at the gate to prevent things from coming in that cause more impacts.”
Club solutions started as IT, then it was slots and then it was marketing, noted Scott. “Then there was a lot of back-and-forth on who these departments report to; now there’s an understanding that club solutions are the heart-and-soul of everything we do and all departments are involved in implementation decisions,” she said.
Barker struck a note of realism when it comes to leveraging IT. “We have to be honest with ourselves about our actual bandwidth, the amount of hours we have in a day and our time and resources,” she said. “Especially when it comes to IT resources; they’re putting out fires on a day-to-day basis. So having this grand vision of everything falling under total customer spend will require honesty about resources and where we want to be in a year or three years, not three months. Looking at a longer time horizon with a grander vision statement will hopefully give us the resources. We should also not just be friends with IT but empower then to have the agility to change gears along the way.”
MOVING, AND FAILING, FORWARD
As casinos evolve organizationally, they still must embrace technology if they are going to find new and effective ways to promote loyalty. Seven Feathers, for instance, has created a host department and deployed mobile hosting technology simultaneously, eliminating the front desk and streamlining processes.
“One of the big sticking points is people say you will lose the human touch,” said Samantha McDonald, DBA, assistant general manager, Seven Feathers. “I think as operators we need to get more honest with ourselves about what that experience really is for the guest. We need to change that and to do that we need technology and we need to change our teams. Our property didn’t have a host department before so we created one. On the technology side, we operate a wireless floor, so now we have the ability, through hosts using tablets that have real-time access to our player management system. So instead of players standing in line we have hosts who can help them out. Now our host department isn’t that big so to augment that for times when there are long lines we have guest service ambassadors… we don’t have slot attendants and wait staff anymore; we merged the two.”
Scott said she tested the concept herself at Seven Feathers. “I sat at a game and turned on the light indicating that I wanted a drink. Then I said ‘can you get me a drink and first I’d like change oh, I don’t have a card, can you get me a card?’ That person did all three of those functions for me while I was sitting there playing the game and it was a Friday night. There was no hassle, there was no line… it was very personal. Mobile host technology is a big part of that.”
Mobile apps are another new loyalty tool that many casinos have adopted, albeit with mixed results. “Properties are increasingly adding mobile apps but not many of them do it very well,” said Andy Fisher, senior manager, product management for International Game Technology PLC (IGT). “In my experience, I have a few mobile apps downloaded to my phone but I simply don’t use them at all. Most of them have property info or you might be able to look at your points. We believe that as people adopt cardless technology, which integrates into a property’s mobile app, it enables them to log into their players card using Bluetooth. Once people start to get engaged with that inside their mobile app then we have an opportunity to engage them at home. You could replace what you’d normally do in a mailer, for example, and extend mobile offers based on gaming and non-gaming data and location data.”
Fisher added that a social gaming component, or the lack thereof, can go far to determining the success of mobile casino apps. “We do a customer advisory board every year and at the most recent one we had a session that addressed mobile apps and the casinos that had the most downloads and continued usage are the ones that had social gaming integrated into the app,” he said. “The ones that didn’t almost to a person considered their deployment of the mobile app a failure.”
One mobile app success story is being written at Casino Del Sol Resort. “The mobile app is working because I have the analytics to show me,” said Steve Neely, chief marketing officer and COO for Arizona-based Casino Del Sol. “Within our hotel, we’re able to keep our rooms 99 percent full. The last five to 10 rooms that get sold we’re actually pushing through notifications on our app. That helps us keep the rate higher. We’re sending push notifications out to groups of about 200 to 500, depending on how many rooms we have left, on that last day until we get to the point where we have all of our rooms filled and then we shut off the push. We’re able to target higher value players first and then fill the rooms that way. The second way that has worked out extremely well for us is with our free play offers. Our structure is such that the last day of the offer, we’re able to identify people who have a higher than average offer and we send them a simple reminder that they’re about to lose $50 in free play if you don’t make a trip into the casino today. That one little tool has increased redemption rates by double-digit percentage points. If you just turn an app on and expect it to magically work it’s not going to happen. You’ve got to get invested in it and be very strategic in what you’re planning to use.”
Neely is a believer in social gaming as well, but success didn’t come on the first try. “We started with social gaming a number of years ago and if I had hired a security guard and put him in the parking lot looking for loose change we would have made more money,” he said. “So we decided to turn that into an engagement tool and extend the trip even if they’re not in the casino. The strategy we have is whatever people play in the casino dictates what they get in the social gaming space. So instead of doing it the other way where if you buy a bunch of credits and maybe get a buffet or some free play, we go in the other direction. I think that helps offset some of the time-on-device issues. If they’re playing that game, we can give them more time on it or on something similar. We can also feature games that we’re getting ready to bring onto the property or maybe need a little bit of a jumpstart.”