Three experienced and savvy casino marketing executives discuss their paths to success and offer advice on how to prosper in this always evolving gaming practice
In my 45-year gaming career, I have met hundreds of casino marketers.
Some were direct marketing pros. Others specialized in player development or were advertising gurus, analysis nerds or research mavens. Yes, the casino marketing landscape has many talented professionals tending it.
Among this group of smart, savvy marketers is a smaller, elite cadre of the “Best of the Best.” They are smart, experienced and possess common sense… they have an uncommonly clear view of the integrated nature of casino marketing with casino operations. Above all, they understand and have a keen appreciation of the casino customer.
So, I thought I’d chat with three of these wizards about the burning casino marketing questions of the day. Chris Archunde has worked in New Mexico, Puerto Rico and Washington and has the uncommon ability to have marketers and operators work successfully together. She is currently the director of marketing for Washington-based Port Madison Enterprises and Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort. Eric Pearson is the principal and chief consultant of Copper Star Gaming, an Arizona-based consultancy, and most recently engineered an impressive turnaround as CEO at Pennsylvania-based Valley Forge Casino Resort, prior to its sale to Boyd Gaming. Michael Michaud is the vice president of marketing at Grand Casino Hinckley in Minnesota and is a longtime tribal gaming veteran whose work has earned numerous Romero Awards for marketing excellence over the years.
Enjoy the wisdom of this group of casino marketing All Stars!
What positions have you held in the gaming industry?
ARCHUNDE: I began as an executive host then became a promotions coordinator, players club supervisor, marketing manager, and marketing consultant. My current position is enterprise director of marketing.
PEARSON: Early in my career, I held a number of frontline casino positions. In my executive career, I have been the corporate gaming technology manager at Gila River Gaming Enterprises, director of slot operations for Luxor and Excalibur in Las Vegas, executive director of slots at Circus Circus Las Vegas, vice president of gaming at Northern Quest Resort and casino vice president of gaming and revenue enhancement at Foxwoods Resort Casino. Most recently, I was president and CEO of Valley Forge Casino Resort.
MICHAUD: I started as a coin roller, a position I believe no longer exists. Then I became a slot attendant and later a blackjack dealer, followed by an executive career that has included positions as slot manager, casino shift manager, IT project manager, general manager and various positions as marketing manager—both as director and vice president.
From all of these roles, what are three experiences/observations that still serve you till this day?
ARCHUNDE: First, casino operations cannot be “taught,” it must be “experienced;” that will give you a much broader world view of the product you are selling. Second, the best thing you can do for your team is to challenge them and let them produce on as grand a scale as your resources will allow. Thirdly, as a marketing executive, you are expected to make yes/no decisions… this does not mean that I’m a “yes” person, but that I own my expertise and make recommendations and decisions that instill confidence with my team and superiors.
PEARSON: First, appreciate the supreme importance of being honest about who your customer is, what they really want and how to deliver on that experience. Second, from the late Felix Rappaport, I learned the difference between being a boss and a leader. I have had many bosses that have told me what to do, but Felix led through making people feel valued. Thirdly, it can be easy to get stuck in the weeds and not see the big picture, so being disciplined about where and how you spend your time is key. There are a lot of ways to skin that cat, but they all take planning and discipline.
MICHAUD: Before you accept a job with another company at a higher salary, ask yourself, “Can I make a difference?” Salary shouldn’t be the only reason you accept a job. Second, if you have limited face time with c-level executives, make sure that when you do get that time, you are well prepared and make a good impression. And third, learn casino math, it will help you in any position.
What is different about casino marketing now versus 20 years ago?
ARCHUNDE: Technology is quite literally light years beyond 20 years ago (casino tracking systems, slot machine math, etc.). Most gaming markets are now saturated, especially for Native American casinos. And there is now online “everything,” including shopping, hospitality booking, socializing and much more.
PEARSON: I agree the main difference probably lies with the technology that is now available to casino marketers. The amount of data to analyze, and ways to use this data, are seemingly endless and can be a powerful tool to improve the bottom line. A lot of good has come from this and the industry has become more data driven. However, I think we have lost something too… becoming so reliant on automation, direct mail and e-mail to engage our players has definitely been at the expense of personal interaction with those players on the casino floor.
MICHAUD: Today we are more focused on the total worth of a player throughout the casino property, plus we utilize our non-gaming venues to drive new business and build brand equity, instead of operating them as a loss leader.
What do you think will be different about casino marketing 20 years from now?
ARCHUNDE: The incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) will be staggering. AI management and development will be the “must have” skillset in the next five to eight years that database management has been in the last five to eight years.
I also predict that casinos will be “selling” the wager-based experience to customers in the way that Amazon sells products today. A player will have the ability to purchase, for example, $500 worth of credits on a Triple Fortune Dragon slot machine, play them on any device and bank them into a universal currency account. The competitive edge will be in who can create the most stimulating experience on that Triple Fortune Dragon.
PEARSON: If we take cues from what is going around us now, I think the biggest change will be in marketing automation and players’ choice. I think technology will allow players to manage much more of their own experience directly without having to interact with a member of the casino’s staff.
MICHAUD: Data will always be an important factor in making well-informed decisions. I foresee technology assisting us in providing more personal service and timely incentives that will create a better guest experience with more data captured for each individual guest.
Can you sum up your philosophy of casino marketing in one sentence?
ARCHUNDE: Casino marketing is equivalent to producing a blockbuster movie; risks and expectations are high, budgets are large, and every detail can make or break you.
PEARSON: Never forget, a gambler’s most preferred form of entertainment is… gambling.
MICHAUD: Casino marketing is the range of activities undertaken by a casino to promote awareness and sales of the property’s resources, especially gambling.
To you, what is the single most important measurement in casino marketing?
ARCHUNDE: Not re-investment or EBITDA but profit margin. What margins need to be hit to be successful? Margins are also the simplest form of measurement you can give a team to hit. If you tell them to hit a coin-in number—but don’t tell me where the profit margin should be—I could spend $7 million to hit $9 million. If a $2 million profit margin is too small, we’re all in trouble.
PEARSON: As a former casino president and CEO, it is EBITDA growth… as a former casino marketing executive, it is the number of strongly worded e-mails my boss sends me. But really, I always tried to keep a close eye on visitation trends in our rated play, trips per month, spend per trip, and time in action. Gross, net and theoretical win numbers can be deceiving, as they depend upon a lot of external factors and luck.
MICHAUD: Individual player profitability. If you can determine that you will be able to maximize opportunities and minimize over-reinvestment.
How should a casino marketer best listen to their customers?
ARCHUNDE: The easy answer is focus groups and surveys. Taking it a step further, here’s a couple of other things I would advise: Entrust operations employees with not only the keys to the kingdom, but also with the duty to advocate for casino customers with their supervisors; and closely monitor social media and have reputation and crisis management in place before you need it.
PEARSON: First, mine your data. Seriously, players tell you all the time what they like and it’s all in the data. Take players to dinner… they love it and they will tell you a bunch of stuff and give you a bunch of suggestions on marketing. You probably shouldn’t do much of what they suggest, but they can be a great source of understanding “pain points” that might be forcing some players to other casino properties.
MICHAUD: Any way they can! But the absolutely best advice I can give is to listen face to face in focus groups, over a meal or right on the casino floor.
What is the most common mistake you see casino marketers make?
ARCHUNDE: Driving in the slow lane while second-guessing decisions. With this approach, you will fail to see your competitors passing you on the left, while you are losing ground thinking smaller and smaller and smaller.
PEARSON: Nothing makes me giggle to myself more than seeing regional casino properties with built-in monopolies or semi-monopolies spending huge amounts of money on brand advertising. The best casino advertising I’ve seen lately was a billboard in San Diego, which had a simple white background with red lettering that only said, “The Point Multiplier Capital of the World—Barona.” That billboard probably drove more actual slot handle than all of the casino “branding” billboards combined. It spoke to gamblers and only to gamblers… it was beautiful.
MICHAUD: When casino marketing executives don’t observe the guests’ experience when a program or offer is implemented. We all make decisions daily that affect how a guest interacts with our property or our associates. If you aren’t quantifying and seeing how these decisions are impacting the overall guest experience, I think you are missing a key measure.
What was your biggest casino marketing mistake and what did you learn from it?
ARCHUNDE: While it may not be earth-shattering, I’ve learned it is a big mistake to take an “us vs. them” approach to working with casino operators. What I’ve learned is that blurring the lines between marketing and operations eases the load, period. I learned this from my team; they are amazing collaborators and they hold each other (and me) accountable through objectivity.
Also anyone who says “the Millennial work force needs more structure and guidance” is fooling themselves… the Millennial work force thrives on clear direction and room to breathe, not “one-upmanship” and fence-building.
PEARSON: Wow, I’ve made lots! The biggest mistake that still haunts me the most, happened when I left the Las Vegas Strip for a local regional property. On our first New Year’s Eve, the calendar allowed us to stretch out the weekend and drive multi-night stays with several possible days of play. We really “peaked the peak” and set new records for the property. I was feeling pretty smart until I saw that a disturbingly large number of our top players asked to be self-excluded afterwards, and others made a lot of comments that they were at the casino too much lately. I learned we really do have to think responsibly and more than the short-term bottom line, and not lose sight of our players as people. This business should be a marathon, not a sprint.
MICHAUD: We were giving away a car and there was one lock and 10 keys. Ten players picked a key, and whoever opened the lock, won the car. Key eight popped the lock, but when we looked at the master, key two should have opened it. In fact, all the keys opened the lock if not inserted completely. Lesson learned, always hire a locksmith when dealing with promotions involving keys.
What is the single best piece of advice you would give to a brand new casino marketing executive on their first day at the job?
ARCHUNDE: First-timers exhaust themselves, doubt themselves and are afraid to ask questions. I wish I could tell every first-timer “relax, you’ve got this!” You got the job, you are bringing invaluable knowledge and skill to this company. If you haven’t already done so, sit down with your boss and find out what their expectations are, then sit with your team and find out what they do. Open your mind, limit assumptions and keep a good work/life balance.”
PEARSON: Listen… you were born with two ears and one mouth, act accordingly. Listen to players. Listen to line staff. Listen to the operations managers and supervisors. Ask about what programs don’t work. Trust me, they’ll tell you about the drawing ticket that needs to be filled out in triplicate that is messing up the line at the players club booth. They’ll tell you about the comp dollar multiplier on Sundays that totally bogs down the food court or the buffet and makes the staff and players grumpy. And then, try to be of service, try to make people’s lives and jobs easier. But first, listen!
MICHAUD: Inspect what you expect. Spend more time walking the property than in your office, to hear what your associates and guests are saying.