Even in a world of social distancing, limits to gaming capacity and restrictions on amenities, there are opportunities. But we’re in a handle-with-care environment, and for casino marketers that applies to who you target, what you target them with and how messages are delivered.
That was the gist of “COVID-19: Casino Marketing in the New Normal,” a webinar presented last month by Casino Journal. Mary Loftness, owner, Profitable Customers, led the discussion, and she was joined by Julia Carcamo, president and chief brand strategist, J Carcamo & Associates, and Mike Meczka, president, Meczka Marketing Research Consulting (MMRC).
At the heart of the webinar was a survey measuring casino player attitudes at multiple gaming properties across the country prior to reopening prepared by CasinoMarketingMonitor.com, a collaboration of Profitable Customers, J Carcamo & Associates and MMRC. The goal was to complete a minimum of 300 online interviews per participating casino property. For this national sample, a total of 3,851 online interviews were completed. The online surveys, which were conducted from late April to mid-May, yielded a confidence level of 95 percent when projected to a population size of 500,000 gaming patrons.
“The good news for all of us is these high-value gamers are coming back,” Loftness said (see charts on next page). She noted that 85 percent of respondents said they would visit soon after opening and 41 percent, “are those you have seen on the news and in the media waiting in line to get into your casino—those who say they would visit immediately. They also said they would come back at a similar pace; 28 percent said they would play less but the bulk said they would play at the same frequency and at the same value.”
The survey sample focused on high-value players. The average respondent age was 60 and the female-to-male breakout was 59:41.
“It was critical for us to talk to high-value gamers,” Loftness said. “Not just the retail player who is coming through looking for the rest of the amenities that you might find in Las Vegas; we wanted to talk to slot and table players that were of high value. Cooperating casinos that worked with us let us talk with the top 20 percent of their database; the 20 percent that give them 80 percent of their revenue.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, a word cloud reflecting customer priorities put “clean” at the top of the list. Important safety measures include: hand sanitizers; a “clean team,” deployed and visible; and face masks (see chart on this page). Temporary suspension of smoking, limiting slot capacity, gloves and partitions also rated highly.
Regarding smoking, 61 percent of those surveyed said temporary suspension of smoking was important, with 51 percent saying it was very important. “My humble opinion about smoking right now is that if your leadership won’t allow you to be non-smoking, then you have a smoking section rather than a non-smoking section,” said Loftness, who noted that the 22 percent who say that suspending smoking is not important at all reminds us that casinos have a huge chunk of high-value players who are smokers. “This is a very sensitive time and having a non-smoking environment at least temporarily did rank very high. Different casinos are finding solutions to meet customer needs in that way. Clearly, we understand that 20 percent of the world smokes, they are very comfortable in our casinos—it’s about the last place in the world that you can smoke—however, this is a very challenging time because we are fighting a respiratory disease.”
Loftness cited the example of other industries and the impact they will have on consumer expectations generally: “I recently flew Southwest Airlines and as you know the flight attendants used to clean those planes by themselves in a very hurried fashion. Now when you get off that Southwest flight there’s an army at the door ready to clean the plane. Supporting your brand with teams wearing logo t-shirts saying ‘we are responsible for keeping this casino clean’ is a very well-regarded strategy.”
On the gaming side of things, there is a certain Back to the Future quality of gaming-focused casinos that are light on amenities and with limited hotel space. The right person to have in the room at this time is the gambler. But making the most of the new normal will require a pivot for many marketers.
“The days where, ‘everybody knows my name’ is exactly what customers would like to have now and going forward,” Meczka said. “But we have become too slick in our segmentation, trying to do too many things for sets of people when in reality we don’t know why a person goes to a specific casino. We know it’s the gambling and we see it in our scores here, but there’s another limiting factor that we see it in other studies, and that’s location. We need to treat our people better because the location is not going to change.”
Anecdotally, among casinos that have reopened, the scope of the marketing challenge is becoming clear. Carcamo said a lot of marketers who have re-opened have told her the first days are really strong and it carries them through the weekend and then it starts to level off.
“Things feel a little normal, but not really,” Carcamo said. “In some of our markets where customers have to drive a distance to get to the casino, guests are sometimes apprehensive to make the drive because they’re afraid they’re not going to get in because of capacity constraints. Also, the older demographic is a little scared of getting COVID and we can’t really use the tools in the senior programs that we’ve been relying on. It has been—and it will continue to be—difficult communicating changes quickly and effectively regarding operations and promotions. The key will be to take it slow—not get ahead of the market but still provide a quality experience and outstanding service.”
PROMOTIONS IN THE NEW NORMAL
Part of meeting the post-COVID moment is promoting to customers in ways that appeal to their gaming needs while not recusing their comfort level on-site. “Clearly this customer base is not excited about being in a crowd,” Loftness said. “So promotions and offers that can be directly delivered to the player ‘touch-free’ take priority. Free play always is a driver (see chart right). But dropping tons of mailers to fill the property may not be the best approach, considering many casinos are operating with capacity limits. As we start extending top echelon offers such as free play, points and multipliers, think about touchless delivery. You can’t really do food offerings. Hotel offers can be of benefit, but again, many casinos are not opening their hotel right away.”
Loftness also recommends that marketers prepare a reopening playbook that is separate from their typical playbook. “Re-vamp your newsletter,” she said. “Limit offers so that you can be sure that you can handle the capacity. Because the last thing you want is a line of 300 high-value players or, even worse, 300 low-value players with 20 high-value players at the end of it.”
Continuity programs, which don’t typically mean big crowds, but big lines, need to be approached with care. “If you can do continuity in a kiosk-based system, very streamlined, where things are sanitized and you’re handing things to people in a sanitized way, yes,” Loftness said. “But dragging around a bag of goodies in this environment will be daunting to the player.”
To an audience question of whether or not casinos should run new promotions or the same as they did before, Meczka answered as follows: “If you put 25 database marketing consultants in a room right now you’d probably have 25 different answers whether to change offers post-COVID. My opinion is we keep our offers the same for people; we do not make them re-qualify for new post-COVID standards. As you have seen across all industries, as with Southwest Airlines, if you were A-list before COVID, you’re going to be A-list through next year. If you’re a diamond player, your status has been extended. Always err on the side being generous.”
Regarding food-and-beverage, Loftness took a wait-and-see attitude: “At this point, I think you can wait to extend food-and-beverage offers. This is a very high-touch area and we have to meet the needs of the player without driving tremendous volume into F&B.”
What customers want, added Meczka, is a clean, safe, fun, friendly environment where they can gamble. “What we really need to focus on is gaming-centric promotions that relate to their prime gambling experience which is, for the most part, slot machines and, to a lesser degree, table games.”
To that end, marketers can shore up areas of slot marketing that might not have been an emphasis previously. “As you’re thinking of merchandising your property, sell your new games,” Loftness said. “’While we missed you, while you were gone, we added these new games,’” is a great message. We very, very rarely put the new slot games out to the player.”
In the spirit of touchless, it’s also a great time to revisit your casino app. “As much of a naysayer as I was about applications four months ago, it’s time,” Loftness said. “We can use an app to help manage our lines, send instantaneous communication, and to become much more touchless than we are right now.”
REVISITING YOUR BRAND
Carcamo believes there is no better time than now for marketers to reflect on their brand and its meaning to customers and team members; and to move forward with rebuilding them. “Make no mistake: this is a rebuilding,” she said. “The internal monologue that people are having is shifting from jackpots and winning and service to cleanliness and hand wipes and masks and temperature checks; so many things we never thought would be part of our marketing.”
Bynder, an organization that does a state of branding report, did a COVID edition recently. Among the findings was that 13 percent of marketers thought the pandemic would have a permanent impact on their branding. And for 53 percent of respondents, the development of new messaging, content and campaigns as a direct response to COVID is their highest brand priority.
“I think that all of us have seen that,” Carcamo said. “For some of us, this is the halfway point of the year and we start to think about next year, looking at what we learned, what we did and what we plan to do differently. But how do you plan for the month ahead when the new normal hasn’t really been established?”
In reviewing your brand, Carcamo proposes a three-step approach. First, assess the health of your brand now as consumer expectations and priorities have shifted. Determine how your brand can evolve to meet changing needs. “For most of you, social listening is an excellent way to illuminate topics that are related to your brand and to your competitors,” she said. “Listen to what’s resonating, to what’s believable and what’s not, and to take what you learn, build upon it and improve messaging.”
Consider the original intent of your brand; what is it that you imagined your brand to be, and how do your policies and marketing reflect it? “From a personal perspective, one of my biggest frustrations with staying at home is the need to be around people and have fun together,” Carcamo said.
Step two: After marketers consider brand health, they’re going to have to make some shifts. To determine the changes to make, they’ll need to ask some questions:
- Has their position shifted a little or does it need to shift?
- Have the dynamics of selecting a go-to casino changed among their customers?
- Is price becoming more of a factor?
- Was the property convenient before and maybe someplace else has filled that position?
- Have consumer options shifted? (For example, online gaming was a novelty before the pandemic, now it’s holding a more relevant position.)
- Has their brand been replaced by a more comfortable online solution?
- Are these shifts long-term or temporary?
Finally, never forget that casinos are in the entertainment business. “For those of you who were in the casino business during the great recession, you may recall a study by the Yankelovich Group which pointed to the fact that consumers were looking for permission to let go and enjoy themselves,” Carcamo said. “Now more than ever we have to rely on the distraction and entertainment portions of our brand.”
TECHNOLOGIES THAT CAN HELP
The Casino Marketing Monitor survey also looked at technology issues in the context of the new normal (see graph right). Keeping in mind that players may not be quite comfortable with certain new technologies, their capacity for change should not be underestimated either. “We all know that our core slot player is typically over 55 and female; not someone you call an early adopter of new technology,” Loftness said. “But, more and more, they’re carrying smartphones and they’re interested in touchless features, such as cash alternatives to gaming.”
About two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said “yes,” or, “maybe,” to cash alternatives. “As you all know, there is a huge sensitivity right now toward touching a dollar bill and understanding the cleanliness issues of cash is critical to us,” Loftness said.
Technology can also assist with the problems of long lines and managing casino entries. “When you just do the math of six feet between each person and you have 100 people in line, 600 feet is a really, really long line,” Loftness said. “Entry reservations and some ability of high-level players to get around the line is something that is very important. It’s critical to our revenue; if we’ve got the high-value players stuck behind 100 people in line, we’re in trouble.”
Casino entry reservations via an app or some other web-based technology is very appealing in these capacity-controlled times. Players are saying they don’t want to stand in line to come in, so managing casino entries has to be a point of focus, Loftness said.