Although it has been quite a while since I had a “real job,” I do remember well and fondly my decades spent in the gaming industry: the characters I met (I was probably one of them); the many casinos I’ve worked with, played at or been to; the things I’ve learned over the years and where and from whom I learned them.
Well, that got me to thinking about where I learned the most and where I had the most stimulating, candid, and valuable learning-filled discussions. And of course, these happened with smart, open-minded, tell-it-like-it-is gaming-industry executive colleagues and friends.
At the bar.
The particular bar didn’t matter, nor the kind of drinks, nor how many (although up to a certain point, increasing the number of drinks seemed to improve the discussions). What did matter was that all these executives at the bar felt comfortable enough with one another to speak candidly without fear of judgment. It was there at the bar, not in a boardroom or at an executive retreat, where the real issues of the gaming industry were solved.
I miss those bar talks. With John Romero. Mike Meczka. Felix Rappaport. The many other truth tellers who have left us. Some of the young generation of casino executives may not know these names, or worse, immediately cast them, and us, as dinosaurs. However, I choose to embrace the “dinosaurs,” who at the very least could share some wisdom on how not to become extinct.
So I asked a fellow dinosaur to join me to recreate one of those famous discussions at the bar, but in modern times for modern-day casino issues. Truth be told, most of those core issues aren’t all that different from those of decades ago. Players lose money at our casinos and we try to make them feel okay with that.
Imagine two casino dinosaurs (who are still alive!) walking into a bar to talk shop. My fellow dinosaur is Tom Osiecki, a friend of 25 years, who has been a senior marketing VP, a COO, a GM, a casino president, and a top-notch consultant in his 30 years in casino gaming. Tom and I have had several of these bar discussions over the years, but since we’re 3,000 miles apart, try to imagine you’re a fly on the wall when we two pterodactyls (dinosaurs who could fly) walk into your favorite casino bar.
Dennis Conrad: Hey Tom, nice to see you again! Waddaya drinking? I’d like a nice Hall Cabernet, but I’m betting all they have is some cheap Cab at 15 bucks a glass.
Tom Osiecki: Glad to be here with a good friend. Since It’s a virtual bar, I’ll order from Virgil, the virtual bartender. Virgil, how about an Old Fashioned with your best rye or bourbon, since Dennis is paying?
DC: I can’t believe how many decades we’ve been in this crazy biz! Remember when we thought none of our gamblers would go on social media, because they were old, resistant to change, and needed a marketing communication they could touch, like direct mail? What do you think is going on now?
TO: Mail is still king today. But casino marketers have more choices in channels to reach customers. This is important, since you can reach different customers at more efficient levels by targeting different channels.
Boomers respond to mail and some social media, while you can reach younger audiences with focused digital media. The key today is convenience, so the real growth is coming from mobile. Companies that have robust mobile, text, and online presence are turning the tide by targeting specific customers.
The same thing is happening in media. Each year, you see the allocation of traditional media drop to accommodate digital. Digital media emerged over the past few years because it is highly target specific and highly trackable.
DC: Remember when we used to make all our money in gaming and everything else was a break-even or loss-leader amenity designed to suck players in the door? Now a casino-goer gets nicked at every hotel-casino cash register, in the name of maximizing profits. Am I missing something or are we killing the golden goose?
TO: Virgil, I spotted a bottle of Whistle Pig. Can I have a Whistle Pig with a giant ice cube, please?
One of the oldest debates in the industry is the ability of guests to perceive a slight increase in hold. Mike Meczka surveyed thousands of casino customers and concluded that casino guests were requesting time on device that matched their time spent at the casino.
So you have guests asking for a fair gaming experience and casinos pushing the envelope on hold.
Then came the need to maximize income and yield from all profit centers. So, that was followed by controversial parking charges, resort fees and more.
Eventually, the market will dictate the results. I’m beginning to hear rumblings on the effect of inflation in regional markets. Players are making the same number of trips, but spending less. Soon, gas prices will come into play in regional markets and airfares in resort environments.
When customers are pinched by inflation, will they increase local trips to casinos and resorts, as opposed to going on extended vacations? Or will markets turn ugly?
Casino companies are squeezed on cost of goods and rising labor costs, so the next year will be interesting.
In the end, the customer is always in the driver’s seat.
DC: So who’s doing it right in the gaming biz now, given all the changes and explosive growth over the last 20 years? You know I’ve been a huge Barona fan all these years, but who else gets it and is knocking it out of the park?
TO: Large resort operations with deep pockets that dove into technology for operational or marketing efficiencies are ahead of the curve. In this environment, regional casino operators who embrace the value of their employee base and keep customer contact at max levels will beat the competition.
DC: With Romero, Meczka, Rappaport, and so many of the good ones having passed on, who’s carrying the marketing torch now? I’ve been a longtime fan of Kari Smith, Steve Neely, Michael Michaud, Michael Ka’ahanui, and a few others, but what’s your take on who’s filling John Romero’s big shoes?
TO: Actually, I haven’t seen anyone step into blinding light the way Mike Meczka, John Romero, and Felix Rappaport dominated the industry. Mike and I were good friends. I collaborated with John Romero on projects.
John Romero was a force of nature who established the industry’s baseline for customer-contact techniques. His books on casino marketing were the bibles for anyone looking to grow in the industry at the time.
Mike Meczka ground out notoriety through thousands of speeches at gaming events and conferences. He also became the go-to expert through the sheer number of his research engagements and personal contacts. The thing about Mike was he could back up his opinions with hard data.
I’m waiting for the next person to emerge. My guess is it will be someone who takes the Gary Vaynerchuk route of becoming notable through social media and digital, which is the most proficient way to reach a B2B audience of modern casino executives.
I also can’t leave out Dennis Conrad, who keeps knocking out knowledge through articles like this one.
DC: Thanks for blowing that particular bit of smoke. But hey, you and I never experienced anything like COVID, although certainly we had 9/11, wars, recessions, and natural disasters. Has anything good come out of this whole COVID-19 thing?
TO: COVID was like nothing else experienced in hospitality and will be felt forever.
I compare it to a world war or the space race, where technology and tactics were compressed, intensified, and accelerated.
Strangely enough, COVID made the industry rediscover the gambler.
Casino companies were faced with the fact that their databases were grounded on 2019 pre- COVID data and had to rethink the entire strategy. That brought everyone around to “It’s the gambling, stupid,” as Mike Meczka would say. The power of the player was rediscovered.
COVID reductions in the employee base forced companies to accelerate technology to streamline job functions. Casino companies also took a hard look at what was and wasn’t working in profitable programs.
The biggest COVID effect was the focus on employees. Even before the pandemic, casinos were challenged to fill frontline positions. After COVID, casino companies had to change their entire outlook on employee safety, engagement, retention, and recruitment.
DC: What are you going to do next? Any final chapter in your career that you want to write? I know I’d like one more client for a few days a month (for several years) who will let me talk straight and will listen and will act. And who doesn’t want to squeeze their customers!
TO: I’m happy to say that I continue to work as a marketing and management consultant with Raving Consulting. It’s a real joy helping properties turn around marketing departments and operations. The most rewarding thing for me is to mentor people through my consulting and see them grow. Consulting gives me the opportunity to write articles, which I may turn into a book someday. I’m looking forward to continuing my work in consulting and writing for years to come.
DC: By the way, thanks for helping me write this column. Next time, I’ll try to con you into writing the whole damn thing! Hell, let’s have another drink. Then we can get to the really good stuff.
TO: Virgil, one last round, please. Dennis is still buying.
Dennis Conrad is a long time executive consultant who works exclusively with select gaming clients who truly care about being customer and employee focused. He can be reached at Dennis@conradworks.com.
Earlier posts by Dennis: