I’ve spent the vast majority of my career in an industry that, although seemingly exciting and thrilling, has become quite ubiquitous.
Insider or not, you pretty much know the broad strokes of the industry’s history.
Nevada was the first state to legalize gambling, followed some 45 years later by New Jersey.
Then, in 1992, the first modern, regulated riverboat casino set sail on the Mississippi River from Bettendorf, Iowa.
I bet that little piece of trivia is a surprise.
Today, commercial casinos represent a $261 billion industry supporting 1.8 million jobs nationwide… and that’s before sports betting became a reality.
Add Native American casinos to the mix and the industry can only be described as “massive.”
For most, a casino is only a short drive away.
There’s One On Every Corner
It’s not like a Starbucks on every corner, but most Americans do have the pleasure of choosing a favorite go-to gambling spot from an assortment of nearby places.
As a casino marketer, it’s my job to figure out how to get you to choose to spend your entertainment dollar in my establishment versus another.
I can comp your dinner. Mail you free slot play—yes, we still use direct mail quite successfully in casino marketing. Slice and dice data to the nth degree.
I know exactly how much you play, at what pace, at which machines, for how long, and more.
So, what’s the magic sauce?
Before I give you my secret, I want to tell you a story.
A Glorious Beginning
Once upon a time, there was a young marketer who stumbled onto the casino industry as it was blossoming in her hometown.
She met some really smart folks and loved the business.
A few years later, she moved to Las Vegas to work where any “true casino marketer” must, at some point in their career.
Eventually, she landed at a five-star, five-diamond casino beyond her wildest dreams.
Fast forward a little, and she ends up with a big, fancy title at a mid-size regional casino struggling for survival due to a number of circumstances.
In truth, they were the exact polar opposite of where she had just been.
Rather than state of the art, modern luxury, she was now working with first generation riverboats which had seen better days.
(First generation is how we nicely describe the original riverboats of the 1990s.)
Guest Experience is Everything
And then the recession hit.
But what’s a marketer to do with an inventory of “classic” riverboats, a lack of capital for improvements, shrinking customer wallets, and new competition?
As we took a closer look, we began wondering WHY customers were still choosing us over newer competitors.
We had our share of old equipment, but we also had our share of tenured employees.
Our customers were connecting with our employees in a way we could leverage. But, we couldn’t just create ads stating we offer “great guest experience.”
I physically cringe when I get a request for that.
I firmly believe guest experience is something customers have to feel internally to believe it exists.
An ad just doesn’t cut it.
See. Say. Smile.
A colleague of mine, Jim White, now heads up Jim White Advantage Guest Experience. In a previous life, he was a casino marketer.
We worked together in the development of the Isle of Capri Casinos‘ hallmark courtesy program: See. Say. Smile.
I caught up with him last week to talk about how the program came to be and how it made a difference for the company.
As the company underwent an honest review of its operations and aging assets, management understood that putting a focus on courtesy could be a differentiator.
See. Say. Smile. was developed around a very basic concept. First and foremost, it was about keeping things extremely simple. Often companies fall into the trap of trying to reinvent the wheel and develop programs that are layered…and quite frankly, difficult. What we did was different in that it was focused on the most basic tenet of service—courtesy…simply being nice.
A Five-Step Process
- It began with company strategy. One element was leveraging human capital; another was elevating the guest experience. We set a goal to be “the undisputed leader in customer courtesy in EVERY jurisdiction” we were operating in. We had to plant a stake in the ground, and ours would be the experience only our employees could deliver.
- Then, we had to create a brand identity for this program. It had to be more than a memo and more than just the program du jour. In keeping with a long company tradition of fun, the brand was catchy, iconic, and permeated every bit of the operation as well as driving the back-of-house communications, training materials, and overall excitement.
- Mr. White handled the full-company rollout. He went to every single property and trained every single person, making sure they understood what the expectation was: every interaction had to consist of eye contact (See), a greeting (Say), and a genuine, warm smile (Smile).
- The old adage of what gets measured gets done is especially relevant when it comes to managing thousands of employees who can often lose sight of a simple goal while trying to juggle daily tasks. Secret shoppers were deployed on a regular basis to record the very specific traits we were trying to instill. If an employee did all three actions, the property received a point. If an employee only performed one or two steps, no points. It had to be black and white for us. Properties had benchmarks and goals to achieve.
- When a property met the goal, every employee was given a bonus for doing the work to reach our strategic goals.
A Noticeable Difference
Our guests quickly saw a difference.
We began receiving letters and comments from our website and comment cards well before completing the first round of training. There were letters from happy guests talking about how great the service was at a location. We hadn’t really made any system or process changes. So, we knew that in all reality, our employees were simply being nice. That courteous interaction went much further by ‘polishing’ the experience.
As a funny side note, I saw several comments that would say things such as, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but keep it up.”
Additionally, employees saw this shift in culture as a way to create something better than what they were already working with.
Guest Experience as a Brand Differentiator
We soon saw properties implementing programs adding to the fun—lawn flamingos with a jackpot win (in snowy Colorado) for example.
They were focusing on the experience rather than always seeing what they were lacking.
What was once an experience that relied heavily on a dated Caribbean theme became focused on fun and friendly, no matter what part of the country you were in and no matter how old the property was.
Mr. White and I are in complete agreement on the value of using guest experience as a brand differentiator.
People will continue to show their support and loyalty when they feel welcomed and appreciated. It is absolutely essential to the survival of a business and a brand.
While the program did not boost the Isle of Capri properties to the top, we firmly believed it kept us swimming along and able to compete with the newer options.
And along the way, we learned a few valuable lessons:
- Fun doesn’t cost very much.
- You have to invest in human capital.
- The brand can come to life in unexpected ways.
Smart casino operators realize customers have $5, $20, or $100 to spend on entertainment.
They can choose to spend that budget at the movies, at a bar, or at your casino.
It’s no longer only about the slot machine, especially given the vast distribution of the product and the ever-growing online options.
So, in many ways, casinos have followed the course of those businesses which have seen their business model disrupted – shopping, for example.
In a commoditized and uber-convenient market, you have to make yourself stand out in a way that attracts customer loyalty.