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Shortening the Odds on New Year’s Eve

As the warm summer days of July and August yield to the cooler ones of September, October and November, sales teams and marketing directors of Indian casinos north and south are beginning to set their sights of one of the biggest and most lucrative celebrations of the year, New Year’s Eve.

Casino marketers may be tempted to simply ride the wave of the biggest party night of the year by simply offering an extravagant affair with great entertainment and great food while sitting back and waiting for the magic to happen. But if certain marketing principles are utilized well in advance of the big countdown and backed up with a bit of research and dedication, casino hotels and gaming floors can be packed with A-level guests eager to gamble and spend at a very high rate.

Drawing the “right” crowd

Put yourself in the role of a casino marketer for a moment. Other than the standard e-mail campaign to notify your customer base about your upcoming New Year’s Eve event, casino-industry professionals David Trout Staddon and Michael Kintner say there is a structured method for securing the highest-yield customers and drawing the “right” crowd.

Staddon, Ottawa, is the director of public information for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of Akwesasne and has an extensive background in casino management. His advice is geared toward tribe-owned casinos on sovereign land that don’t have a lot of competition. Those casinos seeking to book big-name acts in order to draw bigger crowds on New Year’s Eve might be surprised by his comments. “In a fairly noncompetitive environment, it’s not necessary to book a big-name act to draw a big crowd,” Staddon says. “New Year’s Eve tends to take care of itself because people want to go out and party anyway.

“However,“ he adds, “though New Year’s Eve is a popular night to party, advertising is still necessary to generate the awareness to potential customers in the form of…e-mail blasts coupled with a direct-mail campaign.”

He urges marketing departments to tier their customers (classify them) according to their level of play. “I strongly recommend direct mail to your biggest players—your A-list. If they don’t fill the place up, then go to the B-list. The direct-mail campaign should start about three months out.”

According to Kintner, the director of marketing for Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino in Maricopa, Arizona, the marketing approach for New Year’s Eve is a bit different for an Indian-run casino facing competition in close proximity. Though he agrees that September is the time to begin thinking about marketing to the casino’s best customers—including a direct-mail campaign and e-mail blast to generate awareness before other casinos can appeal to customers—he also suggests a personal approach by executive hosts on staff who reach out directly to A-List customers. “The trick on New Year’s Eve is getting the right customers. You could fill the place up by sending out offers, but what we do is this: We yield the hotel similar to the way Southwest Airlines would yield a flight. We want to get the best customers into that hotel. I could fill the hotel with $100 customers versus $1,000 customers, and that is a big difference if you have 300 rooms. Each room is critical to us. That is why we use our host team to set the criteria high in order to put the best customers into that hotel. If you understand what the demand is, you can really concentrate on getting the best customers.

“We [had] a direct-mail piece going out at the end of September that will be really nice for our high-end customers,” he says. “It will talk about everything that is going on throughout the night, from the meal to the festivities to the hotel room offer to the entertainment. It will be really fancy so we can place ourselves on the radar screen and customers will come to us to make plans. We find that they will get multiple offers from many of our competing properties in Las Vegas to include our sister properties. Las Vegas will send our customers some pretty spectacular offers, so we try to get out there early to make them a compelling offer.”

According to both Staddon and Kintner, the most desirable demographic for casinos on New Year’s Eve (or any other time) is customers above the age of 45. “You want the 45-to-60-year-old—or thereabouts—age group,” says Staddon. “They have the disposable income and don’t have to worry about getting a baby-sitter. They are your bread-and-butter demographic.”

Kintner agrees, adding that the greatest source of revenue for the Harrah’s Ak-Chin is the local market of high-trafficking VIPs living within a 70-mile radius of the casino. These customers often visit several times a week. He says another great customer profile is snowbirds—retirees who may live in Illinois or Indiana yet return to their winter homes in warmer climates.

“In the Phoenix area and in Tucson there are a lot of snowbirds, so that is who we market to,” Kintner says. “We are not marketing to the 20- or 30-somethings interested in the nightclub. We are geared toward the older demographic that comes more often.”

Kintner reiterates that these customers are a good crowd to have not just on New Year’s Eve, but year-round. The demographic is so lucrative that the Ak-Chin Casino runs a shuttle for guests wanting to go to the casino. “We have bus programs that drive around and pick up that older demographic. From the West Valley we have double runs every day.”

He says that although many snowbirds are willing to spend New Year’s Eve at Harrah’s Ak-Chin, there are those high-level customers who want to avoid large crowds on that night. He warns casino marketers not to miss out an opportunity to cater to this very specific demographic. “Although we do have customers who wouldn’t dream of coming out on New Year’s Eve, we send them offers to come during the day on New Year’s Eve, because they don’t want to deal with traffic, parking and the crowds. We will have promotions and offerings for them.”

If you deejay it, theme it and buffet it, they will come.

When the direct mail has been sent, the e-mail campaign has been blasted and the executive hosts have filled the rooms with high-paying customers, casinos still have to rely on the success (or recovery from the failures) of their previous celebrations to draw the walk-in crowd. Although it is appropriate to market your wares to generate interest in your celebration, it does not hurt to have an elaborate gala worth remembering. Therese Everett-Kerley, the director of communications at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Southern California, says that its elaborate New Year’s Eve celebration last year had a 1970s cover band, a free midnight buffet, a balloon drop and party favors to create a “quintessential New Year’s Eve look.” She explains: “We created the ultimate New Year’s Eve experience at Agua by involving every aspect of our property—from dining, to music, entertainment and our 2,000-seat concert venue. There’s always something for every age and every price point. Our events are also staggered, so the guest who wants to do it all, can.”

Kintner adds, “We do ballroom dinners, and we feed approximately 3,000 people that evening. We will have a big party band, and we theme out the hotel. Our theme is denim and diamonds this year. This is fun for our customers, fun for our management, and we all dress up on the property. There are lots of food, drinks and fun and we have a VIP party.”

With its small ballroom—which has space for 320 guests—the Ak-Chin will have two seatings. “We will turn it a second time for our VIP party from 11 p.m. to one a.m.”

Staddon recommends forms of entertainment that set your organization apart from others to keep guests talking about the event long after January 1. He says booking gaming-floor entertainment such as impersonators, jugglers and magicians has been extremely successful at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino.

With so many guests arriving on New Year’s Eve and so many events taking place on the property, Kintner says it’s a must to anticipate problems and be realistic about how much traffic the staff and facility can handle. On one New Year’s Eve celebration, he says his people promoted their buffet so successfully that there was a four-hour wait for food.

Staddon tries to avoid problems like that by employing some simple yet often overlooked tactics in casino marketing. Namely, be observant, do your own marketing research, listen to the advice of your ad agency about what has worked for other properties and learn from the past.

“Being creative is the key,” says Straddon. “Learn from the mistakes of others—life is too short to make them all yourself. Find out what the customers want and provide it to them—that’s the essence of marketing.”

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October 6-8 Patrice O’Neal; October 8 Norm Macdonald; October 14 Louis C.K.; October 15 Billy Gardell; October 22 Kathy Griffin; October 29 Willie Nelson & Friends; November 11 Jim Breuer; November 26 Eddie Griffin; December 9-10 Jerry Seinfeld; December 16 Lisa Lampanelli.

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October 7 Styx; October 14 Don Henley; October 15 Lynyrd Skynyrd; October 21 Travis Tritt & The Charlie Daniels Band; November 11 Ron White.

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October 23 Merle Haggard; October 30 Martina McBride; November 22 Don Williams; December 18 Glen Campbell.

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October 6 Eric Burdon & the Animals; October 9 Peter Frampton; October 11 Duran Duran; October 18 Dolly Parton; November 10 John Fogerty.

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October 7 Native American Music Awards; October 8 Neil Sedaka; October 29 Patti LaBelle; November 5 Patty Smyth and Scandal.

Snoqualmie Casino, Snoqualmie, Washington

October 6 Larry King; October 27 Blood, Sweat and Tears; November 4 Pussycat Dolls Burlesque Revue; November 17 Wynonna; November 26 Rodney Carrington.

Turning Stone Resort Casino, Verona, New York

October 21 Air Supply; October 26 Travis Tritt; November 20 Larry King; November 26 Gloriana; December 7 Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons; December 20 Kenny Rogers.

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