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Regional casinos need own personality, consultant says

| Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Mark Sutter, senior strategic officer for The Halo Group in New York City.

Casinos must develop a unique personality to keep or attract customers, a marketing expert says.

For years, “regional casinos have pretty much relied on convenience,” says Mark Sutter, chief strategy officer of The Halo Group, a New York marketing agency. “Convenience as a marketing strategy is dead. There are too many casinos competing for the same market.”

That means customers could have a strong voice in shaping offerings at their favorite gambling spot. The drive to stand out also could lead to partnerships between casinos and neighboring businesses that benefit from attracting gamblers and nongamblers to the area, local and national industry officials say.

The future of regional casinos has become a hot topic across the country as legalized gambling has spread, increasing competition for the various forms of entertainment that casinos offer: not only gambling, but also concerts, shows, nightclubs and restaurants. The demise of four Atlantic City casinos this year — and the possibility that the Taj Mahal might close this month — fans fear about whether casinos in other areas will survive. Pennsylvania regulators recently approved a license for a fourth Philadelphia casino, and some observers say it might merely take customers from others in the area.

Regional casinos attract most of their customers from a limited area, as opposed to destination casinos such as the behemoths on the Las Vegas Strip that draw from across the country and around the world.

For Meadows Casino in Washington County, the primary market is within about 20 miles, marketing director Kevin Brogan says. Because that area isn't densely populated, the casino also focuses on drawing people within an hour's drive.

“We've got to work a little harder (to attract customers),” general manager Sean Sullivan says. “Most people drive by another casino to get to Meadows.”

Sullivan says Meadows has made several changes based on customer feedback. Slot areas are being re-arranged to give players more elbow room, he says, and this past summer, the casino began serving comped alcoholic drinks to table-game players. Remodeled bar areas offer themed parties and spotlight local bands. The casino added party pits and expanded its boxing offerings. And it has harness racing more than 200 days a year.

“You can't be just a casino,” Sullivan says. “We want to have much, much more.”

Bud Green, assistant general manager of Rivers Casino on the North Shore, says customers and staff at regional casinos get to know each other, which encourages suggestions from customers. Rivers has cross-promotions with the Pirates and Penguins as well as with smaller businesses such as local restaurants.

Sutter says the spread of legalized gambling means casinos no longer can succeed as a “box with slots.”

“Every market is different,” he says. “Casinos need to figure out what makes them unique. Why would I, as a customer, travel beyond my local casino to experience your casino?”

In the Northeast, half the population lives within 25 miles of a casino, Sutter says. That's true for a large portion of Western Pennsylvania, as well, with Meadows, Rivers, Presque Isle in Erie, Lady Luck Nemacolin in Fayette County and Mountaineer and Wheeling Island in West Virginia.

“Casinos are entertainment options, and there are a lot of entertainment options available to customers ” Sutter says. “So, why are they going to go not just to your casino, but your casino as opposed to something else?”

Could the secret to attracting customers as simple as raising slot payout rates? Rates for Western Pennsylvania's four casinos are within a few hundredths of a percentage point of each other.

Sutter doesn't think high slot payouts are the answer, at least not by themselves.

“At the end of day, a lot of people look at (slot play) as an entertainment option and a convenience factor. Convenience oftentimes trumps the payback. How far am I willing to travel in order to get a superior payback?”

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

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