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Player's Advantage

Pa., W.Va. casinos reducing amount of free slot play

| Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Vince Manfredi
Vince Manfredi

Slot fans in Pennsylvania and West Virginia are getting less free play from their hometown casinos.

In Pennsylvania, the amount of free play awarded statewide peaked at $681.2 million in fiscal year 2012-13, Gaming Control Board figures show. In fiscal 2016-17, which ended June 30, the total was $622.4 million. Casinos in the Mountain State gave away $93.9 million in free play in fiscal 2011-12, according to the West Virginia Lottery. In 2016-17, that was down to $74.3 million.

Casino consultant Vince Manfredi, who was an executive with the company that introduced the free-play concept in North America, says letting players spin the reels at no out-of-pocket cost is one way to attract new visitors or build loyalty among existing customers. But it's not necessarily the best approach.

“From operator's point of view, there's a cost to giving a player free pulls on a slot machine,” he tells Player's Advantage. For example, some people play just enough to convert the free play into cash and then leave without spending any of their own money.

“There's an expense, and the expense has to be managed,” he says.

Nevada and several other jurisdictions do not require casinos to report how much free play they hand out; however, a monthly report from Manfredi Consulting, based in San Diego, includes free-play statistics from casinos in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Florida. Pennsylvania, which trails only Nevada in commercial casino revenue, easily leads the list in total free play awarded. Free play in Pennsylvania is about 27 percent

Manfredi cites two factors that could contribute to a decline in free play:

• Casinos, which depend on disposable income, suffered greatly during the recession and some might have increased their incentives to entice customers during the down years of 2009-11. As the economy improved, “theoretically you would not need as much incentive,” he says.

• The Baby Boomer generation, which has provided casinos' biggest source of slot machine fans, is getting older.

“We're in a state of flux,” he says. “The slot experience has to be reimagined to appeal to a younger audience. The younger person is not as inclined to play in a traditional slot experience because it doesn't compare well with other kinds of electronic gaming experience, where there is competition, there is socialization, there is more entertainment value through the animation.”

One such effort is the recent introduction of the “World of Wonka” slot game, which made its Pennsylvania debut this summer at Rivers in Pittsburgh and Mount Airy in the Poconos. The machine, from Scientific Games, has three high-definition displays that angle toward the player plus a 40-inch top screen and a tablet button panel. A Rivers spokesman says the machines were an instant hit, with people lining up to play.

Slot fan Bob Illinsky Sr. of Natrona Heights, a diamond-level player in the Harrah's Total Rewards players club, says he enjoyed playing the Wonka slot on a just-completed Las Vegas vacation — especially when he hit a $500-plus payout.

Illinsky, who has learned the ins and outs of casino incentives by playing in multiple states, says some players don't understand that free play generally is tied to a person's playing history — those who play more often and put more money through the machines get better offers.

He and another slot fan, Bernadette Nusida of eastern Allegheny County, say good service — from dealers, hosts and slot attendants to the restaurant and hotel staffs — is an important factor in choosing where to gamble, even more than free play.

Manfredi echoes that, saying casinos must focus on the overall customer experience.

“Casinos that are savvy have identified what can make a difference. ‘Wheel of Fortune' is ‘Wheel of Fortune,' ” he says, referring to one of the top slot games in the industry. “An environment that's perhaps less smoky, or more friendly, or (has a) loyalty program a little bit more favorable” will attract customers.

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling. Reach him at

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