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Know Thy Customer

Loyalty programs have evolved from logs of wagers, wins and losses into customized programs to reward and retain players.

Know Thy Customer

For decades, players clubs were built around early player tracking technology. Everything—rewards, comps, free rooms, free buffets, tournament invites—was determined by evaluating the most basic data from the slot floor: Who bet the most, who bet most frequently, who lost the most, who won the most.

Daily gambling information was calculated to determine comps, cashback coupons—to be replaced by free play—gifts and other perks designed to draw players back to the casino and keep them coming back to redeem offers and play more. Offers would go out weekly in the U.S. mail.

One drawback of the original system was that it was difficult for casinos to zero in on the profitability of any particular offer by zeroing in on how individual players responded.

“One of the big hindrances that casinos have is the ability of the casino management system itself to tell them what offers people redeemed,” comments David Patent, a longtime slot management executive with Harrah’s Entertainment, Rush Street Gaming and Jamul Casino who is now CEO of VizExplorer, a developer of business and gaming revenue optimization and player development software. “If a customer has four offers and they come in and redeem one or two, it’s almost impossible for the casino to know which offers they actually redeemed.

“The CMS just doesn’t tell them, and that’s been a big barrier for casino operators to understand what is actually motivating the visit. Was it the regular free play? Was it the bonus offer? Was it the birthday offer?”

VizExplorer is one of several companies that offer a combination of data mining, business intelligence and even artificial intelligence to complement the data set available on a given player. Companies like Viz, Acres Manufacturing, Axes.ai, Quick Custom Intelligence and others are creating a new marketing discipline that governs the modern loyalty club.

The traditional casino management systems are still in place, dominated by Light & Wonder’s ACSC, IGT Advantage, Aristocrat Oasis 360 and Konami’s Synkros.

However, through partnerships with companies offering business intelligence software, third-party data collection engines, artificial intelligence/machine learning and other new technologies—some capabilities even resulting from partnerships between these third-party suppliers—today’s players clubs are exploring new ways to zero in on which customers are the most loyal (and profitable), what players are doing, how much they are spending and where in a resort they are playing at a given moment—data that is helping hosts offer real-time service such as the industry has never seen.

“In players clubs today, what we’re seeing is a very strong data-centric way of thinking about (customers),” says Andrew Cardno, the well-known expert in data visualization who is founder and chief technology officer of Quick Custom Intelligence (QCI). “In gaming, there’s always been a lot of data. It just wasn’t made into a form that was usable.

“Four or five years ago, it was acceptable to expect my hosts to log into the CMS system to find information on their players. Today, it’s not. We need something that integrates the data, that shows the patterns in a meaningful way for a modern hosting environment. That means real-time information, it means really deep summary information, it means trained analysis… Show me the meat-and-potatoes reporting that lets me do the things I need to do in order to run my host team in today’s world.”

More and more, the “meat and potatoes” lie in drilling down session-level information, and using technology to respond in real time, while the player is still on-property. “It’s very easy to look and see how much a player wagered yesterday,” says VizExplorer’s Patent. “The next step is, what hours was the customer playing? Did he play for a single two-hour session, or did he come and play for half an hour? Did he then go to lunch? Did he have a retail transaction and then back to the floor and play for another two hours?”

Many casino operators are building these data sets into their host systems, to the point where machine learning can actually recommend an action immediately to the host staff.

“The system customizes itself by having an understanding of each player, personality and desires, which is learned by watching their patterns,” says John Acres, CEO of Acres Manufacturing, which produces the Foundation system. Foundation collects data directly from each slot machine—according to Acres, 1,000 times the data collected by a traditional CMS.

Acres says this kind of rich, real-time data triggers recommendations for the host on the best action to take regarding a particular customer. “The system itself will automatically choose what will best incentivize you and the reward that you get,” Acres says. “At 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, after you just won a couple hundred dollars, the reward might be very different than the reward you get at 9 o’clock on a Friday night when you’re down $100.”

Changing Rewards

Tapping the wealth of data that is generated on a casino floor has changed the way operators are utilizing their players clubs. Penn National Gaming is one of the first operators using the Acres Foundation system along with its ACSC casino management system, at its properties in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Jennifer Weissman, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Penn National Gaming, says the evolving technology has led to an evolution of its players club, MyChoice—in which players earn and redeem not only in Penn’s 44 physical locations in the U.S. and Canada, but through its online casinos and its Barstool Sportsbook.

“First and foremost, (MyChoice has) evolved because the industry has evolved, and there are so many more ways for customers to engage in gambling activities,” Weissman says. “So, we’ve got a deep understanding of what’s happening with our customers when they’re playing online, and when they’re playing in our bricks-and-mortar casinos. And we utilize that information to make sure that they have the most rewarding experience possible, regardless of when and how they choose to engage with us.

“We utilize data from all kinds of touchpoints, and we’re also utilizing it not just in typical ways that you might have thought about—rewarding customers with things like free slot play and more tier points—but making sure that we understand the kinds of services that our customers are looking for, whether or not that’s speed at the hotel front desk, or the ability to order their favorite drink, or the ability for them to order food, regardless of where they might be in the casino.”

“So much of where we’re going and what we’re doing is to remove friction from the consumer experience,” adds Todd George, Penn’s executive vice president of operations. “And I think we find a lot of inspiration from retail. They’ve been balancing this for a number of years, trying to figure out where their bricks-and-mortar stores are going to fit in when you can go to their online component or go to Amazon and find anything.

“So for us, it’s making it so (customers) don’t have to wait at the mailbox anymore. They can get their offers on our app. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, they don’t have to go to the cage anymore. They can make a deposit onto their phone on the app and immediately walk in and engage either a slot machine or a table game. So you remove the friction in the transaction. You take people out of line and get them into an entertainment experience.”

These days, it’s all about knowing player preferences, says Anil Mansukhani, vice president of loyalty management for MGM Resorts International—which uses IGT Advantage and its Patron Management system across all properties.

“I think one of the biggest differences between today’s loyalty programs and those built on early player tracking technology is the level of personalization that we are able to deliver,” Mansukhani says. “We have the ability to track and leverage player preferences to deliver unique and exclusive experiences to our VIP members that would not have been possible at scale compared to legacy systems.”

Mansukhani adds that MGM’s loyalty program, MGM Rewards, has expanded right along with the technology.

“A lot has changed in how MGM Resorts uses data since M life debuted over 11 years ago,” he says. “M life was primarily a slot players’ program since it launched, but MGM Rewards expanded earning opportunities to include table games, hotel stays and dining experiences. Through the use of various business intelligence tools, we have a longer-term view of our members and can monitor how their spend with MGM Resorts changes over time.”

As with Penn, that includes online casino play and sports betting through the BetMGM program where it’s available.

“We now have greater visibility into the spending patterns of some of our luxury guests who might not have been high-end gamers, but would visit our properties and spend thousands of dollars per trip. We also have greater visibility into our members’ BetMGM spend that helps in building a complete view of player value.”

Caesars Entertainment, where the groundbreaking Total Rewards national players club has evolved into Caesars Rewards, also is utilizing many of the new data tools in its proprietary CMS system.

“Caesars Rewards, of course, obviously having started as Total Rewards, has the well-earned reputation not just for being first, but also still the largest,” says Gavin Whiteley, senior vice president, loyalty and Caesars Rewards for Caesars Entertainment. “And it takes the database and the depth of the data and, most importantly, the talent of the team members to leverage that data. You can have all the data in the world, and doesn’t make whit of difference unless you have the right insights coming out of that.

“What makes Caesars Rewards so successful is the talent of our team members. We have a strong data analytics team.”

The team at Caesars and Harrah’s Entertainment before it, of course, was the first to hone its ability to mine and apply data pouring in from multiple properties, the former Total Rewards being the first national players club.

“The program that became Caesars Rewards early on was intended to cover multiple properties,” says Whiteley. “Fast forward to today, and we keep that promise across over 50 destinations, across mobile gaming and iGaming and for spending in many more states. And yet we continue to offer the same tier status, the same points. The points you earn in one, and the tier status you earn in one, is the same across the board.”

Broadening the View

While Caesars was the first, these days, most of the corporate operators are broadening their views of player worth with one program across multiple properties. And as the range of data collected from each property widens, the profile of each player’s worth becomes clear—and decisions on comps, bonus rewards and other perks become more efficient and profitable.

“Knowledge of the worth of a player is everything to us,” says Walter Allen, senior director of player development for Choctaw Casinos & Resorts. “And being correct in your decision-making at all levels throughout our properties is quite important, not only from a casino point of view of profitability, but also from a point of ensuring that guests are being taken care of in the manner they deserve.”

Choctaw Casinos operates 22 gaming operations throughout southeast Oklahoma, with a 23rd planned. The Choctaw Rewards system is universal among all properties. According to Allen, the operator uses the Aristocrat Oasis 360 CMS, along with add-on software from VizExplorer and Axes.ai.

Allen says the Choctaw system utilizes the data optimization software to empower the hosts on the floor to make decisions in real time to incentivize loyal players. “We are a firm believer in having individual decisions being made by the individuals who are dealing with the guests,” he says. “So it’s important to educate our associates that are on our front line. We believe in understanding the guardrails and allowing our associates to operate freely within them to take care of guests.”

As is the trend in players club systems, the Choctaw system records customer spend at all touchpoints, allowing players to earn and redeem across the property. “Points are the medium for guests to travel within our properties and redeem their earnings,” Allen says. “They can redeem at our food outlets. They can redeem at our gift shops, our spa, our, our pools.”

While Choctaw has no online casinos, Allen says they have created an additional touchpoint for loyalty recently with the introduction of Choctaw Slots, a social gaming site where players will soon be able to earn Choctaw Rewards points.

A complete view of player worth also is a priority at MGM Resorts. “Our new MGM Rewards program allows us to track a greater percentage of our members’ spend, which provides us with a more holistic view of each member’s value,” says Mansukhani. “This has allowed us to segment our members more appropriately and provide targeted offers for our highest-value members.

“Members now earn MGM Rewards Points for their hotel stays and purchases at over 400 food-and-beverage outlets throughout our properties, which provides us with a more holistic view of each member’s worth so that we can reinvest in loyalty and direct marketing offers accordingly.”

Whiteley at Caesars says that operator’s database has grown with the addition of online gaming play at Caesars Online and through Caesars Sportsbook, which is available not only in retail locations, but through the Caesars Sportsbook app even in regions where there are no Caesars casino properties.

“That’s a new and rapidly evolving set of data that plays into customer worth,” says Whiteley, “because some of that product is in markets where we don’t have properties today, and in a lot of places like New Jersey, they overlap.

“So, we see a growing number of customers from our brick-and-mortar properties, Caesars Rewards members, adopting this new product. Similarly, we see customers starting with a product in places like New York, where Caesars doesn’t have casinos, coming into our database by starting to use one of these products. New members, new data.”

Mansukhani reports similar results for MGM Rewards thanks to the BetMGM program. “BetMGM is a significant driver of new members for MGM Rewards, and play on BetMGM allows members to earn tier credits towards achieving a higher tier within the MGM Rewards program,” he says. “It also provides BetMGM players with an opportunity to convert their digital play into real-world experiences at 20-plus MGM Resorts properties.”

Real-Time Drilling

Much of the third-party software being incorporated into loyalty systems, as well as new features in the traditional CMS toolbox, comes down to the ability to react to play-session developments in real time, while the player is still on the property. Inevitably, those reactions come from the front-line marketers—the hosts. And for the hosts, the tools are all about developing personal relationships with customers.

For Penn National’s Weissman, the ability to react in real time with third-party systems like Acres’ Foundation is “a tool that all of our team members who have personal relationships with our customers will actually be able to drive. Our hosts today have very strong relationships with our guests. We’ve been working on something internally that will enable our hosts to have really meaningful discussions with our customers in real time when they might be having a great winning experience, or maybe an experience that doesn’t feel so great, or we can identify customers who are new to the business.”

That includes the ample number of customers who discovered Penn online during the 2020 shutdown. “There are so many new people that have been walking through our doors because they had to when other things were shut,” says Weissman, “so making sure that we’re creating those one-on-one relationships with customers that we didn’t know before, based upon the activity that’s happening at the machine in a real-time fashion before they ever leave, means thinking about the customer in the middle and making sure that customer is having the most fulfilled entertainment experience.

“And if we have an idea that they may potentially leave without a great experience, we might be able to change that, particularly with that one-on-one kind of handshake.”

“That’s one of the things we’re most excited about—like I touched on earlier, not having to wait at the mailbox,” adds George. “Recognizing them before they leave the property is such a huge opportunity for us. And you can really turn that experience around by recognizing that they were there today, recognizing the loyalty. And I think all that becomes a tremendous tool for all the operators that are out there.”

Says Weissman, “Recognizing those touchpoints along the way, and really trying to make sure that those touchpoints are the most meaningful and the most memorable, is one of the things that the technology is allowing us to do.”

“We’ve learned from experiences that a lot of times an intervention by a host, just to say hello, to deliver a drink or whatever, is sufficient to cause a renewal on the player’s part,” adds Acres. “Not every reward has to be a chance to win more; there’s personal recognition as well. In these times of low staffing, you’ve got to prioritize, and human beings can’t take in all of this data and choose what to do next. So we can prioritize where that host should spend his or her time next.”

For Choctaw, those touchpoints come from a system that combines Aristocrat’s Oasis with tools like VizExplorer’s GreetViz program. “It alerts our team members when VIP players are on the gaming floor and when they card in,” Allen says. “It has the capabilities of some round-robin functions to it, so we can assign what hosts we want to see which guests. If a particular host is not on property, it will roll round-robin so that we can execute touchpoints to our most important guests all day.”

“Our hosts do have access to session and trip-level data that allows them to provide comps to our VIP members before they check out from our properties,” says MGM’s Mansukhani. “We are in the process of deploying a new loyalty management system later this year that will enable us to introduce a wide variety of fun and exciting new offers that we believe will drive member engagement and reduce churn.”

Growing Databases

For operators, driving member engagement will become more important going forward, as databases grow with new members—many from the online gaming and sports betting businesses.

“One of the biggest changes, one that’s been an evolution going into and coming out of the pandemic, was this real growth in the younger demographics coming into our database,” says Penn National’s George. “Pre-pandemic, that’s what everybody was trying to solve—where does this (younger) customer come from? And through the pandemic we became a viable entertainment option.

“For us, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where we have casinos but we also have online casinos, online sports betting and in-person sports betting, you are now blessed with this tremendous amount of information from all their activities—bringing all that together and seeing what behaviors are there, when are they making the determination to play online, when are they coming into a casino, what’s driving them into a casino.”

Serving the new customer also means communicating in the way to which they are accustomed, adds Caesars’ Whiteley. “Our customers, just like you and I, use their phones for almost everything,” he says. “We want to be where the player is.”

“The traditional loyalty program really did focus very much on ‘you earn free slot play and a free buffet.’ It really has evolved into offerings that meet the customer where they want to be met,” says George at Penn National. “Instead of free slot play and buffet, it could be free online credits. It could be a better food experience. It could be a better hotel offer. Jennifer and her team have lined up great partnerships, so it could be concert tickets, sporting event tickets. (Players clubs have) really evolved to gather what customer preferences are, what their likes are, and then having the incentives that they’re looking for.”

“I got into the gaming industry in early 2000s,” notes Choctaw’s Allen. “The difference today is the intelligence of the systems, the ease and efficiency of the systems—and the intelligence that the systems can bring forward to the front line for associates to make great decisions, and to be able to take care of guests, wherever they are on the gaming floor or within the property.”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.