He’s the polar opposite of his predecessor and first leader of the American Gaming Association, Frank Fahrenkopf. Geoff Freeman is young, has little experience with politics and is not a Washington insider. Yet his appointment as the second president and CEO of the AGA seems so right for the time.
Like Fahrenkopf’s high profile was appropriate when the AGA was formed in 1994, Freeman’s low profile and work ethic seem to be perfectly suited for 2013.
Freeman’s background reflects what the gaming industry needs to be in the future. Travel, tourism, leisure time and industry growth are just a few of the skills Freeman brings to the job. As COO of the U.S. Travel Association, Freeman grew that organization into the single most important group advocating for easier access to transportation and wide-ranging destination marketing throughout the country.
The travel industry is at least as diverse as gaming. There are many issues that pit member against member, but Freeman was able to help unify the sector under one cause and give politicians reasons to support the goals of the organization.
Gaming, says Freeman, isn’t that much different.
“The gaming industry—we can’t forget—is still a very young industry,” he says, “and right now it isn’t yet sure what it wants.”
Freeman says he’s spent the first three months in office researching the AGA’s strengths and weaknesses.
“The AGA is a strong organization with a quality team in place, but it’s time to write that next chapter,” he says. “That’s my biggest focus right now: trying to take my time, be methodical, figure out what the objectives of the industry are, and then structure the AGA in such a way where we can move forward and accomplish those things. I’ve spent the first few months traveling the country, listening to the industry. It’s been tremendously insightful, and I think we’re going to be able to take what Frank built and the incredible foundation he put in place, and build something quite fantastic on top of that.”
Common Cause As in the travel industry, the interests of the gaming industry are many and varied. Freeman says he hopes to bring together AGA members to unify under the items with which they agree.
“An association can’t thrive unless it forces its members to find common cause,” he says. “The alternative is that we are an organization that helps each member go achieve a parochial goal here, there, and everywhere else, and in doing so, you don’t satisfy anybody. We have to force common cause; we have to figure out what it is that brings this industry together, operators and manufacturers alike.”
Some of his research has shown that various segments of the industry are unsure of what the AGA is, or more disturbingly, have an idea of what it isn’t. Freeman wants to dispel those notions and bring some excitement to the organization.
“Let’s figure out the one thing the industry wants and go get it done,” he says. “Create some enthusiasm, some confidence in the organization, that we can do that. What the AGA is extraordinarily well known for is preventing bad things from happening. And none of us should mistake how important that is. But how do we supplement that with the ability to go and help the industry achieve additional things that it might want? That’s the focus there.”
Freeman says the idea that the AGA is just the tool of one or two of the large companies is inaccurate, but dismissing that notion isn’t so simple.
“It is a debate that needs to happen,” he admits. “Within the walls of the AGA, we’ll do that together and then we’ll branch out from there. But we have to figure out who we are. Are we simply the bricks-and-mortar casinos? Are we bricks-and-mortar casinos plus manufacturers? Are we only commercial casinos, or are there consistencies, commonalities and common concerns with the tribes? Make no mistake—and I’m being candid about this—I’d like to see the industry embrace what brings all of us together rather than protect the turf we have. What are those three, four things where we can all agree and grow this industry in the process? That’s what I’m hopeful we can get to; time will tell.”
Creating common cause in the travel industry had similar bumps in the road, explains Freeman.
“Disney, Universal, Marriott, Hilton, Expedia, Travelocity, Enterprise, Hertz: what the heck do all these guys agree on? Because there isn’t much that they agree on! But the one thing they all did agree on was, ‘We want more people traveling.’ They were all going to fight it out over market share and figure out who gets whom, but if we can get more people traveling, they all benefit. I think finding that same common cause here on the gaming side is critical. We were able to do it there; we need to do it here.” Big Personalities One of the challenges that was daunting for even a master diplomat like Fahrenkopf was addressing the concerns of the corporate leaders, many of whom are household names—Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman and others. Freeman admits that time may come, but he’s encouraged by his initial contacts.
“There’s certainly a handful that stand out,” he says, “and I’ve had the opportunity to meet with most of them. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the openness, the interest in seeing the AGA write that next chapter. The understanding that we are a young industry now but we have this opportunity to come together and accomplish something more. I’ve been very pleased with that.” The big companies have expressed support, according to Freeman, and, more importantly, the desire to fully participate. He says there isn’t any indication that any company expects to have control over the process. “The idea that the AGA benefits one company here, one company there is not the impression I’ve received internally,” he states. “There’s certainly companies that are active within the association, more active than others, but that’s what we want. We want active members. At least at this early stage, there’s no one that’s been trying to push me to really promote their parochial interest. That will happen. But the job of the AGA is not to benefit one company; it’s to benefit the industry, and I’ve been pleased to see that’s the understanding that the leaders in the industry have.” It’s that spirit of inclusion that surrounds the debate about internet gambling and the AGA’s preference for a federal law legalizing and controlling the activity.
“There are three reasons why we believe a federal law would be best,” he explains. “One, we need minimum standards put in place when it comes to consumer protection, age verification, responsible gambling. These are all areas that need a minimum standard to create some predictability in the marketplace for operators. We don’t have that today. Two, Native American tribes need a framework for operating in this new environment. We can’t pretend that the tribes don’t exist, that they’re not also going to be interested in going online. They would respond to the federal government far more favorably than they will to state governments, and we need that. And the final point here is that we need law enforcement to have the tools they need to enforce the laws, to keep bad actors out, to make sure that everything is being done on the up and up. That’s why we’ve always supported a federal policy.” Expanding Influence Freeman has not only been meeting with the leaders of the gaming companies, but he’s also been reaching out to mid-level managers, people who influence the industry and even those who may not consider themselves part of the industry.
“We need to extend the benefits of the association far beyond the CEO’s office, to really go across the industry,” he says. “At USTA, whether it was people in sales and marketing, people on the convention and visitor’s bureau side… throughout the industry there were people that identified with our goals, so our tentacles run deep. And we need to do the same within the AGA. I think this is very important.”
Freeman says he wants to reach below the CEO level to bring its benefits to the people who work for the CEO.
“We’ve been a very CEO-centric organization, and that’s what happens when your organization is built out of the need to prevent harm,” he says. “That threat is what galvanizes CEOs, that’s what brings them together. We need to maintain the interest of the CEOs.
“But we also need to supplement that with providing value to executives across the industry. Just last week, I had a meeting out here with about a dozen executives representing property management, sales and marketing, compliance, other aspects of the business, to figure out their needs and how the AGA can serve them. I look at it this way: Even if you’re targeting the CEO, and you want to satisfy that CEO, you need to create the echo chamber of the folks around the CEO, telling them the value they get from the AGA. We’re not quite where we need to be on that front now. We’re going to get there.”
Even line-level employees deserve to benefit from AGA efforts, says Freeman.
“There’s a great pride among people that work in this industry,” he explains, “in part because this industry takes very good care of its employees. Figuring out a way to motivate and mobilize those employees, turn them into our champions, I think is a critical component of our next steps.
“I want our employees to be able to understand and articulate who the AGA is and what it does for them. I recently was with a major property manager who told me that quite frankly, he wasn’t aware of what the AGA does. And my response to him was, if you say that two to three years from now, I failed. We should have employees at the executive level and down through the ranks being able to articulate who this association is, and what it does for them.” Youth Be Served To some long-serving members of the industry, Freeman’s enthusiasm could be seen as ingenuousness. But he believes it is simply a desire to get things accomplished to benefit the industry.
“With my youth comes some naivety and some ignorance, but I also think those are healthy attributes,” he says. “One thing that I’m going to bring here is a courage to try new things. I’m not afraid to stub my toe. It will happen. I’ve already asked for the board’s patience when it does happen; perhaps it’s already happened, and I don’t know it. But I think that I come with a lot of energy, with a different sense of what an association is. And associations are evolving animals in Washington.”
While one of the principal goals of a nascent AGA was to prevent bad things from happening, Freeman believes it’s time to move forward and grow the association.
“Cutting-edge associations now are really asking the question, ‘How can we help facilitate growth?’ The environment of the old Washington, where things got done in the dark of night in smoke-filled rooms, is largely gone,” he points out. “It’s really an environment of, how do we—for lack of a better word—manipulate the environment in Washington to help our industry grow, to accomplish our goals? That’s the energy I bring here. I see associations as having extraordinary potential to be beneficial to people throughout the industry. I’ve got the energy and the desire to grow that, to build that within the AGA. Frank built the foundation that makes this possible, and fortunately the foundation he built was much like a trampoline, because it’s something that really has enabled us and will enable us to springboard to that next level. The AGA has extraordinary potential. We are a young, vibrant, innovative industry that really does seem excited about writing that next chapter.” Massaging the Message As a registered lobbyist with the USTA for four years, Freeman believes that the state of the gaming industry in the Capitol is good, but he will continue the goal of preventing harm to the industry.
“The challenge the gaming industry has is not different than the challenge that many industries have, and that is to understand that you need to more aggressively get out there and define for policymakers how you help them,” he says. “There’s no shortage of industries coming to Washington and asking for this or saying they need that. The question is, how do we position ourselves as a solution for members of Congress? How do we create a forum where members of Congress can stand on a stage back home and tell their community that these jobs are something that they made happen, that this community development is something that they made happen?
“We want members of Congress, frankly, to use us to look good; tell the story back home of how they’re helping drive economic development, and they’re doing it in partnership with the gaming industry. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to position ourselves as a solution. We’re not in an economic place that we want to be. The gaming industry is part of the solution. So how do we confidently and proactively position ourselves as such? That is our challenge with Congress.”
For years, the industry has been clamoring to be treated like any other industry that offers economic development. Freeman says there should be a renewed effort to make that happen.
“I recently spent time watching a Massachusetts Gaming Commission hearing online,” he said. “I was amazed by the types of questions, the accusatory nature, the depth that people were going with people who are simply saying, ‘Let me come to your community and create thousands of new jobs.’ I was very surprised by the tone of that. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.
“In my brief time here, what I’ve seen is the industry seems to fall into one of three categories. We either fall under the category of economic engine, which is what Nevada and New Jersey, Mississippi, perhaps even Iowa, see of the industry; they see an economic engine, and they create an environment in which the industry can be efficient and drive development. We have other communities where we’re simply evil, maybe Utah, Hawaii and others that don’t want to touch the gaming industry. And then we have the vast middle, where we’re seen, to some degree, as a necessary evil. And when we’re seen as a necessary evil, the policies that come with that are anti-growth, generally. The policies that come with that are anti-efficiency. They’re not policies that enable our industry to thrive.”
Freeman believes those opinions can change.
“Our challenge, and perhaps the job of the AGA, is to do everything we can to move as many of these communities in that necessary evil category to the economic engine category. When we get into that category, the right policies follow. If we can get there, we’ll find a much better regulatory environment. We’ll find investors who think that they can go here because of the transparency and the friendliness to that investment. We’re not there yet. That’s the big challenge going forward.”
Geoff Freeman may not be Frank Fahrenkopf, but in short order, the gaming industry will not resemble the industry led by Fahrenkopf, either. A new leader is in place, poised to bring gaming to a new level, with new leaders and a new purpose.