Barona Hangs Loose, Wins Big

The gaming experience at Barona Resort & Casino, located just outside of San Diego, was rated “Highest in Satisfaction” by the J.D. Power and Associates Southern California Indian Gaming Casino Satisfaction Study in both 2008 and 2009, but in today’s competitive economy, General Manager Rick Salinas knew that the property could not afford to rest on its laurels. And like any casino, Barona also couldn’t afford to lose the good graces of its customers. This created quite a problem for the casino, albeit perhaps an enviable one. “Barona has always offered extraordinary value to our players in the form of the loosest slots and more winners, which has been one of our key marketing messages,” Salinas explained. “But we have experienced an ironic problem as a result of the high quality of service and product we offer—players sometimes have the perception that they must be paying a premium for that quality.”

Salinas knew the solution would come through realigning the business’ interests with the players’ interests, thereby boosting revenue and the perceived value of the gaming experience. Finding creative ways to do so became a top priority for his team, especially with the games on the floor. This laid the creative groundwork for the “Loose Troop,” Barona’s latest slot floor promotion.

The Loose Troop is an expert group of slot technicians, dressed in easy-to-identify uniforms, that is best described as “a combination of Ghostbusters and the Geek Squad.” Troop members will vigilantly patrol Barona’s casino floor 24/7, looking to “add a little attitude adjustment” to individual slot machines through April 30, 2010. “[The promotion is] designed to put Barona’s value pricing on very obvious display,” Salinas said. “Players who are in the casino when the Loose Troop is working can actually see ‘prices being reduced’ by loosening machine hold percentages. The machines they’re loosening are marked so players know the Loose Troop has been at work there.”

And the Loose Troop was hard at work even before the promotion hit the floor. Starting with nickel slots, team members ran a list of all of the casino’s machines and their hold percentages. Then they sorted the group by hold percentage, examining each machine for location, popularity, line configuration and max bet. They also checked to see if a game had committal wagering available. The team then compiled these characteristics along with past performance and, obviously, what alternative percentages were available, deciding where to make adjustments from there. “Rather than tightening our belts, we’re adding more and more value for our customers on the gaming floor, including loosening machines,” Salinas noted.

Still, Salinas said that at first the Loose Troop wasn’t seeing the results it wanted. “We weren’t seeing a proportionate lift,” he said, noting that this was likely due to a lack of marketing for the promotion. “We didn’t get the word out to new players as well as we should have.”

Soon, however, all the marketing and promotional pieces were in place, from conventional television, direct mail and print advertisements to write-ups in the player’s club newsletter and on the casino website. Barona also branched out with social media, including Facebook and Twitter. Inside the property, T-shirts and buttons on casino employees spread the message. And, of course, the real live Loose Troop continued to patrol the floor. Finally, Salinas said, the group effort really began to pay off.

Better yet, the promotion’s success is quantifiable. “As Cervantes’ Don Quixote said, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the tasting,’ ”Chuck Hickey, vice president of slots at Barona, said. “The Loose Troop campaign has created lots of buzz on the floor, and our real-time analysis has shown us it has brought lots of players from our competition, into our doors and onto our machines.”

While the Loose Troop campaign continues, Barona plans on further developing the “loose” theme into an intrinsic part of the casino’s brand. Hickey reports that during the Loose Troop’s slot floor analysis, the team found that, in many games, Barona was already offering the best percentage possible. Those games are now slated to become part of another new campaign, “Manufacturer’s Best Payback,” where manufacturers will certify that the machine is as loose as possible and even contribute their names and logos to the campaign. “We are able to assure players that, on these games, they will not find them operating looser in any other casino,” Hickey said.

“We will install the very loosest version of a game a manufacturer offers and no one can offer it any looser,” he added. “We don’t need to know what percentage any other casino offers a game because we know that ours is as loose as possible and we have empirical proof.”

According to Hickey, major manufacturers are already on board with Barona’s Best Payback program and have agreed to review and audit their machines to verify the campaign’s claims, which will allow the property to promote its “loosest” claims with the manufacturers’ seal of approval.

Hickey says this program is win/win/win: “The manufacturers should want casinos to offer games in their loosest settings,” he explained. “It will help the manufacturer create loyalty with the player to their products. The players obviously win because they know that they have the best odds possible and don’t have to wonder if they might have found a looser game somewhere else. And Barona will win because we are giving the player the best opportunity at winning on a game they like, giving them more bang for the playing buck and as much seat time—and therefore as many jackpots—as possible.”

And that’s really what it’s all about at Barona—value. Hickey says that whatever comes next, we can be sure that it will be all about the players. “It is about listening to our guest,” he said. “They are the true source for input, and giving them what they want usually turns out to be a pretty good place to start.”