Over three days, in the hot summer heat of Oklahoma City’s downtown “Bricktown” area, more than 2,200 participants stayed cool and informed by attending the 18th annual Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association (OIGA) annual trade show, held at the Cox Convention Center. The largest regional tribal gaming show—considered by many to be the most successful regional event—OIGA provided cutting-edge workshops, an active and lively exhibit floor and well-attended networking opportunities. Expert panelists provided a large variety of workshops on a wide range of topics and tracks. The top-attended workshops focused on Internet gaming and marketing—both of which included lively and interactive discussions.
The conference included more than 40 workshops and approximately 144 exhibitors. One refreshing show feature was that most of the Oklahoma tribal casinos were exhibitors as well as attendees. Each casino had a booth where participants could meet the tribal delegates and acquire a better understanding of their casino-resort facility. I asked one tribal leader what her team hoped to gain from the conference and she said they felt they really need to expand and “do more.” She expressed a desire for their tribe and casino to “keep up and stand out” in order to capture a competitive edge.
The OIGA marketing track certainly focused on the competitive edge. In a well-attended session, Chad Germann, founder and CEO of Red Circle Agency, a marketing communications firm specializing in Indian gaming, led the attendees through a social media 101 session. He covered mobile phone technology, search engine optimization, Twitter, Google, YouTube and personal banners. Although he admitted that current tribal gaming clientele is not extremely active on social media, he stressed a fact that all marketing reps have to consider: Young people who are active on social media are getting older and are quickly becoming the new customer base. One thoughtful point Germann stressed was that within the marketing sector, data is quickly replacing human subjectivity as the decision maker in advertising campaigns. Since social media is so measurable, many companies release a few different ads initially, then measure which one receives the greatest response. No more guessing or human error; they are simply letting the data and stats do the talking. Germann also spoke about using tribal gaming websites as powerful marketing tools and the importance of understanding search engine optimization placement for tribal casinos, and utilizing data from social media sites to target specific customers. He polled the room of casino executives and in the large capacity, filled room, only one tribal rep was actively utilizing all of the technology he presented. It was clear from the questions and responses that many tribal gaming marketing programs are underutilizing emerging technology.
In a slot-focused workshop, James Bettles of Aviana Global Technologies also stressed the advantages of using state-of-the-art technology. In a breakout session dedicated to improving slot productivity, Bettles walked attendees through a presentation of the program their company offers that is extremely mathematical and analytical. He spoke about analyzing and predicting player slot activity through an IBM-SPSS predictive analytic software system. The presentation reminded me of how math, algorithms, engineers and analytics changed the face of money management techniques on Wall Street years ago. Instead of using intuition and “old-fashioned” analysis techniques by simple management review, the idea is to apply serious algorithmic strategies, by leveraging technology, math and engineering, to process the data and forecasts, providing management predictive analytics for categories like total spend, last visit, all visits, tables, machines, top players, future players, play patterns, etc. Aviana Global Technologies is a Platinum Partner of IBM; interestingly in 2009 IBM purchased SPSS to replace its own data mining solutions. I won’t lie and try to pretend I understood everything in this complex presentation, but after re-reading the materials a few times, I definitely feel that advanced technology has to be considered as our tribal facilities attempt to remain competitive.
Of course, the most well-attended track at OIGA—as is typical these days—was the Internet gaming presentations. There were three different sessions, with most of the focus on pending legislation and proposed regulation. In the Internet gaming session entitled “Federal versus State Legislation,” presenters Tauri Bigknife from Viejas, Chuck Bunnell from Mohegan and John Tahsuda from Navigators Global discussed the concerns about potential state regulation of tribal online gaming. They discussed the Harry Reid-authored Internet gaming bill currently being considered federally, and indicated that Reid is promising tribes parity in regulation. However, Reid seems to be opposed to self-regulation, as it puts the tribal gaming commissions at a disadvantage. The idea of a state regulatory body possibly gaining jurisdiction over tribal operations is very distasteful and most feel this would violate the spirit of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). The panel further discussed the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) clarification issued in late December 2011, unanimously agreeing that it was a key event since it clarified that intrastate lotteries could issue online gaming tickets within their state boundaries. Bunnell said this was indeed a game change,r and Bigknife feels this made the state lotteries aware of the opportunities and created a race to the finish line. The entire panel agreed that in most cases, tribes and lotteries can’t work together as their interests simply are misaligned. It is unfortunate but it appears that state gaming commissions and tribal gaming commissions do not have much synergy in this space.
Jodi DiLascio, director of tribal development at BMM, was in the audience for all the Internet gaming workshops and commented:“At all the tribal gaming events BMM attends these days, i-gaming is the hot topic, and it was at OIGA as well. The couple of sessions that were offered were extremely well-attended here and I think it is useful for the tribes to share information at such a critical time.” But as a firm that provides testing, assurance, certification and compliance management, DiLascio says BMM is receiving more questions from both the clients and the regulators; too many questions to cover in the short time trade shows allow for. To hopefully address some of these complex issues, BMM has developed an i-gaming tribal regulator workshop entitled “Finding Your Path,” which is offered throughout tribal gaming markets. The workshops provide tribal regulators more in-depth discussion on the complexities of how i-gaming might be regulated. In fact, just prior, BMM had completed the first event where they had strong attendance and extremely positive feedback (see CEM’s September issue for a review of it). “Oklahoma tribal gaming has a special place in BMM’s heart, as this area is one of the leading markets for tribal gaming, and such a small sense of community that OIGA ties together. BMM is proud to support OIGA as an associate member,” DiLascio said, “and we look forward to bringing our free i-gaming workshop here.”
An area of some dissension related to Internet gaming, as demonstrated by some lively discussion between panelists and audience members at the OIGA Internet gaming workshops, is whether the European models of compliance and regulation can be duplicated and be applicable to tribal online gaming. The panelists seemed to agree that tribal gaming is unique and IGRA has to be upheld and considered. The National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) will need to work with tribal gaming commissions (just as they do now with brick-and-mortar facilities) and how that will intersect with poker or other online games being played off reservation boundaries is unclear. The panelists did not see an easy fit into the European model. One audience member, however, felt strongly that we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel and if there is a regulatory model that works, it should be explored.
In another i-gaming session, Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker released an informative review of the draft tribal Internet gaming bill recently released by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The unanimous position seemed to be that while useful as a starting draft, there are significant concerns to be addressed and changes that will be necessary if it is to meet the needs of tribes. The Senate Committee is seeking comments and undoubtedly there will be many revisions in the future for this particular document.
The one position that appears to be unanimous in Indian country, as it relates to Internet gaming, is that it must not and cannot depreciate sovereignty. Yet, the logistical challenges loom large and complex. IGRA and the NIGC are organized to regulate gaming on Indian lands, and yet the fact that Internet gaming seems to inevitably and eventually include gaming off reservation boundaries via the world wide web intersecting with tribal casino servers, poses interesting legal and regulatory hurdles. Although panel discussions at regional and national trade shows are extremely effective in bringing the community together to raise awareness and discuss the complex aspects of the topic, it remains unclear where the ultimate solutions will lie.
On an extremely positive note, OIGA opened its session with an impressive color guard presentation and several keynote addresses. Chairwoman Tracie Stevens of the NIGC delivered the empowering news that their recently released Indian Gaming Revenue Report showed a 3 percent increase in overall tribal gross gaming revenue in 2011, increasing from $26.5 billion in 2010 to $27.2 billion in 2011. The report data was compiled from 421 independently audited financial statements submitted by 237 gaming tribes.
At the NIGA associate member meeting held during the show, Executive Director of OIGA Sheila Morago was applauded for her hard work and successful event. The national organization sought her input on issues such as how to keep more attendees on the exhibit floor and how to better understand the attendees’ needs via proper surveys and data collection reports. “I just want to say that we were very honored to have such great support from our exhibitors and attendees,” Morago said. “Tribal government gaming in Oklahoma is thriving and it was reflected in the size and energy on the trade show floor.”
Before the trade show concluded, many satisfied attendees won a wide variety of prizes including cash giveaways on the final day (even my husband triumphed with a dinner for two at the Lucky Star Casino) and exhibitors were rushing to sign up for their 2013 booth spaces; it certainly appears that the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association will continue its legacy as a top event in Indian country.