The economic impact of COVID-19 has brought the gaming industry to a screeching halt, but there is a new battle looming on the horizon: Reopening and operating amidst the pandemic.
With all of the questions about how best to emerge from the pause in gaming operations, it leaves casino operators having to consider not only how to drive revenue back to their property, but to do so in a manner that best protects the health, safety and well-being of guests and employees. As industry specialists and operators, we continuously speculate about what we think will be important to guests, as we move forward together. But, understanding the actual impact of COVID-19 on gamers will be key to developing operational plans and messaging that will lead to a successful and sustainable reopening and beyond.
The team at Catalyst Marketing Company set out to help their clients understand what to expect from their guests by partnering with several tribal gaming properties to conduct guest surveys. The responses were fairly consistent across states and regions, and generated a huge response; totaling over 37,000 guests from eleven different properties across the country.
The results of the surveys helped to quantify some issues, ideas and feelings. Some of the results were expected, but others provided unique insights that can help shape our path forward. Here is what this means for casino operators:
“Understanding the actual impact of COVID-19 on gamers will be key to developing operational plans and messaging that will lead to a successful and sustainable reopening and beyond.”
Demand Upon Opening
If the three-hour lines and the largest drop ever at Coeur d’Alene Casino’s reopening this past weekend is any indicator, demand won’t be the issue. In fact, just the opposite. The better question is how to manage the demand to ensure you are maximizing your available space? With our new social distancing reality, space is now the most valuable commodity. Some properties like Wind Creek in Bethlehem, PA are even pursuing appointment gaming to manage the demand. Catalyst is recommending that its clients have a plan for this challenge:
- A Carded or VIP socially distanced line or entrance, similar to what guests are used to seeing at casino cages and buffets.
- Host a soft or preopening event for carded and invited guests. The advantage here is double. Operating in this new environment will take some getting used to for both employees and guests. Keeping the crowd light for a couple of days to get your bearings while maximizing the type of players that come in, is a win for employees, premium guests and stakeholders.
- Since the new normal on weekends may be that demand outweighs the reduced capacity, exploring tech solutions that can inform guests of potential wait times online can help keep the actual lines to a minimum.
According to Arrivalist’s most recent report, trip activity under 250 miles increased for a second straight weekend and Google Trends Travel reports that queries for “road trips” are on the rise. This supports the guest findings where over 90% will still visit a casino as long as they can drive there. Focusing marketing strategies toward your drive-in market will be key until willingness to travel expands closer to previous levels. Destination properties may have to be more aggressive to drive trips where local and regional properties may benefit from guests’ aversion to travel. We may even see a similar reaction like we did after 9/11 where local properties saw a bump in play and destination properties struggled to drive traffic.
Even state and local governments are rooting for casinos to keep their marketing focus local to help keep the potential pool smaller for testing and contact tracing efforts should there be a flare up in their community.
Health and Safety Measures
The biggest thing guests are looking for is the availability of hand sanitizer and wipes throughout the property. Regular cleaning and spacing available for social distancing are also important, while temperature taking upon entrance and face coverings for team members and guests are an acceptable practice.
There will be some outliers that choose not to follow social distancing and safety guidelines. Unlike some other industries, casino guests and employees are used to strict protocol enforcement. Management will need to set the tone for what is required and what is encouraged. Most importantly, communicating to your guests and team members what they should expect upon reopening will alleviate any surprises when they arrive on property. Utilizing email, mail, social media and direct mail channels will all help to drive home the messaging and will go a long way to manage expectations.
Guest Trip Frequency and Overall Play
About 43% of guests feel that their discretionary spend will be down by at least 10%, so plan for some reduction in revenue; as much as 18%-23%. With the reduction in capacity by roughly half and 72% of patrons still planning on coming as much or more often than they did before, head count may not be as big of a challenge.
Especially upon reopening and shortly thereafter, properties could see a lift in visits as guests are looking for an outlet. This may settle down after the initial surge, but providing guests a positive, safe and comfortable first experience back will pave the way toward capturing their 2nd, 3rd trips and beyond.
“Providing guests a positive, safe and comfortable first experience back will pave the way toward capturing their 2nd, 3rd trips and beyond.”
Messaging and Advertising
There is a bit of a divide in the public about when casinos and the economy in general should reopen. To keep as much out of that argument as possible, messaging should be targeted towards known players to start. We’re not quite ready for a victory lap, so that message should remain respectful towards community members that still have a concern over the virus. Focus on the positive, be welcoming and share what you are doing to keep your guests and employees safe.
Direct mail, email, and social media are the obvious channels, but additional digital marketing tactics like IP targeting will allow you to serve ads directly to your players only. There are multiple advantages to starting your advertising ramp up with these types of tactics:
- Your message goes straight to someone that already has interest
- With limited capacity, targeting top tiers first can help ensure you’re filled with the right players
- If you’re in a community that is still unsure of safety, or are still under “Shelter in Place Protocol”, you aren’t overtly defying public sentiment or governmental suggestions.
- Digital tactics can be more budget friendly which can certainly be helpful and less costly, coming out of an extended closure
To use their words, guests are “excited” for casinos to reopen. There remains some apprehension but human nature, the drive to be social and the need for entertainment seem to outweigh that concern for most. Providing a clean, safe entertainment experience while allowing for accepted safety and social distancing practices to carry on is what will make guests feel more comfortable in choosing your property as the place to go.
Developing health & safety, crowd control, and advertising plans, communicating those plans internally and externally as needed, then executing or even evolving that plan as circumstances change will be key to any successful operation in this new environment.
For the complete survey results, more information, or if you would like to survey your own guests, click here.