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Mississippi casinos dig deeper in marketing trenches

The hot catchphrase for 2008 has rolled into 2009: Flat is the new up.

In an economy where managers are patting themselves on the back for treading water, and marketers maintaining current levels are being hailed as heroes, casino operators are digging deeper in the trenches to attract customers.

“We’re looking at how we approach customers,” said Brian Bork, vice president of marketing for Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi and Gold Strike Casino Resort in Tunica. “Disposable income is down. Everyone’s value-driven. Going to the casino is not the first thing people need, but they recognize gaming as a fun manner of entertainment. It gives them a break from reality and that’s what we provide.”

The Beau has ramped up its live entertainment offerings. The number of headliners has jumped from 45 in 2008 to 75 or 80 in 2009. More promotional events have been added.

“We’re monitoring the response, but it’s too soon to determine the best approach,” said Bork. “It’s a buyer’s market all the way around — houses, cars, entertainment. People want more options.”

Bill Seratt, president of the Mississippi Tourism Association and director of the Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), has noticed a trend toward casinos offering greatly discounted hotel rooms, especially during the week.

“Fortunately, the Vicksburg market has not been hit as hard as others,” he said.

Chuck Bonelli, marketing vice president for the Southeast Tourism Society, said some event planners are shaving costs to offset lower revenues. “For example, they may have 15 minutes of fireworks instead of 20 to save a few thousand dollars and still have a great experience,” he said.

Some markets in the South are more insulated than others—for now at least. Kerry Andersen, director of communications and public relations for Pinnacle Company’s L’Auberge du Lac in Lake Charles, La., said the region “is something of an anomaly.”

Since opening three months before Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the 1,000-room resort reported its best month in November 2008.

“Our primary market is Texas, where the oil and gas industry is also insulated from wild market swings,” she said. “Housing prices are holding steady; the jobless rate is low. In fact, we just finished up a $67-million expansion and we’re getting ready to build Sugar Cane Bay (casino resort) next door.”

Andersen said they are capitalizing on gaming enthusiasts that typically head west, “like the guy who might make four trips to Vegas annually, but is only going twice this year.”

“If we’ve seen any blip, it’s been in meetings and events,” she said. “There’s some caution about booking, mostly for appearance’s sake. It’s not popular right now to say your company is hosting its next training session at a casino.”

Bill Canter, director of marketing and sales for the Tunica CVB, said the number of group bookings has remained stable, but noted fewer attendees and shorter durations per event.

“Room nights are down because many second- and third-tier guests aren’t coming,” he said. “To shorten the stay and save money, meeting planners have dropped events like golf outings. They’re booking at the last minute because they’re fearful of what the economy will bring and don’t want to pay the cancellation fee.”

Meeting planners are also “sandbagging a little,” said Canter, explaining “maybe they’re expecting 100 attendees, but they’re only booking for 75 or 80. They’re not planning for year-over-year growth as they have before. Is it a trend? I don’t know yet.”

In addition to boosting participation in trade shows, Canter is delving deeper into the CVB’s database.

“I’m doing more telemarketing than ever before,” he admitted. “Before, I might’ve made calls to 25 meeting planners before I picked up one new client. Now, it’s 35 to 45 calls before getting one.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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