As casinos around the world start looking at their reopening strategies, they may need to think further outside the box to attract a shrinking customer base.
Synergy Blue, a manufacturer of arcade-style casino games, recently published results of a survey of 1,000 adult US gamblers. The survey, conducted in late April 2020, uncovered interesting preferences and expectations of casino gamblers if they are to return to casinos now that they’ve started reopening.
The survey presents some sobering statistics. Only 51% of those surveyed said they will gamble in casinos again once casinos reopen. But not all these customers will return without concerns. 26% of those planning to return said they will do so only if the number of active COVID-19 cases drastically reduces. One-fifth of intending returnees would wait for the stay-at-home orders to be lifted, and another one-fifth will do so only after a vaccine for the pandemic becomes available.
This survey is corroborated by the experience of casinos in Macau, which have now been open since 20 February. For the last few months, Inside Asian Gaming has been carrying out spot checks on the number of customers in various Macau properties. As of 10 May, the 11 Macau IRs, comprising The Venetian Macao, Parisian Macao, Sands Cotai Central, City of Dreams, Wynn Palace, MGM Cotai, Galaxy Macau, Grand Lisboa, Wynn Macau, MGM Macau and StarWorld, averaged just 14 main gaming floor players during any given midweek afternoon. All counts were conducted on the afternoons of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Just to underscore the contrast, casinos owned by Sands China Limited alone used to attract around 200,000 visitors a day prior to the pandemic.
Some analysts observe that visitor numbers in Macau casino properties remain dishearteningly low because of the tight border restrictions in place since late March. However, the scope and nature of restrictions will be no different when Las Vegas or Singapore allows casinos to reopen. Physical barriers such as cross-border travel restrictions (be they interstate or across countries), unavailability of transportation (airlines, ferry or bus services) and physical quarantine requirements for customers traveling to or from casino destinations all make it extremely difficult for customers to visit their favorite gambling destinations. Thus, from a financial viewpoint, the wisdom of reopening casino resorts amid prohibitive entry barriers is open to question.
Even dismantling the structural and legal barriers would not ensure a steady supply of eager customers. If the Synergy Blue survey is anything to go by, casinos may have lost about half of their existing customers for good. Furthermore, only 35% of those planning to return said they will go back to their usual casinos, while almost 3 out of 10 who aspire to return said their choice of casinos would be determined by rewards, discounts and specials.
What implications do these findings have for casino operators? Simply having a reopening plan that focuses on employee and patron safety is not enough.
Casino operators will have to re-evaluate their loyalty program and significantly enhance player reinvestment to attract and retain the customers who do return to play. Most pre-pandemic marketing strategies will have to be jettisoned, and strategies based on new segmentation models taking into account the new breed of customers and their expectations will have to be devised.
In the early months of reopening, customer-facing employees will play a crucial role in reassuring customers on matters of hygiene and safety. Frontline employees will also be cheerleaders, creating buzz and excitement so essential to the customer experience. Companies such as Wynn and Las Vegas Sands – who kept their staff on the payroll even during times of casino closure – will be handsomely rewarded by way of employee engagement. Navigating through the various back-to-business phases, as CX expert Bruce Temkin points out, is less about a great strategic plan; it’s about tapping into the insights and energy of engaged employees.
Casino executives concur that casinos will need 50% to 60% occupancy just to break even when they reopen. Not many casino companies will be able to achieve this kind of customer patronage in the foreseeable future. Casinos who do make it through the various stages of post-pandemic terrain will have to totally and unconditionally recommit themselves to the doctrine of employee engagement and to the primacy of customer experience.