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Friday, Feb 3, 2023

Tribal Casinos Strive to Sustain Good Times Amid Economic Woes

Who are you really, Maria Elena Smith?

That’s what the marketing people at Santa Ana Star Casino, on a pueblo near Albuquerque, N.M., spend their time trying to figure out.

Smith is a fictional character, but she is real nonetheless. She is the personification of the casino’s typical customer, and she has her choice of where to take her business.

Santa Ana Star has nine competitors in the market. So Michael Burdick and the rest of the casino’s marketing department spend their time learning everything they can about Smith. Not just her age, but her ethnicity and marriage partner, too. They want to know what she reads and where she drives every day.

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That information drives marketing, which encompasses everything from monthly e-mails to stadium signage.

Burdick was part of an expert panel on casino marketing that sat down April 22 at the San Diego Convention Center to share insights.

The Numbers

The occasion was the four-day National Indian Gaming Association convention, which drew 4,500 people last week. Several influential leaders, including former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell from Colorado and ex-California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, were among them.

American Indian gaming is a $27 billion industry that employs 700,000 people in the United States, according to Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the association and a member of Wisconsin’s Oneida Tribe. In San Diego County, there are 10 casinos that generate some $2 billion in revenues and employ thousands.

Stevens expressed hope that the casino business will spur more American Indian-owned enterprises.

Later that day, a panel on finance concentrated on the rapid change in the lending scene.

“Money’s available. Lenders are taking a little less risk than they were 10 months ago,” said Kristin Jackson, managing director for real estate, gaming and lodging investment banking for Banc of America Securities LLC in Los Angeles.

A Slowdown

So how is the industry poised to weather a recession?

The combination of higher gasoline prices and rural venues works against some American Indian casinos.

“We’ve noticed a slowdown,” said Chris Martin, vice president of marketing with Austin, Texas-based Multimedia Games. “We think the gas prices are taking a toll on some of our markets.”

Martin Baird, chief executive with casino consultant Robinson & Associates in Phoenix, recalls a time when his casino clients gave out gas cards. But with $4-a-gallon gasoline on the horizon, the offer of a $5 gas card would only make a client laugh, he says.

The casino industry is not recession-proof, says Barry Thalden, who runs an architectural firm in Las Vegas. Yet it is “an industry that sustains itself pretty well,” he said.

“People still want to have a good time in bad times.”


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