Mohegan Sun: Play for Keeps

Mohegan Sun: Play for Keeps

Kim S. Nash

Sue Vanwiggeren is 76 but looks two decades younger with her black hair and sharp white suit. For the past year, she has taken the two-hour bus ride from Fall River, Mass., to Uncasville, Conn., to visit the Mohegan Sun. She comes three or four times a week, just for the day, and has gotten to know lots of other senior citizens who do the same.

Vanwiggeren likes slot machines, but blackjack is her game. Gambling isn’t the only reason to come, she says, but it’s what gets her freebies. The $15 bus fare was paid in points earned through her frequent-gamer Player’s Club card. Mohegan Sun also mailed her a coupon for a chance to spin a giant prize wheel and one for a free buffet dinner.

“Can’t beat it,” she says, slipping a forkful of seafood into her mouth. “I come alone but don’t feel alone. All of us on the bus are over 70 and we’re here for the same reasons.” Gambling, sure, but also to shop, eat and enjoy the decor, including the indoor simulated cedar forest and a planetarium dome erected over the “Casino of the Sky” gaming floor.

Think casino gambling and you think high rollers playing high-stakes games, dropping thousands of dollars a night. Those people are real but they’re not the core of the casino business. The steady Freddies and Letties are.

Mohegan Sun works to get repeat business with a customer loyalty program mixed with outside demographic data, surrounded by data mining and analysis software. That combination of information technology helps marketing tease out exactly who, in a six-state radius, it should try to attract. Mohegan Sun spent $77 million on promotional programs last year, up from $71 million in 2001. This year is pivotal for the casino. It will be the first full year its expanded gaming floors and luxury hotel are in operation—putting it on par with competitors in Connecticut and Atlantic City, N.J.

Some promotions are geared for certain age groups; it targets senior citizens with coupons for bus rides and weekday meals. Other programs go broad, intended to appeal to as many Northeastern gamblers as possible.

Take the Swipe & Win. Customers run their Player’s Club card, or a magnetic-striped card that they got in the mail, through a kiosk to see if they’ve won a cash prize. Swipe & Win, like the four or five other major promotions Mohegan Sun rotates, runs for a month at a time. Customers can play once per day. Last summer’s version gave away $500,000 to 25,000 people. Prizes ranged from $25 to $50,000.

The value for Mohegan Sun, though, is in the black bar on the back of the card. It contains data about who the swiper is, his address and—if he’s one of the casino’s 2 million Player’s Club members—his Mohegan Sun gambling history.

With each swipe, that information is zapped from the kiosk to casino-management software running on an IBM AS/400 server. The data is stored in an IBM DB2 database for later analysis.

“I can know who played yesterday, where they were from, spending habits, gender breakdown and age breakdown,” says Mike Bloom, Mohegan Sun’s senior vice president of marketing.

From there, Bloom can figure out how popular a contest is and with whom. If patrons use Player’s Club cards on the property—whether to play slot machines or table games, or to redeem points at stores or restaurants—the casino tracks that, too. It gives Bloom an idea of how much additional revenue the casino got from those customers after luring them to Uncasville with Swipe & Win.

Direct mail campaigns across industries, on average, draw a 3% to 5% response rate. But 75% to 80% of the people who get Swipe & Win mail come-ons come in, says Dan Garrow, chief information officer since 1998. So when Bloom saw that Tuesdays were a slow day on the gaming floors, he got together with Garrow to create double-swipe Tuesdays. Players could swipe their cards two times on Tuesday instead of just once. It brought more people in, but Mohegan Sun executives declined to say what the traffic increase was.

Last month, the casino tried a new promotion, Swipe, Spin & Win. Patrons zipped their cards at a kiosk and could win cash, just like with Swipe & Win. But 800 people got an extra chance at fortune by then spinning a giant, old-style prize wheel. They could hear the clapper, watch the spin-action and get the excitement of watching the big wheel slow down, urging it to land on the $5,000 spot rather than the $50 one.

“There’s a lot of instant gratification, with other people rooting them on, like a game show,” Bloom says.

Mohegan Sun houses 6,200 slot machines, 260 table games and 36 poker tables. Thirteen thousand cars can park there. The casino occupies 240 acres—60%—of the 405 acres that make up the Mohegan Tribal Authority’s reservation.

Information technology can track who does what, where and when, but only to a point. Not every one of the 40,000 people who visit Mohegan Sun on an average day is a Player’s Club member, and even members don’t always use their cards. If a patron uses a credit card, that data can be matched against the DB2 database. But if he uses cash, he essentially disappears inside Mohegan Sun’s 3 million square feet.

“Some promotions and activity you can’t track,” Garrow says. “Some people don’t want to be found.”

Still, the casino is using as much technology as it can in as many places as it can.

Project Sunburst, a $1 billion, two-year construction project that increased gaming space by two-thirds to 296,000 square feet—and added a 1,200-room hotel, 10,000-seat arena and other facilities—gave Garrow the chance to open up technology spending. Spending is not unlimited, he says, “but senior management wants the best technology and funds it.”

Keeping core systems up every hour, every day is a top priority for any casino that never closes. An hour of downtime at the $1 billion Mohegan Sun could mean $119,000 in lost revenue. To guard against that, the company owns four high-end AS/400s—$1.2 million worth. It has one each for production applications, testing, production backup, and test backup.

“The management team said to us, ‘Assume one of your server rooms will catch fire. We don’t want to notice when that happens,'” says Jake Starr, vice president of computer services. “One of the great things about this place is it’s a candy store for I.T.”

For customers, the casino set up a high-speed network to project events from the arena, such as concerts and wrestling matches, on an in-house TV channel to selected hotel suites.

Meeting rooms make use of the same network, which has 100 switches from Cisco Systems. For conventioneers, the casino can set up custom networks between any facilities on campus for video, audio and Internet presentations.

Hotel rooms have high-speed Internet connections and three two-line phones. An electronic item-tracking system inside the minibar monitors what’s been taken so housekeepers know what to cart to each room the next day. The system also automatically charges room accounts for items held out longer than 30 seconds. It takes about five minutes for the charge to show up on the LodgeNet service that displays running hotel bills on TV.

Direct returns on these sorts of technology-based amenities are hard to measure, Garrow acknowledges. “How many customers say, ‘I’m coming back because that minibar is something special?’ No one,” he says. “But do they come when they know they can still conduct business? Maybe so.”

Behind the Play

Player’s Club activity is the most measured. “It’s our data-tracking system,” says Bloom, the marketing chief.

A patron inserts her card into a slot machine. Adjacent to the card slot, an LED greeting moves across a narrow screen: GOOD LUCK JOAN. Joan, cigarette blazing, plunks down $50 inside of 10 minutes then moves on. Two machines down, GOOD LUCK GEORGE ticks by. It tells George he has $167 worth of points on his card.

Points don’t come cheap. Losing $30 to a 25-cent slot machine one recent Friday night earned just 85 cents in points. Generally, $80 played earns $1 in points.

Many other casinos use loyalty cards. Nearby Foxwoods has its Wampum Card, Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City has its Taj Card, Harrah’s in Las Vegas has its Total Rewards. The programs at most other casinos track play but don’t award points; the systems rate the level of a patron’s gambling. A patron may receive complimentaries, or comps, such as a free night’s hotel stay or tickets to a show, based on the kind of player he or she is rated to be.

At Mohegan Sun, cardholders bank points in the style of a checking account and can use them however they choose—to eat, drink, buy gifts or clothes, pay for hotel rooms or massages, for hourly childcare services while gambling or for gassing up the car on the way out.

That difference has a price. Almost no casino software is built to do loyalty programs on the point system, says Starr, the head of computer services. “Every casino package we buy, we need to customize significantly,” he says. During Project Sunburst last year, Starr and in-house programmers worked with Advanced Casino Systems Corp. to tweak its Casino Management System package for use at Mohegan Sun. For example, the system came ready to analyze by ZIP code, but only by the first three digits. Mohegan Sun wanted all five.

The technology staff also had to create a way for retail shops and eateries not owned by Mohegan Sun to process points. The casino has no control over the point-of-sale or inventory systems used by retailers who rent space there, but it still wanted patrons to be able to use their points at these places. CIO Garrow shot down the idea of putting tenants on the Mohegan Sun network, for fear of creating backdoor security holes.

Instead, a separate local area network was created that works like a small-scale credit-card authorization system. A cashier swipes the customer’s Player’s Club card in a dedicated scanner device, which checks Mohegan’s DB2 database that tracks points to see whether there are enough to make the purchase, then debits the account. The store later charges back Mohegan Sun for the item.

“If you use your points to go to a jewelry store and buy a $40,000 Rolex, we pay that store back some amount,” Starr says. (Accumulating $40,000 worth of points, incidentally, would mean gambling $3.2 million.)

Some of the technology on display is purely for marketing.There is a tote board showing slot machine wins that day. The rolling LED readout is about an hour behind the polling software that spiders out to the 6,200 machines. But the constantly increasing numbers do goose the excitement level. At about 3 p.m. on a Friday in May, it was $4 million. By 7:30 p.m., it was $8.9 million. It gives people hope.

Back at the Sunburst Buffet, Vanwiggeren finishes dessert. She won’t say how much she has played in the past 12 months at the casino complex. But the $312 in points she has on her Player’s Club card would indicate it’s at least $24,960. It’s OK with Mohegan Sun if all it takes is a beautiful setting and a free buffet dinner—average cost $12.09—to keep her coming back.

She says she enjoys blackjack but more than that, she likes the experience of the trip. And the camaraderie. As she leaves the restaurant, Vanwiggeren stops at a nearby table of bus-mates to wish a happy birthday to gray-haired friend, Gene. “You’re 39?” she asks with a smirk. “You look like hell for 39!” The table busts up laughing. Vanwiggeren says he’ll see them all next week and straightens her suit jacket on her way to the gaming floor.

Mohegan Sun Base Case

Headquarters: 1 Mohegan Sun Blvd., Uncasville, CT 06382

Phone: (860) 862-8000

Businesses: Casino and resort

Chief Information Officer: Dan Garrow

Financials in 2002: $1.04 billion in sales; $100 million in net profits.

Challenge: To determine how well and how often promotional giveaways pay off.

Baseline Goals:

Cut $75 million to $85 million from total debt of $1.1 billion.

Improve the ratio of promotional spending to revenue from last year’s 6.9%.

Increase hotel occupancy from last year’s average of 77% Per Night.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Baseline.