Blame it on Rio. Although mainland tourists helped Macau supercede Las Vegas as the world’s largest gambling destination in 2006, frenzied punters putting odds on this year's FIFA matches diverted bets from the roulette wheel. But even after the World Cup wraps up, the prohibition against gambling promotion inside China makes it difficult to reach key consumers.
Furthermore, the bar is being continuously raised by highly competitive casino operators trying to attract visitors who have been trained to expect more, according to Kevin Clayton, chief marketing officer of Galaxy Entertainment Group.
"No longer can an operator just build and they will come," he said. "It’s not easy to differentiate your offering in an increasingly cluttered market. Service quality is far more powerful and memorable than casino points, or even a free umbrella."
Expectations have changed with customers having a lot more travel, leisure and gaming choices throughout Asia. Gaming businesses will spend heavily on marketing to acquire new customers, yet customer retention is defined by a number of factors such as continuity of service and destination attractiveness, said Clayton. More than 70 per cent of visitors are influenced by friends, family and people on social media regarding a casino's brand strength and stature, he said. Simply put, it is about going back to basics rather than reinvesting lots of money in advertising.
In addition, from the perspective of a junket operator (considered a miniature casino operator that invites selected high-roller patrons to gamble inside VIP rooms), mass marketing at the Macau level is an effective approach for destination awareness, according to Anita Cheung, management advisor of Tak Chung Group, a junket operator.
"When Chinese visitors come to Macau, they know that this brand name [Macau] is a trusted one," she said. "They like the human touch, and they need somebody to tell them where to go. If they are happy they will paint a portrait of their pleasant experiences, so we grow via customer referrals."
When you fly into the Macau International Airport, or arrive at the ferry entrance, or walk along the streets of Macau or nearby Hong Kong, you see taxi advertisements and billboards all over that give visibility to casinos and junket operators. But that works only within the domestic market. Since Clayton and his marketing peers cannot advertise in China due to regulations, he has used other non-casino platforms like a WeChat Concierge, direct mail and has combined cuisine, retail and events (like Canto Pop or Mando Pop concerts, or The Rolling Stones) with unspoken gambling benefits to maximise the total appeal. "Our biggest bet is to use gaming and entertainment as a package," said Clayton.
Tak Chung provides a small spectrum of services to its VIP guests, ranging from local accommodation, transportation, luxury dining and tailor-made travel itineraries in addition to the obligatory gaming experience. "And then the customers will be attracted when they hear about this, even in China's far away provinces," said Cheung.
In fact, the sheer wagering volume generated by the VIP junket segment has fuelled the desire from casino operators to shift some of that volume to their own coffers, said Andrew Klebenov, principal of Gaming Market Advisors, resulting in resort casinos competing with junket operators for high-premium customers, which Galaxy's Clayton termed as "the shiniest button".
Wayne Lio, senior executive VP of Tak Chung Group, sees this a win-win situation with a twist. "We can use all the facilities at resort casinos to facilitate our junket guests. Because regular visitors to Macau hold two to three club memberships with increasing levels of promiscuity and can go wherever they want, one way to attract new players (or players from other clubs to switch) is renovations," he pointed out.
This line of reasoning has to do with the benefits that are given to customers to get them to come back, said Klebenov, illustrating the casino scene in North America, where it is now a very mature industry that has created savvy, smart customers who not only shop casino environments, but shop for the suite of benefits that they can get.
"And they’re not ashamed to ask," he added. "No problem saying, 'Hey, I want the hotel suite, I want two dinners at the steak house, oh, and by the way I want to go and see that show next weekend'."
Meet any Chinese gambler on any given day in Macau, and you find that they are even more demanding. Apart from knowing how to work the system, whether on the casino floor or through club benefits, it comes back to some basic marketing principles, said Clayton. "The Chinese customer is telling us this: You can offer me a room, you can offer me free food and beverages, or you can offer me whatever point system—do not let me down when it comes to service ethos that gives me face."
"Good fortune and luck of the hand are also essential," added Tak Chung's Cheung, even if no casino or junket operator can guarantee that.