WEB-WONK'S NOTE: In olden days, an "Editor's Note" sometimes preceded an article. That's been superseded by a note from the Web wonk. This article has a lot of small images. If you'd like to see larger versions of those images, just click the small image.
John Romero started it. John is a business friend from his days at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. A looooong time ago.
He moved to southern California and settled in the San Fernando Valley. We visited together every so often. At a DM event, for instance.
Quickly John earned the title "Casino Direct Marketing Guru". He put his knowledge to work, applied it to customer loyalty programs in casinos about America, and without question became "the man". He still is.
John can walk in any casino in the world and tell you how they're really doing. He works with the top brass ... President, General Manager, Managing Director. Because he talks their language.
Well, I needed a guest for my RAYdio program Marketing with Ray. And felt something about "casino marketing" would be an interesting topic. With the relaxed gaming laws in many of the US States, river boat casinos and American Indian casinos are literally in hundreds of locations across the land. No longer just Nevada and New Jersey.
When you need a pro you go to "the" pro. I went to John to ask him to be my radio show guest. And suggested he bring a client along - to spice the conversation. It is no surprise John went the extra mile - he introduced me to one of his favorite clients ... Susan Murphy. Susan is General Manager, Ramada Express Hotel & Casino, Laughlin, Nevada USA.
So "yes", John started this story. About marketing the Ramada Express.
Let's begin by explaining the name "Ramada Express". Today the hotel is neither a Ramada, and most certainly not "Express". The Ramada name is a hold-over from way back when. Nothing wrong with it ... except this Ramada is a whole lot more than most Ramadas.
When the sub-title "Express" was tagged on it made sense, too. Not today. Hotels today using the descriptive word "express" do so to tell you there is little to no service. You will find the place clean and neat - period. Other than front desk personnel, no bell service, no concierge, probably not a restaurant. You will get clean towels every day ... that's about it.
If this is what you expect, the Ramada Express Hotel & Casino in Laughlin, Nevada will be a BIG - and very pleasant! - surprise. The 1500 guest rooms, 4 restaurants, including the "standard" buffet, an excellent Italian place and a steak & seafood fine dining establishment are part of the surprise.
Then there's the railroad theme decor, with a "live" Traintown choo-choo running around the property every day. Inside there are train exhibits - and many of the 1500 smiling service personnel are wearing railroad attire. Oh, and the other restaurant ... The Dining Car. It looks like an old railway car.
So, how do you take a big hotel property, in a rather remote southwest USA desert location, in town with 8 other big hotel properties, and make it pay? When your name does you no favors? And especially when your hotel is on the "wrong side of the street"?
What do I mean "wrong side of the street"? Let me explain. Laughlin sits on the Colorado River, just over 100 miles and 2 hours south of Las Vegas. And all the competitors to the Ramada Express sit on that famous river. They each have "river views". The Ramada Express does not ... it is literally on the "wrong side of the street".
How do you take a property with good food, more slot machines than most, yet fewer table games, and make it pay?
To begin you grow Susan Murphy to General Manager. Susan began her life in the hospitality business in San Francisco. Loved the desert - came to the Laughlin area in the late '80s, and went to work at the Ramada Express.
She moved up through the marketing department and in 1995 was promoted to Senior Vice President and General Manager of the place.
Susan is good. I've spent some time as her guest - as I did my interview talk radio broadcast from her hotel. In the middle of the Grand Junction lounge - surrounded by hundreds of "ringing" slot machines. In preparing for the program I got to know Susan - and a number of those who work for her. They all love her! It's easy to understand why.
People is a slam dunk at the Ramada Express. For 6 consecutive years they have been voted "Best Slot Club". The best Steakhouse for 5 straight years. Best Cocktail Service 2 years. Best Pool / Jacuzzi for 3 years. And for 4 years running Best Overall Casino. None of this happens without good people.
Okay, you've worked to make your place the best ... how do you get your message to your marketplace? How do you get your story out, your rooms and restaurants filled, and the casino action that keeps you alive? Susan Murphy uses direct mail. A lot of direct mail.
Let's back up and share the story about how Susan and her hotel got to where they are. A few years ago the team was kicking around a bunch of marketing ideas. Something all of us do every so often. What can we do next to bring in more customers - and to bring back those we already have?
Laughlin is a desert city in southern Nevada, across the river from an equally small Arizona town - 30 minutes from another small California town. Every winter the area fills up with "snow birds". People who live in winter snow country, and "fly" south to enjoy better weather during the cold season.
Most "snow birds" are retired, or nearly so. The vast majority 55+ in years. They have a little money - yet, are often on a fixed income. They live on a budget - still, they do live. They spend for fun, they eat out a lot, they buy stuff. They like gaming.
Susan and her marketing team looked around and said "this is our audience. Let's make a play for this marketplace". And they did.
They opened a satellite office in Sun City, Arizona - a retirement town. Filled with tens of thousands of people living in the desert, who have money, who like to travel. And they're way past having kids at home - this marketplace has grandchildren who visit.
Thus the head "Leave Kids Home, Get Extra Perks!" line ... a John Romero idea. Why so strong? Susan says it best;
"There's just a little bit of sin coming here.
People smoke. They drink. They gamble.
That's activity for adults ... not kids."
Of course she is right. And besides - she told me she learned early-on her best customers do not come to the Ramada Express because it is a family place. They come to play, eat, enjoy, relax ... without kids.
Another characteristic of the 55+ age group is many of them remember World War II. And Korea. They were in one or the other or both. Or they had family and friends in those conflicts.
So a 1930-40-50s museum exhibit idea was hatched. Originally it was going to be a 3-4 month promotion. That was 4 years ago ... and it keeps getting bigger.
"On the Wings of Eagles", a film tribute to American heroes is shown - free - 7 times every day. In the Pavilion Theater, with the Red/White/Blue WWII display around the room.
In the same theater every evening there is a special musical show - most often something from the same era.
The Ramada Express audience is mature adults. Most of them veterans. Most 55+. Which is why they are the premier sponsor of the Veterans Day Parade in Phoenix, Arizona - right next door to their Sun City office.
Which is why their speakers bureau offers presentations several times each month - where literally hundreds attend - FREE - to listen, learn, remember.
So, if this IS the Ramada Express - how do you tell your story? How do you rifle in on this very specific, identifiable audience? As shared earlier - with lots and lots of direct mail.
Direct Mail for at least one primary reason; this age group reads. They were brought up on newspapers, not television. And although an extremely high percentage are computer literate, they still prefer to get their "news" by reading. They are big direct mail readers.
Most Ramada Express direct mail falls into one of two categories;
... jumbo double or single panel post cards / self mailers, or
... "standard" business size envelope packages.
Susan Murphy is the signature on EVERY letter. Every letter has a P.S. Most are 2 color - sometimes with a 4 color insert / flyer. Offers include show tickets, deals on rooms, meal discounts. Everything has a drop-dead date ... a limited time offer.
You see, John Romero writes all the direct mail for Susan. A professional doing professional work.
Slot tournaments and video poker tournaments have each become popular. And are timed to fill the normal void just before a major happening ... such as when the Professional Bull Riders come to town. Or 35-40,000 Harley-Davidson's for the annual "River Run". Direct mail is used to invite guests back to participate in the tourney.
Halloween, St. Patrick's Day, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and other "special events" are also reasons for direct mail. Summer time in the desert is hot. Rooms go begging - the slot floor is "empty". More direct mail to customers.
The U.S. Veteran Slot Club Card & Pin is a reason to reach out and touch. There is a special area where first time Veterans to Ramada Express get their Slot Card - and a unique design Veteran pin. Today all the casinos have slot clubs - the Ramada Express plays to their select audience, and they treat them very well, too.
Mail is sent to previous visitors, vs. being a prospecting tool.
It is primarily a frequency / loyalty outreach. Space advertising in the travel sections of newspapers is the means to acquire new customers. Combined with outdoor posters for miles around Laughlin.
And a little broadcast - radio and television. The lucky guy married to Susan Murphy just happens to own several radio stations - you know she gets a good deal on the advertising!
Direct mail is saved for those who stay at the hotel, or visit and sign on for the Slot Club membership. It is very targeted, it is very personal.
Sometimes the Ramada Review, a newsletter, is mailed to customers. To keep them up to date on special food and room offers, the next tournament, the entertainment calendar. It goes to both the local Laughlin geography audience - as well as others through-out the western USA.
Susan Murphy and the Ramada Express are walking into the 21st Century using the basics learned in the 20th Century; learn who your customers are and talk to them. And they do a wonderful job at it.
When you're ready for a wonderful visit, surf over to web site www.ramadaexpress.com. Or in the USA phone toll-free 1+800+243-6846, or 1+888+888-8695. Tell them "Ray sent me". It won't save you any money - still, you'll feel good about it!