Sunday, June 25, 2000

Turfway muscles up marketing

Bettors earn rewards

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FLORENCE — Since casino riverboat gambling floated into southern Indiana four years ago, Turfway Park has seen its wagering drop like an anchor.

        So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

        Northern Kentucky's only thoroughbred race track is about to implement a high-tech marketing program — pioneered and popular in the casino industry — that will reward customer loyalty with perks and offers ranging from free admission to gambling junkets.

        Turfway's FasTrack Rewards is scheduled to begin July 15. It is designed to increase the track's business by not only handing out prizes to frequent bettors but also by giving the track a sophisticated marketing method to attract customers.

        “This takes the guesswork out of marketing,” said track President Bob Elliston.

        “We can use this system to predict and follow our customers' behavior. It won't replace our core advertising and marketing, but it's a big step toward how we will get people coming back to the track for return visits.”

        Wagering at Turfway has plummeted since the Indiana casinos opened. The track's on-track wagering last year totaled more than $49 million, down from the more than $85 million in pre-casino 1995.

        “Are we doing this to compete? Yes,” Mr. Elliston said.

        “But we think it's something that is really going to benefit our customers and reward the loyalty they show to Turfway Park, loyalty that we appreciate. That's one of the major reasons we're doing this.”

        The computer data tracking system was actually developed by Harrah's Entertainment, one of the world's largest gaming companies. Harrah's, Lexington's Keeneland racetrack and GTECH — a provider of on-line lottery games and producer of gaming devices — formed a partnership that purchased Turfway from developer Jerry Carroll in January of 1999 for $37 million.

        Here is how the FasTrack Rewards program will work:

        Customers join by filling out a one-page application. They receive a plastic card similar to an ATM or debit card. Each time they place a bet, on either a live or simulcast race, the card's magnetic strip is scanned and their betting activity is recorded.

        Customers will accumulate points to be redeemed for prizes. For every $2.50 bet on a live race and for every $5 wagered on a simulcast race customers will receive a point.

        Unlike some casinos that reward mainly “high rollers,” customers who frequently bet large amounts, Turfway's program rewards even small bettors because points can be accumulated for up to 18 months, Mr. Elliston said.

        “Certainly the more somebody bets, the rewards are going to be better,” Mr. Elliston said. “But what's great about this program is you don't have to bet $2,000 a race to be rewarded. If you come out frequently and bet just $2 you're going to be eligible for some prizes.”

        But Turfway won't yet say how much a customer will have to bet to receive the various rewards.

        Customers don't have to join, but Turfway is kicking off a marketing and promotion program to persuade them to sign up, said Turfway spokesman Robert Forbeck.

        Turfway has hired Shannon McLaughlin, a computer data marketing specialist who previously worked for Brown & Williamson, a Louisville-based tobacco company.

        Ms. McLaughlin said she will collect, track and manipulate the data from bettors' cards. The information will be used as part of the track's marketing plan.

        “We'll be able to see the tendencies that our customers follow,” Ms. McLaughlin said, “and respond accordingly.”

        For instance, Ms. McLaughlin will be able to glean from the data if a frequent customer has been away from the track for awhile.

        “Then we can call that person or send them a mailer and offer them a free meal or something to get them back out to the track,” Mr. Forbeck said.

        Casinos, including those on the Ohio River in southern Indiana, have for years used complimentary perks — known in the industry as “comps” — to attract, retain and reward customers.

        At the Argosy Casino in Lawrenceburg., Ind., for instance, the Preferred Club gives customers credit for patronizing the casino and then rewards them for their business, said Gary Johnson, the casino's director of marketing.

        Benefits include free hotel rooms and meals, parties, golf outings and more, he said.

        Argosy also uses the system to market the casino to its customers, mostly by direct mail pieces that include discounts and offers at the casino, Mr. Johnson said.

        “It's really the basis of our decision-making when it comes to marketing,” Mr. Johnson said. “We really anticipated this would happen when Harrah's bought in to Turfway.”

        Turfway is not the first track to implement such a system. Churchill Downs in Louisville has a similar system, as do other tracks around the country.

        But Harrah's is known in the industry for refining the marketing aspects of such systems. It hired a Harvard math professor who devised the quantitative analysis components of the rewards program for its 22 casinos.

        Mr. Elliston said Turfway has invested “several hundred thousand dollars” in the program.

        Jeff Grome, a carpet salesman from Fort Thomas, visits the Indiana riverboats as well as Turfway several times a year.

        Mr. Grome said it's a “good idea” for Turfway to start a program similar to the ones used by casinos.

        “But I'm not sure people will quit going to the casinos just because Turfway has something like this,” he said. “It's a good idea, but I can't see it changing things a whole lot. People go to casinos because they like to gamble, not just because of the comps.”


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