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Caesars Entertainment (formerly known by the name of its acquirerer, Harrah’s) provides an example of exceptional data asset leverage in the service sector, focusing on how this technology enables world-class service through customer relationship management. And as you read this case, keep in mind that the firm’s CEO, Gary Loveman, claims that what he did at Caesars he could have done at most firms in most other industries.D. Talbot, “Using IT to Drive Innovation,” Technology Review, February 16, 2011.
Gary Loveman is a sort of management major trifecta. The CEO of Caesars Entertainment is a former operations professor who has leveraged information technology to create what may be the most effective marketing organization in the service industry. If you ever needed an incentive to motivate you for cross-disciplinary thinking, Loveman provides it.
Caesars has leveraged its data-powered prowess to move from an also-ran chain of casinos to become the largest gaming company by revenue. The firm operates some fifty-three casinos, employing more than eighty-five thousand workers on five continents. Brands include Harrah’s, Caesars Palace, Bally’s, Horseshoe, and Paris Las Vegas. Under Loveman’s leadership, the firm formerly known as Harrah’s aggressively swallowed competitors, with the firm’s $9.4 billion buyout of Caesars Entertainment being its largest deal to date (while as separate firms, Harrah’s under Loveman trounced Caesars in financial performance, the Caesars name was seen as a stronger brand).
Data drives the firm. Caesars collects customer data on just about everything you might do at their properties—gamble, eat, grab a drink, attend a show, stay in a room. The data’s then used to track your preferences and to size up whether you’re the kind of customer that’s worth pursuing. Prove your worth, and the firm will surround you with top-tier service and develop a targeted marketing campaign to keep wooing you back.V. Magnini, E. Honeycutt, and S. Hodge, “Data Mining for Hotel Firms: Use and Limitations,” Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, April 2003, http://www.entrepreneur.com/tradejournals/article/101938457.html.
The ace in the firm’s data collection hole is its Total Rewards loyalty card system. Launched over a decade ago, the system is constantly being enhanced by an IT staff of seven hundred, with an annual budget in excess of $100 million.P. Swabey, “Nothing Left to Chance,” Information Age, January 18, 2007. Total Rewards is an opt-inProgram (typically a marketing effort) that requires customer consent. This program is contrasted with opt-out programs, which enroll all customers by default. loyalty program, but customers consider the incentives to be so good that the card is used by some 80 percent of patrons, collecting data on over forty-four million customers.M. Wagner, “Harrah’s Places Its Bet On IT,” InformationWeek, September 16, 2008; and L. Haugsted, “Better Take Care of Big Spenders; Harrah’s Chief Offers Advice to Cablers,” Multichannel News, July 30, 2007.
Customers signing up for the card provide Caesars with demographic information such as gender, age, and address. Visitors then present the card for various transactions. Slide it into a slot machine, show it to the restaurant hostess, present it to the parking valet, share your account number with a telephone reservation specialist—every contact point is an opportunity to collect data. Between three hundred thousand and one million customers come through Caesars' doors daily, adding to the firm’s data stash and keeping that asset fresh.N. Hoover, “Chief of the Year: Harrah’s CIO Tim Stanley,” Information Week Research and Reports, 2007.
All that data is heavily and relentlessly mined. Customer relationship management should include an assessment to determine which customers are worth having a relationship with. And because Caesars has so much detailed historical data, the firm can make fairly accurate projections of customer lifetime value (CLV)The present value of the likely future income stream generated by an individual purchaser.. CLV represents the present value of the likely future income stream generated by an individual purchaser.“Which Customers Are Worth Keeping and Which Ones Aren’t? Managerial Uses of CLV,” Knowledge@Wharton, July 30, 2003, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=820. Once you know this, you can get a sense of how much you should spend to keep that customer coming back. You can size them up next to their peer group, and if they fall below expectations, you can develop strategies to improve their spending.
The firm tracks over ninety demographic segments, and each responds differently to different marketing approaches. Identifying segments and figuring out how to deal with each involves an iterative model of mining the data to identify patterns, creating a hypothesis (customers in group X will respond to a free steak dinner; group Y will want ten dollars in casino chips), then testing that hypothesis against a control group, turning again to analytics to statistically verify the outcome.
The firm runs hundreds of these small, controlled experiments each year. Loveman says that when marketers suggest new initiatives, “I ask, did we test it first? And if I find out that we just whole-hogged, went after something without testing it, I’ll kill ’em. No matter how clever they think it is, we test it.”J. Nickell, “Welcome to Harrah’s,” Business 2.0, April 2002. The former ops professor is known to often quote quality guru W. Edwards Deming, saying, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”
When Caesars began diving into the data, they uncovered patterns that defied the conventional wisdom in the gaming industry. Big money didn’t come from European princes, Hong Kong shipping heirs, or the Ocean’s 11 crowd—it came from locals. The less than 30 percent of customers who spent between one hundred and five hundred dollars per visit accounted for over 80 percent of revenues and nearly 100 percent of profits.P. Swabey, “Nothing Left to Chance,” Information Age, January 18, 2007.
The data also showed that the firm’s most important customers weren’t the families that many Vegas competitors were trying to woo with Disneyland-style theme casinos—it was Grandma! The firm focuses on customers forty-five years and older: twenty-somethings have no money, while thirty-somethings have kids and are too busy. To the premiddle-aged crowd, Loveman says, “God bless you, but we don’t need you.”L. Haugsted, “Better Take Care of Big Spenders; Harrah’s Chief Offers Advice to Cablers,” Multichannel News, July 30, 2007.
The names for reward levels on the Total Rewards card convey increasing customer value—Gold, Diamond, and Platinum. Spend more money at Caesars and you’ll enjoy shorter lines, discounts, free items, and more. And if Caesars’ systems determine you’re a high-value customer, expect white-glove treatment. The firm will lavish you with attention, using technology to try to anticipate your every need. Customers notice the extra treatment that top-tier Total Rewards members receive and actively work to improve their status.
To illustrate this, Loveman points to the obituary of an Ashville, North Carolina, woman who frequented a casino his firm operates on a nearby Cherokee reservation. “Her obituary was published in the Asheville paper and indicated that at the time of her death, she had several grandchildren, she sang in the Baptist choir and she was a holder of the [the firm’s] Diamond Total Rewards card.” Quipped Loveman, “When your loyalty card is listed in someone’s obituary, I would maintain you have traction.”G. Loveman, Speech and Comments, Chief Executive Club of Boston College, January 2005; emphasis added.
The degree of customer service pushed through the system is astonishing. Upon check-in, a Caesars customer who enjoys fine dining may find his or her table is reserved, along with tickets for a show afterward. Others may get suggestions or special offers throughout their stay, pushed via text message to their mobile device.M. Wagner, “Harrah’s Places Its Bet On IT,” InformationWeek, September 16, 2008. The firm even tracks gamblers to see if they’re suffering unusual losses, and Caesars will dispatch service people to intervene with a feel-good offer: “Having a bad day? Here’s a free buffet coupon.”T. Davenport and J. Harris, Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007).
The firm’s CRM effort monitors any customer behavior changes. If a customer who usually spends a few hundred a month hasn’t shown up in a while, the firm’s systems trigger follow-up contact methods such as sending a letter with a promotion offer, or having a rep make a phone call inviting them back.G. Loveman, Speech and Comments, Chief Executive Club of Boston College, January 2005.
Customers come back to Caesars because they feel that those casinos treat them better than the competition. And Caesars’ laser-like focus on service quality and customer satisfaction are embedded into its information systems and operational procedures. Employees are measured on metrics that include speed and friendliness and are compensated based on guest satisfaction ratings. Hourly workers are notoriously difficult to motivate: they tend to be high-turnover, low-wage earners. But at Caesars, incentive bonuses depend on an entire location’s ratings. That encourages strong performers to share tips to bring the new guy up to speed. The process effectively changed the corporate culture at Caesars from an every-property-for-itself mentality to a collaborative, customer-focused enterprise.V. Magnini, E. Honeycutt, and S. Hodge, “Data Mining for Hotel Firms: Use and Limitations,” Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, April 2003, http://www.entrepreneur.com/tradejournals/article/101938457.html.
While Caesars is committed to learning how to make your customer experience better, the firm is also keenly sensitive to respecting consumer data. The firm has never sold or given away any of its bits to third parties. And the firm admits that some of its efforts to track customers have misfired, requiring special attention to find the sometimes subtitle line between helpful and “too helpful.” For example, the firm’s CIO has mentioned that customers found it “creepy and Big Brother-ish” when employees tried to greet them by name and talk with them about their past business history with the firm, so it backed off.M. Wagner, “Harrah’s Places Its Bet On IT,” InformationWeek, September 16, 2008.
Caesars is constantly tinkering with new innovations that help it gather more data and help push service quality and marketing program success. When the introduction of gaming in Pennsylvania threatened to divert lucrative New York City gamblers from Caesars’ Atlantic City properties, the firm launched an interactive billboard in New York’s Times Square, allowing passersby to operate a virtual slot machine using text messages from their cell phones. Players dialing into the video billboard not only control the display, they receive text message offers promoting Caesars' sites in Atlantic City.“Future Tense: The Global CMO,” Economist Intelligence Unit, September 2008.
At Caesars, tech experiments abound. RFID-enabled poker chips and under-table RFID readers allow pit bosses to track and rate game play far better than they could before. The firm is experimenting with using RFID-embedded bracelets for poolside purchases and Total Rewards tracking for when customers aren’t carrying their wallets. The firm has also incorporated drink ordering into gaming machines—why make customers get up to quench their thirst? A break in gambling is a halt in revenue.
The firm was also one of the first to sign on to use Microsoft’s Surface technology—a sort of touch-screen and sensor-equipped tabletop. Customers at these tables can play bowling and group pinball games and even pay for drinks using cards that the tables will automatically identify. Tech even helps Caesars fight card counters and crooks, with facial recognition software scanning casino patrons to spot the bad guys.S. Lohr, “Reaping Results: Data-Mining Goes Mainstream,” New York Times, May 20, 2007.
And Total Rewards is going social, too. Caesars has partnered with Silicon Valley—based TopGuest to tie social media to its loyalty program. Caesars customers who register with TopGuest (which also works with clients Virgin America, Holiday Inn, and Avis, among others) can receive fifty Total Rewards bonus credits for each geolocation check-in, tweet, or Instagram photo taken at participating venues.“Topguest Rewards Vegas Visitors for Social Check-Ins,” Pulse of Vegas Blog (hosted at Harrahs.com), April 22, 2011.
A walk around Vegas during Caesars’ ascendency would find rivals with bigger, fancier casinos. Says Loveman, “We had to compete with the kind of place that God would build if he had the money.…The only thing we had was data.”P. Swabey, “Nothing Left to Chance,” Information Age, January 18, 2007.
That data advantage creates intelligence for a high-quality and highly personal customer experience. Data gives the firm a service differentiation edge. The loyalty program also represents a switching cost. And these assets combined to be leveraged across a firm that has gained so much scale that it’s now the largest player in its industry, gaining the ability to cross-sell customers on a variety of properties—Vegas vacations, riverboat gambling, locally focused reservation properties, and more.
The firm’s chief marketing officer points out that when the Total Rewards effort started, the firm was earning about thirty-six cents on every dollar customers spent gaming—the rest went to competitors. A climb to forty cents would be considered monstrous. But within a few short years that number had climbed to forty-five cents, making Caesars the biggest monster in the industry.E. Lundquist, “Harrah’s Bets Big on IT,” eWeek, July 20, 2005. Some of the firm’s technology investments have paid back tenfold in just two years—bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars.P. Swabey, “Nothing Left to Chance,” Information Age, January 18, 2007.
The firm’s technology has been pretty tough for others to match, too. Caesars holds several patents covering key business methods and technologies used in its systems. After being acquired by Harrah’s, employees of the old Caesars properties lamented that they had, for years, unsuccessfully attempted to replicate Harrah’s systems without violating the firm’s intellectual property.N. Hoover, “Chief of the Year: Harrah’s CIO Tim Stanley,” Information Week Research and Reports, 2007.
Caesars’ efforts to gather data, extract information, and turn this into real profits is unparalleled, but it’s not a cure-all. Broader events can often derail even the best strategy. Gaming is a discretionary spending item, and when the economy tanks, gambling is one of the first things consumers will cut. Caesars has not been immune to the world financial crisis and experienced a loss in 2008.
Also note that if you look up Caesars’ stock symbol you won’t find it. The firm was taken privateThe process by which a publicly held company has its outstanding shares purchased by an individual or by a small group of individuals who wish to obtain complete ownership and control. in January 2008, when buyout firms Apollo Management and TPG Capital paid $30.7 billion for all of the firm’s shares. At that time Loveman signed a five-year deal to remain on as CEO, and he’s spoken positively about the benefits of being private—primarily that with the distraction of quarterly earnings off the table, he’s been able to focus on the long-term viability and health of the business.A. Knightly, “Harrah’s Boss Speaks,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, June 14, 2009. Plans for a late 2010 IPO were put on hold as the economy continued to sour.C. Vannucci and L. Spears, “Harrah’s Pulls $531 Million Private Equity-Backed IPO,” BusinessWeek, November 19, 2011.
But the firm also holds $24 billion in debt from expansion projects and the buyout, all at a time when economic conditions have not been favorable to leveraged firms.P. Lattman, “A Buyout-Shop Breather,” Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2009. A brilliantly successful firm that developed best-in-class customer relationship management is now in a position many consider risky due to debt assumed as part of an overly optimistic buyout occurring at precisely the time when the economy went into a terrible funk. Caesars’ awesome risk-reducing, profit-pushing analytics failed to offer any insight on the wisdom (or risk) in the debt and private equity deals.