Casino operations are now established as a major revenue generator for cruise operators. As guests become more gaming-savvy, however, how can cruise lines continue to appeal to novices while attracting and rewarding a growing number of high-rollers? Holland America's Paul Goodwin reveals his cards to Phin Foster.
For the majority of cruisers there was once a time when the urge to gamble meant you had three real choices: Las Vegas, Atlantic City or three miles off the coast of the US. This made encountering a casino onboard a cruise ships rather an oddity for the average vacationer. The thrill of being able to engage in an activity that represented glamour and danger back home, and in many cases illegality, was tempered by the fact that many players had little or no experience of the games on offer.
Operators acted accordingly and casino operations were treated more as a fun diversion for guests than a core attraction. The pressure to keep up with developments shoreside was non existent, limits tended to be low and many of the most basic services experienced card sharks might expect – complimentary drinks for high rollers or the rating of players, for example – were conspicuous by their absence.
The story is different today. Liberalisation of US gambling laws, the huge influence and accessibility of internet gaming and the growing popularity of televised competitions such as the World Poker Tour all amount to the public now being a lot more savvy when it comes to knowing one craps from one's croupier.
"It has been rather a double-edged sword," chuckles Paul Goodwin, Holland America's senior vice-president, onboard revenue services and tour operations. "Guests would play a few games once a year on their annual cruise vacation and we used to be able to really trade on that novelty factor. Now there are few states where you can't play the slots or a bit of bingo whenever it appeals.
"You also have a far more educated demographic, which could be interpreted as a downside but actually means there's a far wider range of people looking to play seriously. The opportunity is there to reach out to genuine players and enthusiastic amateurs through incentives and reward schemes and that is now a major area of focus across the cruise industry."
Up the ante
Despite the growing significance of casino facilities, one must always remember that the majority of passengers are still vacationers first and gamblers second. In Goodwin' eyes, great gaming may not entice many people aboard, but failure to provide it will have a significant knock-on effect when it comes to repeat custom.
"It certainly varies by cruise line," he acknowledges. "In Holland America's case I wouldn't portray casino facilities as an essential component of the overall sales pitch. Guests don't cite it as a core consideration, but we would see a negative response were they not to find the option onboard."
Instead, gaming is positioned within the context of the overall entertainment programme available. With gambling no longer seen as a vice among all but the most puritanical of punters, much of the emphasis is on accessibility, integration and fun.
"The casino is not a standalone entity in and of itself," Goodwin explains. "On most of our ships it sits within a larger entertainment area. That generates activity and liveliness and sees people moving between the different amenities on offer. All aspects must work hand-in-hand to be sure that everything is executed successfully."
This also translates as a great deal of cross-promotional work – providing spa treatments as prizes, for example, or rewarding loyalty elsewhere in the form of casino credits – and ensuring that each revenue generating element acts to serve the whole. The manner in which those facilities are used will also depend upon the itinerary in question and the resulting demographic of guests onboard.
"If you're on a 12-day European cruise visiting ten ports then the likelihood is that the casino will see less business; guests will always be far more focused on the destinations," says Goodwin. "With a Caribbean sailing, on the other hand, people are less worried about being up first thing in the morning and therefore far more willing to stay up playing a bit of blackjack or whatever else takes their fancy. That is something that must always be kept in mind."
Keeping the high rollers happy
This is true for both guest and operator alike. Despite Goodwin's acknowledgment that casinos do not represent a core selling point to prospective customers, efforts to attract and reward high-rollers are found across the industry.
Any guest can join Holland America's Club 21 programme, developed in conjunction with Carnival Corporation Casino Division, but it particularly benefits the experienced gamer. High rollers can be assisted with lines of credit and front money deposits, as well as complimentary amenities.
"The real key is to ensure we provide some recognition to our more active members," Goodwin explains. "And it's like any other programme: the folks who make the most use of it should naturally stand to benefit.
"That might include priority departures or certain royalties, but we are also in the early stages of reaching out to particularly active members with specific cruises – there's one this coming November where we'll have 50 or so invited member-guests. It's something we're experimenting with and has proven successful so far."
Two of a kind
Considering the level of competition between different operators to entice this prized demographic, ensuring one's gaming facilities are reflective of what is available shoreside is a must. Goodwin admits that there is inevitably some lag – the budget and sole entertainment focus of destination casinos makes this an inevitability – but insists that ongoing appraisals and upgrades of what is already on offer are essential.
"We are very conscious of developments elsewhere in the industry and you'll find us in Vegas at the big gaming trade shows," he explains. "Having said that, the emphasis is not upon having to be at the very cutting edge; that would involve massive expenditure on something our guests neither demand nor need. We will adopt new ideas and keep up with the industry, but we will never lead it.
"In terms of innovation, we are always looking at further automation, providing people with the opportunity to utilise the casino on a more regular basis without being reliant on dealers. The ability to turn up with a group of fellow passengers and play a few hands of Texas hold 'em at any time is a real selling point."
Players attract beginners
While nobody will ever deny that generating revenue is the core function of any onboard casino, Goodwin is adamant in his belief that one does not necessarily need to spend money in order to make use of it. A lot of effort is invested into starter lessons and, in his experience the ambience that the area generates will always attract those without any interest of having a flutter themselves.
"A lot of people come along just wanting to learn the basics," he reveals. "They've seen it on the television and would love to give it a go but, understandably, they're not so sure about parting with any actual money. They can come down for the afternoon and be shown the ropes in a pressure-free environment. This is all part of the ship's overall entertainment experience and everyone must be catered for.
"And, as anyone who has ever spent any time in a casino will testify, people just love to watch others play. Especially around the high stakes table, be it black jack or poker, the energy is contagious. The idea that you have to spend money to enjoy yourself is misplaced."
The balance of creating a gaming experience that appeals to both ends of the spectrum can be a difficult one to strike. Those operators that get it right, however, stand to hit the jackpot.