STEVE MARCUS / LAS VEGAS SUN FILE
Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Tropicana hires branding firm to focus on value (2-3-2009)
- Plan would give Tropicana creditors ownership stake (1-13-2009)
- Tropicana names president of Vegas resort (1-6-2009)
- Tropicana conservator enters negotiations on N.J. property (9-23-2008)
- New blood helped Tropicana, union heal old wounds (8-27-2008)
Can the firm that helped Starbucks launch the Frappucino — the Coke of blended coffee drinks — help the owner of the Tropicana hotel and casino?
Tropicana Entertainment, which has some work to do in the image department, hopes so.
The Las Vegas company’s troubles under its former management team have become legend in the tight-knit casino business. The company hopes to forge a stronger, more appealing identity with the help of Hornall Anderson, a Seattle branding company that has worked with the Westin hotel chain and the Holland America cruise line, among other tourism brands.
Under previous management, Tropicana Entertainment’s critics called it the industry’s Wal-Mart — a company that engaged in deep cost-cutting with the belief that a certain number of customers would always return. That concept might work for low-cost retailers but didn’t translate well for vacation getaways.
Calling former executives incompetent if not outright liars, regulators pulled the company’s gaming license in New Jersey and are forcing the sale of its flagship Tropicana resort in Atlantic City, and angry bondholders booted former Chief Executive Bill Yung.
These days, executives would like customers to associate the Tropicana with James Bond (Ian Fleming’s 007 stayed there in “Diamonds are Forever”) or Elvis Presley, whose “Viva Las Vegas” film featured the hotel’s famed “Folies Bergere” showgirls.
The company’s newly appointed chief marketing officer, Riad Shalaby, isn’t dwelling on past mistakes, nor was Hornall Anderson hired to do what some might call “damage control.”
Instead, the new management team is starting from scratch, initiating programs that will have the company playing catch-up to its major competitors on the Strip. On the branding front, Hornall Anderson is conducting interviews with rank-and-file employees and the public to determine what the brand stands for and positive associations that the company can exploit. The company will create advertising and marketing pieces using an agency developed in-house. It will rely on qualitative and quantitative research to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
“We’re going to be research nuts,” he said.
The company is also working on an e-commerce strategy that will help it sell more rooms and other amenities online.
The Tropicana, a brand long associated with budget travel, needs to more effectively exploit the concept of value, he said.
“Price and value aren’t necessarily the same,” Shalaby said. “It’s having a good experience relative to what you pay.”
Before Shalaby became an executive with Internet advertising company DoubleClick, credit giant Equifax and online shopping service Allconnect, he was a purchasing manager at the old Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas.
One of the Horseshoe’s best marketing tools was a $1.99 steak dinner served with side dishes, a drink and dessert. The cheap price got customers in the door but they came back, again and again, because the food and service were consistently good, Shalaby said.
The Tropicana won’t be branding itself around a $1.99 steak dinner but around the often-repeated concept of customer service, which is admittedly difficult to achieve in large hotels with thousands of employees, Shalaby said.
To that end, the company is instituting service standards that will include limits on wait times for hotel check-ins and customer greetings, among other things.
“A brand is the sum total of the consumer’s experience — the before, during and after,” Shalaby said. When people go on vacation, they want people to be nice to them and they don’t want to wait in a line. We’re going to need to get better at it.”
The company also is improving morale by asking employees to contribute ideas on how to better serve customers, he said. It’s a big job: Not including the Tropicana Atlantic City or Casino Aztar in Indiana, Tropicana Entertainment has about 6,100 employees at nine casinos across the country, including the Tropicana Express and River Palms in Laughlin and the Horizon and MontBleu at Lake Tahoe.
“You have to value people’s effort and listen to your employees,” Shalaby said. “You have to ask more than tell. I don’t have a sufficient ego to believe that I have all the ideas.”
The idea is to get employees to buy into a bottom-up improvement of the company and its brand. It’s a turnaround from the days under previous management, which accused employees of sabotage as dust collected on hotel furniture, trash spilled out of containers and toilets clogged during a contract struggle with the Unite Here union.
Improving customer service makes sense in a town where many hotels offer the same products and services, and visitors, regardless of the luxury level of their surroundings, often complain about service.
The Tropicana, which is operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization after losing the Atlantic City property, has a difficult road ahead, as customers gravitate to higher-end hotels that have lowered prices to boost business.
These days value is in — leaving the Tropicana a lot to work with, so to speak.
Even luxury brands are trying to position themselves as a value for consumers, said Jeff Alpen, director of marketing at Hornall Anderson.
The Tropicana, like any of the company’s assignments before it, won’t be an easy job.
“Low-priced things aren’t necessarily of high value,” Alpen said. “It’s all about the price-to-value relationship and creating a lasting connection with the consumer.”
In other words, a Starbucks kind of connection.