The right way to start this article is this: casinos are supposed to be fun.
The great Mike Meczka spent decades working on thousands of scientific research projects to prove casino guests primarily want good value games and an entertaining experience.
I began my casino career working for Isle of Capri Casino’s owner Bernie Goldstein, who built a regional casino company on his theory that casinos and fun are inseparable. Goldstein would often say, “If our employees are having fun and enjoy their jobs, our guests will have fun.”
Groundhog Day, Every Day
Take a tour of Tribal and commercial casino web sites and you will discover a mind-numbing sameness in marketing and operational programs. It’s as if the casino industry has moved into the twilight zone where “Zombie” programs repeat over and over again like Groundhog Day.
The Pandemic played a huge role as casinos went from famine to feast. Marketing programs were paired back as revenues from re-openings came pouring in from fun-starved, locked down customers.
The American Gaming Association announced that commercial gaming revenue reached $60.4 billion in 2022, a year over year increase of 13.9%. Every gaming vertical was up; slot games up 5.1%; table games 13.9%; sports betting 72.7%, and iGaming 35%. When tribal gaming revenue reports later this year, revenues are expected to exceed $100 billion.
The Groundhog Day trend might be a reaction to self-imposed analysis paralysis. It might be a side effect of reduced expenditures against increasing revenues. It could come from taking the easy way out. It might come from lack of imagination – although I doubt that.
“When You’re Finished Changing … You’re Finished” You know who said that? Benjamin Franklin. A wise man who proves that human nature and the rules of enterprise are constant over time. If casinos continue down the existing operational path, it could result in something very bad … not paying attention to customers.
This brings me to the Savannah Bananas, an exhibition baseball team based in Savannah, Georgia that plays an innovative brand of baseball. Founded in 2016, the Savannah Bananas team is owned by Jesse Cole, a yellow tux wearing, barrier-breaking, fun loving, P.T. Barnum clone.
Let me explain some of the accomplishments in their short time in tradition-laden minor league baseball. Each night, the Bananas play the Party Animals, the Kentucky Generals to the Bananas Globetrotters. Cole invented Banana Ball, with fan-centric, time-cutting rules below:
- Every inning counts. Teams earn points every inning. Look it up on the web site.
- Two-hour time limit.
- No stepping out of the batter’s box
- No bunting.
- Batters can steal first.
- No walks allowed.
- 1-on-1 showdown tiebreaker.
- No mound visits allowed.
- If a fan catches a foul ball in the air, it’s an out.
Published reports state that the Bananas have a waitlist of 50,000 to 70,000 tickets for their stadium which holds an estimated 4,000 raving fans.
Tickets are $25 and are, incredibly, all inclusive, including “All You Can Eat Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Chicken Sandwiches, Chips, Popcorn, Dessert, Water and Coca-Cola products.”
Reports state that the Bananas’ TikTok account has 2.8 million followers, Instagram: 606,000 fans, and YouTube with nearly 84,000 subscribers as of last year. Bigger than some major league baseball teams.
They have been profiled by the Las Angeles Times, ESPN, New York Times, Real Sports, Access Hollywood, Fox Sports, and CBS Sunday Morning, to name a few.
This year, Cole and the Savannah Bananas announced a world tour, taking Banana Ball to stadiums across the country.
“Without promotion, something terrible happens … nothing”
– P.T. Barnum.
Minor league baseball teams have been known for wacky promotions. Cole takes his lessons from heroes P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney, and baseball promotion’s icon Bill Veeck. Then he rachets up the spectacle and the fun to ludicrous speed:
- Man-Nanas a Dad Bod cheerleader squad.
- Bananas Baby lifted over the player heads “Lion King” style.
- Banana Nanas, a 65-plus precision line dancing grandmom team.
- Banana shaped tickets.
- Break dancing coaches.
- Players perform professionally choreographed dance routines.
- Grandma beauty pageant.
- World’s only dancing umpire.
- World’s tallest batter and pitcher on ten-foot stilts.
- A brass pep band.
… OK. You get the idea.
So, What’s This Got to Do with Casinos?
As I said, casinos are supposed to be inherently fun. A good night out. Entertainment. An escape. Yet, we managed to manage ourselves into a mundane world of sameness and repetition. In contrast, by 2006 Jesse Cole and his wife went all in from no debt to over a million dollars in debt, eventually selling their house to temporarily make it.
Along the way, Cole created a sports phenomenon and developed a formula for turning any business into entertainment. You can read about his concepts in his books “Fans First” and “Find Your Yellow Tux.”
Casino Creativity Reboot
Smart casino CEO’s and company leadership realize that stagnant is substandard. But, how do you go from stationary to spectacular? What steps can a CEO and casino leadership apply to make the shift to creative, attention getting new programs?
Cole’s Savannah Bananas techniques and tactics revolve around a single minded, focused approach named “Fans First.” Every decision, every program and every operational execution revolves around “Fans First, Entertain Always.” What casino or hospitality company would not benefit from a focus on casino fans? Take the word fans and transpose it to players and you get the point.
When you are sitting around the conference table trying to move your casino or resort one step closer to success, you ask yourself … what’s the secret? The secret to success might just be to hyper focus your team into making every decision around what is best for your players. Create a culture around a single-minded focus on your players.
This is an easy concept that is hard to do. You can say it, but it takes gutsy, gritty dedication, determination, and an unrelenting commitment to what’s best for your players. It’s the kind of dedication that turns leaders into mentors by basing every operational decision on one question … “Is this good for our players?”
Friction is described by Jesse Cole as anything that gets in the way of achieving your brand’s goals. With every touchpoint, every decision ask yourself:
- What does it look like when customers interact with your business’s rules, policies, and spaces?
- Does a fan want this?
- Does this add value to a fan?
- Does this make life easier for a fan?”
“Once you’re looking for friction points, it’s not hard to spot them—and to make a larger, lasting impact on the fan experience.”
Entertain Always – Experiment Constantly
“Every business is in the entertainment business. It doesn’t matter if you build houses or run a hotel. If you are not entertaining your customers, you won’t have customers to entertain. As PT Barnum said:
“The noblest art is making someone happy.”
“It’s All About the Flopportunities”
“Flops are opportunities. Anytime you make a mistake, you have a perfect learning moment. You have data. You have a case study.”
Engage Deeply – Empower Action
The Savannah Bananas culture resonates with deep engagement with the fan base. Spending time in the stands interacting with fans is referred to as “Veecking it up” named after baseball promotions hero Bill Veeck.
According to Find your Yellow Tux, “He used to go out to bars and saloons until four in the morning. Usually, he’d be by himself with no agenda other than to talk to people, the community, and the fans. He loved to pick their brains and get a feel for what they were into who they were.”
If you want to learn how to break the mold and stand out, what better way than to get out of the office frequently and into the casino to talk to your players.
From, Fans First:
“Too many businesses operate within a punishment system. When something doesn’t go well, the powers that be find someone to blame. The result? No more innovation. No more risk-taking. It’s just not worth it if something goes wrong.
“The Bananas have flipped that mindset on its head. Instead of a punishment system, we have a rewards system. We encourage our team to try things that may not work; and we celebrate the outcome no matter what.”
The Idea Box
Cole spends every morning writing down 10 new ideas. The Savannah Bananas keep an “idea box” and every offseason, open the box to hold an Ideapalloza. He shares the following in Find Your Yellow Tux.
“I love ideas. I love it when people give me ideas, even if I don’t use 90% of them. The concept of the idea box came from Bill Veeck, who taught his son Mike, ‘if this house is burning down, the one thing you must save is the idea box.’”
The Savannah Bananas success story is amazing. The concepts are adaptable. Maybe the casino industry can learn a few things by “going Bananas.”