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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Name of the Game

Remember Casino Aztar? The management of Tropicana Entertainment Inc. politely requests that you expunge that name from your memory.

The Casino Aztar brand, ingrained into the public consciousness for 17 years by company management, the City of Evansville, and the state of Indiana, was officially tossed overboard in June. Forget the radio, television, newspaper, magazine, billboard, Facebook, and direct mail advertising of the past. Remember the new name for the gambling establishment on Evansville’s riverfront: Tropicana Evansville.

“For some of our long-term employees, including myself, it’s been hard changing the habit of referring to us as Casino Aztar,” admits Director of Marketing Stacey McNeill. “But most people around here simply refer to us as ‘The Boat.’ That may be the harder habit to break.”

Casino Aztar became Indiana’s first riverboat casino when it opened in 1995 and quickly turned into Evansville’s No. 1 tourist attraction. It has stayed that way ever since. The name remained the same until late this spring, even though the casino has been owned by Tropicana for the past three years. Much to the relief of public officials in Evansville, Tropicana stepped in with new management in 2010 after previous owner Columbia Sussex Corp. filed for bankruptcy.

Now comes the opportunity to leverage the Tropicana name to produce more revenue for Tropicana and the local economy. A key concept of the rebranding is this: management will not lose sleep if people in southwest Indiana continue to call the place ‘Casino Aztar’ or ‘The Boat.’ The real goal is to attract more customers from other areas, and the middle of Tropicana’s bull’s-eye sits squarely over Tennessee and Kentucky. Management will lose sleep if those people don’t show up. After all, with the casino and related property investments estimated at $230 million and a new bar/restaurant and nightclub set to open soon, this is no small venture for Tropicana. They’ve already made $19 million in improvements since taking over in 2010. From the local community’s point of view, the casino is counted on to produce a huge amount of income every year. An impact study showed that its first 15 years of existence generated $200 million for the City of Evansville and another $60 million for Vanderburgh County in taxes and lease payments, and $320 million for the state. That doesn’t include millions more in tourism dollars or about $400,000 annually that the casino donates to local schools and non-profits.

“About 38 percent of our customers come from the Evansville MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area),” McNeill points out. That means nearly two-thirds are non-local. “We need to reach them. I probably spend the most time and effort, and marketing dollars, toward southwest Kentucky and Tennessee. Those are the markets where we have the most opportunity for growth since there’s not another casino in that market sitting there already. We expect double-digit growth from those MSAs within a year.”

One rival is Harrah’s Metropolis, located at the very bottom of Illinois, across the Ohio River from Paducah, Ky. Harrah’s advertises heavily in the Nashville area and South Central Kentucky, regions where Tropicana Evansville is now doubling its advertising dollars. Tropicana Evansville’s general manager is 44-year-old Ward Shaw who, in addition to being a former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and chief navigation officer on the USS Roanoke, is a former Harrah’s employee. He worked for Harrah’s in St. Louis, Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Lake Charles, La., and also served as a gaming industry consultant. Shaw was hired by Tropicana to lead the Evansville operation in 2010. If anyone should know the competition, it’s Shaw.

“Our facility, with both the improvements we’ve made and the customer service that we provide is, frankly, just better than them,” Shaw says in comparing Evansville to Metropolis. “Some customers who left here with a bad experience when Columbia Sussex was in control didn’t even know we made a management change three years ago. The name change helps them know that this is a different destination and a different company, and it certainly has a better brand recognition as well.”

“Even if you aren’t into gaming that much, you can still come to our property and have a lot of fun,” adds McNeill. “We have a beautiful community, a great riverfront, two wonderful hotels, eight restaurants. We have live entertainment in at least two venues seven nights a week. Metropolis has a single hotel, and a small diner and a steak house as dining options. They don’t have regular entertainment venues, they don’t have a variety of lounges and nightclubs. They have a casino floor. So when you go to Metropolis, you’re going there to game.”

Rebranding of Casino Aztar into Tropicana Evansville officially kicked off June 14 with a news conference and celebration that included Las Vegas-style showgirls and big fuzzy dice. The kickoff intentionally came late in the game. The real start took place soon after Tropicana took over in 2010, when detailed market research directed at current and potential customers asked: (1) Did people know who Aztar was? (2) Would they gamble more or less if it were named Tropicana? (3) How did their gaming habits overlap with Aztar’s competitors?

“When we got that market research back, it supported what we suspected — that the name ‘Tropicana’ carried far more weight both locally and non-locally in regard to a casino brand,” according to McNeill. “Casino Aztar, outside of Evansville, really never had a meaning. The research also told us we would not lose any of our customer base by changing our name, which was important. It told us we would have a stronger opportunity to grow our business, especially outside Evansville, with a name like Tropicana. So we started working on campaigns and strategies as soon as those studies came back positive because we wanted to present a plan to our corporate office to justify the rebrand.”

It didn’t take long for corporate to give the OK. More than $1 million was spent just on in-house equipment such as employee uniforms, badges, table felts, chips, dice, forms, and other gaming products. Hundreds of hours went into compliance with gambling industry regulations that must be followed to the letter. Eventually, McNeill and Andy Herbertz, the casino’s advertising and public relations manager, led the way as Tropicana brought in Oswald Communications from Evansville and Magnum Integrated Marketing from Vorhees, N.J., to help develop the advertising and marketing message.

“The rebranding process is not simple, and it’s not quick,” McNeill says. “Just one small example: I’ll bet we went through 20 to 30 different billboard concepts. They were probably ready to shoot us before we came up with something we could all be happy with.”

Only then — with the old name ready to come down and the new name ready to go up, and the myriad promotional and regulatory pieces in place — could Tropicana start thinking about a date to officially deep-six the Casino Aztar brand. Their timeline eventually took them through all of 2012, past the beginning of 2013, and finally to the June kickoff, when everything was in place. Well, almost everything.

“I saw a Casino Aztar billboard on my way into work this morning,” McNeill says on a mid-July day, shaking her head. “It’s driving me crazy.”

That billboard has since been updated with the Tropicana brand.

For more information on Tropicana Evansville, call 812-433-4000 or visit tropevansville.com. View a timeline of the casino’s development in the August/September issue of Evansville Business.

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