Not your father’s casino marketing strategy

A line of kids are waiting to tell Santa what they want for Christmas, but they won’t be sitting on his lap.

That’s because Santa is floating inside the 117,000-gallon aquarium at the Silverton Casino and Lodge, his white beard billowing as the parrot fish and stingrays glide by. He’s taking orders for Xbox Lives and bikes via an assistant standing outside with a microphone.

“This is very unusual,” says one Summerlin resident who is here with her three toddlers to see Santa. “But it’s great. I love it.”

Once known for its bargain buffets, a 2004 renovation gave the property a more upscale look and higher-end amenities such as the Twin Creeks steak house. The recession shelved plans for a larger expansion, and in the current economic climate, the casino is finding it as hard to compete as anyone else.

So, snorkeling Santa to the rescue!

According to Silverton creative director Alison Gramenos, off-kilter events are a way to create buzz and offer prospective customers something different.

“As a Las Vegas resident for the past 12 years, I’ve heard so much about how Las Vegas has no culture,” Gramenos says. “Well, culture might be something you find in a museum or at a ballet, or it might just be something to do on Saturday night. We’re giving people something to do that’s fun and different.”

In recent months, the casino at Blue Diamond Road and Dean Martin Drive has hosted the Mustachio Bashio, a November party featuring a best mustache competition, and the Half Pint Brawlers, a troupe of midget wrestlers with a show on Spike TV. The wrestlers, an unexpected hit in their September debut, returned last week for an encore.

On Dec. 18, a Hideous Holiday Sweater Party inside the Veil Pavilion gives patrons a chance to sport their “ugliest and most festive” Christmas sweater, with the worst winning prizes such as iPhones and iPads. Drink specials, beer bongs, live band karaoke and an eggnog chugging contest add to the mirth.

Gramenos, a Chicago native, says that many of the ideas are rooted in a Midwestern homeyness. There, she says, “people are used to these kinds of events, but on a smaller scale. I just got back from Chicago, and in a week I went to two ugly sweater parties at people’s houses.”

The offbeat series of events, Gramenos says, shows how the Silverton’s managers “want to make the hotel feel like a living room, but on a larger scale. It’s got all of the comfort of having people over at home, but without the aggravation of having to do all the work yourself.”

The Silverton isn’t neglecting more traditional casino marketing. Senior Mondays (discounted meals and prize drawings for Senior Club members), and Tuesday slot tournaments are some of the most tried-and-true ways of attracting people. And they’re things that you can find in casinos in places such as San Diego and Philadelphia.

According to Dennis Conrad, president of Raving Consulting and a casino marketing maven, other casinos have been experimenting with off-beat events.

“Beer pong is spreading like wildfire, and up in Reno the Cal-Neva Club had LaTomatina,” Conrad says. (LaTomatina is a Spanish tomato-throwing event that drew thousands to Virginia Street.) “They’re playing in same area, and while it’s no substitute for good strategic marketing with definable outcomes, there are some opportunities there. It runs the risk of being gimmicky, but on the plus side, it can attract new people, especially young people.”

We’ll be seeing more of these kinds of events, Conrad believes.

“They can help a casino enhance a brand image, if it’s part of a bigger strategy and there’s a real commitment there.”

Gramenos, who became involved with the Silverton when she worked on an expansion project in 2008 and came aboard as creative director this year, says the events have been good business.

“We had 600 people at the Mustachio Bashio party. I can’t tell you exactly how many gambled, and how many left right away, but we had a great night in the casino. The numbers were up significantly, even more so than for some of the concerts that we’ve aimed at our players.”

And the events are bringing in a slightly different crowd—mostly from 21 to 35 years old. About 90 percent of them are local, which bodes well for repeat business.

“These are the type of guests who might look at the outside of the Silverton and say, Why go in?” Gramenos says. “But once they’re inside, they can’t believe it.”