Sunday, August 27, 2017

hello darkness, my old friend

Uh-oh. Here we go again. How, after so long, did I end up here? Well...

My wife has always enjoyed visiting Atlantic City, the famous Jersey shore resort. When casino gambling was introduced, Mrs. P found another reason to drive the 90 minutes from Philadelphia. She enjoyed playing slot machines. I don't know if it was the flashing lights or the cute characters that decorated the spinning reels or the cha-CHING! of coins, but something about those so-called "one-armed bandits" held her attention. I wasn't particularly worried about her frequent trips to Atlantic City. We were able to meet our financial obligations, so that wasn't an issue. But soon, the casinos, Harrah's in particular, began offering an assortment of gifts for frequent players. Gifts like small kitchen appliances, costume jewelry, Harrah's branded clothing and accessories — all for just showing up at an appointed time and presenting a voucher. She began receiving two or three pieces of promotional mail from Harrah's every day, including offers for show tickets and discounted — then, eventually free — buffets. On weekends, when I could accompany my wife on a trip to Atlantic City, I'd stand by her side and watch as she'd blow through the "free slot play" that Harrah's used to entice her to the casino, followed by a few hundred of her own money. Sometimes she'd come out ahead and sometimes she wouldn't. We'd cap our visit off with a complementary meal at Harrah's bountiful buffet, then head home.

In 2009, Mrs. P and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in Las Vegas. This trip had been in the planning stages for a while and we let friends and family know the dates, hoping some would join us in our celebration. Seventeen members of our collective families met us in Sin City for a pre-planned dinner at the lovely Mon Ami Gabi at the Paris Resort, overlooking the always-interesting Vegas Strip. When we first arrived in Vegas, we checked in at the Camelot-themed Excalibur Hotel, our pre-booked accommodations for the week. My wife and son signed up for Excalibur's Slot Player Club and each received personalized cards on the spot. These cards, when inserted into a selected slot machine, track a players activity and reward various levels of comps based on play. After a week of intense tourist-y stuff and a significant amount of slot machine play, we were ready wrap up our vacation and head to the airport, Mrs. P inquired about accumulated comps at the Slot Player Club customer service desk. The helpful woman behind the counter scanned my wife's card and her eyes lit up at the results glowing on the computer monitor before her. She instructed us to go to VIP Services when we were ready to check out. We skirted the line at the hotel front desk, swarming with angry masses of guests, and passed through a set of gold-trimmed glass doors. Once inside, the sound from the lobby and  near-by casino was blotted out by lilting classical piano. The floor was covered with sparkling white carpet and several plush, upholstered chairs invited VIPs to rest until their name was called. We took a seat and soon, a tuxedoed man beckoned my wife to the counter with a graceful wave. The Pincus family approached and Mrs. P handed over her slot club card. The man nodded, smiled and swiped the card across the card reader. His monitor lit up and he examined the results, noting each line with an index finger. A printer spit out a single sheet of paper. The man made a few notations on the paper and drew a large circle at the bottom. He handed it to my wife with a gracious "Thank you." We looked at the bill. He had circled the grand total. And that total was "$0.00." A week's hotel stay, meals, snacks and a couple of drinks at a hotel bar. Zero. Nada. Nothing. My wife and I exchanged glances, then looked at the man in the tux. "Is this correct?," we said, nearly simultaneously. 

"Oh yes," he replied, "based on your play."

I turned to my wife and whispered, "How much did you play?"

"A lot.," she said plainly.

Just for kicks, my son passed his card to the man and asked if he had any comps available. The man scanned his card and laughed. He handed my son a voucher and said, "Here. Take your parents out for breakfast."

Astonished, my son asked, "Is this from the points on my card?" The man just smiled and winked.

And that's pretty much where it started. We returned home and Mrs. P continued her regular visits to the casinos in Atlantic City. The more she played, the more we benefited. Soon, Mrs. P's casino activity warranted her very own "casino hostess." This is sort-of a personal concierge, able to quickly arrange and confirm spur-of the-moment hotel reservations and secure show tickets — even for sold-out events. We received free tickets for Penn & Teller, B.B. King, Don Rickles and Tony Bennett. We had countless buffets for which we were comped. We had numerous multi-night stays at Harrah's, with all of our meals included. We were flown to several other Harrah's properties across the country, including Laughlin, Nevada, New Orleans, Louisiana and Tunica, Mississippi, where we enjoyed the same VIP treatment we received in Atlantic City. We were offered free cruises, which we happily took and enjoyed. We were riding high and reaping the benefits. Until one day, it stopped. 

I asked my wife if she could call her casino hostess and get tickets for an upcoming show. Mrs. P called and left a message. No reply. She left another message. No reply. The hostess was unresponsive for weeks. The concert I wanted to see came and went. We got the hint — loud and clear. Granted, my wife's visits to Harrah's had sort-of tapered off, but we were cut off. Cold turkey, as though we were the black sheep family member in a dying rich uncle's will.

It was fine. We moved on. Mrs. P satisfied her slot machine cravings with a few apps that she downloaded to her cellphone. Otherwise, casinos were no longer a part of our lives, save for the week-long cruises were were still awarded based on casino activity on previous cruises. But, we were done with casinos. Or, rather, they were done with us.

In the time that passed since we last visited Harrah's in Atlantic City, five — count 'em five — casinos have shut their doors permanently. The casino business in Atlantic City was obviously suffering from outside competition. New casinos have opened in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland and New York — all of the places from which Atlantic City drew its client base, So, someone somewhere in the Marketing Analytics Department at Harrah's decided to re-assess their strategies, because, suddenly, Mrs. P was back in Harrah's good graces. She received a multi-page schedule in the mail, highlighting numerous offers tailored specifically for her. It was just like the good old days. Commencing on July 1, there were free gifts and free slot play and free hotel stays and free buffets. And, there we were on July 1, front and center. We are determined to milk this thing for as long as we can. Mrs. P will accept the free gifts and play the slots only on their promotional money, She won't put a dime of her own funds into a slot machine. We booked a weekend in July and will use our free buffets then. Also, that weekend, we will receive a voucher for another free cruise. Of course, all of Mrs. P's casino activity will be tracked and documented. And they must know that Mrs. P has not given them a dime of her own money.

So, we fully expected to be cut off by August, but Harrah's sent a calendar full of offers for September. Who knows how long we can keep this going?

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