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Doing it all

Insight | Analysis

Delaware North is a varied business, managing sports venues and parks alongside its gaming venues. That diversified strategy applies within its gaming division too, as Luisa Woods, vice president of marketing for gaming and entertainment explains to Cole Rush how having fingers in many pies has helped the business succeed.

As companies go, Delaware North is a jack of all trades.

Luisa Woods, vice president of marketing for the gaming and entertainment division, explains: “We’re actually in a lot of different gaming businesses. We have poker rooms, we have racetracks, we have casinos, we operate digital gaming, we operate sports betting.”

“So it’s a fairly varied portfolio,” Woods continues, perhaps putting it lightly. “We have several clients for whom we manage or consult and assist them with their gaming operations as well.”

It’s a lot. Delaware North is somewhat of a gourmet gambling kitchen, able to deliver a variety of betting-related cuisines for any palate. Developing and presenting such a spread of products and services requires a big organizational lift, and Delaware North is structured to bear the load.

Expansion On All Sides

It’s a tune everyone knows: sports betting and online gaming are making their ongoing journey across the US, accompanied by prerequisite legislation and regulation. Woods and Delaware North are no strangers to the space. Growth in the US requires a keen eye for innovation and a strategic mindset.

“The gaming business is evolving in a lot of different ways,” Woods says. “There’s a lot of focus right now on sports betting expansion, and behind that, digital gaming expansion. I think that, within Delaware North, there are a lot of other areas of opportunity.”

In other words, sports betting and igaming form a large piece of the puzzle. But not the entire thing. Woods emphasizes the importance of staggering your bets and pushing forward with a variety of options.

“We’re tracking what’s happening in terms of different forms of gaming that are being explored and legalized. There are a lot of conversations happening in the market around historical horse racing, around VLTs…there’s expansion into different forms of entertainment, the traditional gaming market is broadening a lot, and a lot of companies are looking at other ways that they can satisfy and engage their customers.”

Woods notes that mobile–despite the ubiquitousness of iPhone and Android–doesn’t quite get its due.

“We don’t talk about mobile nearly enough, in my opinion,” she says. “And for Delaware North, a component of [mobile] is free-to-play. We acquired a company called Ruby Seven more than five years ago. In the tradition of being not only an operator but a service provider to third parties, we are the free-to-play casino app provider for many, many regional land-based operators within the US.”

Free-to-play still has its place in the US, though its role changes based on a given market’s status. Woods says Delaware North frames markets in one of three ways: pre-regulation, regulating, and post-regulation. That distinction comes into play when forming a free-to-play strategy. Some experts paint free-to-play as a holdover, a temporary solution until a market legalizes full-service betting. But Woods doesn’t see it that way.

“Free-to-play is not just about getting hooks in a market,” she says. “It’s about preparing, creating a database, creating customer relationships. It’s also about recognizing that consumers have different demands and different appetites at different times. When they forge a relationship with a gaming enterprise, they want to be able to interact with them in different ways at different times.”

Woods is quick to offer an example from the perspective of a hypothetical bettor.

“If I want to drive with my friends and visit a casino, that is a certain commitment of time, and I have a certain expectation of that experience. There are days when I don’t want to make that commitment. With the expansion of regulated gaming, I can extend my relationship [to that property] through my mobile device and bet on a sporting event or, in some markets, spin the reel on a slot machine. But there are also days when, frankly, I don’t want to enter into the risk-reward equation; I just want to be entertained.”

It’s not always about putting money on the line. Gambling-style content, sans the actual gambling, still has a place in any market. Legislation and regulation aside, there’s always demand for free-to-play casino-style games.

“Some days, free-to-play is what [these players] want, and we see very high engagement through our free-to-play apps. It’s also an opportunity for us to maintain brand awareness and to open channels of communication with our customers.”

Woods continues, lampooning the segmented view of the industry so many (myself including) are quick to employ. “Attempts to separate the world into three kinds of people–the ones who go to casinos, the ones who bet through their mobile device, and the ones who play for free on their mobile device–That’s not an accurate worldview. We all have different appetites at different times, depending on context.”

Sports Betting Still A Pillar

While various areas have the potential to flourish in an increasingly gambling-friendly country, sports betting is still a hot topic.

“Obviously, if we could add physical sportsbooks to all our properties, we would,” says Woods.

Every market’s different, though, and navigating the labyrinthine network of rules and regulations makes launching in a state is no easy task. But Delaware North is up to that task.

“Recently, we announced a joint venture with Gamewise, a digital gaming entity that will support us in our gaming operations. But we also created the joint venture to address the need for regional operators to have a turnkey solution that allows them to invest in the future value of their own organizations.”

Smaller regional operators, Woods says, have an opportunity to invest heavily in physical equipment, hardware, and systems.

“It’s a different business than land-based gaming,” she says, though the spaces are related. “We can help those regional operators build in-house expertise to launch and run a sportsbook.”

The same goes for mobile sports betting, an arena brimming with big-name operators who can act quickly and launch in key markets within minutes after gaining approval.

“I think there are a lot of regional operators who, like Delaware North, want to invest in their customer relationships and their brand but don’t want to take the risk of bootstrapping their own enterprise. Given our reach and our relationships, we’re ideally positioned to deliver a turnkey solution for those regional operators looking for a value additive approach to gaming expansion.”

Marketing Is Make-Or-Break

A wide-ranging product portfolio requires a sharp marketing strategy. And Luisa Woods puts it simply: “There is always a need for good marketing strategy.”

Rarely has a time required such shifts in marketing strategy as 2020 and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. For companies like Delaware North that are flush with physical properties, promotional approaches had to change incredibly fast.

“When we reopened [our properties], we were relying heavily on our core customers, those who we had invested in our relationship. We focused on welcoming those people back and creating a safe environment meant for them and for our staff to come back to. We spent a lot of time evaluating what they would feel safe can comfortable doing. But person-to-person, that threshold is dynamic.”

Everyone has different health and safety preferences, particularly in the era of a global pandemic. In many cases, months- and years-long marketing campaigns had to change on a dime. The strategies that worked for extended periods in the past didn’t click in a world ravaged by an unprecedented health crisis.

“We focused most heavily on building flexibility, resilience, and velocity into our marketing operations. We had to be able to identify a change and respond to it not in weeks, not in months, but in days and sometimes hours. Resources are scarce, but I feel lucky to work with a team that’s resilient, energetic, and creating great experiences for our customers.”

With a renewed marketing push in place, who’s coming back to Delaware North’s properties?

“We’re seeing familiar faces,” says Woods. “More than new faces right now. It’s not the ideal time for individuals who haven’t regularly visited to suddenly decide to go to a casino now.”

Returning customers comprised the brunt of Delaware North’s customer base when they reopened, but a few changes led to some new patrons, too.

“Some markets had virtually everything shut down. We became the de facto place to dine or get out of the house. But ‘trial,’ customers, new people coming through the door has been dramatically diminished.”

The conversation among the marketing team, then, has shifted to enhancing relationships with repeat customers.

Partnership Makes Perfect

Delaware North does it all. Physical properties, digital gaming, sports betting, free-to-play, and more. With a quick-one-its-feet marketing team and a firm grasp of the industry, the company has been able to rack up an impressive list of partnerships.

“Delaware North really is a partnership company,” Woods says. “If you look at the broader enterprise, we have partnerships that go back, approaching a century. We’re all about relationships, whether it’s relationships with the sports franchises that we serve, whether it’s relationships with our suppliers, whether it’s relationships with our technology partners.”

And the company has a résumé that backs up these claims.

Woods first mentions Delaware North’s Reel Lucky slots Tournament, a multi-month event that spans properties in various markets. Pepsi has been a longtime sponsor of the tournament, a partnership that continues today.

The business has also been able to leverage its geological footprint to offer customers one-of-a-kind experiences.

“We have a portfolio of bucket-list destinations that we can provide access to,” Woods says. “As an extension of our loyalty program, we worked with the Parks and Resorts division to essentially unlock access to these locations for our most loyal customers. We can give our players and guests trips to the Grand Canyon, Cape Cod, Honey Creek, and other amazing destinations thanks to our hospitality experience.”

Woods is particularly excited about Delaware North’s partnership with the Catawba Indian Nation in the Carolinas. The tribe will open the new Two Kings Casino about 25 minutes outside of Charlotte. Delaware North is consulting on the project.

“The tribe has worked tirelessly for decades to get to this place,” says Woods. The property opened on July 1, 2021. “ When it reaches maturity, the property will alter the economic fortunes of the tribe and the region. For me, that’s the kind of partnership that is extremely fulfilling to participate in, and one of the reasons I’m thrilled to work with Delaware North.

Just one reason among many, it seems, for a company that has a hand in almost every aspect of a constantly expanding industry.