In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Samantha Gulick, Director of Marketing for Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino. Sam is a proud graduate of Bellevue University where she earned a degree in business. She started her career with Caesars Entertainment in June 2014 as the first Marketing Campaign Associate for Horseshoe Baltimore. She then became the Marketing Campaign Supervisor for Horseshoe Baltimore in July 2016. Sam was promoted to Marketing Campaign Manager for Harrah’s North Kansas City in 2017 and then manager for both Harrah’s and Horseshoe Council Bluffs. She joined Harrah’s Ak-Chin as the Database Marketing & Advertising manager in October 2019 and is currently the Director of Marketing after her promotion in October 2021. When she’s not busy working, Sam enjoys hiking and paddle boarding with her husband Ben and their two dogs Maya and Captain.
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The in-house communication professional does so much heavy lifting in an organization, managing things, both internal and external, coordinating campaigns and messaging, and generally herding cats. It's important to us to hear from folks in that role and learn a bit about their challenges, the opportunities that they see, and that's why we're doing this “In The House With” miniseries here on Copper State of Mind. Our host for these conversations is, of course, Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, what's on your mind this week?Abbie Fink:
Well, I started my professional career in-house at a resort company. Then I went to work at the Fiesta Bowl, the post-college football organization. I loved being in-house where everyone on your team was all focused on the same organizational goals and objectives. We all came to it from a slightly different perspective, of course, but everybody was on basically the same team. But what challenged me with that was looking inside out and recognizing that there was a lot of value in what that objective viewpoint could be and so I really found my footing working on the agency side and consulting with clients and working with the in-house creative teams, and so I think it's really interesting in how the relationships develop and the responsibilities and how they are managed and setting the expectations for what happens with your in-house creative team and what's being done externally. That was the impetus for starting this series and what brings us today to having a conversation with Samantha Gulick, Sam from Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino. She serves as their director of marketing. A real interesting industry, of course, gaming and hospitality, so that might be fun to spend a little time chatting with Sam about her responsibilities and the things that she does there at the casino and resort and a rather extensive amount of advertising and marketing and promotions, because it is a consumer-based organization. Sam, welcome to the show. I appreciate you giving us a little bit of time today. Before we get started, why don't you just share a little bit about your background and how you came to be with Harrah's and a little bit of your responsibilities there?Samantha Gulick:
Yeah, of course. Thank you, Abbie. Happy to be here. Basically, for me, I'm a Nebraska girl, grew up in middle of nowhere, Nebraska, decided to go to what we consider Nebraska, the big city, which was Omaha once I graduated, so went to college there. Not long after I was at college, I started with Caesars Entertainment, so I was doing database marketing at the coordinator associate level. Then I've really been with Caesars Entertainment since then, so it's been about eight years. I've switched around to different casinos within the organization. I've worked for Horseshoe Baltimore as a coordinator. I went on to be the supervisor there as well. Then I went on to be the database marketing manager for Harrah's North Kansas City and then from there, the manager for Horseshoe and Harrah's Council Bluffs, which was in Iowa, and the whole time still living in Nebraska, but working for these casinos remotely from there. Then the opportunity came to move to Arizona and to add some more responsibilities, including advertising, which was new for me, so about two-and-a-half years ago, I took that leap, and I moved here, so I started here doing the manager role for database marketing and then both advertising and then also I found out PR, so that was new as well, something exciting. Then it was about six, seven months ago, I actually took on the role of director of marketing, so what that added for me would be, like you said, events and promotions, our player development program, player loyalty card program, and then also some unique things like transportation and audio/visual, so a lot of different variety I'm doing hereAbbie Fink:
Before we get into the specifics of what you're doing, I find it fascinating that early on in your career, you were a remote worker environment. That was long before perhaps we were talking about that in a much more comprehensive way and more of us were doing that. What was that like in terms of being a part of a team, but being in a different location and capturing the essence of what you were marketing and promoting, but not necessarily in the atmosphere while you were doing that, whether any challenges or lessons learned by being outside looking in?Samantha Gulick:
Yeah, so we were working remotely. We were still at one of the casino locations there in Iowa, but what they had there was a big database marketing center that did database marketing for a lot of casinos all over the country. It was one of the hubs there, which was why I was working remotely. I mean, in ways, it was great because you got to utilize all of your coworkers. You had just a huge team of marketers that you could talk to, see what's going on at other properties, bounce ideas off of and everything, which was unique. The struggles, though, were you're not really familiar with the location, right? I'm doing database marketing for Baltimore, which at that point I had never been to Baltimore. I did end up going later. What works in Nebraska and Iowa probably isn't going to be the same thing that works in Baltimore, so that was, I guess, probably the biggest struggle with it. Moving over with Kansas City, we were close enough that I kind of understood it. Then even that's kind of been something since I've moved here to Arizona, right, coming in from Nebraska, trying to get used to even Arizona, so definitely a lot of learning about how things change depending on where you are location-wise.Adrian McIntyre:
Sam, it struck me when I started to learn more about the casino and hospitality industry, that there really are so many interesting intersections between different types of things that happen there. In other words, as a total ignorant outsider, it might just seem that you're looking at a hotel, or a place to gamble, or a entertainment place to go to a show, concert, stand-up, whatever, but truly, the intersection of economic development, tribal relations, community relations, unique tourism appeal in various places, as you said, have different stories to tell and different local aspects to highlight. It must be at some level just a fascinating mixture of politics, economics, sociology, culture, and of course, entertainment. I feel like I don't understand those set of connections very well except to have begun, to learn they exist. What are your thoughts on that? What's unique about the industry that you work in?Samantha Gulick:
I mean, for us, I would say it's so unique because Caesars Entertainment is all over, right? It's all over the country. Like I said, moving from just different places to places, you have regulatory requirements. Even between Maryland and Missouri, which is Kansas City, and then Iowa, and even here in Arizona, I mean, a lot of it changes on what you can do, you can't do, so it's like every time you're moving to all these different places, it's kind of almost in a way, starting a little bit fresh with these requirements on what's going to go. Like I said, even just the demographics of the area you're in, some areas you do promotions, you think they work great, and then it's like, "Hey, let's go to Arizona and try this exact same promotion," and then it completely flops, so it's like you're having to relearn and, I guess, make sure that you're able to move on your toes and make sure that you're having new ideas and just adapting to wherever you go, so it's definitely unique, for sure.Abbie Fink:
Well, and so much of marketing, advertising, public relations, some of it is based in gut instinct. You create some things, you believe that you are correct, but a lot of it is based in actual research, and I think one of the interesting things in terms of customer information and access to information that you are able to glean helps you make decisions that at least in part have the ability to back it up. You do have, as you said, Caesars Entertainment is a global international company. There's data available on buying habits, spending habits, what is appropriate for certain ages, the demographics, the socioeconomic issues, things along those lines, and you have this opportunity then to use research to create your campaigns. How much of that data mining do you do? How much do you look into the information that you have by past customer experiences? Besides knowing that this television station or this radio station is number one in the market, you still have to know that the messaging you're putting out there is going to hit the audience on the right platform as well.Samantha Gulick:
Right. We have our huge database because of Caesars Rewards, right? It's one of the biggest casino loyalty programs in the country, so we have all kinds of data on people, and like you said, you have to tweak campaigns, or make sure you're getting the right audience for certain things, right? Because if I know that we have a guest that comes out to eat at the restaurants all the time, but never games, probably not a good idea to just keep sending a bunch of gaming messaging to them, but more catering to what their preferences are, and get them with that food-and-beverage message. Same thing with spa, or some people like to play slots, versus some people like to play tables, so you really have to get the right people with the right message so we keep them entertained. There for a while, I remember we were sending so many email campaigns out to everybody, and it was just this blanket, like just send it to everyone. Well, we saw our unsubscribed rate go up, I mean, because so many people, a lot of those messages probably don't really interest them, and then they're unsubscribing from us, so I think it's super important to make sure you're cutting that database. With us, we can pull all kinds of information, like you just said, you how much a guest is playing, where they're visiting at the casino, how long they play, and even, do they come out weekly? Do they come out monthly? Different things like that, then basically taking it and shaping it and coming up with the campaign that's going to best fit their needs and their interests.Abbie Fink:
As part of your introduction, you talked a little bit about the areas of responsibility that fall under the director of marketing now. Talk a little bit about the structure of your department, not necessarily the number of people, but what responsibilities handled in-house? How do you structure your internal team to address the marketing and communications efforts for that your particular property?Samantha Gulick:
We have our database marketing team who handles all of our emails, hard mail. Then we also do have an email team with corporate that helps assist with the email part of it. We have our advertising team, but it's mixed in with our database marketing team. We actually have an outside advertising agency that we work with, so they're being the contacts with them. Then we do have graphic designers on that side as well. Then we have our promotions and events team. Within there, they're putting together all the giveaways that we do. They're also the entertainment team, so they're putting concerts together. Then we have our player development team, which consists of our hosts. They're the ones that go out and they help all our guests with any needs they may have. Our Caesars Rewards Center is also underneath me. That's where you go and you sign up for that new card and they can help you with any questions that you have. Then like I said, I have transportation as well, which falls a little bit outside of the marketing realm, but also, they intertwine with the player development program really well, because they're bringing in those VIP guests, and then audio/visual around the casino as well.Abbie Fink:
What kind of coordination? So many of those things sound like they depend upon the other for their success, right? If you transport the guests to the property and their host greets them at the door and they get their Caesars Rewards benefits, and they find their favorite machines and they get their dining card, it seems like an awful lot of coordination or need for coordination, so what does it look like for all of you and on your team to support each other, work together? I can only imagine a big master calendar being posted behind you in your office that what's happening at any given time. It seems there's probably something going on every day, all day, so I'm interested in that component of organization and how you keep everyone in line and organized and on top of what's happening.Samantha Gulick:
Yeah. Like you said, there's a lot of different moving pieces, so strategizing from the beginning is really important. We bring in on the marketing side that whole team kind of from the beginning, that database marketing manager, our events and promotions manager, our player development manager, we all work really closely to make sure we're doing the right thing and we're hitting the right people. From there, yeah, like you said, we build a big calendar, and then we all work off of that, but again, everybody having to be really close with each other, because all it takes is for one little communication piece to be out of line, and then, we might be looking at disaster promotion, so database marketing has to work with events and promotions, make sure they have all the details clear on what we're doing so they can put together that communication that's going to go out to guests. Then at the same time, database marketing letting the host team and everybody know when it's going to hit homes, letting them know the details so that when guests start to call in, or want to make reservations and are booking, that they're also aware of what's coming. It's a lot of teamwork, too, which is really amazing to see just how much these guys are communicating, but yeah, it takes a lot of pieces all going into place to try to get from start to finish with it.Abbie Fink:
Now, you referenced working with Caesars corporate. Did they support the efforts that you're doing here locally, or do they tell you, "This is what you're going to do locally"? Where does the Caesars corporate and local Harrah's intersect in the creative that you're doing, and not necessarily the programming?Samantha Gulick:
Right. For us, it's a little bit unique since we are a managed property here at Harrah's Ak-Chin, so we're actually owned by the Ak-Chin Indian community, so here we have a little bit more flexibility, I guess, on what we're doing, because normally what happens is corporate does bring down a strategy to different properties. Here, though, I would say that they're more of just a really good partner and resource for us, so as we have questions, we can reach out to corporate, but as far as the strategizing and what we're going to come up with in terms of different promotions and everything, that definitely happens here internal at Harrah's Ak-Chin.Abbie Fink:
I love the word "partner," and so I'd like to chat a little bit then about you've got the corporate partner that you work with the Caesars creative team. You mentioned briefly that you have a local advertising agency. When you're thinking about the structure of your marketing team, there may be some times where an external support is necessary. What's the process? What do you go through internally to make those decisions about what's going to be best kept in-house and managed within your team and what kinds of things might be appropriate to bring in outside resources? Again, thinking about our listenership of this podcast that are folks just like yourself, right, that are running marketing teams or are making decisions about marketing for their business, so thinking about that in terms of best practices and maybe some recommendations or advice about what might be and when might be the right time to bring in outside counsel, even with a very robust internal team.Samantha Gulick:
Right. I would say here in the casino business, we're always so, so busy, especially in marketing. We're also dealing with guests and everything like that, and to me the advantage of having that outside advertising agency or PR company is being able to know that you have these experienced professionals that can stay up-to-date with everything, right. Especially, you guys are able to sit there and research everything that's new, whether it be on the PR side, the advertising side, and also, I can have a team. On the PR side, I might have, a whole team of people that are working on there, whereas if I brought it internal, I mean, we might have one person that's working on it, but then it's going to be up to making sure that this person is staying up-to-date with everything. Also, contacts, bringing someone in. I mean, when we use the company that's been around for so long, those contacts are established. We don't have to worry about that because we know that they're going to have all those different people that they've already made all those relationships with, which is obviously going to help when we're trying to get one of our stories out or information about our company. For me, a big part of it is that experience. I would say the other part, and I think you mentioned it at the beginning is having that outside opinion. To me, that's so beneficial because we're all here and we might think that we're seeing everything clearly, but all have that similar mindset here internally, whereas when we have somebody else, an outsider come in and look at everything, they might give us ideas that we didn't think about before, or maybe be a better opinion of what the outside is seeing, I guess, so for me, I mean, that's definitely huge, and it has helped in many different situations that I've already experienced where they bring up something that hadn't really crossed our mind and just some really great ideas, so I mean, for me, it's the more people looking at it, the better.Abbie Fink:
Well, one of the things we always, when we're chatting with new clients and we're going through the process, we get asked the question often even in that come and meet with us and submit a proposal stage, oftentimes there's somebody that wants to understand why they would go outside for public relations or marketing counsel. One of the things that we really emphasize is, as you said, is an outsider's perspective. We understand our business, we understand your business to the extent that we can create campaigns and push information out, but what an internal team relies on for their external consultants are the knowledge of who in the media we need to talk to, what's the best media outlet to be purchasing our advertising on. We know you know your business and we'll work together. I think the most value that we can bring to the table for our in-house contacts is we're going to tell you when we think the idea is fantastic, but we're also going to tell you when we think it's not. It's not to be argumentative, or create angst, but it's really to give that outside perspective, "This is how it's landing when you say this to somebody that's not in there every single day," or based on experiences that we've had with other similar projects or clients, we can say, "This is probably not the appropriate time to be doing this or doing that." I think one of the real values in having that outside individual working on your behalf is having that more, really, a very objective opinion about what might be happening, and being there to support what you're doing, but also being there to say, "I think we need to rethink what this is doing. This is not exactly the way that we want to handle it." I think we've all seen that in the last handful of years, certainly, where we were all dealing with what the pandemic was doing to our businesses, and while our clients were focused 100% on making sure their businesses were successful, and could continue, we were looking at, how do we make sure we kept keep telling people that they're open and available and working where the internal teams are focused on keeping the business afloat? So, there's, I think, a real benefit from the outside to look in. If you, as we think about process and such, what do you do with your internal teams, giving them the tools that they need to do the job that they're doing, the support that they need to be able to do what they're doing, and creating that sense of camaraderie from your internal team and your external team so they operate, really, as one voice and as one focused energy? What do you do to make sure that your teams are aligned? Do you have regular meetings? Do you loop the outside firms into your internal teams? What is the structure of those relationships?Samantha Gulick:
I try to keep everybody on the same page. We have a weekly meeting with our advertising agency and then the whole team is on it, the internal team is on it, just to make sure that everyone's on the same page. Then we also have our PR agency that also joins the advertising agency one and then we also have PR meetings every month. Then I think a big part of it for me to make sure everybody, is aligned and everybody's working good is giving people some freedom, especially internally. I have people on my team that can reach out to RPR company, our advertising agency, so just helping them build those connections, so we're all together. Then if there's something that, it happens, sometimes I forget something, I have my team that's like, "Oh, let me go with HMA to try to tell them what's going on," or, "Let me get with the advertising agency," so it's really just, in my opinion, letting people have that free rein a little bit, too, to do what they do bestAbbie Fink:
The value in having a strong internal team. You're fortunate in that you have a larger team. A lot of businesses may only have one or two individuals in-house, but really, having a focused group of individuals in-house that have the overall corporate mission in mind as they're creating programs and marketing strategies and such, and then having the ability to rely on external counselors, whether that's advertising, creative, public relations, photography, videography. I mean, there's a lot of ways to bring external resources in, but recognizing the benefit of the knowledge and expertise of what the outside counselors do as a profession and mirroring that and mirroring that with what you all do internally as your profession nets out really amazing results for the client, especially when both sides understand. You mentioned it, it's really a partnership, and that both sides understand that the end result, or the end goal is the same, how we come to it is a little bit different. Working in partnership with in-house teams and external communications professionals really enhances and amplifies the marketing efforts for businesses of all sizes, and so whether, again, you are a one-person in-house team, or you have the benefit of a larger structure, capitalizing on resources, both internally and externally can be a real benefit for your marketing strategy.