MGM Resorts rewards non-gamblers at casinos, too

OSKAR GARCIA Associated Press Published:

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- The only way to get treated as a high roller in most casinos is by gambling big. But MGM Resorts International has expanded its loyalty program and a related website to reward customers for their spending on restaurants, shows and other items as well.

The Las Vegas-based company hopes to keep customers from hopping to other resorts it doesn't own.

At the enhanced "M life" website, MGM Resorts visitors can plan their trips and track the points they earn at 13 of the company's casino-resorts. Ten of the resorts are in Sin City, and the other three are in Mississippi and Michigan.

Bill Hornbuckle, the company's chief marketing officer, said the company is letting customers directly book services at various resorts all in one place for the first time. With M life, a room at the Bellagio, a Cirque du Soleil show at the MGM Grand and dinner overlooking the Strip at the House of Blues Foundation Room all generate points toward freebies and personalized offers, and can all be booked at the same time.

"It's the first time we've been able to bundle the totality of the company," Hornbuckle said.

The enhanced offerings -- which include things as outlandish as scuba diving in the aquarium at The Mirage or buying out the entire theater at Fantasy for a private showing of the Luxor's topless revue -- are part of MGM Resorts' effort to learn more about its customers and keep them coming back.

The company is hoping to catch up with competitor Caesars Entertainment Corp. in the use of this loyalty strategy.

Caesars, which owns or manages more than 50 casinos in six countries, including 10 in Sin City, extended its Total Rewards program to include non-gambling spending in 2008. MGM Resorts revamped its program -- which previously included just gambling, like those at other casino companies -- about 18 months ago, but waited to phase in non-gambling spending.

Hornbuckle said it's still too early to say how the changes are affecting MGM Resorts' revenue. But he said some customers have tripled their spending at MGM Resorts properties after learning that one company owned them and would recognize the spending with loyalty perks.

"It's meaningful to the company," he said.

Tourism in Las Vegas has improved since 2009, when the Great Recession sapped many gamblers of the funds for a visit. Over the past year, room rates have crept back up and companies are doing better.

On Wednesday, MGM Resorts announced a deal with Ameristar Casinos to jointly market offers at their casinos. The much smaller Ameristar has eight casinos in smaller gambling markets including Colorado, Mississippi, Indiana and Iowa.

Mark Strawn, an analyst for Morgan Stanley, said the agreement shows MGM Resorts is serious about marketing its Strip casinos together rather than separately and it could add $40 million to the company's earnings -- if it reaches the right customers of Ameristar.

"There tends to be a difference in the theoretical value of casino customers and the realized value," Strawn said.

MGM Resorts spent about $15 million on technology to link its properties through M life. Scott Voeller, the company's vice president of brand strategy and advertising, said M life is convincing gamblers and other visitors to spend more by telling them exactly what it takes to achieve higher status in its program.

The top tier, "Noir," requires 1 million tier credits -- an amount reached with $40,000 in annual spending on things besides gambling or annual wagers. Voeller said roughly the top 1 percent of its customers make Noir status.

Growth is faster among members spending $1,000 or more per year and earning "Pearl" status or higher, the company said. The program's lowest rung, for people spending less than $1,000, is "Sapphire" and includes about half of its members.

MGM Resorts narrowed its loss in the third quarter to $123.8 million, or 25 cents per share. Its revenue jumped 43 percent, as gambling improved in Las Vegas and Macau. It plans to report its fourth-quarter and full-year 2011 results next week.

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Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia