Casinos winning big by betting on Asians
July 31, 2006
9:32 a.m. July 28, 2006
MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – It’s a little after noon, and a crowd has started to gather in Boston’s Chinatown. Some are reading the Sing Tao Daily or Ming Pao Daily News. Others clutch plastic bags filled with snacks. All look up whenever the deep roar of an engine sounds like it’s coming their way.Ip Kachuang and two of his friends share a smoke while they wait. It’s a routine Ip knows well. Five days a week, he makes the four-hour round-trip bus ride to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.
“It’s a happy place,” Ip said in Mandarin Chinese. “It’s very easy and relaxing, and it’s open all the time.”Ip represents a group of customers aggressively being courted by casinos around the country.
Every day, Foxwoods and nearby rival Mohegan Sun combined send more than 100 buses to predominantly Asian neighborhoods in Boston and New York. The number of buses doubles on Chinese New Year, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Foxwoods, the biggest casino in the world based on gambling floor space, estimates that at least one-third of its 40,000 customers per day are Asian. Mohegan Sun says Asian spending makes up a fifth of its business and has increased 12 percent during the first half of this year alone.
The number of Asians in the United States increased by 17 percent between 2000 and 2004, the fastest growth of any ethnic group during that period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And few industries have catered to the Asian boom with as much cultural competency as the $75 billion U.S. gaming industry.
In 2000, Foxwoods, which is run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, hired a vice president specifically in charge of Asian marketing. In 2005, Mohegan Sun, owned by the Mohegan tribe, hired an international marketing executive who would target the Asian demographic.
“Our Asian blood loves to feel the luck,” said Ernie Wu, director of Asian marketing at Foxwoods. “We call it entertainment, we don’t say it’s ‘gambling.’”
The two casinos target Asian customers with ads in ethnic media and sponsoring community activities such as the Boston Dragon Boat Festival, the Toronto Asian Beauty Pageant, and the Southeast Asian Water Festival in Lowell, Mass.
But buses are key to the marketing strategy. Riders pay $10 for round trip fare, and Foxwoods throws in a $12 food coupon and a $40 gambling coupon, while Mohegan Sun gives them a $15 meal voucher and a $20 betting coupon.
On a recent weekday afternoon, one Foxwoods bus picked up Ip, his two friends, and more than 40 other passengers from Boston’s Chinatown. During the 100-mile journey, some watched a Hong Kong soap opera on television sets throughout the bus. Most caught up on sleep.
Some say the casinos are filling a void in entertainment options for low-income Asian immigrants.
Gambling doesn’t require language skills or a high upfront cost, and casinos including Foxwoods have set up dozens of tables featuring favorite Asian games such as Pai Gow poker, Pai Gow dominoes, Sic Bo and Baccarat.
Next to the popular noodle bar, the entrance to the massive “Asian Pit” at Foxwoods is one of the liveliest sections of the massive casino. And when customers aren’t gambling, there are Asian concerts and shows to keep them occupied. Mohegan Sun has brought superstar singers A-Mei from Taiwan and Sandy Lam from Hong Kong to perform at its 10,000-seat arena.
“This is a way of demonstrating the casino’s sensitivity and understanding of the market,” said Joe Lam, president of L3, an advertising agency that works with Mohegan Sun.
Zheng Yuhua emigrated from southern China to New York City eight years ago. She works six days a week, 11 hours a day, preparing takeout orders at a restaurant in Chinatown. On her day off, she takes one of the Foxwoods buses.
“All of our friends come once or twice a week,” Zheng said, speaking Mandarin as she rested near the noodle bar with her brother-in-law. “Life in America is hard. Our English isn’t good. Even if we have time off, there’s nowhere else to go. We don’t have cars.”
Asians make up roughly a fifth of the 13,000-person staff at Foxwoods. Wu says dealers know not to touch Asian customers on the shoulder, a sign of bad luck. They don’t say the number four, which in Chinese, sounds similar to the word for death. The casino also has omitted the No. 4 seat at Pai Gow and Baccarat tables, which have numbered seats.
The model of attracting and retaining Asian customers is being watched carefully as casinos reach out to other untapped markets.
Mohegan Sun’s senior marketing vice president, Anthony Patrone, said the casino is interested in expanding its Latino marketing. On July 21, Mohegan Sun hosted a boxing match that was broadcast on the Spanish-language channel Telefutura.
Some say the casinos are going too far to market to people who are vulnerable to excessive gambling.
“If casinos didn’t market to Asians, they’d market to someone else. It’s just that right now, the market is Asians,” said Dr. Tim Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program.
But those marketing strategies to attract customers aren’t without concerns. Fong, who began studying gambling addiction among Asian-Americans in 2005, called it a “subtle epidemic. It’s out there, it’s insidious, slowly damaging families.”
Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun both have taken voluntary steps, such as training employees to read signs of addictive behavior and referring problem gamblers to psychiatrists.
Steve Karoul, who until earlier this month was vice president of casino marketing at Foxwoods and has spent 30 years in the casino business, said Asians aren’t significantly affected by compulsive gambling.
“Honestly, we find it’s not as prevalent in the Asian community as it is in the non-Asian community,” said Karoul, who worked in several Asian countries. “Of all the markets, I would say it’s the least affected by problem gaming. Gaming is part of the culture, but problem gaming is not widespread.”
Back in the Asian Pit, Ip Kachuang decided to take a break after three hours at the Baccarat tables, his favorite game at Foxwoods. He said he hadn’t won much money yet, but he was still in good spirits.
“It’s fun,” he said, “as long as you don’t gamble big.”
On the Net:
Mohegan Sun: www.mohegansun.com/