May 30, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:13 am
Different Strategies: Part 1

Glitz will top convenience, Mohegan Sun CEO says

PABLO ROBLES
PABLO ROBLES
Jeffrey Hartmann, CEO and president of Mohegan Sun, looks at the glitzy property and concludes gamblers will drive the extra miles.
PABLO ROBLES
Jeffrey Hartmann says the new ad campaign for Mohegan Sun will highlight the casino's Shine.

Different Strategies: Part 1 of 2 - Connecticut's two Native American gaming operations are taking different approaches to the changing business landscape they're facing. The new leaders of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods sat down with reporter Brad Kane and discussed their approaches. Today, we focus on Mohegan Sun. For the Foxwoods feature, click here.

As far as CEO Jeffrey Hartmann is concerned, Mohegan Sun is the preeminent gaming property in the Northeast. Period.

Even though more gambling establishments are opening in key markets across the Northeast, the beauty and splendor of Mohegan Sun will keep those crowds driving past more convenient locations to the more awesome destination, said Hartmann, who took over as resort president and CEO on Jan. 1.

"Mohegan is special," Hartmann said. "The beauty of the facility is unsurpassed. It would easily compete with any property in the Las Vegas."

To drive the point home, Mohegan Sun launched its new Shine advertising campaign on May 15 to keep more customers coming.

Still, the goal of the Mohegan Sun casino isn't increased revenues, Hartmann said. The goal is the long-term viability of the Mohegan tribe and the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, known as MTGA.

If that means Mohegan Sun loses its position as Northeast market leader — a title held since 2004 — in favor of streamlined operations and increased profits, then so be it.

If that mean Mohegan Sun takes on a smaller role in a larger MTGA gaming network across the Northeast, then so be it.

"We feel very good where we are in terms of how the business operates," Hartmann said.

Hartmann is one half of a major shake-up this year in Connecticut's casino leadership. Both he and Foxwoods President and CEO Scott Butera took over their roles on Jan. 1, at a time when the state's resort casinos are reaching a critical juncture.

Slot machine revenue at Foxwoods and Mohegan dropped by 20 percent over the past five years. As revenue decreased, the cost of borrowing for new projects increased. And New York and Massachusetts — the main out-of-state draws for Connecticut's casinos — are moving toward expanded gambling.

Unlike Butera who took over the top job at a casino that had six chief executives in four years, Hartmann inherits the legacy of a long-time CEO who maintains a strong presence at Mohegan Sun.

Hartmann's predecessor was Mitchell Grossinger Etess, who started as an executive of Mohegan Sun in 1996, before the casino even opened. In 2004, Grossinger Etess took over as CEO of the Connecticut casino, and in 2006 also became CEO of the organization that runs the casino, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, or MTGA.

In ceding control of Mohegan Sun to Hartmann on Jan. 1, Grossinger Etess maintained his position with MTGA, working to open other casinos across the Northeast and expand the brand to benefit the tribe.

The conflict inherent in Hartmann's new role is he must maintain strong visitor counts and profits at the Connecticut property while MTGA expands its brand across the Northeast and draws directly from Mohegan Sun's customer base.

In 2006, MTGA opened Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania, which draws slightly from the Connecticut property. By 2013, MTGA will open a third casino in the New York Catskills region, nibbling away an estimated 1-2 percent of the Connecticut property's clients.

The kicker will come if Massachusetts approves expanded gambling. MTGA is considered the front runner for a Western Massachusetts resort casino license, and the tribe already has property on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Palmer near the I-84 interchange.

A Palmer casino would significantly erode the Connecticut property's client base, since 20 percent of its customers come from Massachusetts.

Losing customers to a MTGA casino in Massachusetts is much better than losing customers if another casino operator gets the license, Hartmann said.

With the economic recession and states looking to pad their budget revenues through any means necessary, it is a classic political environment to open more casinos, Hartmann said. MTGA shouldn't waste the opportunity.

Mohegan Sun will remain the premier casino in the Northeast, and the Connecticut casino will be the central property in a hub-and-spoke system for MTGA, said Hartmann.

Thanks to the diminished economy and increased competition, Mohegan Sun's revenues are shrinking. The Uncasville property is tracking to make $720 million in slot revenues for this fiscal year ending in June, its lowest since 2002. Meanwhile, Foxwoods is gaining market share, although Mohegan maintains its advantage 52 to 48 percent.

But slot revenues and market share aren't what matters. Profits are, Hartmann said.

The Connecticut resort streamlined its operations — laying off 300 workers last September — and saw its net income rise in the first quarter of 2011 by 193 percent over the first quarter 2010.

"We had our best April in terms of profitability since April 2007," Hartmann said.

But Mohegan Sun faces threats from many non-MTGA casinos, especially in New York. Mohegan Sun gets 15 percent of its customers from New York, more than any other New England gambling establishment.

Mohegan Sun already took a hit in convenience gaming when Empire City Casino opened at Yonkers Raceway, and faces another challenge when the Resorts World Casino opens this summer at the Aqueduct race track in New York.

"Retaining those customers is a challenge we are working on," Hartmann said.

To keep those customers driving past convenient locations in favor of the more splendid regional destination, Mohegan Sun will invest more in the property, Hartmann said.

Mohegan Sun will start work on a new hotel in 2011, bring in high-quality entertainment, open new amenities such as the Italian restaurant BALLO, and complete a $10-million retrofit of the property's 800-seat buffet.

To stay prominent in customers' minds, the casino hired a new advertising agency — People, Ideas & Culture from New York City. On May 15, during the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees baseball game, the casino launched its new Shine advertising campaign.

The old Mohegan Sun advertising campaign was antiquated, unexciting and geared for the wrong audience, Hartmann said. The Shine campaign tries to be younger and more energetic. It folds in online, interactive elements to make the property stand out and showcase its variety of amenities.

Hartmann wants the Shine theme to permeate the property beyond the advertising, so blackjack dealers, hotel personnel, restaurant servers and all employees know how to interact with the property's customers. The product Mohegan Sun offers to patrons must be constantly refreshed.

New energy will be important as Mohegan Sun markets itself as a big-time destination, so people will drive past closer resorts to come to Connecticut."It's really about our time to shine, about how we are more than just slot machines," Hartmann said.

Next week: Foxwoods' new CEO wants to focus on nearby audience.

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