Gary Heathcott thought he’d made his escape from Arkansas advertising.
“I was pretty much out of the game when Carlton Saffa called me up from Saracen in September 2020,” Heathcott told Arkansas Business.
The 45-year advertising veteran had bought a home in Texas about the time he sold his ad business to CJRW in 2014, years before his lengthy and well-publicized legal battle with the prominent Little Rock firm.
A chance to represent the state’s newest gambling palace, Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, was an offer the voluble Heathcott couldn’t refuse.
“Carlton called and he dragged me back in, like Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather Part III,’” Heathcott said by phone last week. Saffa is an old Heathcott associate and chief market officer at Saracen, owned by the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma.
“Gary is responsible for all our advertising,” Saffa said, describing Heathcott as “the best ad buyer” in history. “He has a much better handle on all of it, especially the innovative stuff we’re doing with Inuvo.”
Inuvo, the Little Rock ad tech company founded by Acxiom’s Charles Morgan, is using advanced artificial intelligence software to help Saracen target digital messaging, and the casino is its only gaming client, Heathcott said.
“We’re married to them, and we’re loving the work they’re doing,” he added. “We’ve learned new things every month, and that lets us fine-tune the messaging even more.”
Casinos have long been expert at knowing their players, tracking their play with electronic guest cards and enticing them with comps, drinks, fine dining, entertainment and promotions like automobile giveaways. But the current media push, both traditional and online, reflects a gambling marketing revolution in Arkansas, which has had Las Vegas-style games only since 2019. “It’s a whole new world,” Heathcott said.
3 Casinos, Another Pending
Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to allow four casinos, including two at the state’s existing racetracks, Oaklawn Park and Southland Park in Hot Springs and West Memphis, respectively. It also authorized two new casinos, one each in Jefferson and Pope counties.
The renamed Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort and Southland Casino Resort began offering table games on April 1, 2019. Saracen opened an outpost opposite its main casino construction site in Pine Bluff in October 2019, and had the grand opening of its 80,000-SF gaming hall last October, complete with 2,300 slot machines, 38 table games and the state’s only live-dealer poker area.
Meanwhile, plans for the Pope County casino in Russellville remain in legal limbo. (See Supreme Court to Decide Who Builds Russellville Casino.)
Arkansas gamblers and out-of-state visitors have been flocking this summer to the three operational casinos. Oaklawn’s casino revenue of $14.25 million in April was its second-highest monthly total ever, and Saracen set its own revenue record that same month at nearly $16 million. Southland, which perhaps surprisingly has by far the state’s biggest casino handle, set a new monthly casino record in March, $30.3 million. Gross casino revenue in Arkansas topped $355 million last year despite COVID challenges, and should easily beat that total this year.
The crowds are seeing more these days at Oaklawn, Arkansas’ biggest attraction. Oaklawn Vice President of Marketing Joan Botts provided an update.
“We opened our expanded casino last year, which also includes a new high limit area, and then our fine dining area, The Bugler,” she said.
But the game changer is a 198-room luxury hotel, which opened in April with amenities like the Astral Spa, a fitness center and a multipurpose event center with four meeting rooms, an executive boardroom and a main ballroom that can hold 1,400 concertgoers. The expanded gaming center has 1,500 slot machines and 33 gaming tables. The finishing touch is an outdoor pool with cabanas and an event lawn.
“Before the hotel, our focus was really within the state, though we always pulled from outside during the live race meet,” Botts said. “Now we are reaching out to cities like Memphis, Shreveport, Dallas, Tulsa and others, using every medium — TV, radio, print, digital, social, signage, influencers — to let the region know what we now offer at Oaklawn.”
Saracen, by contrast, slowed its plans to open a grand hotel this year, facing high material costs and high interest rates on the money the tribe would have to borrow for the $100 million project, now expected to be completed next year.
So for now, Saracen is going for players within about an hour’s drive, and Little Rock falls within that range. Heathcott is using “all the TV stations, 24 or 25 radio stations, ads on streamed programs, billboards, magazines, and a lot of promotional events.”
Saffa himself does remote promotions, and Heathcott has roped in celebrities like country radio fixture Bob Robbins and rockabilly pianist and singer Jason D. Williams, who stars in a series of rollicking TV spots.
Oaklawn’s longtime advertising agency of record is CJRW, which Heathcott sued in a $1.3 million breach-of-contract action in 2018 after the agency dismissed him, citing complaints of sexist remarks to colleagues and arrogant behavior with clients. Heathcott accused the agency of trying to shirk paying what he was owed for bringing in business. COVID slowed the case, but the parties settled the suit in July, agreeing never to discuss it.
In West Memphis and beyond, Southland’s marketing has focused on pandemic safety and best pandemic practices at the casino.
Other marketing efforts are similar to pre-pandemic promotions, including car giveaways every three weeks, according to Jeff Strang, senior director of marketing for Southland Casino Racing. “Although our current promotions are similar to pre-pandemic promotions, operationally we continue to be mindful of our Play It Safe programming,” Strang said via email.
In Pine Bluff, Saracen’s down-home campaign isn’t all Ford truck giveaways and Jerry Lee Lewis tributes. The complex has what Saffa calls the best restaurant in the state, the Red Oak Steakhouse, and a foodie star in Todd Gold, the culinary director Saffa hired away from the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Institute. The steakhouse, Heathcott said, recently became the 38th U.S. restaurant authorized to prepare authentic Japanese Kobe beef.
Oaklawn, with its acclaimed Bugler, bows to nobody in the realm of fine food, and it presents itself as an exclusive escape. “Escape,” in fact, is emblazoned on new magazine ads hailing Oaklawn as “the ultimate getaway.”
“Oaklawn is here to provide an escape, and we do that by being Arkansas’ only true casino resort — with a hotel and a spa and event center, the expanded casino, all our dining, and, of course, the live racing,” said Botts. “It all starts there, with racing, because we’re one of the top tracks in the country, and we feel that we’re the perfect getaway for anyone.”