Casinos fight slowdown with free slots play

Buffeted by a down economy and rising gas prices, casinos in neighboring Connnecticut and Rhode Island are turning to the gambling world’s equivalent of a sale – free slot-machine play.

In a bid to keep their customers coming from Massachusetts and other key feeder markets, Rhode Island’s revamped Twin River racino and Connecticut’s Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are offering players coupons for free slot-machine play.

The offers range from a few dollars to a few hundred bucks, depending on how much of a high roller is being targeted.

Twin River, which just kicked off its own promotion in June, is offering free slot play prizes worth from USD 500 to USD 24,000.

“The idea is once you get them playing, after the USD 20 credit is gone, they will put USD 20 of their own money in,” said Clyde Barrow, a professor and gambling industry expert at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “This is really something aimed at bringing people in, bringing them back and bringing them back more frequently.”

The two Connecticut casinos aggressively ramped up their free play offers, led by a strong push by Foxwoods.

But those promotions backfired, costing the two casinos millions in lost slot revenue in December.

Both appear to have eased off a bit recently, though free slot play was up during the first part of this year as well.

Mitchell Etess downplayed the idea that free slots play is being used to lure gas-price-wary gamblers down from Massachusetts. Rather, it is just one in a lineup of promotional offers used by casinos everywhere.

Whatever the motivation, the free-play push contributed to slower revenue growth last year at the two casinos, writes Alan Meister, an economist with the Analysis Group, in a new study, Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report.

Twin River is the latest to jump into the free-play market, having just won approval from Rhode Island lawmakers in June to roll out the promotion.

The racino has seen revenue soar since the initiative began, up 13 percent in June, when the program kicked off. That is compared to a more modest 5 percent increase in May, before the launch.

“We are definitely seeing an uptick,” said spokeswoman Patty Doyle. “We have had three good months since the program was inaugurated.”