PhillyDeals: US Airways deal another boost to Valley Forge casino

Posted: April 09, 2014

Ira Lubert, the Philadelphia-based investor - clients include the Pennsylvania state pension funds and Pennsylvania State University - who heads the group that runs the Valley Forge Casino Resort, says he knows why Pennsylvanians aren't gambling more.

Gambler fatigue, he told me, as young women dressed as Hawaiian dancers shuffled to the music around his table Thursday for Lubert's latest promotion, a deal with US Airways.

"We're just starting to see it," he said.

State figures show slot-machine revenues have been down for the last five months, slipping around 6 percent in March vs. the same period in 2013.

But at Valley Forge, slots revenue was up 18 percent. It's also one of the minority of Pennsylvania casinos that registered higher table game revenues in February, the last month the state reported data.

"Customers want more out of the gaming experience," Lubert says.

His establishment, like the ailing Nemacolin Woodlands Resort south of Pittsburgh, has a restrictive license that makes it tougher to just walk in off the street and bet. Gamblers have to be using the hotel or other resort facilities, or else pay a membership fee.

Lubert's team has tried to turn that to its advantage by recruiting wedding parties, corporate meetings, and other hotel groups alongside events like an Off-Broadway play, comedy, and entertainment, and the occasional mechanical-bull night.

And then there's US Airways. Lubert signed what he says is the airline's first affinity deal, where customers can apply frequent-gambler points for frequent-flier miles on Philadelphia's dominant airline.

"People can use their award points for clothes, food, drinks, free overnight rooms," Lubert said. "If they're playing frequently over a [set time period], they'll be able to earn enough dividend miles to fly. I believe this is a game-changer."

How'd Lubert come up with this?

"I observed Richard Vague and Kevin Kleinschmidt," Lubert said. Vague, a Texas banker, moved to Wilmington to set up First USA Bank in 1987 and grew it into the nation's largest credit-card bank after selling it a decade later to Jamie Dimon's Bank One (now JPMorgan Chase & Co.) for $8 billion.

That marriage ended badly, with federal complaints about bank practices, dissension with Dimon, and Vague's abrupt departure. But Vague and Kleinschmidt stayed together, building other card banks in Wilmington, where lenders have been collecting massive information on how we earn and spend for a generation, and finding ways to use it to sell us more stuff.

The pair were pioneers in "affinity marketing," cutting deals with airlines, colleges, and other enterprises to buy customer lists and logos. In 2008, after moving to Philadelphia, they took the concept to their new retail-electricity firm, EnergyPlus.

Among their most successful marketing deals was a partnership with US Airways. "Kevin really created an exclusive in the retail energy arena for USA dividend miles," Lubert said. "I observed how he built his company and sold it for $190 million - to NRG Energy - after just four years."

Lubert wanted a US Airways deal for Valley Forge. He asked Vague and Kleinschmidt to make introductions. The deal took seven months, and it's exclusive "in a 50-mile radius," Lubert said.

Vague said he was happy to help: "Ira is one of Philadelphia's true superstars."

It's easier than ever to make these deals work, with online marketing, says Kleinschmidt.

"People continue to really value hotel and airline rewards programs," he said. "US Airways has the dominant rewards program in this area. They struck a great deal with Valley Forge."

Vague and Kleinschmidt have made enough selling serial companies to retire from daily company management. Vague is, among his other projects, writing a book about how private debt drives economic cycles. They are both active in Gabriel Investments, which has recruited successful company founders to back new ventures in the Philadelphia region.

So what's Kleinschmidt's professional opinion: Can Lubert keep a casino growing in a mature market?

"Ira knows what he's doing," he told me. "He's got the Midas touch."



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