Sharon Harris muses on how larger chains create the impression of a personal touch, and says goodbye to a friend and colleague.

I recently leased a new car for three years. I considered changing brands, but decided to stay with Acura for the fourth time since 2009 and lease the 2019 version of my current model. It is a good-looking car with a solid service and performance track record.

Once I decided on another Acura, I then questioned remaining with my longtime dealer – only 10 minutes away – or compare quotes from more distant dealers. I did not always love their salespeople for my other cars, but the good maintenance and convenient location won out.

I have a good relationship with Sonny, the manager. He was committed to keeping me as a customer, but in good conscience, I wanted to broaden my search to see if I could do better elsewhere.

The result? I discovered the price and incentives Sonny and sales associate Maria offered were better by $800. We spent so much time together hashing out the details and taking test drives that it felt like friends really trying to please me. Plus, I couldn’t imagine the same loyal relationship with another dealer 60 miles away, let alone calling to arrange for local service after leaving them and buying across state lines.

This is how business works. Like so many products/services, competitive casinos prosper or fail on the same premise. How do they make customers feel special? No one can rest on their laurels anymore and expect customers to continually come to their doors.

Just as every Acura dealer sells the same models, every casino basically offers the same table games, slots and lounge drinks. What makes each different to attract repeat customers?

Name recognition and portability is one answer. For example, consumers love using only one casino player’s card, especially if it may be transported between jurisdictions. Think of Caesars’ or MGM’s reach across the US; a player’s benefits go everywhere they do.

Among smaller jurisdictions, locals may patronize multiple sites. Station Casinos in greater Las Vegas operates 10 distinct low key and luxury gaming and hotel venues. Landry’s operates five Golden Nugget casinos, several hotels/resorts and dozens of restaurant brands that accept gift cards and special Landry’s Select Club dining benefits.

What about more than 24 properties that span Middle America and the South, from Atlantic City to Nevada? Through buyouts and mergers, all now operate under the El Dorado umbrella.

Players, like most people, are creatures of habit who like their own familiar comfort level. That is why standalone casinos like Resorts in Atlantic City joined the Mohegan Sun group. Resorts’ regional cross-marketing capabilities expanded into Pennsylvania and Connecticut for new customer possibilities.

Explosive competition within short distances has challenged the sustainability, profitability and growth of solo venues. The chains, with their giant bank accounts and hundreds of promotions offered across venues, cut through the heart of these single operations.

Last summer, a million people jammed the famed Boardwalk, beach and buildings to celebrate the side-by-side openings of Atlantic City’s Hard Rock and Ocean casino resorts on the same gorgeous day.

The Hard Rock had the resources and name of their Seminole Tribe’s empire in Florida. The Ocean debuted as the privately-owned, revamped and remodeled new generation of the former Revel.

Despite a sports betting lounge and great amenities, Ocean’s owner has struggled to make it work. December’s statistics reveal that while Atlantic City’s casino revenues are up significantly for the month and year, Ocean ranks last.

Its new ownership paid $200 million and invested another $200 million in renovations. Unfortunately, these changes have not boosted the bottom line.

Last month, Ocean’s major ownership changed hands. The Colorado businessman who last year saw this as his dream come true ended up selling off controlling interest to an unnamed outside group. They promise to invest another $70 million in amenities and guest rooms.

Rumors are flying around as to the buyer’s identity. But, unlike many media outlets who don’t wait to gather the facts, we will wait for confirmation before letting you know.

On a sad personal note, my dear amusement industry friend Valerie Cognevich recently passed away at too young an age. So many American gaming people who transitioned from the coin-op world to casinos knew Val for her decades as Play Metermagazine’s editor in New Orleans.

Val and I were as opposite as two women could be. This kind southerner had big hair, a big heart and a southern drawl that softened whatever she said. Val didn’t pretend to be sophisticated…she enjoyed being a “down home” gal.

As for me? I was a Philadelphia girl who lived a typically suburban life with a tougher accent and a more direct approach.

Somehow we meshed and enjoyed many wonderful times together for years when we attended American amusement industry events. We often shared family stories since Val really liked my father, Stan. That alone elevated her 10 points higher for me.

Early in my career during the 1980s, Val regularly gave space to both our company and me in Play Meter. Maybe it was good filler because I constantly supplied material. But, I know I can in part trace our greater company visibility and growth back to Val’s editorial.

I also faced tragic times with her, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Her family survived, but lost just about everything they owned. She asked me for help and I didn’t think twice. I believed then and still do that this was my opportunity to repay her.

Time, distance and life often cause people to drift apart and I hadn’t spoken to Val for a while. I will miss her, as will everyone who understood that her continued contribution to the amusement industry also helped when gaming entered into so many American jurisdictions.