Q & A with Hospitality Management Professor Sandy Chen

OSU-Cascades hospitality management assistant professor Sandy Chen is co-author of a new study that looks at why people play slot machines at casinos. Surprisingly, there is little professional literature about the motivation for why people like slot machines, even though this is where the bulk of a casino’s revenue comes from. We checked in with Professor Chen to learn more about her findings.

Q. This study found that the most common profile of a slot machine enthusiast was a female homeowner, between the ages of 55 and 60, with at least some college education and an annual household income of more than $55,000. Why is that significant?

A. This finding debunks the stereotype of lower-income, uneducated senior citizens gambling their Social Security pensions in hopes of a big payday. This is significant because managers of the casino industry could use it to develop marketing strategies and products for the right customers.  

Q. You surveyed more than 1,000 slot machine players to find out why they like slot machines and what characteristics they share and found that slot machine players fell naturally into four clusters. What are they?

A. Utilitarian gamblers, in essence, are looking for something to do. Many are seniors, who are looking to kill time, reduce boredom, or simply get out of the house – and they are less motivated by financial rewards or excitement. Some enjoy people-watching as much as the actual slot play.

Excitement gamblers are looking for a buzz – the thrill of winning a jackpot, relaxing and having a good time. This group doesn’t like progressive machines with bigger payouts because they don’t pay off frequently enough to provide the excitement.

Multipurpose gamblers tend to be younger, less educated, have lower household income, and are less likely to be married and own a home. Their motivation is to have fun and win money, and they are attracted to themed games and other machines they consider “lucky” or fun to play.

Relaxation gamblers were the most educated and well-to-do, and played slot machines for the socialization and fun. However, they also like to stay within their denomination – usually 25-cent machines or $1 machines, and often look at slot play as a way to relieve day-to-day stress.

Q. How do female and male slot players differ?

Male and female gamblers differ in terms of slot gambling motivation. Many female players were utilitarian gamblers and excitement gamblers, whereas male players were multipurpose gamblers and relaxation gamblers. If marketers target different gender groups, promotional messages emphasizing utilitarian experience such as socialization and excitement should be attractive to female players, while those emphasizing relaxation or financial rewards will be more appealing to male players.

Excitement gamblers are mostly female and had the highest income, while Multipurpose gamblers —are mostly male with the lowest income.  Therefore, marketers who aim to target high-income people may emphasize the excitement provided by playing slot machines and target female professionals.

Q. How can casinos and gaming machine manufacturers use these findings to their advantage?

A. This study seems to be one of the few that tests gambling motivation specifically for slot players. The study has enormous implications for understanding casino and slot gamblers in different settings.

The four distinct clusters implied that the slot-machine-player market is not homogeneous, that slot players are different in terms of gambling motivation, and that marketers must develop unique promotional messages to appeal to different groups of players.

Across clusters, medium gamblers (those who gambled once or twice a month) accounted for more than half the cluster membership, whereas light players (those who gambled about once every 2 months or four times a year) accounted for only 13% of the cluster membership. This translates into opportunities for marketers, since products and promotions could be designed to increase the gambling frequency of medium and light players.   

This study dealt not only with the push factors (i.e., motivational factors) of slot machine players, but also with some important pull factors, such as machine features that influence a player’s choice of one machine over another, floor layouts, and variability of machines (i.e., progressive machines, theme-based machines). The players in this study, however, did not seem to be interested in these pull factors, which differs from previous studies examining the effects of these factors (Lucas, 2003; Mayer and Johnson, 2003). Marketers must therefore be cautious trying to use machine features, themes, floor layouts and jackpots (from progressive machines) to entice gamblers.

Q. I always head straight to the Wheel of Fortune machine. What does that say about me?

A: You’re a true gambler. 

Other authors on the study include Stowe Shoemaker, and Dina M. Zemke, both from University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Results of the research have been published online in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, and will be published in a print edition of the journal in 2013.