San Diego Casino War Heats Up

Why go to Vegas when you can go to … San Diego?

Sin City has the lights, the showgirls and Wayne Newton, but San Diego County may not be far behind. Interest in Southern California’s casinos increased markedly with last month’s passage of Proposition 1A, which grants California Indian tribes the right to operate Nevada-style slot machines that dispense coins rather than tickets and card games that let customers bet against the house.

Amid a rush to build and expand facilities, several casinos are pumping millions of dollars into new advertising to get ahead.

“There’s a lot more at stake,” said Tom Di Zinno, president and CEO of Di Zinno Thompson Solutions in San Diego, which has worked with the Barona Casino in Lakeside since August. “We now have the exact same product as Las Vegas, and everyone is after the people who haven’t been to Indian casinos but make one or two discretionary trips [a year] to Las Vegas.”

Pala Casino last week launched ads tagged “Looking for something better?” The $115 million facility, which opens this week outside Tem ecula, is using print, TV, outdoor and radio to position itself as “a step up from what people perceive Indian gaming to be in Southern California,” said Michele Whaley, an account supervisor at Pala agency Cramer-Krasselt in Phoenix. “People say California casinos are like a box of slots.”

While budgets were undisclosed, both Barona and the Viejas Casino in Alpine are said to be spending $5-8 million this year on ads.

Barona recently unveiled a championship golf course, but is continuing to focus on gaming with work tagged “Are you in?” said Di Zinno. Some ads focus on gaming machines; others target the “heart and soul of the gamer” by showing how people use their winnings, Di Zinno said.

“All casinos talk about winning, but we try to elevate that to an emotional level,” said Jim Mat thews, chairman and CEO of Mat thews/Mark, which has worked with Viejas for two years. “We call it entertainment euphoria.”