Developing an effective promotion and marketing strategy at Batavia Downs Gaming sounds like a challenging assignment. Marketing Director Ryan Hasenauer and his staff, however, have been equal to the task as revenues for the gaming/harness horse racing facility and hotel on Park Road continue to surge.
The Batavian sat down with Hasenauer (photo at top, pointing to "wall of fame" at the Batavia Downs clubhouse) to talk about his team’s efforts to increase the customer base at the entertainment venue operated by Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., a public benefit company that distributes a portion of earnings plus surcharge to its 17 member municipalities.
Hasenauer, 41, is a Rochester native who earned his bachelor’s degree in Sports Management and Master of Business Administration from Medaille College (now University) in Buffalo before taking marketing positions with a software company and tanning salon chain.
He joined the marketing department at Batavia Downs in 2007, serving as director of marketing since October 2010. He and his wife, Elise, and their 7-year-old son, Theo, live in Hamburg.
Q. What is the overarching strategy when it comes to promotions? Your board of directors just authorized an expenditure of $600,000 for promotional items for the year – that’s a huge amount of money.
A. You’ve got to spend money to make money – that’s like one of the oldest adages in the book. What we do here at Batavia Downs is we implement two types of strategy – whether it’s horse racing, gaming, for the restaurants, the hotel. All those things basically work together as amenities for each other to basically accomplish two goals. One, attract new people to the facility and two, retain the people that we already have that enjoy coming here. And of course, if you're new, then you become an existing person. So, now I'm working hard to maintain your loyalty.
Q. It seems as though it is a very competitive industry?
A. The gaming landscape in Western New York is quite saturated. You've got one just south of Rochester, you've got one between Rochester and Syracuse, you've got several pinpointed around the Syracuse area and towards Utica, you've got one in Buffalo, we've got one in the Falls, you got one down to Alleghany and even got a few across the way just across the border into Canada now that Canada's opened up again. So, we have to be smart about our strategies because we are one of the smallest gaming facilities in New York State.
Echoing what Henry (Wojtaszek, WROTB president) has said many times, we try to see ourselves as the “Cheers” of casinos – we know your name. You can be a big fish in a small pond here. When you go to some of these other larger facilities, you're just a number to them. To reap some of the things you might want to get from a gaming facility, you have to be a very, very big player in those places to be even considered to get invites for a dinner tickets to a show on site or to a game, like the Buffalo Bills or whatever. Whereas here, we feel like we have a better relationship with our players. We know their names, we know their likes, their dislikes and you can still have access to some of those great things.
Q. What are some of the promotions that Batavia Downs offers?
A. If you're in the email club, for some of the concerts, you got an email for free tickets to our shows outside for our drawings on Wednesday nights. And on Friday nights. And coming in October, it'll be Tuesdays and Thursday nights. You can win tickets, whether you're a great player or not a great player. You can win tickets to see the Buffalo hockey team to see the Buffalo football team or the Rochester hockey team. The other places aren't doing drawings with their tickets; they're holding them back and only giving them to certain people. And while we do honor and give some of our higher-end players tickets, everyone has a chance with these drawings.
One of the other great things about doing that is that it drives traffic to the facility. It makes the facility busy because you’re here trying to win tickets to this real big country show that's coming to the facility. You know, when we gave away Garth Brooks tickets, this place was nuts. We gave away two pairs of Garth Brooks tickets on the floor. It was crazy here that night; people were excited to win those tickets. And they went to players that randomly were chosen in the game, which is exciting.
Q. Are you also in charge of lining up events such as dinners, fundraisers or weddings?
A. We have an amazing event staff headed up by Tory (Thompson) and we work together so much it’s like the other side of my brain. And Tory feels the same way about marketing here. People wanting an event here such as a fundraiser or big dinner are going to deal with Tory and she’s going to do right by you.
And we will work with you to help promote your event. I don't know many places that will literally say we will help you promote the event on our Facebook page, with ads in the local media. We take an extra step in making sure that if your event is a public event, we want you to succeed because what do we want? We want people here. It’s only smart for us to that.
Q. What about the concerts in the summer? Who coordinates that?
A. Things like the Vodka (& Gin) Fest, the Polka Fest, the Kentucky Derby party, all the concerts – those are things that the marketing team handles. The concerts are a total team effort, including the officers, where we get together to decide who's coming and what's going to go on, and what dates are they going to select?
That’s another thing that helps not only drive traffic to the facility, but provides entertainment for the people in Batavia and the surrounding areas. I remember, we had Three Dog Night come here and there was probably 6,000 to 7,000 people …singing along to all those old favorites.
Q. You’ve done a lot of renovation to the (racing) clubhouse. What has been done there and how are you utilizing it?
A. So, the interesting thing about the clubhouse is that this place was built in 1940s; we opened on Sept. 20, 1940. At that time, the clubhouse was like the crown jewel of this place, and over the years, it was a great place for people to come and watch the races.
There’s no mistake about it that horse racing is not as popular as it once was. We all get that; we understand that. There are not a lot of places across Western New York, first of all, but certainly across the United States that are actively trying to put money into horse racing spaces where people can enjoy watching horse racing. We put in money into that clubhouse. We put the “wall of fame” up there -- our history, from the 1940s all the way through present day and you could walk up and see it anytime you want.
We raised up the bar from the ground floor to beyond that level and made it so was a more welcoming experience for those who have movement disabilities. That was one thing that many people like to mention was that the buffet was on the top and you had to traverse those stairs. Now the buffet’s on the ground level. And if you have mobility issues, you don't have to worry about the stairs anymore. You go right to the buffet and find a seat where there's no going upstairs and you still have a seat on the window. You still have a great seat to see the horse racing.
Q. Judging by recent events in the clubhouse not related to horse racing, that must be a new wrinkle to your marketing strategy?
A. Because that clubhouse is only open, let's say between 50 and 70 days a year for horse racing, what are we going to do the other 300 days plus? While we do comedy shows there, we also utilize that space for nonpublic events. If somebody needs to utilize that space for a meeting, it’s available. We had Chamber (of Commerce) After Dark and the Zonta Club’s basket raffle. So again, utilizing the spaces that we have here to allow people to have meetings. We had a large meeting inside Park Place and events are scheduled throughout the week, not just on weekends.
Q. On the subject of horse racing, how much has that industry declined since its heyday? And how do you accommodate patrons that follow and wager on horse racing? Are they getting the short end of the stick, so to speak?
A. On the first question, I would have to take a look at the numbers to give you an accurate number. I know that during COVID, horse racing was one of the only things going on. We had that kind of artificial spike that happened in 2020 and in parts of 2021 where it was like, “Well, I can't go anywhere, but they're doing virtual horse racing someplace, I can make a wager on Batavia bets and I can do those things.”
I think what we are doing here at Batavia Downs to make sure that the horse players know that they're not forgotten about is making sure that they still have spaces to conduct that type of entertainment. Putting money in the clubhouse, making sure that that the ITW (Intertrack Wagering) is upstairs across the clubhouse on the second floor here at Batavia Downs. That space was put in when the gaming floor went downstairs, That's a very nice place for people to watch. There's nice chairs, there's ample space, there's vending machines nearby or if you want to go eat, you just go down the elevator, and there’s Fortune’s Restaurant.
(Hasenauer said Homestretch Grill, a smaller sandwich/pizza shop on the first floor is being remodeled and not open yet).
Q. So do you have any specials for the horse players because they're maybe not spending a lot of money on the gaming floor?
A. We’ve come to an agreement with the horsemen’s association to add 15 racing dates in January and February of next year, with racing on Wednesdays and Saturdays and some select Fridays thrown in there as well. We’re going to work to make sure the Homestretch Grill is open to satisfy those patrons and making sure they’re in a clean, comfortable environment.
Promotions include our magnet schedules, T-shirt toss after each race where the winning driver throws T-shirts onto the track apron for those in attendance. Free parking and admission, blanket giveaways. And we’re working with Don (Hoover, director of live racing) on things to make sure that people understand we’re not forgetting about horse racing. A lot of other casinos with racetracks have forgotten about horse racing.
You come here and buy a program, and if you go and earn a point on the gaming floor, we'll give you $5 on the gaming floor. And the program costs two bucks. So, if you're going to gamble anyway on the gaming floor, come and buy a program, earn your point, and then you've got a little bit of money for the gaming floor, too. We're doing things that are tying our racing and our gaming together. That's not something you're seeing at a lot of other places.
The renovated bar at the Batavia Downs Gaming clubhouse. Photos by Mike Pettinella.