When Lilian Tomovich took on the newly created role of chief experience officer at MGM Resorts in the summer of 2014, the title was all but unheard of. These days it has become less of a rarity, but Tomovich thinks the position still is too atypical. “There’s no company on the face of the planet that shouldn’t be intimately trying to understand the guest journey and customers' pain points and how they can make it better,” the 20-year marketing veteran told CMO.com.
A former MasterCard marketing executive, Tomovich jumped at the opportunity to help shape products—and experiences—she could see, hear, touch, taste, or feel. “In financial services, you’re dealing with an intangible product that distributed through banks and [managing] the end user was more challenging,” she said. “This was an opportunity to work with a company that has this real-life guest experience and see how I could shape that. I consider myself the luckiest marketer in the world because I get to touch everything from restaurants to entertainment to hospitality.”
CMO.com talked to Tomovich about the industry’s late embrace of technology innovation, the challenges of introducing marketing discipline and centralization to the company, the value of the human touch in delivering a superior customer experience, and what everyone gets wrong about customer loyalty.
CMO.com: What was the impetus behind creating the chief experience officer role at MGM Resorts?
Tomovich: We operate a lot of fantastic casinos, restaurants, nightclubs, and entertainment operations. But it’s a highly competitive market. At the end of the day, what matters most is how we can best differentiate ourselves through the experience we deliver to our guests.
Because the business is incredibly complex, we need to orchestrate and galvanize a broad range of functions and disciplines to deliver what we believe is the best guest experience possible. My teams takes a holistic approach to the customer experience by looking at the guest journey, from beginning to end, in order to deliver the kind of exceptional experiences that will drive results.
CMO.com: You haven’t worked in the hospitality or entertainment space before. Has your outsider status been a hindrance or a benefit?
Tomovich: Not bringing with me that legacy of how things have always been done in this business has been beneficial. I can look at things from a fresh perspective. One thing I’ve been able to do is to bring a level of discipline and thought leadership around marketing to the company. For example, I introduced a more disciplined and data-driven approach to managing our media spend that we implemented a year ago.
CMO.com: What were the company’s biggest customer experience challenges when you arrived?
Tomovich: The hospitality business, in general, has been slower to embrace innovation and technology. Most of us in the U.S. have been checking into our airline flights in our pajamas from home for more than a decade, but the hotel business has only started exploring mobile check-in over the last few years. There continues to be a huge opportunity to drive innovation in the digital guest experience.
CMO: What did you see as MGM Resorts’ biggest marketing strength?
Tomovich: There’s no question that MGM Resorts has an incredible amount of brand equity and an equal amount of respected reputation in the industry. I support businesses like the Bellagio and MGM Grand; those are iconic brands that are part of the fabric of Las Vegas.
CMO.com: Marketing leaders across industries are trying to build more personalized, one-to-one relationships with their customers—something that casinos have done for years. What can marketers in other sectors learn from what gaming companies do well?
Tomovich: That’s true; on the casino side of our business, we absolutely know who our best customers are, and we spend a lot of time providing relevant and timely offers to them, recognizing what their needs are, and understanding how they spend their time with us.
We are focused on technology solutions, but they are not the be-all end-all of the guest experience. We are in a business where one-to-one relationships matter. This is a very face-to-face business. We spent a lot of time nurturing our customer relationships; it’s all about human interactions. A lot of businesses are very focused on the digital experience—and we are, too—but we can never forget that people matter.
CMO.com: What are the most important organizational changes you’ve introduced so far?
Tomovich: We are in the midst of a massive marketing transformation we started just over a year ago. This is a company that grew via acquisition. Each property had its own marketing organization, and we just went through the process of centralizing several key marketing functions so we can leverage the company’s incredible size and scale for efficiency.
As part of that transformation, we created a new social media organization led by a new vice president of social media to drive content for the entire brand. No brand has more social content than we do, but we were doing it all on the side, property by property, and some parts of the business were doing more and some were doing less.
We also consolidated our agency partners and brought in McCann in New York to help us define our brand positioning: who we are, what we do, and why we do it. And we’ve approached the socialization of our brand positioning from the inside out. A lot of companies will launch a glitzy, new brand campaign across a bunch of channels and hope that everyone loves it. Instead, we started by training all of our 71,000 employees on our new brand position and introducing a set of customer experience standards. Once that work is complete and we know what we tell consumers we can actually deliver against, then we will launch a consumer campaign.
CMO.com: What were the biggest challenges of this marketing reorganization?
Tomovich: It’s been a significant cultural shift. When you take something away from one of our resorts, something they have been doing for years, and tell them you’re now going to do it for them—you’d better damn well do it better and deliver results. With any such monumental shift, there has been, of course, some pain points, but overall we are on track and working hard every day to showcase results.
CMO.com: You devoted another big chunk of your career helping develop loyalty programs and services for Fortune 1000 companies. What do most business leaders get wrong about customer loyalty?
Tomovich: People assume that if they have a loyalty program, that solves all their loyalty problems. A loyalty program alone will not engender brand love or greater basket size. A loyalty program is only as good as the products, services, and experiences you have. If you’re a retailer and you don’t have the right products or price points or employees, that loyalty program doesn’t matter. A loyalty program is an enhancer; it’s not a solution.
CMO.com: You’ve been especially focused engendering loyalty among your nongaming customers. What’s the business driver behind that?
Tomovich: Our loyalty program was bred in the gaming business and making sure we reward our most loyal casino customers. But our business has changed significantly over the years. Today, 70% of our revenues come from noncasino businesses, like restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and entertainment. We now allow our guests to earn Tier Credit for their nongaming spend. Our biggest initiative last year was launching our MLife MasterCard, which allows our guests to continue earning points all year round for their everyday purchases.
CMO.com: You’re also trying to attract more Millennial customers. What’s different about creating a superior experience for that customer segment?
Tomovich: We’ve been aggressively working to attract more Millennial customers to Las Vegas over the last few years. They’re not as likely to sit at a slot machine as my generation or my parents’ or grandparents’ generation. So we focused on launching nightclubs with top-tier DJs and day clubs and pool parties.
They’re also less likely to come to a buffet. They like communal tables and small plates and food and drinks that they can share on Instagram. So we’ve introduced new food and beverage offerings.
The third thing we’ve done is to experiment with new gaming and entertainment options. We have opened an experimental gaming space at the MGM Grand called Level Up that’s specifically tailored to Millennials. It has more social- and skill-based options, like pool, Ping-Pong, an arm wrestling table, and giant Pac-Man and Connect Four games.
CMO.com: What will be the most important emerging technologies for your customer experience organizations going forward?
Tomovich: We’ve always talked about marketing being a balance between art and science. But I say it’s a balance among art, science, and technology. Everything we do involves technology in some way, shape, or form, from mobile apps to customer service bots. If you don’t have a strong interest in technology, you’re in trouble.
Our biggest opportunity right now is to leverage technology to provide better service for our guests. We operate at enormous scale; our resorts are 4,000- to 5,000-room properties. Enabling our guests to quickly self-serve, whether it’s ordering room service or arranging for late checkout, is something we’ll be focusing on in the coming years.
MGM’s Michael Aburas, integrated media director, and Megan Estrada, vice president of media, are among the speakers at Adobe Summit 2017, March 19-23. Click here to view the agenda and register. (Bonus: Enter code CMDC17 for an additional $200 discount.)