Archive for September, 2005

>Turning Point (Short Short Story)

Posted: September 29, 2005 in Short Stories

>Josh awoke with a start and bolted upright, bathed in a cold sweat. Confused and disoriented, he looked around the room frantically. His mind raced as sweat trickled down his nose and large drops fell onto the already dampened  bed cover. He mopped his brow with his shirtsleeve. Where the hell am I? What time is it? Is it day or night? As consciousness took hold of him, his mind slowly began to regain some focus, but he was in that half awake/half dream state where everything seems surreal. He continued to scan the room with his eyes. Is that a figure in the corner? What the hell is that? Did it just move? Josh thrust his hand over to his nightstand and swept it across the cluttered surface until his fingers wrapped around a small object. Reaching back behind his head, he hurled it towards the shadowy form and at the same time switched on the lamp with his other hand. Instantly the room was bathed in light. No mysterious figure awaited him in the corner, but on the floor, beneath the dent on the wall it created, laid the broken pieces of his cell phone. Josh exhaled slowly and sunk his head back down into the sweat-soaked pillow; the rush of adrenaline now over; a momentary feeling of relief came over him.

His mind began to clear. He was in his bedroom—back in his bedroom actually. It was Saturday night, or…maybe early Sunday morning? This wasn’t the first time Josh had woken up this way. Every few months Josh awoke in a similar fashion. First there was confusion, then realization. They had taken him again, used him for whatever fiendish purpose they had, and plopped him back into bed when they were done.

That was almost two years ago. As usual, he didn’t tell his family or friends about the encounter. Who the hell would believe him, anyway? The countless kooks who showed up on Maury Povich and Sally Jesse Raphael played a large part in discrediting people like him who were legitimate targets of them. This had been happening since he was six years old. Of course as a child it seemed more like a nightmare than an actual occurrence. He would awaken in the middle of the night in a trance-like state in his room, awash in a green glow of hard bright light. Paralyzed with fear, able to only move his eyes, he darted them around the room in an attempt to locate the invaders. Then they would appear, as if materializing out of the walls. They looked just like they had been portrayed in the movies and on TV. Pale skin, large bulbous eyes, slits for a nose, with a wiry body shape. When he got a little older, Josh started calling them “The Grays” like Mulder on The X-Files.

The routine was always the same. After being taken, he would awake early the next morning in the pitch dark, his mind racing and his breath coming in large gasps, as if he had just emerged from a pool of deep murky water after a near-drowning. His young mind, unable to process what had happened, pushed the episodes far into his subconscious where the bad dreams about the boogey man and other similar beasties were stored.

There were reprieves, however. Sometimes the visits would stop for a year or two–but never for more than two years. After long lapses such as these it almost started to feel to Josh as if the abductions had never happened at all. Perhaps they were a recurring nightmare or those sleep disorders he saw on the Learning Channel where people feel like they are paralyzed and have strange dreams while their eyes are wide open. His mind had either found a way to push the memories aside or worse yet–they had a way of making the memories fade. Unlike E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the experiences weren’t at all interesting or life-changing. They were absolutely terrifying. No matter how many times it happened, no matter how regular these encounters where, they never became any less frightening. The Grays, with their emotionless black eyes, their strange metallic instruments moving across his body and the odd electronic devices humming and clicking were sheer torture. They performed their brutish tasks with cold, uncaring, soullessness as if they were dissecting a frog or grasshopper in eighth grade science class.

Josh spent all of his free time researching the phenomenon. He belonged to all the web groups and encounter groups and psychological studies. In the meetings they talked and commiserated. They cried and they prayed and they tried to make sense of it all. About 9 out of 10 people in the groups were nut-cases or delusional psychotics, but there were the occasional others like himself who were genuine abductees. Despite all of the counseling, regressive hypnosis, and psycho-babble he endured over the years, none of it had healed the pain he felt from the encounters or the violation he lived with every day of his life.

It was out of pure frustration and desperation that Josh got the idea. In all of his intensive research, there was one approach to the phenomenon he had never encountered. All of the victims of these violations were passive participants. In the groups they blathered on about how helpless and weak they felt and how powerless they were. Josh had a flash of inspiration. Who said it had to be that way? It was during one of the “down” periods that Josh made this revelation. They hadn’t bothered him in months. He often wondered why they took these breaks. Were they off examining other subjects? Did they take vacations? Maybe their mode of travel took one or two years from wherever they came from.

So he began to train. First there was the hours of karate at the Parkdale Community Center taught by an ex-Marine Drill Sergeant who insisted everyone call him “Stubbs”. Stubbs had two fingers blown off by shrapnel in the first Gulf War and wore the nickname like a badge of honor. With Stubbs’ help, Josh achieved the black belt more quickly than any of the other students. Next, Josh started weight training at the fancy new gym down at the Meadowbrook strip mall. Gary the slightly effeminate body-builder and professional trainer helped him to “blast his quads” and “pump up his pecs”. For further protection, he procured a Glock 9mm handgun from the dirty little gun shop that was the front of Gus Deter’s Mason Street house and joined the Oakland gun club. Three nights a week at the range for target practice with the club plus a combat handgun class sponsored by the Oakland County chapter of the NRA made him sharp with the pistol. The instructor, Nick Logan, was a real Michigan Militia type. He had a small one bedroom home on forty acres of wooded land that he built himself. He used windmills to generate his own electricity and lived “off the grid” as he used to say. Nick had his own Ham radio station and he would broadcast his opinions of the “gov’ment” and “how they were coming to take all our freedoms.” If Nick had a listener-ship of more than 6 people the “gov’ment” would probably have come and paid him a visit to discuss his revolutionary ideas, or maybe why he hadn’t paid his taxes in almost ten years (because taxes were unconstitutional, don’t you know). Of course, the focus of the classes was how to stop intruders from assaulting you in your own home. If old Nick only knew exactly what kind of intruders Josh was preparing to repel…

Now, after months of intense training, Josh was lean, steely, and coiled like a spring—ready and aching for an encounter with Them. They had never been away for more than 24 months, and he knew the time was coming soon. It had been just over 23 months. This time, Josh was ready for them. He examined his past abduction experiences carefully, piecing them together from his journal entries, and he formulated a plan. Josh determined that there was always a period of time, maybe 20-30 seconds, between when he awoke bathed in the green light and when the whole body paralysis actually started. He remembered that he could still move his arms and legs as the paralysis slowly spread from the center of his body out to his limbs. If he fought against the paralysis during this short interval with his newly strengthened muscles and increased mental toughness, if he could reach the pistol under the pillow, maybe he had a chance to take out a couple of the little gray bastards and scare them away for good. As Josh finally drifted off to sleep that night, he repeated the mantra to himself, “not this time, not this time.”

>The Fourteen Month Journey Home

The caregiver handed us our baby daughter and she cried. She cried almost constantly for two days. My wife and I took turns trying to soothe her. Nothing really worked. She would stop for a bit, then some unknown word, sound, or sight would set her off and she would cry again. There was nothing we could do. She wasn’t sick. She didn’t need to be changed. She wasn’t hungry. She was extremely sad—sad because all of the sudden everything in her life was entirely different.

You see, she wasn’t at a caregiver’s house while we went to a movie or out to dinner; she was there for 14 months. This woman wasn’t her babysitter, she was her foster mother. The little girl we were handed was our brand new daughter, Ariana Xian, born Xian Cheng on June 24th, 2004 in Xiagon City in the Wuhan Province of the People’s Republic of China. We didn’t know her foster mother’s name and we weren’t allowed to meet her. The woman who handed her off to us days earlier was only a worker from the Xiagon City Social Welfare Institute where her foster Mom had dropped her off that morning.

So, here she was with strange new people who didn’t look, sound, or even smell like her foster parent. She hadn’t even ever seen people who looked like us. The entire scene was chaos. There were fifteen other families just like us receiving babies in the hot, crowded, and now emotionally charged room. Fifteen other baby girls as confused and unhappy as she was, all crying and looking around for their foster mothers and getting more and more upset as they realized they weren’t anywhere to be found.

Nighttime those first few days was the worst. During the day we could distract her and play with her and feed her to keep her occupied but at night when it was time to go to bed she would miss her “mama” the most. It was scary to go to bed in the strange hotel room and wake up in the same unfamiliar place. The word Mama means the same thing in this Chinese province of China as it does in English. When she was tired, upset, or hurt she would cry for her mama—her foster mama. We couldn’t even utter the word in reference to my wife Tiana lest we run the risk of upsetting her. We called my wife “mommy” instead. This word was different enough that she wouldn’t go into a mournful fit of crying when she heard it.

As the days passed the mourning subsided and she became more comfortable with us. She still was reserved and only occasionally showed us a genuine smile or laugh. Her true affections were reserved for the mother she would never see again. Chinese adoptions are closed and there is no way for children and foster mothers to reunite once the adoptions with the new families are complete. Most provinces have strict rules regarding this.

Sometimes the foster moms break the rules, though, as we found out. Several families, like us, sent disposable cameras to the orphanages months before our journey to have them passed on to the foster moms. We did this in the hope that we could get some pictures of our daughters in their foster setting. When we picked up our daughters, these cameras were given back to us. Most of us found pictures of our daughters outside the orphanage or in staged settings sitting or playing with toys. One camera had the golden picture—a brave foster mother had lined up all the other foster mothers from our orphanage and they took a group picture with their respective children in their arms. Our girls were matched up with their foster moms. A part of the puzzle that made up our daughter’s former lives was now in place.

Staring at the face of the woman who cared for our daughter for over a year stirred up many emotions. Would our daughter ever love us as much as she loved this woman? How does this mother feel after having given up her foster daughter only days ago? How difficult this whole situation must be for her. These little girls who we fell in love with after only a few days must have been so loved by the women who cared for them for the entire first year of their lives. Sadly, we would never be able to repay the foster mothers for their love, care, kindness, and for the wonderful daughters they had nurtured for us.

After some consideration, we decided that there was one way we could repay these women. We made a vow to raise Ariana to the best of our ability and to give her every opportunity to succeed in life by loving and nurturing her every day of her life. To help us in our cause we gave her a fantastic big brother to play with, a nice home to live in, and an extended family that adores her. We’ve pledged to make a new life for her in America while helping her to also honor the part of her that is and will always be Chinese by keeping Chinese culture and traditions a part of her life. We plan to send pictures of her and updates on her progress to her orphanage in Xiagon City and we hope that these packages will make their way to her foster Mom. Maybe in this small way we can help to alleviate her pain over the loss of her foster daughter. Possibly we can make her feel good about the jumpstart to a new life she gave to a little girl left by a mother who couldn’t care for her at the age of only two days old. What a fantastic personal sacrifice she has made and will probably continue to make with other foster daughters. How often I’ve wondered if I could make the same sacrifice.

We’ve been back in the states for over a week now and Ariana is finally adjusting to the 12 hour time difference along with the rest of us. When she cries for her mama now she actually means my wife, Tiana. We are learning to respond to her Chinese words and she is in turn learning some English. Ari is gaining weight, learning to walk better each day, and exploring her new world here in Manistee with great enthusiasm. She laughs and smiles and has bonded with us fully already. We thank God for her every day and pray for her foster mother and all the other foster mothers and yet unclaimed daughters still living in China. It’s been a long 14th month journey from the day we turned in our first batch of adoption paperwork to today when we at last have our new baby girl in our arms. The whole process was physically and emotionally exhausting but we wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world; Ariana is finally home.

>A successful casino marketing strategy obviously relies on many different variables. Advertising, special events, promotions, and direct mail are most often used to attract guests and increase gaming revenue. In order to impart the marketing message to the widest audience possible and to assure the maximum exposure to the message, it is very important to use as many marketing channels as possible. This is where electronic marketing communications enters the picture.

Marketing communications for many years has typically been in the form of advertising through direct mail, television, radio, billboards and print media. Over the last few years, technology in the area of electronic communications has been advancing steadily and now there is a wealth of new methods for communicating marketing messages to prospective casino players.

The Road Sign
Once only seen on the Vegas strip, Atlantic City, or in sporting venues, these signs are now seen at tribal and corporate casinos across the country. The static or monochromatic signs of the past are slowly fading away and now full color high resolution video displays are often the norm. These moving billboards produced by companies such as Daktronics can display graphics, text, images, animations, and pre-recorded video clips as well as live video. The sequences which run on these screens can be scheduled down to the minute you want them to run and are easy to administer remotely from any location on a regular PC equipped with the sign software and hardware. By purchasing an animation and video editing program, sophisticated eye catching sequences can be created by in-house casino staff members or existing commercial footage can be converted and used for the display.

The uses of this medium are varied; advertisements of upcoming promotions, special events and entertainment, giveaways, and live or pre-recorded video feeds of special events such as slot tournaments and entertainment acts. What’s important to note when employing this type of dynamic billboard is that it is a highly visible message center and the information needs to be updated on a regular basis. It’s also key that the messages placed on the sign only run in short sequences and the amount of text is kept to a minimum as most people only have a few seconds to read them as they drive past. Sequences which need to have more impact or are of higher importance can be scheduled to run more often than less important ones, making this a flexible form of advertising which can be administered quite easily in-house.

The Video Distribution System
The size and clarity of these displays (normally plasma or LCD screens) make them an eye-catching way to impart your casino marketing messages. Information regarding promotions, giveaways, special events and other advertisements for your resort can be shown 24/7 to guests in high-traffic areas as they wait in line for a slot machine, at the players club, or at the cage. These networks are simple to set up and can be supplied with material from a desktop PC or server running a simple presentation program like Microsoft PowerPoint. Another reliable way to send video to these channels is through the use of a video server such as the Firefly by Visual Circuits. They are essentially a large hard drive that digitized video is stored on. These systems have one to four different channels of output and the video can be scheduled and changed as needed. The systems are easy to use and feature a web interface for making changes to the server. Internal Marketing or I.T. staff can change the content on either of these broadcast systems and the network is scalable to any size you desire should your property grow. The same content can also be piped over a video distribution system feeding traditional television sets on the casino floor, in retail and restaurant outlets, and in other high traffic areas of the resort. Placing these monitors in areas where lines naturally develop grabs a captive audience and reinforces the marketing message.

If your property has a hotel, this same video can be piped into guest rooms on an open channel or channels. Commercial televisions are highly customizable now, and can be set to always display the in-house channel when they are first turned on. If your property had a video on demand system such as Lodgenet or Nstreams, you also have the opportunity to add customized content to one or two of their channels and this information can be customized and updated for promotions and special casino events as well.

Another great way to use in-house displays is by broadcasting live video. For a relatively low cost, you can install small remotely controlled cameras in a stage lounge area or in different areas of the casino floor. They can be powered, controlled, and their video signals can be transmitted back to a video distribution system using a single cat 5e wire. Uses for these live feeds could be broadcasts of poker and slot tournaments, large scale promotional events, or entertainers performing on stage. Remote hand-held cameras can also be hooked up to this network for more flexibility and switched video can be sent back to the distribution system. Another way this remote camera network can come in handy is for videotaping promotions that require documentation for gaming compliance reasons or for insured promotions that require videotaping as part of their contract.

One important pitfall to avoid with a video distribution system on the floor is the improper use of the network. You want to build in the flexibility to show a variety of channels which you may obtain from either the local cable or satellite company so you can broadcast important sporting or news events. What you don’t want to do is allow this free advertising medium to be wasted by having the displays tuned to CNN or ESPN all the time. There must be an understanding among the different casino departments that the televisions and plasmas are there for imparting the casino’s messages, not necessarily for the entertainment of the guests and staff.

There are several ways to avoid this problem. One way is to zone the televisions so that control of individual sets and the channels they display is controlled from a central location such as the machine room in the I.T. department. Another way is to lock out all the channels on the individual sets with a master remote except those in-house channels you wish to display. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to keep tabs on what’s playing in the resort just as you would track outside media such as television and radio commercials.

The Audio Distribution System
Most casinos have the typical piped-in music playing over tinny overhead speakers. It serves as background noise and really doesn’t add much to the overall experience. Building a comprehensive audio distribution system is a good way to add to the guests’ experience and provide another channel for providing marketing messages. Change the music selections daily and have themed days with appropriate music. The wide selections of music available from local cable and satellite providers allow a casino property to tailor the music played to the specific promotion or event being hosting on a particular day.

Don’t scrimp on speakers. Use high quality speakers from a company such as JBL and make sure that coverage and the volume of different zones sounds even as guests walk between zones. Group the speakers so you can control different areas of the casino separately and they can be adjusted for different levels of traffic, background noise, and noise from the games on the floor. It’s even possible to create a system which will self-adjust the volume levels based on the level of background noise so the speakers’ volume does not overpower small crowds or fade to inaudible levels in large crowds. Have a variety of different tuners that can send separate music selections to different parts of the casino or resort. That way it’s possible to have a separate musical selection playing in each different restaurant or common area depending on the needs of that particular casino venue.

As a back-up, think about investing in an MP3 server. This can be a standard PC with a large hard drive and a good sound card which hooks directly into the audio distribution system. It serves two purposes. The first purpose is to provide music if the satellite or cable provider is down. The second purpose is to provide customized music for special events and promotions. For example, if your property is having a particular country star appear that weekend in the amphitheater, play his music the day of the concert. Caution must be exercised, though. Make sure that your licensing is up to date with the appropriate music licensing agencies ASCAP, BMI, and SEASAC and don’t play MP3’s that were downloaded from the internet; only use those which were actually ripped from a CD that was purchased through an appropriate vendor.

Another common feature of the audio distribution system is paging. Informational announcements from the players club and pages for guests are a necessary part of this system. Make sure there are hard wired microphones in the player’s clubs, wireless microphones for use out on the floor during promotions and special events, and phone paging for areas that these microphones won’t cover. Make sure that paging can be heard in all of the outlets and hallways for big giveaways so people don’t miss hearing their name being called for a drawing. This will give guests the flexibility to continue gaming, eat meals, or visit a retail venue while waiting to hear drawing results and will also keep congestion in the drawing area down.

Also consider having pre-recorded announcements play over the audio distribution system. This could mean running radio ads or actually recording special audio segments and messages to play specifically on the casino floor speakers. It’s also fun to have employees read live scripted messages at different intervals throughout the day detailing promotions or other information. Most importantly, pack as much information on this system as possible so guests are up to date and informed of all of the casino current events.

Control of the audio system doesn’t have to rely solely in the hands of the Information Technology staff. A control system such as Crestron can be used with touch-panels strategically placed around the resort and in the casino outlets. This type of password protected control system allows key employees the ability to change music sources and volume levels on the fly without chasing down technical staff.

The Web
Every casino has a web page but the quality and amount of useful information that are imparted by each page vary greatly. The first key to a good casino website is to have a main page where surfers are pointed to which has dynamic and up to date information that is both important and relevant. This is where the most recent promotions, special events, and other information such as upcoming entertainment should reside. Also on this page should be links to all the other pages of the website which a guest might want to use to find information such as sections for gaming, hotel, dining, and group sales. If the information is not useful and never changes, people will stop visiting the site.

Pack as much information as possible on the web-site. Rates for the hotel, prices of meals in the dining outlets, lists of the most recent slot machines and table games on the floor, rules for poker tournaments, and gaming guides are all fantastic pieces of information to have online. This will alleviate the number of calls coming into the PBX and to marketing staff from patrons looking for information and will also serve as one more medium to get marketing messages out to the world. People prefer to get their information via the web because it’s more immediate and time saving so take advantage of this fact.

One way to add value to the web experience for your guests is to put some type of exclusive web offer on the main page such as a coupon which is redeemable only online. This will help drive traffic to the site. Avoid having flashy animations and videos on the site and keep the graphics sizes to their minimum. Although all of these items look fancy, they can slow download times of the page drastically. It’s important to remember that there are still people using dial-up modems out there to access the internet.

On-hold Messaging
On hold music is a standard part of any PBX based phone system. Guests often have to wait on hold during busy periods. This is another opportunity to broadcast your marketing messages to a captive audience. It’s easy to digitize radio ads and copy them to a device which will play them periodically over the on-hold music. You can also record customized messages and place them on this system as well. Some companies will even record and update the messages in return for a small monthly fee.

Another way of getting the message out via the phone system is to have staff members update their outgoing voicemail messages with a short marketing blurb of the day. Keep these short and update them daily to maximize their effectiveness. The phone system is another weapon in the marketing arsenal that often gets overlooked, so maximize its potential.

Content and Collateral
Re-use existing material to save money. One radio ad can play not only on several radio stations, but also on your in-house audio system and your on hold music. A television ad can play on television stations, the in-room hotel channel, on the road sign and on the plasma display network. The digitized audio and video can also play on your website, but be careful of the file sizes. Similarly, graphics created for buck-slips and print ads can be reused on the web, road sign, and video distribution network. Re-using collateral marketing materials as much as possible drives down the cost per message delivered and helps to keep advertising expenses down. It also assures that the messages all have a similar theme and style giving the marketing campaign thematic continuity.

Cooperation between Information Technology and the Marketing Department
One last point which cannot be stressed enough is that cooperation between the technical and content creation staff is critical. All of these new methods of marketing communications are technically complex and need regular administration to operate properly. It’s important to have a good relationship between the Information Technology and Marketing departments at the casino property. Regular communications internally between the two groups need to be maintained to assure that the content on the different marketing channels is correct and up to date and the internal systems need to be maintained regularly to achieve a high level of “up-time” guaranteeing that messages are not lost to potential receivers.

The line between content and delivery mediums in the casino industry is merging so that marketing directors and managers are required to become more technically savvy and I.T. professionals are required to think more like marketing staff people to achieve the goal of successful marketing communications for the property as a whole. Look for new ways to get the message out there and use as many different methods as possible to reach your target audience. Chances are that if you have an idea for getting the message to your audience, a communications technology exists that can get it there.

Cean Burgeson is the Communications Administrator at Little River Casino Resort in Manistee Michigan. He holds a Master of Arts in Telecommunication from Michigan State University and has worked in Washington DC and Los Angeles in the broadcast and entertainment industries.