"Five-foot two, eyes of blue, has anybody seen my gal?"
(If you want to cue it up so you can get more into the mood, just fire up this link.)
The 40's dance band was (literally) in full swing. The lights at the Imperial Theater in Vancouver conveyed a dance club, or a particularly hip casino.
I was walking across the floor enjoying the music and watching people dance, when a fellow stopped me. Surely he wanted to comment on how natty I looked in my tux, right?
"So, why do you guys throw these parties? I mean, look around us - first class in every respect - it can't be cheap. We're already loyal customers. What does PokerStars get out of it?"
It was a fair question, but it was framed in the wrong direction. The gentleman was correct - VIP Club Live parties are first class, and they're not cheap. But PokerStars isn't really trying to get anything out of them; we just want to get our VIP Club members together, have a great party, and say, "Thank you for being loyal customers."
Look, loyal customers are the backbone of any business; we like to think that we recognize that better than anybody in our industry and quite a few other industries. The moment you start viewing every interaction with your customer as an opportunity to reach into their pocket, you've lost the plot. So let me tell you how we said thank you...
First we started with an awesome town. Vancouver? Check. It's parked in the middle of a stunning natural environment and when we were there, the weather was what you'd dial in if there were a SetTheWeather app on your iPhone. There's a huge diversity of people that make the city buzz with activity. That diversity also informs the range of cuisine to a point that you're overwhelmed with choice. You walk past the grilled chicken restaurant, next to the sushi place, next to the Vietnamese noodles, next to the Japanese hotdog stand. There are a million great reasons to live in Vancouver and a lot its residents are our customers. Furthermore, the city has become a mecca for American PokerStars players who moved up there after Black Friday. The online poker community is vibrant and it was a natural place for us to go.
Then we got a killer venue - the Imperial Theater, a movie theater converted into an entertainment space. With all the trappings of its golden-era heritage, it was just the thing for an awesome party.
Around 7:00pm, folks started to come in and register. The tour photographer, Angela, got their picture in front of a professional step-and-repeat backdrop like you see at the movie parties. Then our guests werehanded champagne as they entered the back bar area.
Hostesses wearing lovely black dresses came through bearing plates of roasted duck tacos and vegetarian dim sum. PokerStars Team Pros Adrienne "TalonChick" Rowsome1, Tyler "Frosty012" Frost, Randy "nanonoko" Lew, and the inimitable Vanessa Rousso circulated through the crowd signing autographs and taking group photos.
A piano player and singer were performing pop standards such as "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head". It was already a fine party, but we were just getting started.
At about 8:00pm, we flung open the door to the main theater area and the crowds spilled in there. "Rosie and the Jugheads", a five-piece dance band (with a tuba player!), kicked it off and the party went up a notch. Our players took the complimentary casino chips they'd been issued and went to the gaming tables where we had blackjack, craps, and roulette set up and dealt by professional dealers. Steak sandwiches and sushi rice rolls were laid out, and the open bar was, well, open.
Now PokerStars players are serious about their poker, but they're serious about a good party too. They gambled, they danced, they mingled. Speaking of mingling, some of the hostesses mingling in the crowd were not wearing lovely black dresses. In fact, they weren't exactly "wearing" anything except body paint. Red body paint. Not surprisingly, they appeared in a lot of group photos too.
The interest around the casino games was heightened because you could actually win stuff. Not directly, but at the end of the evening, you could exchange however many chips you'd won for raffle tickets and then drop them in vases that corresponded to the raffle you wanted to enter.
Whenever the dance band took a break, they were replaced by a dynamite woman DJ who actually sang live over her beats - it was fairly awesome, and the dance floor got very busy when she was at the mic. Vanessa Rousso, a mean semi-pro DJ herself, proclaimed herself quite impressed.
After dinner was finished, there were maple doughnut holes to be dipped in chocolate fondue. We thought that wasn't enough dessert, so we sent Frosty, Vanessa, and Adrienne out into the crowd with trays full of little boxes.
Each little box contained a custom-baked macaroon, but one of those boxes also contained a little note, saying that the person with that box was the winner of a Tag Heuer watch. When one lucky guest discovered it, he bounded up to the stage and I had the honor of presenting the watch to him.
And the open bar was still, well, open.
Adam and Mike from the Two Plus Two Pokercast recorded a segment live in the back bar area, including an interview with a young man from Hungary, Sebastian, Veigli, who had won a trip to Vancouver for the party. He was as delighted to be there as we were to have him.
Filmmaker Ryan Firpo, who has made quite a name for himself with the Bet, Raise, Fold documentary, was on hand with a camera crew. They made a video of the whole affair which, unlike Bet, Raise, Fold, probably won't get a Las Vegas premiere. But keep your eyes open - a documentary of the evening should be available at a PokerStars website near you shortly.
There was more dancing, a show by two professional contortionists on stage that defied reason and left jaws hanging, and ultimately we closed the gaming tables, exchanged tickets for chips, and I selected winning tickets from the vases up on stage.
Finally, a bit after midnight, the house lights came up, the open bar was no longer open, the hostesses drifted away (to find paint thinner, one surmises) and the DJ packed away her turntables. The last partygoers said their thank yous and good-byes and headed out into the night, perhaps to find a midnight snack (unlikely), another nightclub (possible), or poker at a nearby casino (likely).
And you know, I guess I wasn't quite accurate when I said that we throw these parties just for the PokerStars players. Because there were eight PokerStars staffers there: seven of us in tuxes, collars open and ties draped around our necks at that point, plus legendary event queen Hilda B in her charming party frock. Sitting there on the sofas in the back bar, we all commented about the thanks and kind words we'd gotten from the players. Without exception, each of us been approached by our players - our VIPs - who simply wanted to tell us how much they were enjoying the evening and how appreciative they were that PokerStars put on a party for them.
There may be something more rewarding in your job than having your customers stop you to tell you how proud they are to be associated with your employer, but I can't immediately think of what that would be. So for Chris, David, Dylan, Hilda, Justin, Rich, Steve, and myself: thank you. We were delighted to bring VIP Club Live to Vancouver and proud to represent PokerStars at the event. And on behalf of all of our colleagues in the Rational Group, we want to tell you that your loyalty as customers means the world to us.
1-- Thanks to an editorial misstep at Poker News, she was referred to as Adrienne Rawsome for a few minutes during the WSOP. I've started a campaign to get her to legally change her name.
Lee Jones is the Head of Poker Communications at PokerStars; he first joined the company in 2003. He has been involved in the professional poker world since the mid 1980's.
Photos courtesy Angela Hubbard