How does a class project become a thriving, innovative business? Since 2014, URComped’s co-founders, Craig Shacklett and Cale Sherry, have placed their bets on creating a culture that would revolutionize the way casinos and players find each other. Built out of an idea of widening the net of players for casinos, URComped established a community of well-qualified players who receive maximum perks for their play. Plus, casinos get more dedicated players through their doors. It’s a relationship where everyone is happy.
For Craig Shacklett, the idea for URComped seemed simple enough. Fresh out of UC Davis, he found himself working for Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, helping to decide what comps would be offered at which play levels. While $5.00 off at the buffet might be a long way from a comped 12-night balcony on a world premiere cruise line, Craig saw that perhaps it wasn’t that far at all.
The problem Craig recognized was that casinos were very proprietary with their player lists. While this certainly played well for the casino, it was a bit lopsided from a player standpoint. Craig likened the problem to credit ratings prior to credit bureaus: “When you buy a Volkswagen, you pay it off, earning you the right to more credit—which is great if you want to buy another VW. But if you want to buy a Ford, you have to start all over.” For the player offered the $5.00-off buffet coupon, this could either be a true perk or a complete insult, especially to a higher level player visiting the casino for the first time.
Craig believed that if he could create a database where players would be offered appropriate comps for their playing level, the casinos would pay. Craig presented his idea as part of his Master’s program at UT Dallas. A mutual friend connected Craig with Cale Sherry, an engineering and computer science major also at UT Dallas. The pair met to discuss the idea at a local bar, and the URComped partnership began.
Craig looks back on the early days of URComped with nostalgia. The year was 2008, and the country was deep into The Recession. With companies experiencing layoffs and closures and banks no longer lending, the time for creating a new business wasn’t exactly ideal. Craig and Cale both worked various “real jobs” while meeting up weekly at their favorite bar to discuss their business venture. The pair knew the idea was sound; they just needed the right tools to bring it all together—innovative software, cooperative casinos, and qualified players.
To make URComped a reality, Craig began cold calling casinos. While the casinos were receptive to receiving new clients, they were not exactly thrilled with offering free rooms, meals, and shows to a start-up company without seeing the qualified players first. As Craig explains, the cold calling resulted in a lot of frustration.
But slowly but surely, the URComped roster of players grew.
Cale and Craig worked tirelessly to engage more players. To entice them, they concentrated on finding interesting tweaks and hooks on their website and Facebook pages. Craig credits his mother for one of the most popular URComped website features, the Jackpot Feed. He explains that his mother, a slot player, would take pictures of her slot jackpots and send them to him. The duo created a Jackpot feed on the URComped website, and it caught on quickly, with players jumping on to share their own jackpots, creating even more player engagement on the site. The Jackpot Feed ultimately led to their big break—a small Las Vegas casino agreed to provide comps to qualified players. Eventually, other casinos began to take notice, with more and more properties joining in.
Non-stop phone calls from players dominated the early days of URComped. Craig recalls micromanaging player requests, facilitating room issues and changes, and ensuring the players were happy and the casinos were seeing the returns they anticipated.
In 2018, URComped teamed up with MSC Cruise Lines to offer comps to their players. One URComped player had gotten a comped balcony and raved about the service and experience on social media. The URComped website and phone lines blew up as other players wanted in on the action. Craig laughs as he recalls asking Cale if their site had been hacked. From that moment, URComped’s business skyrocketed! Success with MSC led to Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Virgin Cruise Lines. URComped transformed from serving small casinos looking for more qualified guests to filling an entire niche. Cruise lines could now reach players who had loyalty to other brands or had never cruised before. Craig and Cale created both the market and the service.
For Craig and Cale, the secret sauce of URComped lies in the hosts. As Craig says, “We hire very well.” Looking at the resumes of the staff, the focus is not on sales ability but rather on communication and people skills. Craig explains that their mission is not to upsell their clients, but rather help facilitate a great trip, a symbiotic relationship between players and casinos, and to be a friend. The laid-back, humble, URComped bar meetings laid the foundation for today’s operation, where the staff synergizes to solve problems and provide the outstanding customer service they are known for. URComped hosts have the opportunity to enjoy working vacations as hosts to on-board meet up cruises—another way in which Craig and Cale have worked to create not just a comped travel website, but a true community of those who love to gamble and love to be appreciated for their business.
2020 arrived with a bang as enthusiastic URComped members referred new members in record numbers. But in late March, COVID-19 changed everything. For a company that compensates based on bookings—and most of those as cruise ship bookings—the global Coronavirus Pandemic could have brought the company to a halt. Instead, Craig and Cale motivated their staff and created the weekly Thursday Facebook Live as a new way to entertain and engage players. Instead of venting their frustration over canceled vacation plans, members engaged with the hosts and other members. Cruise lines offered VIP deals to casual players, and high-end players received deals once reserved for only the biggest of whales. Players who might normally only book 1 or 2 trips a year are now confirmed on 4, 5, 6, or 10 trips. 2021 is going to be spectacular.
In the meantime, Craig and Cale have been hard at work one their next big project: Trio CRM—software that casinos will utilize to communicate with players via call, text, or email. The software will no doubt prove invaluable to properties who purchase it. The launch of TRIO is perhaps the silver-lining of the cruise line shutdown. The slowed pace has allowed for the final tweaks as live trials are concluding. It is the next logical step for URComped’s business model.
For players, URComped changed the game. Craig and Cale have created a world where all players can be comped. They forged an environment where like-minded players share their love and passion for gaming and traveling with others who feel the same way. Both men are grateful for the opportunity to create not just a win-win environment for players and casinos, but also to have an outlet to give to the greater good. As Cale explains, URComped donates every month to Mercy Ships, a global organization that owns and operates the world’s largest charitable hospital ship based in West Africa. People who have little or no access to any medical care in their country come to Mercy Ships when the ship is in port. The ship stays for 10 months at a time in Sub-Saharan Africa and provides over 2,000-2,500 free, life-changing surgeries every year.
When Craig turned in his Master’s project outlining URComped, he was told it was a good idea. Looking at what Craig and Cale created with their knowledge and passion—a system of players and properties, a culture of fun and camaraderie, and a giving spirit—all we can say is he better have gotten an “A.”