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New AGA President/CEO: “We’re A Global Entertainment Association”

After 17 years, a new person is leading the American Gaming Association (AGA). Geoff Freeman was appointed president and chief executive officer on July 1. He takes over from Frank J. Fahrenkopf who was AGA’s president since its founding in 1996. Fahrenkopf is being retained as a consultant to assist with the transition through the end of the year.

Freeman, a known Washington association professional, joins the AGA after seven years at the U.S. Travel Association where he was executive vice president and chief operating officer. During his tenure, Freeman was instrumental in repositioning the industry to become a leading political force by developing new capabilities that strengthened its relevance, galvanizing the industry’s leadership, and enacting critical legislation to increase travel to and within the United States. His 16 years of association leadership and public affairs experience includes guiding an array of complex industry issue campaigns, reshaping and repositioning industries, and helping to pass key legislation.

Freeman established the organization’s strategic vision while overseeing its primary divisions: public affairs and government relations, meetings and membership, and operations. During his tenure, he led the creation of the U.S. Travel CEO Roundtable and the historic campaign to enact the Travel Promotion Act.

Jack Bulavsky, Special Assignment Correspondent for Casino Life, talked to Freeman during lunch hour in his Washington, DC office.

How will your previous work assist you in your new role and what have you noticed or recognized about the gaming industry??

The gaming industry, especially the larger operators, have been active in the broader travel industry’s efforts to remove barriers to international visitation, which means more people from around the world traveling to the United States, and Las Vegas in particular. I was involved in many of those efforts, and this involvement gave me a unique perspective on the gaming industry. Now I have a more complete view of how the travel and gaming industries work together.

The travel association, in one respect, is the inverse of the gaming association. The AGA has done an extraordinary job of preventing harm in Washington, D.C., and that credit goes to Frank and his staff, who for years helped grow the industry by preventing Washington from putting into place policies that would harm gaming. That type of philosophy led the AGA to have a mostly defensive strategy in Washington. On the other hand, within the travel industry, we were more on the offensive as we created policy that would enable the industry to thrive. We removed barriers. So, I’m going from an environment focused on offense to one that has been focused on defense, and I see great opportunity to strike a better balance. Since coming on board, I have met with top executives of the hotel lodging association, cruise line association, and other travel entities so we can partner and advance our agenda. Broader relationships will be helpful. Our challenge is that, as an industry, we’re not entirely clear on what our agenda is and what we want to make happen.

And what do you want to happen in terms of your immediate goals?

I have already met with many of the gaming CEOs, and they are asking provocative questions including “What is our game plan?” and “How do we write the next chapter of this industry’s growth?” The industry will benefit greatly by coalescing around specific, targeted objectives. The number one objective has always been to prevent harm, and that will remain critical and fundamental to the AGA. My main focus right now is to determine the industry’s other key objectives and to develop a strategic plan that places AGA on the path to achieving those objectives. 

You have mentioned the word “harm” several times. Can you clarify that a bit more?

In the travel industry, our challenge wasn’t that anyone wanted people to stop traveling; ours was that the industry was irrelevant. We had to convince Washington of our relevance. This is different than gaming. Those associated with the gaming industry know who we are and what we do and why it matters. However, there is still a core of critics, and yes it’s a diminishing core, but still a core that doesn’t see gaming the way we see gaming. This isn’t true in travel. So we have to prevent any harm by sharing information with this critical core and educate them on how the gaming industry operates, how it has become such an integral part of so many communities across the country, and help them to see the strong economic engine the gaming industry really is.

Freeman (far right), with board members of the American Gaming Association including, (left to right) Jamie Odell, Aristocrat Leisure Ltd.; Gary Loveman, Caesars Entertainment; William Newby; Drew Goldman, Deutsche Bank Securities Inc.; Patti Hart, International Game Technology; Jim Murren, MGM Resorts International; and Freeman. The photo was taken on the Speaker’s Balcony at the U.S. Capitol during a Washington, D.C. Gaming Industry Fly-in. 

How will you change the role of AGA President/CEO? 

I can’t answer that question today.  That will be determined over time. However, there are two things that I would like to see become more prominent. First is a greater focus on public affairs. I would like to differentiate how we operate from the traditional Washington lobbying mindset. The city is changing, and we have to adapt and change with it. It’s no longer an environment where things get done by sticking an amendment on a bill in the dark of night in a smoke filled room. Social media, among other things, has created a transparency that forces you to be more open, and I’m looking forward to the change. Unfortunately, very little gets done in Washington these days, and it’s difficult to thrive in that environment. That presents another challenge.

I’d also like us to be aggressive in sharing our story. We’re an industry that supports one million jobs in local communities, we’re reputable and we’re highly regulated. All of us in the industry need to be proud of this and utilize our pride to grow and develop even more favorable business arrangements in the future. Keep in mind that the gaming industry is a relatively young industry when you think of it in the corporate world. We have an extraordinary opportunity to write a compelling next chapter for our burgeoning industry.

Freeman (right) meeting with Mark Amodei, Nevada Congressman, during the Washington, D.C. Gaming Industry Fly-in

There are so many people to meet within the industry. What will you be doing at G2E in Las Vegas?

I’ve already met many of the industry leaders, and G2E will allow me to meet even more. I’m still on a dramatic learning curve, and there are many individuals who can give me some direction and focus. I expect to be in Las Vegas about once a month and also on the road visiting other gaming environments. I need to learn what our members need and how to service them here in Washington. It’s easy to get lost within the Washington Beltway, so getting out and meeting industry leaders is an early priority of mine.

It’s called the AGA – the American Gaming Association. What about Europe and the rest of the world?

Great question. We’re called the American Gaming Association, and about the only word that gaming CEOs seem to agree upon is “association.” As I mentioned earlier, the industry is more than just gaming and we’re certainly more than just American. We’re a global entrainment association. Moving forward, we have to build a comprehensive strategic plan for an industry that is now so diversified and vibrant. I’m looking forward to the challenge.