Sunday, November 16, 2014

What happens when you give marketing guys too much money (Part 3)

The 2006 WSOP was the year of the most conspicuous marketing excess in online poker. Every online site had a huge presence during the Main Event. PokerStars had a monstrously large presence with 1,624 players, but we were far from alone - collectively, PokerStars, PartyPoker, UltimateBet and Full Tilt Poker were responsible for over 40% of the prize pool that year - a staggering $32 million.

And with that came massive spending surrounding the WSOP. PokerStars was the biggest player on an unimaginably big stage, and we weren't going to let any opportunity pass us by if it meant more exposure.

The first example is small in relative terms, but it's a good example. I've talked before about Rich Korbin, my marketing director and overall superhero. When we realized in March 2006 just how big our WSOP presence would be, Rich set out to provide PokerStars players with the most outrageous experience possible. 

One of Rich's responsibilities was the player swag bag, something we started doing in 2003 that became increasingly elaborate in subsequent years. For the 2006 WSOP, Rich went far beyond anything he had come up with before. He had a roller bag designed with the PokerStars logo, and had each bag individually embroidered with the player's name (I still have mine). In the bag was a mind-boggling assortment of PokerStars gear, including baseball jerseys, football jerseys, hockey jerseys, hats, golf shirts, t-shirts, even headphones. And he had one-ounce silver commemorative coins minted for each player as card cappers. 

When Rich came to me with his plan, I did a quick calculation based on our projected number of players (which in March 2006 we thought would be around 1,400). He was talking about spending $700,000 on swag. I got it - he wanted to do two things: (1) ensure that the PokerStars logo was visible any time an ESPN camera was running, and (2) dazzle players so completely that they'd proselytize PokerStars even more than they already did.

The only problem here was budget. While PokerStars grew explosively from 2003-2006, it wasn't until late 2005 that we brought someone in to put financial controls in place. It's not that we didn't do budgets - we did - but budgets were quite fluid in the early days. I had done my 2006 budget in the fall of 2005, and it now looked like I had underestimated our WSOP presence significantly. I needed money.

I went to Isai Scheinberg (PokerStars CEO, my boss) with Rich's proposal. We were talking about spending $500 on each player, and even in these excessive times, Isai thought this was over the top. I had asked Rich to send a sample bag to the Isle of Man offices, and I started our discussion by heaving the 25 pound bag onto his desk.

Isai went through the items one by one. Isai pulled out a commemorative baseball Rich had made, encased in a Lucite box. "Do we really need this?" he asked. I didn't say anything.

He then pulled out one of the hockey jerseys. These were truly works of art - they were made by the same company that makes jerseys for the NHL, with the PokerStars logo on the front and the players' names embroidered on the back, with the number "06." He held it up, then laid it on his desk and examined it more closely.

"These are really nice. How much are we paying?" I told him, fully expecting him to veto it right there - the jerseys were about $60. Rather than trying to get any of the 20-odd items in the bag cheaper, Isai surprised me by asking, "Can we get the total cost down to $450?"

We could, and we did. In the end, we spent over $730,000 on gear for players that year. And it's a source of pride to me when I see players still wearing the hockey jerseys, which happened as recently as a month ago.


By April 2006, I had gotten used to being approached with outrageous marketing opportunities for PokerStars. We came very close to sponsoring a Bon Jovi tour. We talked about (and eventually passed on) being a name sponsor of the Bonnaroo Festival. We spent millions producing amazing TV spots and much more getting them on the air. But the proposal that came to me that April surpassed anything we had even considered in the past.

I got a call from a representative of the William Morris Agency - I'll call him Bill, as I don't recall his name and don't have it in any of my notes. He had been hired by Harrah's to sell what is arguably the single best marketing property in all of poker: the WSOP table felt. 

There is considerable value in the table felt just as a marketing tool for players - every player in the WSOP sees the felt for many hours each day, and I would guess that there were about 75,000 unique players in WSOP events that year. But the real value of the table felt was ESPN's TV coverage - every shot on every table would display the logo.

I pumped Bill for as much information as I could get, and he was surprisingly forthcoming. The other major sites, PartyPoker, Full Tilt Poker and UltimateBet, were all being approached. They were all interested. And two other non-poker properties were planning to make offers. Harrah's was accepting a single, sealed bid from each interested party.

Oh, and the floor was $3 million.

My first reaction to this number wasn't shock. In fact, I thought $3 million was a bargain. I then started thinking about how we could weave this into our marketing, and perhaps how we could use it to extend our WSOP presence. I called Bill back and asked if we could include other WSOP properties in our bid, particularly the WSOP scoreboard. Bill told me that Harrah's was open to whatever we proposed as part of our bid.

I gave this considerable thought before I took it to Isai and his son Mark, who ran and essentially owned PokerStars. I knew that $3 million was far from the final number, but I was having trouble working out just how far. I tried applying typical marketing principles to this calculation, but it was just too hard to quantify. Whatever we did was going to be a guess.

I decided that this was going to require a different approach. I was used to going to Isai and Mark with some hare-brained idea more or less ad hoc. But this was a lot of money, and had far-reaching implications for us. So I did something I only did once at PokerStars - I put a PowerPoint deck together to pitch them.

The deck consisted of only four slides. On the last slide, I revealed what I thought would be the winning bid: $8 million. I brought my laptop into Isai's office, made my presentation and watched for a reaction.

Neither of them were shocked, although they were as surprised as I that Harrah's, who clearly didn't like us much, was interested in our name on their felt. We talked logistics. We talked about how many actual impressions we'd get. We bounced around the many things a huge check might buy us (cosponsoring the WSOP? allowing players to register on-site with PokerStars money?). Isai and Mark then decided that they wanted to talk about it, so I went back to my office.

My phone rang about ten minutes later - they were ready to talk again. I returned to Isai's office.

"Put in a bid for $10 million." As he had so many times in the past, Isai wanted to come in proactively high, attempting to cut off any chance of being outbid.

We had tossed around large sums in the past, but I can honestly say that this staggered me. It was a gigantic risk, and we had little, if any, way to measure its success. But I thought the upside was potentially huge. I was in.

I submitted our bid via DHL the following day. Things went quiet for quite a while - I didn't hear anything more from Bill for almost two weeks. Finally, the first week in May 2006, he called. 

"Is this your absolutely top number?" he asked. We had discussed this possibility, and had decided that $10 million was probably more than the felt was worth. We weren't going any higher.

"Yes," I said, "You asked for a single bid, and told us there wouldn't be an auction."

"There's no auction," Bill replied. "But I can tell you that one of your competitors has put in a bid that we are inclined to take."

"Is it more than $10 million?" I asked. I assumed that Full Tilt or PartyPoker might have come up with some sort of package deal that included other exposure (like wrapping the outside of the Rio, for example, something Harrah's had pitched us before for $1 million).

"I can't say, but I can tell you that their proposal nets Harrah's more money." 

I went back to Isai and Mark. I was concerned that we were already too exposed, and couldn't see offering any more. They agreed. Isai suggested that we could consider going back to them with a multi-year offer, but that it should either be for less money, or give us some option to get out, since no one had any clue about the impact.

The following week, PartyPoker got the felt deal. I spoke with Bill several times after this, and finally cajoled him into telling me what they paid. It was $19 million, but for a two-year guaranteed deal. Isai had been on the right track.

As it turns out, I'm vastly relieved that we didn't get this one. First, I'm not convinced of the value, although that's more in hindsight. Second, since the UIGEA passed a few months later, I don't know what would have happened with the second year payment - since PartyPoker withdrew from the US, they were able to continue as a sponsor in 2007. And lastly, Harrah's and ESPN ended up in a lawsuit with Everest Poker a few years later when they took over the felt sponsorship, in which Everest complained that Harrah's replaced the Everest logo with Full Tilt's in international markets. I could easily have seen us in their place given the contentious relationship between Harrah's and PokerStars.

There was a valuable lesson in this for me. While I was initially hesitant about this, I got swept up in the massive potential of the deal, and I think I paid a price in perspective. Almost any time I brought some huge proposal to Isai, he asked the same question: "What if we just gave that money to our players?" For some reason, he didn't ask it this time, and I wish he had. While the deal would have gotten us great exposure on ESPN, giving $10 million to players would have, too.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

What happens when you give marketing guys too much money (Part 2)

The first part of this story was pretty easy to write. There were two stories that I thought were a good representation of how money started to flow freely once PokerStars took off. This second part - not so much. And it's not because of a lack of subject matter - it's exactly the opposite.


I am a pack rat, something that drives my wife Sharon out of her mind. As an example, I have every ticket for every significant event I've been to in my adult life. I'm talking sporting events, concerts, plays, trade shows - everything. This extends to my computers - I have every email I've ever sent or received, and historical files from most of the places I've worked. I have every document and every proposal I ever reviewed at PokerStars, and the number is mind-boggling - a quick count put just the number of rejected proposals at 1,200. That's a lot of material to choose from. And the selection ranges from the absurd (a poker-based reality show featuring homeless people) to the outrageous (a $1 million buy-in tournament with two years of qualifiers).

Having said that, I'll warn you - a few of these were obvious inclusions, but the rest were a random draw. The best part of this, of course, is that I have a rich source of material for the future. The following story deserves some detail, so it's the sole subject of this post.

From 2005 to 2011, NBC produced and broadcast my very favorite poker show: the National Heads-Up Poker Championship. I admit to some bias, because I had a hand in this project. But when some of the smartest and most creative minds in the business got involved, this show/event became what poker television should be: fun, understandable and dramatic.

In early 2004, I got a call from Jamie Horowitz, an associate producer for NBC Sports. He had a germ of an idea for a poker show, and wanted to know if there was any interest at PokerStars in a sponsorship role. The poker boom had firmly taken hold, the World Poker Tour was getting very respectable ratings, even in reruns, in its first season and NBC had taken notice. 

This was the first of about a dozen calls between Jamie and me, talking through not just PokerStars' role but the structure of the show itself. I was a huge fan of the concept. Poker television was chock-full of shows that featured only a handful of key hands, which jaded the audience's view of what tournament poker is really like. This seemed like a chance to show what top-shelf poker really looks like - smart and creative poker players making magic with ordinary cards.

I didn't discuss the concept with Isai (the CEO of PokerStars, and my boss) just yet. He liked to get involved in the details of projects like this, and I had no objection to this in general, but I wanted his first look at the NHUC to have some substance. I did tell him that I was in discussions with NBC about a new concept for poker programming, and he was satisfied to wait until there was something substantive to look at.

Jamie wanted to bring in someone with poker production expertise, and chose Mori Eskandani, who had just produced the surprisingly successful Poker SuperStars broadcast on NBC. Mori proved to be an invaluable asset in the creation of this event - he was both an experienced television producer and a respected high-limit poker player. Mori would go on to produce some of the best and most successful poker shows during the boom, including Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker.

By the fall of 2004, the show was taking shape, and I liked it much more than I had when Jamie first called me (which is saying a lot). There was one more component that I wanted in place before I presented it to Isai - I wanted to figure out some means of limiting the exposure our competitors could gain in the show. All of the major sites had at least a few pros in their stables at that point, and I knew NBC would be inviting them all. And I knew that I couldn't keep PartyPoker, Full Tilt and UltimateBet from advertising on the show.

I also knew something I shouldn't have - a source close to some senior people at NBC leaked to me that their management was concerned about production costs, which were looking like they might exceed $2 million. So I took a leap and called Jamie with a proposition: what if PokerStars guaranteed NBC a profit by underwriting the production costs?

Jamie was all over the idea. We quickly hammered out deal points to make PokerStars the presenting sponsor of NHUC. Our name would appear on the opening credits, at all of the breaks and on the felt. We would buy a substantial chunk of the 18 minutes of network spots each hour. We even agreed to be a contributing sponsor for Arena Football, a pet project of NBC's Senior VP of Sports Programming, Jon Miller.

After some wrangling, we established a price: $2.7 million. And to my utter shock, NBC agreed to a term that I had included with no hope of survival: exclusivity. PartyPoker, Full Tilt and UltimateBet were out. They would have players in logo gear playing in the event, but we owned the breaks.

Now I was ready to present it to Isai.

I expected there to be some selling involved. To my surprise, Isai was much more interested in how we could use this as a keystone project, anchoring our marketing around the WPT and NHUC. There were a few things he wanted to add (like some ratings guarantees, which we had gotten from the WPT and The Travel Channel), but for the most part he was in. There was no discussion of price - Isai knew that I had gotten everything I could before bringing this to him and had negotiated the best deal I could.

NBC quickly agreed to the few additional terms Isai asked for, and just before Christmas 2004, we exchanged deal point drafts. And then, in two disastrous strokes during the first week of January, everything fell apart.

The first of these was a call from my old friend/nemesis at the World Poker Tour, Steve Lipscomb. He had heard rumblings of what was happening with NHUC, which alarmed him - this was the first poker broadcast that had a chance to challenge the WPT and WSOP. He pointed me to an obscure clause in our 30+ page contract with the WPT that he believed precluded us from top-line sponsorship of a competing show.

24 hours later, while I was still reeling from this development, I got even worse news. NBC's Standards & Practices group had gotten their hands on one of the deal memo drafts, and determined that any production credit for PokerStars put them in danger, based on their continuing fear of the Department of Justice. I discussed various scenarios with Jamie and Jon so we could salvage the show, but it looked like NHUC was never going to air.

I still wasn't sure where we stood with NBC when I spoke with the WPT next, but I wasn't going to tell them that. There were a few conference calls that included lawyers on both sides, and while I usually like being involved in this sort of thing, I just didn't have time. We were a few days away from our first event at the Atlantis Resort (see "In which we learn what expensive really means") and I was swamped. But PokerStars had some really smart lawyers, and I knew they had this well in hand.

Later that day, Jamie called me with some relatively good news. While Standards & Practices wouldn't allow PokerStars to be the presenting sponsor of NHUC, they were still willing to take at least some of our money. Jamie asked if we would be interested in a 'cooperative arrangement' rather than sponsorship - we would guarantee NBC a certain amount of revenue in return for both spots on the show and other promotional consideration. I used this as an opportunity to squeeze one more PokerStars player onto the show (Greg Raymer and Chris Moneymaker had already been invited; we added Tom McEvoy). We went back and forth on a few other issues, but in the end we signed a $1.4 million deal that gave NBC sufficient guarantees to move forward with the show.

And the rest, as they say, is poker history. The National Heads-Up Poker Championship was a modest success for NBC and a huge success for poker overall. The show aired from 2005 to 2011, then returned for one more season in 2013. I hear rumors that it's coming back in 2015, and I truly hope this is true - it's the best poker show on TV.

Three endnotes to this story:

- We ended up with not three, but four players in the 64 player field for this event. The night before the first match, NBC held a huge cocktail party/match-up draw at the Golden Nugget, where the first event was filmed. Rich Korbin (my Director of Marketing and overall right-hand guy) called me that morning, telling me that Evelyn Ng was playing in the event and wasn't affiliated with a site. I was in LA, planning to go to Las Vegas the following day, but I printed a contract, jumped on a plane and tracked Evelyn down at the cocktail party. She signed the contract and was wearing PokerStars gear the next day.

- Team PokerStars didn't fare particularly well in this first year of the NHUC. Evelyn beat Bobby Baldwin pretty handily in the first round, only to be crushed by Carlos Mortensen. Greg Raymer beat Kathy Leibert in round one, but lost an excellent match to Huck Seed (1996 WSOP champion) in round two. Chris Moneymaker, who would go on to the finals of this event in 2011, also won his first round match (vs. Eli Elezra) and also fell in round two, to Mimi Tran, who had taken out our fourth player, Tom McEvoy, in round one.

- I haven't stayed in touch with Jamie Horowitz since I left PokerStars in 2007, so I thought I'd look him up for some background for this story. He's come a long way since his associate producer days at NBC - he left for ESPN, where he launched and produced Keith Olbermann's show, but returned to NBC in May 2014, where he has taken over as Senior VP/General Manager of The Today Show briefly took over as Senior VP/General Manager, only to be fired weeks later. I hope he's off enjoying the $3.3 million that NBC was required to pay him as a contract buyout.

Update: As I should have expected, Jamie landed on his feet. In May, 2016, Fox Sports hired him as their new President.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What happens when you give marketing guys too much money (Part 1)

First, I owe everyone who's a regular reader of this blog a profound apology. I made a commitment a while back that I would post at least once a week, which may not seem like a daunting task. However, each of these posts takes some considerable time to assemble, particularly fact-checking and date-checking. And I try to make each of these a short story in itself, so having read the other forty-odd posts here isn't a prerequisite. This means that each 1,500 words I write ends up taking 4-6 hours of writing (not to mention thinking).

We have been working on a major software upgrade for my consulting client, Barona Freeplay Online Poker, for most of this year. We entered final testing in August, which frankly was problematic and consumed about 50% more of my time (and Sharon's) than expected. Then we launched, and that 50% became - well, a lot more than 50%. It's been a very difficult period, consuming 12, then 14 and eventually 18 hours a day until things finally settled down. We're still not truly settled - we have a lot more work to do - but things have stabilized to the point where I feel like I can take a few hours here and there to do things I enjoy, like writing this blog.

For the foreseeable future, my guarantee of one post a week will be a gentleman's/ladies' agreement. I'll reinstate the $100 punishment for non-compliance once I'm more certain of my schedule.

*****************

When I interviewed with PokerStars (more on this here and here), one of my concerns was that the company was attempting to go up against the well-established 900 pound gorilla (which was Paradise Poker back then in 2002). The big issue with attempting to fight a 900 pound gorilla is that you need to be able to act like a roughly 900 pound gorilla yourself. Popping a few ads into Card Player wasn't going to be sufficient - we were going to need to be very creative, and in this context, there's a pretty simple equation:

creativity = lots of money

One of the tasks I performed for Isai before he hired me was to create a marketing plan - not a full-fledged plan, but he wanted me to sketch out details about how I would go about launching the company. As part of this exercise, I created a marketing budget, which involved spending about $600,000 on marketing in year one. I had no idea what PokerStars' financial backing looked like, nor did I know at the time who the owners/investors were other than Isai. I wasn't thrilled with where I was working, but leaving a reasonably well-paid position with an up-and-coming Internet company for a startup was already going to be a challenge - I needed to know that they had deep enough pockets to have a chance in the market.

At some point in the interview process, Isai asked me if I had any questions. I asked, "You've read my marketing plan. Do you have $600,000 to spend on marketing in year one?" Without skipping a beat, Isai said, "We have the money we need to properly launch this company."

Had this been anyone else, I would have had a lot more questions. But there was something about Isai that I simply trusted implicitly. This may seem naive from a nearly-fifty-year-old (at the time), but I've come to rely on my business sense, and there was no doubt in my mind that PokerStars had the resources to carry out an audacious plan.

I'll start with a modest example. After Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker, I was constantly looking for ways to capitalize on his extraordinary accomplishment, and to leverage his name (which was, frankly, a dream for a marketing guy). After the first few broadcasts of Chris' final table, he was instantly recognizable, so one thought was to experiment with some pure branding around his name. I had this idea for a billboard that would directly tie Chris' success to his experience on PokerStars. I took one of our standard layouts, played with it a little and came up with this:



I thought the tagline was one of my best - it directly linked Chris with PokerStars, broadly implying that he won the WSOP because of us. I sent the design off to our staff artist and started shopping around for billboard locations around LA, thinking that we would use one of the world's largest poker markets as a test.

Around this same time, we got into some very contentious discussions with the owner of the Bicycle Casino, Haig Kelegian. Kelegian owned the Bike, Oceans' Eleven near San Diego and part (later most) of the Commerce Casino, and was an insufferable jerk of almost unimaginable proportions. The last meeting we had started off with Kelegian, in front of five of his own staff, saying, "Companies like yours are illegal, and I can put you out of business with a few phone calls." This pronouncement, I kid you not, was immediately followed by his request (through Kelley O'Hara, his marketing director) that PokerStars run satellites for the Bike's upcoming tournament series.

If that's not outrageous enough, what followed literally made my jaw drop. I told Kelegian, O'Hara and the rest of his team that we might be willing to run satellites for them, but that we needed to work out how we could mesh the brands together so we could each gain some benefit. Kelegian then told me that we couldn't use the Bicycle Casino's name or logo to advertise satellites. When I asked him why we would send a few hundred thousand dollars of our liquidity to the Bike for essentially no return, he said the following: "Your players will know, and our players will know. You should be happy just to be associated with us."

No shit, he actually said this.

In the car on the way home from this complete waste of time, I got a call from Marc Chessen, who owned a media company we had done some business with. I had asked him to look into the cost of a small number of billboards that we could use as a test. He was calling to give me the estimate, and to tell me that there were two particular billboards we might like - they were on the 710 Freeway, on the approaches to the Bike from both north and south. 

"How far are they from the Bike?" I asked.

"You could throw a rock from either one and hit the Bike," Marc answered.

Life isn't always perfect, but then there are moments like this. 

"I'll take both of them," I said. Marc pointed out to me that he hadn't told me the price. It didn't matter. Three weeks later, Haig Kelegian got to look at this on his way to the office.



This escapade cost PokerStars $30,000 a month, plus the cost of the boards (we did a total of six, including one at the exit from the Commerce). Isai wasn't convinced about doing a branding campaign - he believed that our money was better spent in direct response until we were better-known. But I believed that Moneymaker's brand would help us rise to the top, and was willing to take a chance.

There's a nice epilogue to this story. We regularly surveyed our players to find out how they had heard about us and what made them sign up. Within a few days of putting up the billboards, we started to see measurable numbers of players saying that they first learned of PokerStars from the billboards. By the end of the first full month, over 200 players claimed that the billboards brought them to PokerStars. My branding campaign had, inexplicably, become a direct response campaign.

And there's one final, satisfying note. It was a few years before we tried to do anything with the Bike again, and this time it was them approaching us. By 2005, we had three WSOP champions in our stable, were one of the three dominant brands (along with PartyPoker and Full Tilt) and were, in real dollars, larger than the Bike by a substantial margin. Kelley O'Hara asked us to work with them on satellites and other promotional opportunities surrounding their World Poker Tour event, which we did (and used their name). In the last meeting before we launched, we hammered out the final details and I thought we were done. As I was packing up, Rick Cloward (who, I think, was VP Operations) asked if he could speak with me privately. When we reached his office, he closed the door and said just one thing: "Would you please take down those fucking billboards?"


I have written before about the horrific series of events leading up to our first World Poker Tour event, conducted on a cruise ship in January 2004 (see "How I almost went to jail as a terrorist," "Revenge of the Girlfriend" and other related stories). Without rehashing those stories much, I'll mention that I had to fire our travel agent a few weeks before the event, which meant taking on far more work than our microscopic staff was able to handle. We were all working 18 hours a day with no respite in sight until after the cruise.

In the middle of all of this panic, I got an MSN Messenger message from Isai (this was our preferred means of communication for most things). He had heard that Sharon had played quite a bit of poker with Ben Affleck, and asked me if I thought she could get him to come on the cruise. I told Isai that I doubted that Sharon knew him well enough, but I'd ask her opinion.

The next time we went to the Hustler to play, there was Ben. Sharon approached him with the idea, and much to our surprise, he was not only interested, but seemed excited at the prospect. He gave Sharon his agent's contact information and told us to work out the details with him.

I called the agent the following day, and he took my call immediately - Ben had already told him to expect my call. I gave him my pitch, he asked a lot of questions and then said he'd talk to Ben and get back to me.

The next morning, he called. Ben would love to go on the cruise, and he had just enough time in his schedule to do it. And then he dropped a bomb - he wanted a $1 million appearance fee. 

There was no way this was going to happen. $1 million was a very measurable chunk of my marketing budget, and I honestly didn't think there was anywhere near that much value in having him along. But I told the agent we'd talk about it. I hung up and called Isai.

"OK, I talked to Ben Affleck's agent. He wants a $1 million appearance fee." Without missing more than a half-beat, Isai said, "OK, work out the details," and hung up.

So now, in addition to personally making travel plans for the roughly 600 people going on the cruise with us, I now got to negotiate and execute a seven-figure deal with arguably the biggest star in the world. I got to work on the contract with our lawyers, and started working out the logistics. I called the agent after we sent the contract along, and he dropped the next few bombs.

"Ben doesn't travel commercial. You need to fly him from LA on a private jet. I'll send you the specs," he said. They arrived while we were talking - Gulfstream IV or comparable, two wait staff, no one else other than the pilots and whoever Ben brought along.

"OK," I said, having no idea whether or not this was OK. "What else?"

"Ben doesn't want to board with the rest of the passengers on the cruise." I told him that wasn't a problem - we'd board him first, or last, whatever he preferred.

"No, he doesn't want to board at the pier. You need to arrange to fly him to the ship."

By this time, I was in so far over my head that a little more wasn't going to change things much. "OK, what else?"

He sent me a list of relatively minor things - his cabin requirements, getting him from the hotel to the ship, stuff that seemed downright trivial in the face of hiring a helicopter to fly to a moving cruise ship. I told him I'd call him back later in the day.

My first call was to Royal Caribbean. I had no idea if landing a helicopter on a cruise ship was even conceivable. As it turned out, they had done it before, more than once, and yes, it could be done. However, there were two other things that we needed to consider:

(1) They don't allow helicopters to land while the ship is moving except in dire emergencies. So, they would stop the ship for the landing, but it takes an hour to come to a full stop and an hour to get moving again. Cost to us: $200,000.

(2) We needed a permit from Homeland Security, which normally took a minimum of two months. However, my RCCL rep knew someone at DHS and thought she could get it through.

I called Isai again with some revised numbers. Including Ben's appearance fee and all of his demands, the cost of bringing him on the cruise was now just over $1.4 million. 

"OK, do it," he said. Just like that. And my first thought was what's it like to spend $1.4 million by just saying "Do it?"

In the end, we didn't do it. The DHS security certificate was most of the reason - despite my RCCL guy's assurance, there was no guarantee we'd get the permit in time, and we might easily be committed to over a million dollars in expenses and no way to get Ben onto the ship. I breathed a huge sigh of relief - I was never really sold on the idea in the first place, and honestly didn't know if I'd get through the whole experience without having a stroke.

Click here for Part 2.