rosvenor Casinos was allowed to reopen all 52 of its gambling halls on May 17, as the third step of UK's reopening roadmap. The brand is owned by Rank Group, the largest land-based casino operator in the UK, and the second biggest land-based bingo operator with Mecca Bingos, also open now.
"It’s been a very very long wait," Rank's Director of Public Affairs David Williams tells Yogonet in a video interview. He says customers are already familiar with the safety protocols at the gambling venues, which are broadly in line with the rest of the hospitality industry. "I think casinos and bingo clubs have a well-deserved reputation for being very COVID secure venues now generally in the UK, particularly our bingo clubs. Pretty big places certainly compared to pubs and bars. Bingo is a game that is generally played whilst you are seated, so I don’t think there’s a huge amount of disruption, and I think customers generally accept the restrictions that have to be put in place and it doesn’t actually hinder their enjoyment now. Certainly not what we found in the first two and a half weeks of trading." He notes that consumer confidence appears to be there, which he identifies as a key factor along with getting the product proposition right.
When asked about initial performance and pent-up demand activity, Williams says the company has been "delighted with performance, it’s been pretty impressive," though he says London is down compared to the rest of the UK, as it relies on tourism, still struggling due to the travel restrictions; and the high-end players, "who haven’t been able to come back into the country so that has an impact on revenues, but we knew that was coming, we sort of anticipated that, and actually London isn’t performing too badly, outside of London performance is good." And he adds: "The hope is that it’s not just pent-up demand, but actually the numbers are sustainable."
In addition, Rank's executive says there is a "great cross-section of customers" at the gambling halls, including recreational customers, some high-end players who are in the country, and those who are trying casinos and bingo clubs for the first time. "But it is that recreational leisure entertainment seeking customer who we are looking out for primarily, and their feedback is, they are delighted with the safety and COVID secure measures that we have in place, without them being onerous. Really impressed with some of the improvements that we made to a lot of our venues in the last 12 months during lockdown. They feel safe, both in a sort of COVID sense but also in a safer gambling sense, which is really really important at the moment, to be able to have a good time, able to enjoy themselves, and not particularly hindered by some of the restrictions for example on food and drinks."
As the UK is on track to enter the next phase of reopenings on June 21, Williams believes the experience for customers in Rank's venues will be broadly the same in real terms, and notes that the key thing is around consumer confidence. He says if the venues were to get the greenlight on June the 21 it would be very important as it would mean "another staging post that allows people to lift their chins a bit, feel more confident about going out, and we can get back to, I’m reluctant to use the word, back to normal. Nothing is going to be normal, but sort of move forward into a place where we can actually put a proposition in front of more and more customers, that we are very confident they’re going to embrace."
Rank, along with most gaming companies represented by the British and Gaming Council (BGC), has shown its opposition against the mandated casino closures last year in the UK, arguing that the casinos operated to the highest Covid-secure standards with strong evidence to support that position, without scientific evidence against it, and also noting the high number of jobs and tax rates involved. They claimed they were being "singled out unfairly" as compared to other hospitality businesses, Williams says. "What happened before the end of the year was that there was a correction to that, and in fairness, I think we have to give a lot of credit to the government for listening to the arguments that we were making, the evidence that we were providing. We worked very closely with the government, we had a visit from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, to one of our London casinos. He was joined by representatives from Public Health England, and they were very impressed with what we had in place, and soon after that we were allowed to reopen."
"The minute we got into the pack with the rest of hospitality, so when pubs and bars open we open, if they have to close we have to close, that is perfectly fair, and that is the situation in England and Wales that we’re in now, still got a bit of work to do in Scotland for what we believe should be an equitable treatment with other leisure and entertainment businesses, we’ve not got there yet with Scotland," Williams explains. "But I think broadly we’re comfortable with that, and credit must be paid to government who we worked very hard with, we have a good relationship with our sports department DCMS. I think one of the few good things that has sort of come out of a very very challenging time in the last 12 months is, government really have got to grips with the nature of our business, what it is that we do, the people that we employ, what we do in the communities and that stands in good stead for a big piece of work the government’s review of gambling legislation, which is very much underway now."
Specifically regarding the review of the Gambling Act 2005 currently being undertaken by the government, he says it is welcomed by Rank, adding that the requests from the company are "fairly modest." "I think broadly the mood music is that the review of gambling legislation will probably lead to a net tightening of regulations for the industry, there will be some necessary changes, as long as they are evidence-based, I think the industry should look to meet them head-on and a great deal of work is being done by colleagues of mine across the industry and ensuring that we are ready for that."
Speaking about casinos in particular, Williams says that since the legislation was passed back in 2005, "progress for land-based casino industries by way of legislation and regulation has stalled, and fundamentally, we’ve been left behind, we’re sort of hindered by some really strange archaic restrictions. We can’t offer sports betting in our casinos which’s almost unheard of anywhere else in the world, we have some pretty draconian limits on the number of slot machines that we can have. We’ve got 51 venues, all but one of them is capped at having 20 slots per license."
"But fundamentally the consumer who goes into a casino at the moment is having their enjoyment hindered by legislation sometimes which is over half a century old, so what we’re looking for is a pretty modest modernization program, we are in the process of garnering political supports, which is going well, I think politicians broadly are keen to listen to the arguments to find out what can be done to allow casinos to compete and to sort of catch up with the rest of the leisure, entertainment and gambling industry," Rank's director says, adding that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make these changes.
When asked about the online gaming business amid this context, Williams says UK land-based revenues generated from Grosvenor Casinos and Mecca Bingo clubs still account for well over 70% of all Rank Group's revenue, which hasn't seen digital businesses during lockdown "going through the roof." "The dynamic between venues and online, with venues reopening, gives a real sort of fillip, a real impetus to our omnichannel aspirations. We know full well that customers who play with us at venues and then shift online are more loyal, they are fundamentally a higher value in the fullest sense of the word customer. So it’s good to have that kind of throughput of customers to power the online, the digital space. As far as aspirations go, we acquired Stride Gaming back in 2019, so good progress is being made on transitioning our legacy Rank brands, Grosvenor and Mecca onto the proprietary platform. That opens up a whole new range of opportunities to do some exciting stuff. So we’ve got ambitious plans to grow the digital business, and the reopening of venues isn’t count to that, it will just create that omnichannel opportunity to make that perk just a little bit more compelling," Williams concludes.