This article appeared in this week’s edition of Coin Slot.
Nick Harding, head of Merkur Management Services in the UK, outlines what he believes lies ahead for the industry this coming year. On the up with the Gambling Commission, there’s a downer with charity GambleAware and a government that really should show this industry some due respect.
Going into 2019, where do you think the industry’s focus should be?
Nick Harding: April 1st 2019 will represent a watershed for the gaming machine industry in the UK. The change in stake on B2 machines has been a long time coming and many of the current core players in LBOs have never played on a gaming machine anywhere else. Clearly, some of the money (not all!) that has hither to been going into B2 machines will now be diverted elsewhere on the high street and the industry needs to be geared up to present itself in a positive light to what will be ‘new’ customers. This means that the first quarter of 2019 should be spent preparing for this. Manufacturers and operators will have spent the festive season thinking about what they can do to enhance the core offer both in terms of product and to local and national regulators. They should ensure that the ex-B2 player who comes into an AGC or a pub to play machines is delighted with what he or she finds.
The industry has found itself battling against many issues, many of which are based on misconceptions. How do you think this has arisen and, more importantly, how do you propose they should be addressed?
NH: For those of us who were around before the FOBT/B2 debate started in earnest, the public image of the ‘low stake/high volume’ gaming sector in the UK has changed dramatically and almost none of those changes have been for the good. These changes have been insidious and so much of the good PR work that was done in the 80s and 90s has been undone. For the sake of historical correctness let’s just remember that it was BACTA that first supported Paul Bellringer when he launched Gamcare in 1997 and that it was the UK gaming industry as a whole who first proposed and then implemented the ‘Gambling Industry Charitable Trust’ which has now (over more reincarnations than Dr Who) become GambleAware, ironically an organisation which has recently removed all Trustees who have any connection to the gambling industry. Perhaps someone can tell me why a registered charity doesn’t want any representation from and almost no dialogue with the people that are its principal source of funds? Oh, and lastly in those far off days pre FOBTs, the major bookmakers were members of BACTA. The dust will start to settle post April and the whole land based industry will need to stand shoulder to shoulder to remind the public that we are in the gaming entertainment business, that we want customers to enjoy themselves and to keep coming back for a great night out and that we employ over 100,000 people in the UK. I want the CEOs of the various trade associations to lead a campaign of awareness aimed at restoring our individual and collective reputations. And they need to work together, closely, to make this happen, there is no room for bloody minded promotion of vested interests if we are to get this right and to rebuild a sound commercial platform.
There is a change at the Gambling Commission helm. Do you feel it’s becoming a body we can do business with?
NH: I rate Neil McArthur very highly. I think his experience at the Gambling Commission for ten years prior to getting the top job are invaluable, for him, for the Commission and for the industry. I feel he is very grounded and very thoughtful and I think we can work with him and that he will listen to what we have to say. I hope he stays.
Do you sense a lack of understanding ‘outside’ about what the industry represents? What messages should we be conveying to them?
NH: In terms of the message, ‘we are socially responsible supplier s of top class gaming entertainment’. Politicians live on sound bites, we need to give them that sound bite and then demonstrate it in spades at every opportunity.
You’ve already touched upon the role of bodies such as GambleAware who are taking a more prominent role. Do you think this influence is positive and if not, how do you think it should be changed?
NH: We have been effectively side-lined by GambleAware and I am bewildered by that. And by the way, not because I was stood down as a Trustee (I had served for 15 years and was past my ‘sell by date’). I am happy for GambleAware to be more prominent but I am not happy when they see fit to take pot shots at us and I am amazed that they do not seem willing to financially support a charity such as YGAM which I think is doing some great work in schools in a very professional way and which is very deserving of our support. I do genuinely believe that GambleAware would be more balanced, more able to see where the levers are in the industry and would have more credibility with their financial supporters if they had one or two gambling operators on their Board. I think Kate Lampard needs to rethink this strategy.
When it comes to asking for crucial changes that the industry needs to remain competitive, what would be on your must have list?
NH: If we are not allowed to develop our business at the same pace as technology then the land-based industry will ultimately wither on the vine. When it has withered away then at every bus stop in the country you will see people gambling on their smart phones with zero opportunity for any kind of meaningful intervention when the FUN has stopped. Regulators and politicians should support our land based industry, to be cognizant of the dangers of allowing unfettered gambling with little or no control and should encourage and applaud companies that really deliver a quality product. In less than ten years anyone who tries to pay for any goods or services with cash will be laughed at, so how is it that we cannot use contactless payments on gaming machines now? Why do we have to fight for this and be treated with disdain as if we are asking for the impossible? I have two daughters in their twenties who rarely carry cash and who use contactless and Apple pay for almost every transaction, so when I mentioned to one of them that you can’t use contactless payment on a gaming machine in a pub she said ‘then Dad you are living in the Stone Age’. QED…