Tracy Damestani, CEO of the National Casino Forum, discusses the challenges facing the British casino industry, and suggests that more flexibility in the UK’s regulatory regime would help ensure a level playing field in the face of online and international competition.
International Casino Review: Following the underwhelming outcome of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s review of gambling legislation, what are the challenges facing the British casino industry in 2018 and what can be done to offset them?
Tracy Damestani: The main challenge is to persuade the government that, even if sensible modernisation and harmonisation reforms to the casino sector are not adopted in the DCMS Review, they are not simply parked for another three years.
We want to see a further, separate review of the casino sector’s proposals later in 2018 so casinos can offer appropriate gaming opportunities to their customers in an appropriate environment.
We would like to separate our core proposals, relating to the provision of B1 terminals, from the contentious issue of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, which has dominated the debate.
Another challenging issue for the industry is the fact that banks will soon stop accepting foreign exchange cheques.
This will have a significant impact on Mayfair casinos and the Treasury is aware that this is a pressing issue. Primary legislation will be required to amend Section 81 of the Gambling Act.
ICR: In your view, where is the UK industry headed and what help does it need to grow?
TD: I hope we see continued investment in the land- based sector, but for the sec- tor to develop it will require greater flexibility in the regulatory regime.
Modest harmonisation and modernisation measures would lead to investment in the casino estate, putting the sector on a more level playing field with online and international competition.
ICR: What challenges does the growth of the online sector pose for land-based operators?
TD: Casinos are increasingly looking to provide a diversified leisure offering. Playing in a casino, rather than online, is a social activity and some customers will always prefer that experience.
If the casino has an award-winning restaurant and a bar serving great cocktails or showing sports matches on big screens that gives customers additional reasons to visit.
However, casinos need to be able to deliver the products their customers want. Restricting the majority of casinos in the UK to 20 machines, regardless of size, prevents them from delivering a memorable experience to customers.
Restricting casinos to cash payments also fails to put the customer at the heart of the business. Consumers are moving away from cash in all walks of life and don’t expect casinos to be different – without a more flexible regulatory approach, land-based casinos will find it increasingly difficult to compete with remote gambling.
ICR: With further growth in the UK tourism sector in 2017, how viable is casino tourism for the UK market?
TD: High-end customers will continue coming to the UK in large numbers, but unless high-end casinos are able to tailor their offering to these customers – for example by offering higher stakes for a small number of machines – the danger is that they will visit Britain but not gamble here.
Instead of playing in London they will play in Monte Carlo. If that happens it is not only casinos which will lose out, it is the Treasury too.
ICR: At present, while London’s casinos do see a number of visitors from overseas, this is not the case for the rest of the country. Is this situation likely to change any time soon?
TD: There is no reason casinos outside London cannot attract overseas visitors if they provide a first-rate customer experience.
Victoria Gate in Leeds, which opened in January 2017, reported 20 million plays on its slot machines and 1.5m spins of the roulette balls in its first six months of operation – doubtless, that included overseas, as well as, domestic visitors.
But, to repeat my earlier point, operators need to be able to bring UK casinos in line with other international jurisdictions to make them attractive, modern, forward-looking venues.