Richard Noble Chairman of The National Casino Forum chats to Peter White
Congratulations on your appointment to chairman of The National Casino Forum. Can you outline your aims and ambitions for this role?
First of all, I’d like to thank Simon Thomas, CEO Hippodrome, for the energy and vision he’s shown as Chairman over the last two years. I have been the vice-chairman during this time, so we should have a smooth transfer from his tenure across to mine. It has been a real pleasure to work alongside Simon.
We are very fortunate to have a trade body where we have 100% of all UK casino operators as members. We all work very closely together and we all speak as one voice.
However, for the last few years, the overall gambling industry really has been dragged through the mud, in particular with concerns and disputes over Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. This has been one of the prime drivers in reducing consumer confidence in the gambling industry.
So, a key objective over the next few years is to help rebuild the industry’s reputation. The casino sector has always had a good name, however all of gambling has been tarnished. In the recent consultation into Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures the Gambling Commission and Government weren’t minded to support some quite modest requests for land based casinos. Our wishes and requests haven’t changed; we’re simply looking to modernise and harmonise our sector, and absolutely do it in a responsible way.
The Gambling Commission has made it clear that they want the wider gambling industry to work closer together, share best practice and learn from one another. We need to replicate what land-based casinos have already done, talking with one voice, and do this across the whole industry.
Another key message from the Gambling Commission is to keep the customer at the heart of all our decisions. I couldn’t agree more! Responsible Gambling is a fundamental part of this and is at the top of every decision we make; however, we mustn’t lose sight of what the consumer wants and expects from a modern land-based casino experience. We’d like the ability to offer consumers the types of games they see in other jurisdictions and online, and to offer these in what are already safe, well managed environments. Currently the majority of casino premises are only permitted to offer 20 slots machines under the old 1968 Act casino licence. The new 2005 Act casino small licences permit up to 80 slots based on a table ratio. Converting the old licences into new licences is a simple request for our sector and would enable operators to provide a consistent and up-to-date offering for our customers.
Playing Safe is now five years old, can you tell me a little more about this?
That’s right, we set up Playing Safe five years ago and did so to show our commitment to responsible gambling. Land-based casinos share best practice in this space. We have no interest in competing on compliance. We ensure the whole sector learns from one another and as such we are constantly raising our standards.
We were the first sector to introduce a national self-exclusion scheme, which we call SENSE and have been running it for 3 years now. Of course, just having a self-exclusion scheme isn’t enough, it’s evaluating its effectiveness that really counts. The Playing Safe executive are continuously reviewing the scheme, appraising the training and quality of interactions by our teams, and assessing the data to see what learnings we can make.
Another important initiative that has been introduced through Playing Safe over the last five years is the ACE (Accreditation, Certification and Evaluation) inspections. The Playing Safe executive visit all operators and assess the senior management team, local managers and front-line employees to ensure the initiatives we have in place are fully understood and are working. These visits are supported by our Staff 360 research project where we use training and observation to evaluate the confidence and effectiveness of our colleagues in identifying individuals who may be displaying potentially harmful behaviours. It’s initiatives like this that ensure the protection of our customers is properly ingrained in our culture.
Playing Safe is constantly evolving. We have been working with a Canadian Research facility, Focal Research, for three years now on a pilot which has just gone live. Using our machine data, the software detects GOIs, gamblers of interest, through a really complex algorithm based on the experience Focal have gained over twenty years. It’s not that these customers necessarily have a problem with gambling, but they are showing potentially harmful behaviours. Our staff have been trained to interact with these individuals. The trial of Focal Research is live across five major operators. We’re quite excited about this initiative as we’ll be able to closely monitor progress and demonstrate that early interaction can make a positive difference. It’s essential that we monitor and identify risky behaviour before it becomes a problem.
Alongside Focal Research we are piloting a number of limit setting and pre-commitment trials, putting to use the technology in our gaming machines and casino management systems. As well as being able to notify our customers when they have reached certain limits, the system will also notify our staff as well, enabling further interactions.
Are you in partnership with Responsible Gambling Week?
Absolutely. It’s taking place in the first week in November and we’re actively involved in the organising of this. We had the inaugural Responsible Gambling week last year, which was a real success for the whole gambling industry. It’s a great opportunity for the wider gambling industry to work together to get an important message out and to share best practice across the sectors. It’s also important to note that all sectors are different. Land-based casinos are rightly at the top of the regulatory pyramid and different sectors generally cater to different customers, however the language and messaging we use can be similar. Ultimately, we want all our customers to play responsibly, within their individual budgets and our messaging should reflect this. Alongside this, there’s a more serious communication for those individuals who if they do find themselves in trouble have clear signposts to advice and treatment providers, for example GamCare.
Responsible Gambling week is a great starting point, but it is only a starting a point. We need, as an industry, to work closer together and show a united front. There’s been too much of different sectors having a ‘pop’ at each other. We’ve all been tarnished by this.
There’s been a major expansion, in related sectors, to the land-based casinos over the last decade. Yet casinos have stood still. Casinos are a controlled environment and staff have a far greater level of support. Don’t you think the time is now getting near for casinos to be allowed to progress, the hundreds of thousands who board a plane to Las Vegas are now looking to gain that experience from their local casinos and contribute to the exchequer?
I absolutely agree. We have a two-tier structure. I operate two 1968 Act licence casinos in Newcastle and Northampton and two of the new 2005 Act licence casinos in Stratford and Milton Keynes. The key regulatory difference is the amount of product we’re able to offer, however, having suitable product for our customers has enabled us to build larger venues with a wider range of leisure offerings, for example, better bars, restaurants and function facilities.
We closely monitor the social and economic benefit to Stratford and MK and share this data with the local authorities. There has been no evidence of any increase in harm to customers in these venues. What the evidence shows is more employment and more money going into the local economy. The time is right now for the Government to recognise this and allow the UK land-based casino sector to grow. Our requests are modest, the ability to bring our 1968 Act licenced casinos in line with the 2005 Act.
To truly compete with international venues, the UK casino industry will need the ability to offer the numerous types of game that are available in other jurisdictions, whether this be different stakes and prizes, wide area (multi-venue) progressive jackpots or RNG electronic versions of table games; most of which are currently restricted or prevented under our current legislation. It’s absolutely right to modernise, however we need to be realistic. It is the ‘art of the possible’; start with harmonising the different licences we have, continue to progress our protection policies and work with the Gambling Commission and Government to demonstrate that we are doing all we can to mitigate harm.
What would you like to see over the next 12 to 18 months?
Although we were disappointed to receive nothing as part of the recent Government consultation, there was at least a willingness to review our sector again. It is our intention to start those conversations with the Gambling Commission and Government now, demonstrate that the progress we have been making over the last five years, alongside the initiatives we have planned for the future, is effective and will continue to protect our customers. It will be disappointing if we are still discussing the ‘status quo’ in 12 to 18 months’ time and have not commenced the harmonisation and modernisation of our land-based casino sector. It’s long overdue!