Chief executive of the Bingo Association Miles Baron reflects on a year in which licensed bingo found itself cast as “the orphans no one wanted to look after”. Ironic considering the entertainment impact bingo has on so many people’s lives. But there are positives driving the sector forward, once fairness and consistency have been restored to the decision-making processes of the key authorities.
For those licensed bingo businesses and their supply chains that make it through, 2020 will be remembered as a bit of a blur, a series of shocks and disappointments, but above all a spirit of togetherness.
This is often the way in times of adversity and national crisis: the Covid pandemic has been no different and licensed bingo premises and their suppliers have rallied accordingly.
However, I think certain key themes will stand out. A lack of understanding of the gambling sector and its various constituent parts by many civil servants, politicians and key influencer’s would be one. I think at the start of the pandemic and perhaps even now there is a lack of realisation that Gambling has a history and tradition of compliance and regulation and is better equipped than most to execute and implement effectively whatever operating restrictions are thrown at it.
The pandemic has hit licensed bingo clubs when arguably the reputation of gambling is at its lowest ebb. Finding sympathy at the heart of the decision making process is hard. The differing tiers and levels system have caused much stress and anxiety. Which tier or level am I in, which restrictions will be in place this time and in which part of the country? How long have I got to close, open, or just adjust to new rules? Quite often different parts of the gambling industry would find themselves in different tiers and levels with different restrictions and therefore in effect found themselves lobbying against either themselves or other parts of wider leisure, retail, entertainment and hospitality. This negative use of energy and time is not constructive for anyone in those sectors.
Working with the devolved administrations has been challenging. As a reserved area, there was little or no infrastructure through which to represent the interests of licensed bingo clubs in Scotland and Wales (or even gambling more generally). When contacts were established these were often with officials from departments totally unrelated to gambling and with no understanding or experience of the business. Bingo often felt like ‘orphans’ that no one really wanted to look after and I suspect other gambling sectors felt the same. I have to say that the individuals who eventually were assigned to bingo and gambling generally were well meaning and helpful but bingo just wasn’t their main purpose.
Add to this a lack of a consistent approach in the public health response between England, Scotland and Wales, notwithstanding the different political nuances, and you have a very complicated backdrop to navigate. Currently bingo clubs in Scotland have been closed far longer than elsewhere in GB and despite hints at additional funding support are under severe pressure, particularly the five operating companies that trade in Scotland only.
One of the positive moments in our efforts in 2020 to get the voice of bingo heard is the reaction we have had from our customer base. Despite being characterised by many as being the most vulnerable in society to Covid they often made clear their support for the safety measures taken in bingo clubs, taking to social media to stress how safe they feel, how important bingo is to them, and when asked writing to various officials and departments to urge clubs to remain open. Where clubs have been able to open they have attended in their thousands with little or no Covid related issues. We are hugely grateful to them and this bodes well for the future.
Another huge positive is the work that all bingo club operators have undertaken when closed to keep in touch with and support members. Whether it is using clubs to act as delivery hubs for food parcels for local families, collate charitable Christmas donations, or the frequent calling by colleagues of more vulnerable customers to check on them, licensed bingo premises have played a prominent role in their local community and they should be proud of their efforts.
At time of writing the Bingo Association has offered all of its 300 bingo club premises to the Department of Heath as vaccine distribution hubs. We know this offer is with the cabinet office and we are awaiting a response; although we are disappointed not to have heard by now.
It is very hard for licensed retail bingo operators to look forward to the Gambling Act Review. Some operators will be unsure that they will be around to see any revisions enacted. Others are fully focussed on survival and the thought of anything else is superfluous. And the review stresses the need for evidence based decisions particularly regarding the consumer. Acquiring evidence of customer behaviours and experiences requires money and customers and at present licensed bingo has very limited quantities of and participating in the review will be a slightly surreal process given the current environment.
Nevertheless, the Bingo Association is conducting a round of member discussions around the Gambling Act review with a view to providing a thorough response. If the bingo industry wants one thing in 2021, it is a sense of fairness and consistency, and for many parts of 2020 some of the decisions about who could do what and when, from all administrations, felt a little arbitrary.
If there is one small benefit to national lockdown it is that we are for now all ‘back in the same boat’. When restrictions are finally eased in the spring of 2021, there is every chance we will return to the intense and divisive lobbying of previous months to convince regulators and government we are the safest and therefore the most obvious choice to re-open first. I hope this time the ability of licensed bingo premises to provide a safe, social and compliant environment is recognised.