Bringing all of its consumer-facing businesses under the umbrella of the MERKUR brand represents a clear sign of intent. The new website, MERKURGROUPUK.CO.UK, details the full scope of its commitment to these shores and the philosophy that underpins it.
What are the benefits of the re-brand – is it a cosmetic exercise or more fundamental than that?
Sascha Blodau: It’s a fundamental part of the international business development strategy and follows the path adopted by other significant consumer-facing transnational brands. Europe is a small place and it’s vital that consumers are presented with a consistent presentation whether they are in Hannover or Hull, Belgrade or Birmingham, Madrid or Manchester. The single business identity emphasises the footprint of the brand, helps employees feel a part of what is a significant international family and sends a clear confirmation of what we are about to regulators and broader stakeholders.
The new venues coming on stream are all branded Merkur Slots and there’s an ongoing programme to rebrand our existing high street entertainment centres and bingo clubs which will be completed in the next 24 months.
You’ve launched the Merkur UK website – can you explain how it differs from more orthodox industry sites and how you expect it to be used?
Sascha Blodau: MERKURGROUPUK.CO.UK is slightly different from what you might expect. There are a host of misconceptions surrounding our industry and we want to provide a resource for non-industry organisations and their representatives to find out a little more about us as an organisation, our values, philosophy and what we stand for.
It’s a news-based site that will feature members of the team, it will report on what we are doing in the communities that we serve, our safer gambling undertakings courtesy of the 360 Program, our training and personal development initiatives, the work we do alongside bacta and the Gambling Business Group as well as the undertakings we make as a responsible, progressive high street retailer of safe, low-stake, low-prize gambling entertainment.
We want it to be used by local councillors, planning committees, the DCMS, Gambling Commission, the APPG, MPs, journalists, pressure groups and so on. It’s about how we deliver and how we present the unique Merkur experience.
There are few immediately recognisable gaming brand icons on the British high street – will the smiling sun fill that space?
Sascha Blodau: That’s absolutely the case. The smiling sun has been part of the business since 1976.
It’s an iconic logo, with good recall and it has become synonymous with value for money, safe, gambling entertainment wherever the Merkur brand operates.
Where does the UK sit in the company’s league table of jurisdictions – how important is the UK and has it grown in importance over the last three years?
Sascha Blodau: There are 800 MERKUR branded venues in Europe, half of which are in Germany with 180 venues in the UK.
However, I would say the UK’s importance goes beyond simply the number of venues that we operate. I report back to the main board covering a broad range of issues that we are pursuing not least our political engagement campaign and the 360 Program which, I believe, represents a template for safer gambling.
Earlier this year Paul Gauselmann took the unprecedented step of writing to the Prime Minister to voice his concerns about the government’s decision to exclude AGCs, indoor areas of pubs and Bingo Clubs from the April 12 roadmap – how does Germany view the UK?
Sascha Blodau: Paul Gauselmann wrote to the Prime Minister to ask where the evidence was to support the decision to keep high street entertainment centres and bingo clubs closed when our competitors on the high street were able to open.
The decision put a great deal of pressure on our businesses and there’s evidence to show that we lost some of our customers to licensed betting offices as a result.
That decision, in our opinion and also that of the rest of the industry was not correct or justified. Having said that there’s a lot of admiration regarding the success and speed of the vaccination programme implemented by the government.
The UK is seen as being pro-active and the success of the programme has provided a timeline for reopening and I think we can have great confidence moving forward. The company has invested close to half a billion pounds in the UK – that’s a huge sign of faith.
What makes the UK so attractive?
Sascha Blodau: It is a big investment and I think that’s due to a number of reasons.
We will all have some reasons to disagree with our regulators on occasion, but on the whole I believe regulation of the land-based sector in the UK is fair and consistent.
Secondly, the high street does not suffer from oversupply of gaming venues, in fact we expect a further 2,000 betting shop closures to take place by the end of next year.
Currently the UK has in the region of 1,100 high street entertainment centres – which is equivalent to around half the number of Greggs or the number of Wetherspoons.
This blend of sensible regulation and the dynamics of the market provide opportunities for growth.
As someone who has spent considerable time developing the brand’s presence in the UK how pleased have you been with the progress that’s been made?
Sascha Blodau: There’s always more to do and the mantra I have set all of our brands is to be the best in everything.
We have made and we continue to make progress with our venues, our gaming content, our training and our political engagement. However, if there was one area that I would highlight it would be the 360 Program.
We launched in October and in just six months we’ve made incredible progress making safer gambling part of the Merkur UK culture. But there’s absolutely no room for complacency and we have put in place systems, processes and structures to ensure that’s the case.
How do you see the main challenges facing the industry?
Sascha Blodau: The Gambling Review is pivotal to our success and to that of the industry.
We believe the Review needs to provide us with the ability to innovate and to keep up to speed with the revolution that’s taking place in areas such as cashless payments.
Social responsibility has a fundamental role to play and once again, I’m pleased about the positive work that we continue to do alongside bacta, the Gambling Business Group and YGAM.
I think that we have shown that a business can be profitable at the same time as protecting players who may be vulnerable: they are not mutually exclusive.
Indoor hospitality is open for business next week – what shape are the Merkur UK brands in and how have they used the last five months?
Sascha Blodau: We can’t wait to return to business. Everything is in place and we are ready to go from GeWeTe, to Blueprint Operations, Regal which operates over 12,000 pieces and of course the teams at Merkur Slots and Merkur Bingo.
We’ve had to reopen before so there’s no shocks about bringing a business out of enforced hibernation. All of the products are ready to go, we’ve spent the nontrading period creating exciting new content and the Regal team led by Matt Bicknell is working with its PubCo customers to respond to the unique challenges of operating gaming equipment whilst the regulations on social distancing and standing are still in place.
We have great people and it’s down to them that we are ready to go. It will be great to welcome our customers back to our venues – we’ve missed them!
How do you see the next 12- months evolving for the business?
Sascha Blodau: Technology will play a fundamental role in our development with initiatives such as the OKTO wallets, face recognition and the development of new technology platforms.
Social Responsibility and safer gambling will remain centre stage and I look forward to completing our staff training commitment working alongside YGAM.
My overarching objective is to be the best that we can be in every single department and sector that we operate in, setting new industry best standards along the way.