Coinslot talks to Joseph Cullis, chairman of Bacta’s Division 1 and the association’s Scottish Regional Chair about the challenges facing the industry over the coming year. His business, Cullis’s Amusements, operates FECs and AGCs on the West coast of Scotland, so if anyone has a handle on how the industry has fared during the pandemic, he will. It’s been tough, he’s only too aware, but the summer offers a boost as staycations sweep across the nation. Cullis walks us through the practicalities and politics of a return to action for businesses just desperate to reopen.
Joseph Cullis is from a long line of amusements industry figures, it’s a heritage that runs through his blood. For almost 60 years, his family have been operating out of Largs on the Firth of Clyde on the west coast of Scotland; Cullis’s Amusements providing the permanent stop for his grandfather who had been prolific on the travelling showmen’s circuit.
Now, the Cullis portfolio has grown to three units with Saltcoats and Dumfries joining the fold. So when it comes to operational matters, few are more in tune with the issues facing family run businesses than Joseph Cullis himself, an experience that has earned him election to two offices in the Bacta structure, chair of the association’s Scottish region and its Division 1 membership.
These are crucial times for the industry, and Cullis is under no illusions of the task facing operators who have been among the most harshly impacted by the coronavirus crisis.
“The main objective would be to see a full recovery for our sector from the effects of the pandemic,” he reflected. “Having lost two consecutive Easter holidays and other vital trading periods over the last 14 months, we need to see stability return to the economy, an end to lockdowns and be able to trade without restrictions.”
It’s a straightforward list of requests, albeit these are not particularly straight-forward times. But Cullis remains clear in his vision: “The lifting of social distancing measures would be a welcome move and would allow members to operate their premises without capacity restraints being in place. It’s vital for our businesses survival that we’re able to maximise our earning potential. Hopefully with the success of the vaccination program domestic tourism will exceed pre-Covid levels and the easing of international travel restrictions will encourage overseas visitors to our shores.”
After such a long run out of action – a position Cullis knows only too well with Scottish operations both first in and last out of the country’s ultra restrictive Covid measures – he maintains a positive perspective for arcades and FECs in the coming months.
And that stems from the expectation of a summer staycation bonanza. “I feel we will see an increase of visitors to the coast and holiday parks this summer. The 2021 holiday season will very much be about staycation and I expect the coming months to be very buoyant for our sector,” he observed.
But it’s not going to be plain sailing, as Cullis is quick to remind us. “This will bring challenges to our members with social distancing measures currently still in place until at least the 21st of June and a possible reluctance from the public to linger indoors for long periods of time.”
That said, there’s no doubting Cullis will be busy this summer, both operationally and politically as the industry readies itself for a gambling review, regulatory changes and the challenges of an economic recovery. But he is certain the amusements sector will play a key role in this.
A man on a mission, Cullis has no doubt this is a time for the industry to step up to the plate, as he concluded: “Post Covid, tourism will play a massive part in the recovery of the economy and the amusement industry will be at the very heart of this.”
Brexit, legislation and cashless app innovations, Cullis offers some answers
Coinslot: What do you think businesses in your division and region need from the government in terms of grants, tax adjustments and business support schemes when the Covid restrictions are finally eased?
Joseph Cullis: The FEC sector needs to see an immediate extension of the VAT reduction that has been applied to hospitality, holiday accommodation and admissions to attractions.
Coinslot: What will your divisional members be looking for in the new gambling act? And what changes do you want to see implemented?
Joseph Cullis: For Division 1, I don’t envisage many changes. Our asks are minimal and with the review being evidence led, I doubt there will be much change going forward.
The DCMS has made it clear that this review is more about restrictions than liberalisation. The Bacta over-18 initiative on Cat D reel-based cash payout machines should protect us from any restrictive changes being implemented on the FEC sector.
The one change that’s imperative for the future of our business, is to see primary legislation amended to permit the use of debit cards on all types of machines.
Cash is becoming alien to the younger generations and there has evidently been a move away from cash which will require business adaptation. For the long-term survival of our industry, we need as many payment solutions as possible. That’s why the GPT cashless App is so timely and it’s great to see so much interest in it from operators. The functionality of the GPT solution, combined with the social responsibility measures which are built in are ideal – because it has been designed specifically for our industry.
Coinslot: There are many who argue that the decision makers, and indeed, the regulators, neither understand the mechanics of the business, nor the contribution it makes to local communities and the economy. Is this a fair criticism, and if so, what points would you and your division and regional members put forward to enlighten the decision makers?
Joseph Cullis: The VAT reduction issue highlights how undervalued the amusement sector is viewed upon by the government. We contribute £1.6 billion to the economy annually and have over 20,000 employees. In excess of 20 million people visit seaside FECs each year and our sector will play a massive part in the rebuilding process of the tourist industry at the coast. Post COVID, tourism will play a massive part in the recovery of the economy and the Amusement industry will be at the very heart of this.
Coinslot: In real terms, what does Brexit mean to the industry and your division in particular? And going forward, where do you see the advantages and disadvantages for the sector?
Joseph Cullis: Short term definitely brings disadvantages and challenges to Division 1 members. The employment pool has shrunk considerably with a high proportion of EU nationals previously working in the UK not returning post Brexit due to the implementation of bureaucratic procedures to allow an income to be earned.
This may lead to a shortage of staff as the FEC sector employs a high number of seasonal staff with many coming from within the EU.
Also with shipping costs rising sharply since January, we are starting to see price increases for new Amusement equipment, merchandise and prizes.
Long term it’s uncertain how Brexit will affect our sector. Hopefully with the UK Government not having the same financial commitments to the EU as pre- Brexit, we will see more investment to coastal projects, seaside towns and travel infrastructure.