Steve Ambrose is Chair of Bacta’s Division 3 and Operations Director at Praesepe. As far as high street gaming is concerned, Ambrose knows exactly where the industry sits: right at the heart of the local economy and community. Here, he talks to Coinslot about the challenges facing the association’s operators division, and how the industry must play a key role in the revival of the great British high street, its economy and raising the bar for top quality leisure and entertainment to the customer. And for Ambrose, that means investment and ‘a long term commitment into the communities in which we operate’.
Coinslot: It’s been the toughest year the industry has ever experienced, and the long shadow of Covid will likely continue through to at least Easter. The government’s package of support has been uneven to date – employees on furlough payments whilst directors received no payments, grants for some sector, nothing for the supply business. So, what do you think the businesses in your division need from the government in terms of grants, tax adjustments and business support schemes when the Covid restrictions are finally eased?
Steve Ambrose: The vast majority of Division 3 members operate on Britain’s High Streets and it’s this area which will face the biggest challenge.
During the course of the pandemic we have seen a number of key retailers cease trading, the hastening of the consumer move to online retail and overall shop vacancy rate increasing.
New business start-up grants will be key to filling those vacancies but for businesses like ours that are already in operation we need the ability to re-invest and the simplest way of doing this is through a cut in MGD, other sectors may have benefited from a reduction in VAT but as we pay MGD this benefit bypassed us.
I would call for a temporary reduction of MGD to 5 percent, this will allow us to invest in our operations which will, in turn, improve the High Street, benefit the whole supply chain and create jobs in local communities.
Additionally, a continuation of the abolishment of businesses rates would encourage new businesses start-ups in the High Street and also benefit existing businesses like ours as we adjust to new consumer behaviours.
Coinslot: The industry is a resilient one, but it has taken a massive hit in the past year. Consumer confidence, the role of the high street, changes to payment methods – it’s going to be a very different businesses environment. What changes do you think the industry will see when business starts up again, and what help will it need to adjust to a new normal?
Steve Ambrose: I expect an initial bounce back due to pent up demand, but over time High Street footfall will be lower until it manages to re-invent itself.
Online consumer spend for the retail customer was predicted to hit 30 percent by 2030 pre pandemic, but during the pandemic online spend rose to around 40 percent, and we now need to work with Government as part of a “High Street” collective to bring the bricks and mortar customer back and we can only do this through providing a high quality experience in high quality surroundings.
The expectation from the consumer has also changed, we will need to continue to provide PPE and additional cleaning services long after any restrictions have been removed and this all takes investment and a long term commitment into the communities in which we operate.
Coinslot: It is the year of the gambling review and new modern legislation has been promised by the government. What will your divisional members be looking for in the new gambling act? And what changes do you want to see implemented?
Steve Ambrose: The key here will be flexibility, the current act does not encourage engagement between the regulator and operator, it does not support or reflect the fast changing environment in which we operate and ultimately this does not benefit the consumer.
Members want to be able to keep up with technological changes in a socially responsible way and we need a legislative change that will allow the Secretary of State and/or the Commission to sanction changes without the need for Primary or Secondary legislation, this would allow us to evaluate any proposed changes in a live environment so that we can ensure player safety.
We would ask for there to be a statutory requirement for a regular review of gambling regulation at least every 3 years. This approach would allow us to test and evaluate “direct to machine” cashless payments as well as a number of other initiatives that would bring an enhanced consumer experience.
Coinslot: The gambling review has been described as a make or break moment for the industry. And 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 put forward to enlighten the decision makers?
Steve Ambrose: I think this is a fair criticism but we must all take some responsibility for allowing it to be this way.
For many years the AGC sector has suffered from being tarred with the same brush as other more divisive sections of the gambling industry and it hid away, afraid of being singled out and trying to hide behind the softer seaside sector and as a result there are not many people who know who we are, what we do and how responsible we are.
The Adult Gaming Centre sector or perhaps the “High Street Entertainment Centre” sector has been present on our High Streets for many years, we have incorporated socially responsible policies and practices into our businesses before the phrase “socially responsible” came into popular use yet we consistently find ourselves at the end of misunderstandings or finger pointing from local government departments and officials.
We have a responsibility to educate local government, MPs and decision makers to show what our sector is and how it operates, the recently published CEBR report into the contribution of AGC’s will help us but the needs to go hand in hand with one to one meetings and venue visits so that those who are in power truly understand our sector and its contribution to the High Street.
Coinslot: After what seems a lifetime, the UK has now left the EU with a new framework. Free trade in one hand, more bureaucracy in the other. In real terms, what does it mean to the industry and your division in particular? And going forward, where do you see the advantages and disadvantages for the industry?
Steve Ambrose: The impact on employment is a big concern, many of our employees come from an EU background and have benefited from free movement. Having been in lockdown it remains to be seen how many of those employees will ultimately return, this employment status is also reflected in our customer population and whilst we may have a very diverse customer base the withdrawal of any particular section of society could have a detrimental impact.
We are also a consumer of products and supplies so any additional cost to our suppliers will ultimately be passed on resulting in higher charges. We have no way of passing these costs on to our customers due to the specific nature or our regulation controlling stakes and prizes.
Coinslot: Looking at the next two years, what are the key issues your division will be facing? And, in an ideal world, what developments and changes would you like to see implemented in that period?
Steve Ambrose: We will need to react to any changes in gambling legislation and ensure that any measures undertaken are proportionate to risk. This goes hand in hand with demonstrating that our sector is socially responsible.
As previously mentioned, I would like to see Division 3 regain its status within Bacta but needs to go alongside all four divisions in Bacta to work on issues of commonality and support each other.