From the machinery of Bacta to the machinations of politics and regulation, CEO John White delivered one of the most extensive reports to the association in many years. But then it was the first major political gathering for the industry since 2019 and with so much on the association’s agenda, a 5,000 word speech was a real deal for the membership. From the gambling review to the Gambling Commission, the seaside to the high street, White took the AGM on a journey through the challenges and changes facing the industry now. Coinslot features the Bacta CEO’s speech in full.
May I extend a special and very warm welcome to all our members and guests here today. It really is great to be back in a room together. I never thought I would be so happy to see people in 3D after a year and a half of zoom calls. There is no doubt about it, meeting someone for real is a far more enriching experience. Anyway, you are all very welcome.
We have a great day ahead of us. This afternoon’s members’ only session will bring you all up to speed on Bacta, and this morning we are very lucky to be hearing both from John Whittingdale MP, who until recently was amongst other things the gambling minister. Towards the end of the morning session we will be hearing from Deputy CEO of the Gambling Commission, Sarah Gardner.
With the gambling review white paper expected in the new year, the timing could not be better as we move from discussing covid to discussing the future.
But we can’t discuss the future without looking and indeed learning from our past. And what a past nearly two years it has been. As we all wandered around the 2020 EAG show, none of us would have imagined what was going to hit us on march 20th. The entire economy essentially shut down.
I don’t want to rehearse the entire history and the ups and downs of lockdown, re-opening and lockdown again. It was tough, really tough, tough on all of us. Bacta stepped up to the plate and members have been highly complimentary of the information we were able to provide and the lobbying success we were able to achieve.
Not everything went our way, but without Bacta a number of the businesses represented in this room today would not be here today. That was my fear back in march 2020. Thankfully our collective efforts and what we achieved during the ensuing period has meant the collateral damage has not been as bad as I feared. It will take time to rebuild balance sheets, but at least nearly all members are here to undertake that process.
But there were lessons to learn even for a seasoned political operator like me. I’d like to discuss three of them as they are relevant for the future and the decisions we are taking now about Bacta and the way it represents the sector.
Firstly, whilst Bacta undoubtedly punches above its weight, we were not connected to parts of government that were influencing key decisions.
Yes our relationship with DCMS was already excellent and we spoke many times to ministers, senior civil servants, special advisers and were in almost daily contact with the DCMS officials responsible for our sector.
However, we were not anywhere near as well connected with the business ministry, housing, communities and local government, and to a lesser extent number 10 and the cabinet office. Our relationship building had to start from near scratch with these departments.
The same was true for the devolved administrations. And I would here like to thank our South Wales Chairman Richard Case and Scotland Regional Chairman Joseph Cullis, for all the support they gave me and the members in their respecive countries.
There was a very sharp contrast there once we did start the lobbying work. Wales was like a closed shop. Whilst part of the sector benefited from what we had achieved at Westminster, our AGC members in Wales were, to be blunt, shafted by an administration that wouldn’t listen, debate, or respond with anything approaching a coherent reason for denying the rates relief we achieved for AGCs in the rest of the country.
The contrast with Scotland was illuminating. In a more horizontal and less bureaucratic political infrastructure we rapidly got ourselves talking to the people we needed to talk to and had industry supporting decisions taken including the introduction of specific legislation to extend rates relief to AGCs. Even some of the bonkers decisions on the operation of jukeboxes were changed due to extensive lobbying by us and others.
Overall north of the border the engagement was qualitatively better by a mile than that we got in Wales and probably a quarter of a mile than we got in Westminster.
Secondly, and a problem beyond Bacta alone, government’s understanding of business was generally poor.
This was palpably evident in their failure to support supply chains that fed into the hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors. They seemed to believe that a suppler would simply find another market in one of the sectors that was open such as food retailing.
It was as surprising to me as to others that a chancellor that had generally done an excellent job in supporting the economy, seemed to have a blind spot on how supply chains worked.
It wasn’t rocket science. Bacta members supplying businesses that were closed had no other market and were therefore forced to close too. They were equally as badly affected as their customers, yet there was no equivalent support. Once acknowledged the support that did come was all too little too late and it is in machine supply and manufacturing that we saw our covid casualties. Unnecessary casualties to boot. I hope the soon to be passed legislation on rates rebates will help some supply chain businesses to get some backdated help in this area.
Thirdly and finally, the work we did during the pandemic highlighted how difficult it is to penetrate the minds of politicians with an understanding of our sector.
This is not new of course and is why Bacta spends so much time engaging with politicians. There are literally thousands of often competing interests demanding attention from a politician’s ear and it is hard work to get heard above the din. To do so takes time, evidence and in the case of MPs constituency engagement. We did a lot of that. We have over the years, and over the past two years in particular, made some great strides as a result.
Yet seaside arcades were not included in the temporary 5 percent VAT rate given to the tourism sector, and the mind-boggling capriciousness of government’s attitude to AGCs meant, despite all the benefits we did get, that they wouldn’t allow AGCs to open as shops alongside betting offices. By the way we have received a private apology – probably as close as you will ever get to an admission that the government was wrong.
I would like at this point to thank everyone who got involved during the pandemic. The many, many letters written and meetings held made a difference.
In particular, I also want to mention Bacta’s bigger members. Often portrayed as a bete noir, I have to say that when it comes to engaging with Bacta and investing time and resources in political lobbying they cannot be faulted and have been a tremendous help in the AGC campaign work we have been doing since re-opening.
They are not alone of course, but I wanted to publicly acknowledge their help and in particular that of Tony Boulton and Liz Speed. They have met with loads of MPs in constituencies across the country and have allowed us to use their venues to host ministers and civil servants on more than one occasion.
I want to thank Billy Peak and Elliot Ball who gave John such a great day out when he was minister for gambling.
As a result of everyone’s efforts, large company or small company, I thought I would just show you how that engagement programme has gone over 2021 (slide of MPs etc met and PQs asked read out the numbers). That is an impressive number and just one of the ways we get our message across.
But we must remember, Bacta is made up of many businesses large and small sitting across a £2 billion industry employing tens of thousands of people. Ensuring we can deliver for all of you, as we have done in the past, remains my central and over-riding motive for doing what I do. And no other organisation has the reputation, reach, skill set and resources to do so.
Being an effective organisation, an effective industry, requires all its component parts to come together and to thrash out a common line. It can be difficult, but without a single position, government can’t do anything. It can’t favour one part of the industry over another – we were told that explicitly at the last gambling review. Government having cut the FOBT stake to £2 for which we had campaigned so hard, was not going to give us the concessions we had asked for at the same time, no matter how modest. And government can’t agree to do something if the industry is not agreed upon it. It’s the first rule of political lobbying. That’s why successful industries are fully representative of their sector, have one voice and a clear programme, alongside all the skills and resources that we are lucky to have at Bacta. It is our strength and gives me optimism for the gambling review.
Given some of these pandemic lessons learned Bacta has shifted its emphasis and spent more time on our AGC work, developing a dedicated AGC campaign to shift the dial in perceptions of this part of or our industry which contributes so much to the cultural and economic lives of high streets up and down the country. As we will see from the centre for economics and business research shortly, on average each AGC is contributing half a million pounds to each high street on which they are located and providing on average 12 jobs for the local community. There are not many other shops on the high street contributing as much.
You might ask why we are we emphasising AGCs having spent millions of pounds and thousands of hours fighting for the AGC sector to achieve the £2 stake cut. That decision two years ago at last provided a more level commercial playing field on the high street, and removed one of the reputational drags on moving the industry forward. Consequently, pre pandemic we were beginning to see a significant uptick in cash box income as players realised that the AGC could provide the entertainment they wanted in the safe environment they desired.
The answer is because all parts of industry matter. They are inter-linked. Not only do many other parts of industry have AGCs on their premises, many companies operate across the piece.
Reputationally too, our different sectors are inter-linked. Think how we suffered from the negative back wash from the public perception of FOBTs. Breaking that link, that association with amusements leaves the AGC exposed to unfounded criticism and vice-versa.
It is also the case that the agc sector is the most tightly controlled of our sectors and some of those controls are unnecessary and anachronistic. That is why ninety percent of our gambling review submission is focused on change for the AGC sector.
And in another step to support the sector I am pleased to be able to announce today, the creation of a high street hero award, specifically for the AGC sector. Part of a new awards initiative, details of which we will publish in the new year, the high street hero addresses the fundamental pr challenge for high street gaming. Namely that it is hard to sell the benefits of an AGC to a generally negative population. Even focusing on the contribution to the local economy, won’t cut the mustard. We need a softer PR message and we will do this by asking members to submit the names of an individual from within their business that has gone above on beyond the call of duty to help their local community whether through their employment or through voluntary work. I encourage all of you to submit an entry.
And whilst I am on announcements about the AGC sector, the Bacta portal which was launched earlier this year to host all the many services Bacta provides to its members, as well as delivering an LCCP compliant customer interaction and self-exclusion service, has already, ahead of schedule, launched its latest module. The famous Bacta toolkit, now re-branded as the Bacta handbook, is available online on the portal to Bacta members only. We will be adding next year an age verification log and a flexible venue log creator tool so you can design any form you like to capture the information you put down on paper currently – or you can use one of our templates. All that for £60 a year.
Of course the customer interaction and self-exclusion modules remain central to the portal. The very positive feedback we have received since its launch has been encouraging and we will be updating those too.
We took some time at Bacta’s recent and excellent SR exchange, to conduct a refresher session on the portal as it is very much an embodiment of Bacta’s approach to social responsibility. Everything we do is mediated through an SR lens.
Quite rightly so. As I said to you in my very first conference speech of the modern era seven years ago – if you don’t embrace it, meaningfully, we will achieve nothing, politically. I think we and the whole gambling industry has really come on leaps and bounds since then and this year’s recent safer gambling week was probably the best received ever.
There are some great examples of companies really getting it. I don’t want to be accused of forming a fan club as they are not alone in this, but Novomatic and Merkur have engaged with SR in a way that really does set an example to all companies across the entire gambling space. You will have read about the 360 programme and Merkur’s, Lola Wood, presented just some of the findings from the focus group work they had done with their customers. What they found will be true across the sector and something all of you will already know from informal conversations with your customers. They really appreciated playing in venues and with businesses that take SR seriously. It communicates a palpable commitment to customers as much as the way the staff serve them a cup of coffee. And that was another key point from Lola’s presentation – how SR and all other customer service dynamics were integrated in the mind of the customer.
And Bacta itself has this year employed a new member of staff, Russell Edge, dedicated to driving the SR agenda forward for the industry. I believe we are the only organisation across the sector that has this dedicated resource.
But SR is not just about what goes on in an AGC. Our FEC members have to be and are just as diligent, many operating licensed over 18 areas for Cat C product, and of course enforcing our no under 18 policy for cash payout Category D fruit machines. They have the added responsibility of safeguarding children in their venues – again something we addressed at the SR exchange – and it is heartening to hear so many examples of how our members do that from participating in sea-front lost child schemes to simply the way the venues are organised. The way we care about our customers and their welfare communicates powerfully what we are about as a sector.
Our SR work has also extended across to machine design. Mirroring an exercise undertaken in the on-line space, the whole machine industry whether in bookmakers, or in bingo halls or arcades, came together with Bacta to look at just how we can make our products safer. Under the chairmanship of Mat Ingram from Reflex, a comprehensive review of what we offer was conducted. We reflected on research, our own experience and the views of those with lived-experience of gambling related harm, to determine what needed to change. We are in on-going dialogue with the gambling commission on what that code will look like. It is not a static document and will change as we learn more.
And talking of documents Bacta has this year launched a comprehensive review of all the industry standards Bacta has produced over the years. Some are quite old and will need updating. It’s quite a task that chairman, Blueprint’s, Alan Claypole, has taken on, but a very important one as Bacta’s standards are industry standards, freely available to all to make sure the whole industry can benefit. We have already updated and launched the latest iteration of the Bacta dataport standard and we are close to launching the updated electronic metering standard.
I know I have spoken a lot about AGCs today. I felt I needed to. But that does not mean the other parts of Bacta are ignored. We continue with our save our seaside campaign and last night for those of you who attended the parliamentary reception, you will have heard about this year’s winner of the seaside selfie competition, Roger Gale for this absolutely magnificent photo when he was in Margate. Jimmy will say a little bit more about what we did for the winner of the 2019 competition, Emma Lewell-Buck MP, when he talks about our charitable work shortly.
We also continue to support our single site members and our manufacturers/distributors.
The launch of game payment technology, was as a result of a direct request from operators to find a cashless solution for gaming machines, currently barred from accepting debit cards as a form of payment. Despite covid and the competitive challenge of others interested in this space, it has gone from strength to strength. It is a great product and it recently solved a long-standing problem for single site operators, namely how to power a card reader without nightly recharges or access to a power source. Four double A batteries, coupled with the GPT Technology, will give you a card reader, with all the benefits that brings, that works for years. Not bad for a fintech start up that has had to weather the most difficult set of market conditions anyone can have ever known.
Our single site operators also benefitted from the direct negotiations Bacta opened up with ppl over jukebox fees during the pandemic. Thanks to our newly formed, Music Users Group under the chairmanship of David Gershlick, we got the whole year’s fees cancelled.
For our manufacturers and distributors, supporting their customers is supporting them, so everything we do for seaside arcades, AGCs and single-site operators flows back down the supply chain.
As I said earlier however, the supply chain got very little direct support through covid. Not only that, we could not hold EAG 2021. We therefore put on a virtual show and, recognising how tight money would be for the supply chain, and recognising it would take months for money to flow once trading began, Bacta subsidised members’ stand space at EAG 2022 to the tune of nearly half a million pounds. And I here want to publicly thank Karen Cooke from Swan Events who puts on a fabulous show every year and Martin Burlin who chairs the board of directors and pulls it all together. You will hear from Martin later this afternoon about the 2022 show which is selling way ahead of forecast I am pleased to say.
Before I close it would be remiss of me not to say a few words about the Gambling Commission. I can see a look of horror passing across Sarah’s face as I say those words. Don’t worry. We are friends and anything I say or have ever said is as a critical friend. We after all share the same ambitions – to permit gambling insofar as it is consistent with the licensing objectives. No one disagrees with those. Or at least I hope they don’t. It is just a question of how we discharge our respective responsibilities to achieve them. We are partners in that. Asymmetrically of course, you are our regulator, but it is only by working together that we will optimise the outcomes across those three licensing objectives.
There has been a definite improvement in the relationship between Bacta and the Commission over the past seven years since I have been back at Bacta. That has resulted in much more dialogue, challenge and change. The tone of the Commission has changed too for which I am deeply appreciative. And with a new CEO and new chairman I hope we can accelerate that momentum.
But….You knew there was a but….There are a few things that do need to change in our view.
Firstly, the Commission needs to get better at understanding the realities of operating. Neil McArthur bravely volunteered if you recall to spend a couple of days working on the grand pier in Weston. It gave him insights he reflected back to us and which he would never have had, had he not done this. The consequential programme offering GC officials the chance to do the same never really got going. That is more than a shame as understanding the industry you are regulating will make you better regulators. I would love to see staff and commissioners visiting more venues.
Secondly, one of the biggest bug bears of operators is the time it takes to get a response from the Commission to enquiries or to license applications and variances. Sarah and I spoke a lot about this over the summer and the commission has looked at this but I am still getting complaints. This is about customer service not about regulation.
Thirdly, crime. This has to be the biggest of the complaints I receive. There are machines for example being openly sold in significant numbers on social media platforms by unlicensed individuals and companies. We submitted a dossier to the Commission last year and one operator had their collar felt. They are now back on-line and the rest of the gang selling machines have continued quite merrily breaking the law. The Commission must get to grips with this. Nothing short of persistent high profile prosecutions putting these criminals behind bars will do anything to stop them. We are more than happy to help with gathering the evidence.
So ladies and gentleman, I have had a good look at the past and explored something of the present. What about the future?
I appreciate that the post-pandemic world is still an uncertain place but it does no harm to remind ourselves of the vision Bacta set out three years ago when contemplating what the industry would look like in 2030. It shaped what we do and continues to do.
We saw an industry where our form of recreational wagering was seen as commonplace and safe, whether in an FEC or in an AGC, on the back of industry leading social responsibility measures and customer service second to none. Where our seafronts and high streets were enriched by our leisure offer and where customers felt no difficulty in trying what we had to offer.
It was a future where the pent-up creativity of our sector was allowed, following regulatory reform, to deliver new and exciting products that delighted our customers and crucially expanded our player base.
It was a future where young people saw a career in our sector as highly attractive whether as a member of the AGC floor team, a game design creative, or a software engineer.
This remains our vision and I hope from just some of the work I have mentioned today, that we are getting there.
I am very keen to use the pronoun ‘we’ when I give these kinds of talks – it’s a pronoun that probably sums up this organisation better than anything.
We are an industry, the amusement machine industry, with big members and small members, different parts of the supply chain, all working together so all boats are lifted on the rising tide.
Yes we will have arguments. Yes we will move at a different pace, yes we don’t always get it right. But I can look back over the past and see great progress. I can even look back to 1988 when as a fresh-faced industry novice I met Alan Willis and was terrified by Martin Burlin. Even then there was a great sense that we were all in this together. When I was educated on the ways of this great industry by Charles Henry, Roger Withers, John Bollom, Brian and Sonia Meaden, to name just a few. When I was embraced by the showmen like the wonderful Billy Edwards, who apparently is now warming to me after 30 years. Through to Jason, Jimmy, Tim, Steve, Jason, Gabi, James and Greg. To John Stergides who knows everything there is to know about how machines work. To all those I haven’t mentioned. When I look back and see where we are now I know we have, together, as Bacta, done a good job for good people. We have made a difference to the businesses we represent. We have made a difference to the people we employ. We have made a difference to the people we entertain.
You don’t get that unless you have heart, passion, history and experience. I am privileged to represent you.