Brands that are comfortable in their own skin and that have a clear direction can do powerful things. MERKUR UK has set the pace in safer gambling, in its support of community-based not for profit organisations and its engagement with MPs and policy makers. Not a company to rest on its laurels, it has set ambitious targets for 2022.
SASCHA BLODAU GENERAL MANAGER MERKUR UK
Coinslot: A year that opened in lockdown, staggered through to reopening, via a supply chain crisis and ending with Omicron: how will you look back on 2021?
Sascha Blodau: There’s no escaping the fact that the year has been difficult compounded by the fact that so many issues were outside our control.
From a MERKUR Slots and MERKUR Bingo perspective consumer confidence is central. If our customers don’t feel confident about public health and feel compromised by being in public places it will obviously feed through into footfall which is problematic for any retail brand.
When the lockdown measures were lifted our customers were quick to return, safe in the knowledge that they trusted us to have the most rigorous Covid protocols in place and that our businesses and the brilliant venue teams were totally committed to the delivery of a safe, secure, socially responsible and enjoyable experience.
Those customers who had migrated to play online came back to the venues and I think what we saw was the importance of the connection between the team and their customers, the vast majority of whom they know by their first name.
Overall, 2021 clearly demonstrated that high street low stake gambling entertainment is about more than playing the best gaming machines – and all about how and where people choose to spend their leisure entertainment spend.
In common with every other hospitality business recruitment has been a huge challenge. We have a 7 percent shortfall in staffing and I would like to pay tribute to our venue teams for their support in helping to provide the exemplary levels of customer care that our brands are famous for.
Another key point I am extremely proud of is how the team remained totally focussed on delivering our 360 Program comprising the MERKUR Initiative, Customer Experience Groups, our commitment to the environment and pivoting the highly valuable MP engagement programme from in-person-in-venue to digital platforms.
Coinslot: We’ve had five months since re-opening, what were your highlights of the year?
Sascha Blodau: In general terms my highlights include the fantastic support we have received from our customers who clearly value the brand experience that we deliver, the professionalism and dedication of the team working at every level in the business and our success in delivering the 360 Program in line with the strategic plan.
MERKUR UK has a track record and hard-earned reputation for its support of groups and individuals in our society who are less fortunate. We made the decision to switch from supporting bigger single focus charities to a range of smaller organisations and individuals (nominated by our venue teams) who make a real difference to their communities.
MERKUR Initiative is committed to helping 50 such causes a year and so far, has assisted a wide range of organisations including funding Christmas lunches for patients, their families and nursing staff at a hospice in Milton Keynes, funding to help the work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, a charity climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in aid of environmental causes and supporting a group that provides entertainment for children who are in hospital.
It’s a huge task to identify possible recipients, liaising with the organisations and managing the entire programme. Customer Experience Manager Lola Wood has done a magnificent job with the MERKUR Initiative during a year in which our support has been needed most.
I am immensely proud of the contributions made by the entire MERKUR UK team from the newest recruit to our most experienced executives.
Coinslot: 2021 has been a major challenge to the way our businesses operate. How have you risen to this challenge and what new developments are you introducing to rebuild and strengthen your operation?
Sascha Blodau: 2021 has shone a light on everything that we do. Lockdown provided a time for reflection and all of the brands that are part of the MERKUR UK family have used the time to have proper conversations with customers and colleagues to examine ways in which we can improve on what we do and how we do it.
I’m confident that we have the structures in place, that we have an exciting vision that everyone subscribes to and perhaps most importantly we have the right people with the right skills and fantastic energy in order to deliver on our objectives.
Coinslot: What are you looking or hoping for in 2022 and what’s on your New Year’s wish list?
Sascha Blodau: The industry can only operate within the legislative and regulatory framework and it is clear that the current framework has been overtaken by advances in technology and the way that people enjoy their leisure time and spend.
As such the review of gambling must bring the industry into the 21st century and allow us to innovate and compete. Gambling entertainment brands such as MERKUR Slots and MERKUR Bingo are making huge investments on the high street and I would like to see the sector recognised for its role in supporting local economies and to be part of the conversations taking place regarding regeneration and levelling-up.
On the basis that when it comes to delivering safer gambling it’s never a case of ‘job done’ I hope that the progress that we are making with the 360 Program will provide insight into helping the very small minority of people who experience gambling related problems.