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IN-DEPTH 9 July 2018
Paul Willcock: Global brand, local approach
Paul Willcock, President and COO of Genting UK, gives GI an insight into the casino operator’s philosophy and plans for growth
By Gambling Insider

How does the Asian-facing nature of the Genting group affect UK and European strategy?

In terms of reconciliation, it’s not that difficult and great credit for that goes to our owners, Genting Malaysia. At their core they have a central philosophy which is to respect local management views. What they don’t do is try to implement a blanket business model in other territories around the globe.

We are however positively influenced by them in that they have huge expertise in terms of design, operational expertise and knowledge of an ethnic customer base which translates very nicely into some of our operations in the UK. It’s really beneficial as they don’t force anything on us unnecessarily but when we want to use the might of the group or its particular skill set then they are more than happy to help us.

As a side point to that, when we rebranded the old business into Genting UK we did so because there was little equity in our existing Stanley Casinos brand. One of the nice consequences of the rebrand was that our existing UK customers got to understand its heritage and appreciated the mystique of the quasi-Asian branding.

Our international customers that joined us in our Mayfair casinos or indeed some of our Chinese customers who were aware of Genting around the world became aware of the UK-facing side of the brand. It’s been a ‘win win’ and has been a very positive experience for us.

What impact will the sale of Maxims Casino Club have on UK operations? What was the driver behind this decision?

In terms of impact, let’s hope it’s a relatively modest one, Maxims is a great high-end casino in London and we have enjoyed owning it for a number of years. However, it doesn’t fit strategically within the rest of our high-end business which is focussed and concentrated within Mayfair.

With this in mind we thought that it would be best for the business to divest of our interests in Maxims and then to use these proceeds for future investments that we may have in the UK and around Europe.

You have 41 casinos in the UK and one in Egypt; does the company plan to expand its Egyptian operations?

We’ve managed to gain significant market share in Egypt in the twelve months that we have been operating there which we are very pleased with and we continue to look for opportunities to expand. In terms of autonomy, Genting Malaysia have given us permission to make investment decisions and where we identify a territory that fits with our strategic intent then we’ve certainly got the capital and the wherewithal to continue to grow.

It gives us freedom but that freedom does come with responsibilities. One of the things that our parent has done since I joined the business seven years ago is to invest significantly: They want to have a business that they are proud of in every single territory that they operate in and we are clearly one of those.

What expansion plans do you have for the UK? Will there be a programme of refurbishment or new properties?

There will certainly be a refurbishment programme. We spent multi-millions from 2012 onwards improving our casino estate and I think everyone’s aware of that. That capital investment programme has been very successful for us and we are very proud of it and actually our properties still look and feel great so there’s not the same drive needed as there was five years ago.

Any expansion now will be very strategic, to reinvest in the core estates to ensure we maintain the excellent standards that we’ve achieved. We will also look to increase and improve product where appropriate. We have sensible and significant capital plans for the business in the next five years to make sure that we maintain the product and amenities within our estate.

Does Genting UK have a strategy to link its online and bricks and mortar play and how is this implemented?

As a Genting customer you want to feel that the experience is consistent in which ever channel you choose to use. An important thing for us is that we now try and align our bricks and mortar slots offering with our online slots offering. I think aligning that content across these channels is extremely important and cross-promotion in those two environments is very helpful for us.

Our online/bricks and mortar strategy is crucial to us, forming a central part of our broader group strategy. Our ambition is to synchronise the two channels in a way that is meaningful and important to our customers. This clearly includes payment, loyalty and customer services to name but a few. In essence, we are looking to deliver a smooth and seamless multi-channel experience.

We have 41 land-based casinos, but what online exposure gives us is a broader audience which allows us to build our brand presence and extend our brand reach.

You have launched live casino in partnership with Evolution gaming, what benefits does this bring to Genting?

It allows us to shape our online offering in a way that is consistent with our bricks and mortar offering. We are pleased with our relationship with Evolution and we think their product is best-in-class.

Beyond that there are exclusive products that we’ve launched, like the dual play product that we have recently launched into our Genting casino at Resorts World Birmingham, where you can play simultaneously in the casino and online at the same table.

A lot of land-based operators have shifted the direction of their existing loyalty programmes from attracting new players to retaining existing customers, is this something that Genting UK has undertaken and if not does it plan to do so in the future?

Genting doesn’t see those two areas as mutually exclusive. The beauty of having an estate that’s quite eclectic is that there are certain businesses where a retention strategy is more appropriate and there are certain places, like Resorts World Birmingham, where bringing in new customers is essential to the lifeblood of that business.

From a retention perspective, we just need to make sure we deliver the best and most compelling experience that we can to people on different products and at different times, making sure that each instance is tailored to the needs of that individual customer.

From an attraction strategy the scale of our business allows us to reach a broader demographic of individuals. We would use the customers of those existing businesses and the staff that work within them as our biggest advocate. If we treat our customers and staff properly we would expect word of mouth to percolate around the industry and drive more customers through the door.

Genting has been very active in the area of responsible gambling. Do you believe that a responsible gambling culture should be the cornerstone of any land-based casino offering?

I do, it won’t surprise you to hear me say that. That’s absolutely crucial, clearly the mood music in the last two years from the UKGC and the government has emphasised the need for responsible gambling in business to reduce gambling-related harm and I support that approach wholeheartedly. I applaud the regulator and the government for reinforcing that position because ultimately the job of all gambling operators is to make sure that we deliver a safe experience, and hopefully one that’s fun.

Ultimately we are charged with protecting vulnerable people and if we identify them, which we do from time to time, then I think those interventions are crucial. Certainly that’s something I insist on and my executive team are crystal clear on that, but actually there is a will for it in the wider industry exemplified by the recent Responsible Gambling Week.

A lot of the activity that happened, from the reception desk all the way through to the teams at club level, reinforced that for me and I was very proud of how the team acted, they did a stunning job.

That’s just the way we do business and we’ve never had a public statement issued against us. I’m charged with the responsibility of protecting the Genting brand in the EMEA region, but the Genting brand is obviously worldwide. If I’m speaking to our ‘parent’ one of the things that is constantly discussed is the way that we operate safely and compassionately because that is crucial to the Genting Group.

It’s the top of my agenda as an executive and the thing that we talk about most, it doesn’t feel imposed on us - it’s just the way we like to do business.

How integral is the support of the surrounding communities to what Genting does in its UK operations? How does the company ensure that it keeps local communities on-side?

It’s a crucial part of the company’s activities, mainly because local communities are full of local customers! I think we just have to be good bedfellows. In many of our casinos, we act as social hubs for the local communities, be they ethnic or indigenous communities. We think we do play a responsible role in the community, we support lots of local community initiatives and contribute significantly to local charities.

I think whether you’re a casino operator or any other retailer, you have to live in the environment that you are in and embrace it. There is nuance in the way that we deal with things, we have a different relationship with customers in the north east of England than we would in the golden mile in Mayfair but I believe the central point is that we’d like to be thought upon as good solid citizens in the community.

What would be your ideal outcome from the Triennial Review?

In terms of what I have already said about responsible gambling, there is a need to be responsible citizens and deliver gambling responsibly. I would support the tone of the government’s consultation and I think my colleagues at the National Casino Forum are also of the same view.

That being said, in an ideal world would we have wanted more slot products? Yes of course we would have wanted more slots, different staking levels and wider area networks on slots - but we didn’t get that and we understand why.

Now what we’ve got to do as an industry is retrench and understand the ways in which we can improve our reputation, deliver the things that the gambling commission are driving for and ensure that we work and behave in a consistently responsible manner. Not just do the bare minimum but wake up in the morning and challenge ourselves to find new and better ways to make gambling safe. Until we have risen to this challenge, it is unlikely that we will receive the changes in legislation that we are striving for.

In your opinion what sort of impact will Britain’s impending exit from the EU have on this country’s casino industry?

It’s a difficult question to answer and if you speak to a lot of people in different industries they are all still a little unsure because I don’t think the information is crystal clear at this stage. Fundamentally the obvious implication will be around our employees, a good proportion of which come from outside the UK and we would have to understand the grandfathering position on that and the movement of labour.

That’s the most critical thing that we need to understand and cope with, beyond that it’s everything to do with the kind of trade deals that come our way from the EU and being aware of the implications there with any of our supply arrangements. Then it’s a matter of the non-gaming parts of EU legislation like data protection, data privacy, employment law. What if any are the changes that are going to happen in those areas where previously we were driven by EU law? These are the things that we don’t know, ultimately we are a retail business and our success or failure lies with the people that work in our clubs. Understanding that we can protect a people pipeline and ensuring that the people that work hard for us are protected are the most critical things.
IN-DEPTH 16 August 2019
Roundtable: David vs Goliath – Can startups really disrupt the industry?

(AL) Alexander Levchenko – CEO, Evoplay Entertainment

Alexander Levchenko is CEO of innovative game development studio Evoplay Entertainment. He has overseen the rapid expansion of the company since it was founded in early 2017 with the vision of revolutionising the player experience.

(RL) Ruben Loeches – CMO, R Franco

Rubén Loeches is CMO at R. Franco Group, Spain’s most established multinational gaming supplier and solutions provider. With over 10 years working in the gambling, betting and online gaming industries, he is skilled in operations management and marketing strategy.

(JB) Julian Buhagiar – Co-Founder, RB Capital:

Julian Buhagiar is an investor, CEO & board director to multiple ventures in gaming, fintech & media markets. He has lead investments, M & As and exits to date in excess of $370m.

(DM) Dominic Mansour – CEO, Bragg Gaming Group:

Dominic Mansour has an extensive background of nearly 20 years in the gaming and lottery industry. He has a deep understanding of the lottery secto,r having been CEO at the UK-based Health Lottery, as well as building from scratch, which he sold to NetPlay TV plc.

What does it take for a startup to make waves in gaming?

DM: On the one hand, it’s a bit like brand marketing; you build an identity, a reputation and a strategy. When you know what you stand for, you then do your best to get heard. That doesn’t necessarily require a TV commercial but ensuring whatever you do stands out from the crowd. Then you have to get out there and talk to people about it. 

AL: Being better than the competition is no longer enough; if you’re small, new and want to make a difference – you have to turn the industry on its head. Those looking to make waves need to come up with a new concept or a ground-breaking solution. Take Elon Musk, he didn’t found Tesla to improve the existing electric cars on the market, he founded it to create the industry’s first mass-market electric sports car. It’s the same for online gaming; if you want to make waves as a startup, you have to bring something revolutionary to the table.

JB: Unique IP is key, particularly in emerging (non-EU) markets. As does the ability to release products on time, with minimal downtime and/or turnaround time when issues inevitably occur. A good salesforce capable of rapidly striking partnerships with the right players is vital, as is not getting bogged down too early on in legal, operational and admin red tape.

How easy it for startups to bring their ideas to life? How do they attract capital?

AL: It depends on the people and ideas behind the startup. Of course – the wave of ‘unicorns’ is not what it used to be. Some time ago the hype was a lot greater in terms of investing in startups, but that’s changed now. Investors now want more detail – and even more importantly, to evaluate whether the startup has the capacity (as well as the vision) to solve the problem it set out to address. That’s not to say investors are no longer interested in startups – they certainly are – but now more than ever, it’s important for startups to understand their audience as well as dreaming big.

JB: To get to market quickly, you need a great but small, team. If slots or sportsbook, the mathematical engine and UX/UI are crucial. Having a lean, agile dev team that can rapidly turn wire framing and mathematical logic into product is essential. Paying more for the right team is sometimes necessary, especially when good resources are scarce (here’s looking at you, Malta and Gibraltar).

Building capital is a different beast altogether. You won’t be able to secure any funding until you have a working proof of concept and, even then, capital is likely to be drip fed. Be prepared to get a family and friends round early on to deliver a ‘kick-ass’ demo, then start looking at early-stage VCs that specialise in growth-stage assets.

How do you react when you see startups coming in with their plan for disruption?

RL: We welcome the innovation and fresh thinking startups bring. This is particularly the case in Latin America, with a market still in its infancy. One area we’d especially like to see startups making waves is in the slot development sector. Latin America is a young market that needs local innovation suited to its unique conditions – especially in regard to mobile gaming.

Operators eyeing the market have Europe‐focused core products, which creates a struggle to work to the requirements of players and regulators. To succeed there, it has become more important than ever to work with those with a knowhow of the local area to adapt products and games to besuitable from the off; we welcome the chance for local talent to develop and grow.

Do you think it’s easier for established companies to innovate and establish new ideas? 

AL: From a financial perspective, yes. It is without a doubt easier for incumbent companies to establish a pipeline of innovation via their R & D departments, as well as having the tools to hand for data gathering and analysis.

But it stops there. Startups hold court in every other way. Not only are they flexible, they can easily switch from one idea to another, change strategy instantly as the market demands and easily move team members around. Established companies know this – and this is why we’re seeing an emerging trend for established companies to acquire small, innovative online gaming start-ups. They have the right resources and unique ideas, as well as the ability to bring a fresh approach to businesses’ thinking.

RL: For me, it’s always going to be established companies. Only with the resources, industry experience and know‐how can a company apply technology and services that truly make a difference. Of course there are exceptions. But when it comes to providing a platform that can be approved by regulators across multiple markets – as well as suiting an operators’ multiple jurisdictions – it is simply impossible for a couple of young bright minds with a few million behind them to get this done.

DM: I actually think it’s harder for established companies. It’s key to differentiate between having a good idea and executing one. That’s where the big corporates struggle most. They’re full of amazing people with all sorts of great ideas but getting them through systems and processes is nearly impossible.

Is it essential to patent-protect innovative products?

AL: It’s a very interesting subject. If we take IT for example – patents can actually become a block to the evolutionary process within the industry. Of course, getting a patent future proofs yourself from the competition copying your concept but, having said that, if you’re looking to protect yourself from someone more creative, smarter and agile, you’ve probably lost the battle already!

In our industry everything is moving faster and research takes less time than the development itself. No matter how good you are at copy pasting, you can’t copy Google or Netflix. The most important thing is not the tech itself but rather its ‘use-case’ – or in other words, does it solve what it’s meant to solve? Competition is healthy and the key to innovation. If you spend your whole time looking behind you, you’ll never be able move forwards.

JB: Tricky question, and one that depends on what and where you launch this IP. It can be difficult to patent mathematical engines and logic, mostly because they’re re-treading prior art. Branding, artwork and UX is more important and can easily be copied, but the territories you launch will determine how protectable your IP will be once patented. US/EU/Japan is easy but expensive to protect in. But China/South East Asia is a nightmare to cover adequately. Specialised patent lawyers with experience in software, and ideally gaming, can help you better.