The struggles of the hospitality industry have been well chronicled in the media over the last year or more, and as I write, the hallowed date of 17 May for re-opening is fast approaching and some sectors may be in a better position to get a running start than others.
Personally, I am a firm believer that there’s going to be an explosion of activity from patrons who’ve had nothing beyond the essentials on which to spend their money for a year, and tills will be ringing away up and down the land, with the offline gambling sector being no exception.
However, there is another looming potential problem in the casino sector, likely shared by others – availability of staff. The impact of Brexit combined with Ovid may deliver an impact greater than the sum of its parts on an industry that has depended in recent years on more than its fair share of European imports for staffing.
Let’s wind the clock back a decade and figure out how we got to where we are. Ten or 15 years ago, there was a significant expansion in UK casinos, in scale if not so pronounced in numbers. Many sites were relocated from smaller city-centre premises, to larger edge-of-town sites. Gaming table numbers increased, and the general feeling was that with UK casino participation rates being so low by comparison with other countries, there was an opportunity for operators to open up the industry with more newbie-friendly surroundings. Leaving aside whether this was a profitable strategy, clearly larger premises would require more staff.
This gap was filled in many cases with staff from overseas. In the UK offline casino sector, gaming staff can’t just be pulled in off the street. They generally need a six-week training period, and it takes at least that long for them to apply for and receive their Personal Functional Licence, which confirms they’re fit and proper to operate in a business that needs to stay firmly on the right side of the law. Enterprising types in Europe began running training schools for dealers, and applying for their licences directly, meaning they could offer dealers that were table ready without UK operators having to deal with the expense and delay of “growing their own”.
Many a casino punter over the last few years will have had the experience of being dealt to by friendly faces from Italy (particularly Sicily), Lithuania, Poland and a wealth of other countries, and the whole arrangement worked tremendously well for all concerned. However, there’s now a real concern that having relied on this resource to keep the lights on, Brexit and Covid in tandem could derail an industry that has come to rely on a rich seam of skilled pre-packed colleagues.
I spoke with a senior industry contact about this looming problem. He told me in no uncertain terms that we don’t know for sure where we stand. “Many of our European staff have successfully achieved settled status, but they may not be in the country, and may not be able to enter easily pending Covid regulations,” he said. That doesn’t sound ideal, and we further discussed the prevailing mindset. “The fact that the pound has lost some of its value against the Euro won’t help either, making for a reduced incentive for staff to return if their objective was to send funds home for their family or future,” he added.
The issues around Brexit and Covid are most pressing for staff based overseas, but the sector has long struggled with recruitment in the UK, too. As readers will know, UK casinos outside London are not generally a licence to print money, and with the wage bill being a very significant part of operating costs – almost no casino can open its doors without spending a £1M on wages, and most significantly more – they aren’t in a world of being able to blast 20% pay increases to boost the intake.
“One of our other issues is the minimum living wage,” my connection further commented. “As it increases, it pushes up our floor rate, and of course we still need to maintain the increments for our more senior staff, so there really isn’t much space for more increases. Tips do help, but it’s not a huge bonus in most sites. We are really competing against other base level jobs like working in retail or behind a bar.”
While that may not sound like a recipe for the pinnacle of customer service, anyone who has visited UK casinos will attest that service levels range from the wonderfully personal to the actively hostile – much like anywhere else in the world at the grind action level. UK casinos tend to end up with a hard core of staff who stick around for years, plus a revolving cast who try it out for a few months or a year, and decide it’s not for them. The hardcore are generally (although not in all cases) the ones who get to love the environment and the guests, and become a much loved part of the fabric of the club. In many ways, that’s the key to getting a team that will deliver what an operator needs – stability. There’s a lot to be said for the casino working environment for the right type of person. Sure, nights are tough but speaking as an ex-dealer, shift manager and GM, there’s a rhythm to casino life that makes it a satisfying lifestyle. Weekend nights out are overrated anyway, midweek happy hours fit the bill for a lower wage, and with rush hour an irrelevance and progression a possibility for a hard working staff member, it’s not all bad.
If there is a reduction in available staff, particularly on the dealing side, casino operators have some difficult decisions to make. It’s not like staffing levels haven’t been cut down as far as possible from a cost perspective in past years, so there isn’t a simple solution. The only alternative course of actual in the face of true staff shortage, if table yielding has been maximised under a larger staff complement, is to drive up the cost of playing. A good operator will already have games running at maximum speed, so price of play is the only other option. These days (as opposed to the old 1968 Gaming Act), we can amend rules to be a little tougher – double zero blackjack and harsher blackjack rules would increase the edge – but in a market mostly depending on local customers like the UK, that’s going to raise eyebrows. Raising price of play is thus the route operators may take, and here is where there may still be some juice.
From vague memories of when casinos were open, you would still see £3 blackjack games provincially in some places, but if staff is short, these types of games must surely disappear. Roulette, the mainstay of UK casinos, is more complex, since if you increase the minimum chip cost, people just play fewer chips, so enforcing a minimum spread per spin may be the next move.
My contact also made the point that ancillary spend might be the next target, and given the nature of most newer UK casinos, with ample bar and food provision, that makes sense. The problem is there’s a big gap between gaming spend and F&B– typical averages outside London in the UK might be £20 to £25 per head and £3 to £5 per head respectively – so that’s a lot of work to do to fill the hole. There’s also the issue that serious punters and social visitors primarily there for a few drinks and to watch the gamers don’t always mix that well, so the F&B route out of the problem may not be straightforward.
Other ideas have been floating around for years, like some kind of hybrid offer with bar, food, cash gaming and other types of social games (shuffleboard, pool and so on), or a few very international scale sites (torpedoed by the change in legislative policy), or my preferred route of smaller sites focused on pure gamers with miniature wage bills to match. Whatever happens, offline play levels aren’t increasing, wage bills are marching northward and the precious resource of competent gaming staff is likely about to take a nosedive.
Silvie Mazacova- veteran casino dealer at Genting Casinos UK
Casinos should definitely worry about more than just whether their patrons will return or not. Staff levels should absolutely be top of their agenda as well.
While some casino groups kept nearly the same level of staff as before Covid and made use of the incredibly generous furlough scheme, some casinos went for it and decided to make as much as 60% of their staff redundant.
However, casino businesses have seen a massive plunge in staff levels over the past decade. I experienced a 50% decrease in staff numbers over the past five years. From 40 people on a night shift to 20 in one club, and from 15 people on a day shift to 8 in another. Low levels of staff may also mean dealers will spend longer periods on the tables between breaks - hardly a recipe for exceptional customer service (or enhanced security).
The wage for new croupiers just joining the business hasn’t been particularly encouraging either. Some high-end casinos in London are offering amounts of around £22k. Yes, tips in London are better than in provincial casinos, but, as we have found out this year, they are of no help if something unpredictable happens, like a global pandemic. Looking at possibilities for changing career paths, remote working is an enticing possibility, and in other sectors, a new working week looks something like three days in the office and two days at home. Why am I mentioning this? The commuting cost, of course.
Another facet that’s challenging for casino staff is the chance to progress and earn a pay-rise since not everyone got hit by Covid as hard as casinos, as other companies still offer progression.
My view is it’s not a secret that progression in a casino means that you are doing more tasks for the same amount of money. Senior croupiers run the floor and dealers inspect. It’s not unusual to earn 22k a year and supervise a game with tens of thousands of pounds at stake. I am afraid that many people will not want extra responsibility for no extra reward. So who would want to commute to the centre of town five times a week and spend all night and weekends at work, with limited chance of meaningful progression, if they can get a job that’s partly remote?
I suspect casinos may realise that they’ve made a huge mistake by getting rid of many of their staff with a plan to hire more when the pandemic is over. Many casino workers have used the one-year-long lockdown to up skill and, so that they can pursue a new career; they may not find the idea of working five nights a week with no chance of promotion and a pay rise for years to come very appealing. I, for example, have gone through writing courses, started a side-hustle as a copywriter to open new opportunities and set up a blog about fitness. Others started crafting beautiful items to sell on Etsy, which can easily turn into a full-time business in the future. This makes me believe that from the already reduced team, many of them will not return to their old job at all.
Brexit will also make the “foreign import “harder. If the new system of having to earn at least 25k a year gets the green light, casinos will lose a source of qualified and licensed staff from the rest of Europe. If the points system based on Australia becomes a thing, casinos may not be able to get a foreign workforce at all. It’s safe to assume that croupiers will rarely be considered as important for the economy and society as doctors or engineers. But maybe that drives casino wages up – or staff numbers further down – but something will have to change.