Opinion: VIP gambling – it’s all relative

The UK industry’s VIP schemes have been under the magnifying glass for some time now and, although the source is unsurprising, this week the practice has received further exposure from The Guardian.

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Quoting figures reportedly retrieved from the Gambling Commission, the article links high-spending VIP customers with gambling addiction, while criticising the industry’s dependence on the minority of its customers.

The figures collected from nine of the industry’s “largest and best-known” operators show the bookies relying heavily on VIP deposits, with one particular operator reporting 83% of its website deposits originate from 2% of its customers.

Firstly, it is important to note that, while these figures might seem one-sided, they are focused on deposits made rather than customer losses – the ratio of VIP to non-VIP in terms of actual revenue could be a different story entirely.

However, even if this is not the case, for me the VIP issue is one of relativity.

While working in a gambling call centre myself, I dealt with customers of all shapes and sizes; those who would make it their solemn duty to ring the company and argue over £5 ($6.54) and those who wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep after losing £1,000.

To a young single mother struggling to feed three children, £5 is a fortune, and to a business mogul with five sports cars and two yachts, £1,000 is pocket change.

As a result, relativity is key in the world of the VIP, and while I severely disagree with any operator who incentivises its players into problem gambling behaviour, I feel a company should have the right to treat its most beneficial clients with a greater level of care. VIP status is a way of doing just this.

In a video that found its way on to my Twitter feed last week, pro-footballer Franck Ribery could be seen tucking in to a gold-coated stake at an expensive restaurant in Dubai – a stake which cost him more than $300.

Was he told his actions were foolish and banned from the restaurant? No, and nor should he be.

If you have the cash, there are always those who will provide you with an optimum experience in exchange for it, and the gambling industry should be no exception to this.

In response to the figures obtained by The Guardian, the Gambling Commission is considering several options with regards to the VIP issue, ranging from investigations into how VIP staff at gambling companies are incentivised to banning VIP status altogether.

While the latter might seem like the simplest way to quell worries, the potential impact on the industry is plain to see when we consider a similar market like Macau.

Macau’s Q3 results showed a 23% decline in high-roller gross gaming revenue (GGR) and investment analysts have labelled VIP decline the market’s biggest downfall in 2019, with a total GGR drop of 3% year-on-year for 2019, at MOP292.46bn ($36.43bn).

A ban on VIP statuses in the UK could see a similar fate for the market, and with such a dependence on the high-roller customer base, it is unclear how the market would survive without it, certainly without significant time to prepare.

A potentially more palatable option suggested by the Gambling Commission is to put pressure on operators to draw up an industry-wide VIP code of conduct and limiting incentives on offer to scheme members – something that has already been initiated by the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC).

In November last year, the BGC announced it would be rolling out a new code of practice in spring 2020 which will focus on outlining new protocols regarding VIP customers and operators enticements to gamble.

While this option might not lower those raised eyebrows at The Guardian, I’m optimistic that, with the co-operation of the entire industry, it can effectively prevent problem gambling issues without diminishing the experience of those who occasionally like to splash the cash.

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