For a marketing director that isn’t freely allowed to market his company, Tony Hillyer seems remarkably upbeat. The 47-year-old veteran of the industry (he first brandished a budget in anger some 26 years ago) is talking about the restrictions that Stanley Casinos faces in advertising its gaming proposition.
“I’ll paint a broad picture here because I don’t really want to bore your readers,” he says with a cheerful guffaw. And, before I can tell him that that’s my job, he starts cataloguing what he calls the “arcane laws” that currently govern gambling:
“We’re not allowed to advertise in anything other than classified advertising. That means we can put ourselves in the Yellow Pages, or the classified section of a newspaper, but we’re not even allowed to include an address.
“We’re not allowed to offer any incentives to gamble, so you can’t do the kind of things internet Poker sites do when they talk about bonuses and matching stakes. We’re not essentially allowed to do any type of advertising that might recruit gamblers, or any type of brand building in any significant way.”
“The only thing we can do,” he adds with a small sigh, “is market the casino to its membership, through direct mail and the like, but even then I’m restricted in the kind of offers I can give you. For example I can’t offer you any sort of incentive to spend more money, as that might be deemed to be harmful if it encourages you to gamble more than you might be able to afford. So it’s quite strict really.”
The words ‘understatement’ and ‘of the year’ ignite in resplendent Las Vegas neon in the mind but, as I say, Hillyer’s not bitter. Instead he appears admirably sanguine about the current state of play, and even the restrictions that effectively gag his marketing mouthpiece (“It’s not just us, the whole industry faces the same challenges”).
This could be because of his vast experience (14 years at Bass, alongside tenures at Britvic, Golden Wonder and Littlewoods) or maybe it’s the reassurance offered by Stanley’s established number one position in the casino marketplace. In reality though it’s probably the fact that, come September 2007, the legislation that ties Hillyer’s hands behind his back will be loosened a little, as the controversial Gambling Act 2005 is allowed to fully flex its muscles and kick the casino industry into shape.
“There’s a lot of fire and brimstone thrown up when it comes to the Gambling Act,” he admits, “but essentially it’s a re-regulation rather than a deregulation. A piece of legislation that’s replacing the outmoded acts of 1963, 1968 and 1973.”
As the media has tended to circumvent the details of the new laws to get to the (cue bright lights, fanfare and loud cocktail of cheers and booing) SUPER-CASINO bit of the Act, it’s worth asking this expert exactly how it looks set to re-shape the gaming landscape.
“It’s very true that a lot of the stuff you see in the papers has centred on the so-called Super-Casino’s,” he stresses the word with the air of someone that’s just found out that that’s not really mud on their shoe; it’s fair to assume he doesn’t like the media’s bandying about of the phrase. “However, the truth of the matter is that the industry has changed considerably and the previous acts could never have predicted and accounted for that.”
Stepping onto the conversational pasture to quickly wipe away the Super-Casino irritant, he continues: “The way the press have focused on the issue you’d think they were taking over the country and due to open any minute now. The fact of the matter is there will be just one Super Casino, which will be allowed to have up to 1,250 slot machines. The legislation originally specified twenty, so there’s a significant change in scale there.
“What’s more the location hasn’t even been determined yet. There are 40 councils in the UK that have expressed an interest and we’re a long, long way from even deciding where it’s going to be, let alone choosing the provider, getting planning permission, sorting the licensing and so on. The reality is that there’s a long way to go before a spade’s even pressed into the soil.”
Phew, glad that’s cleared that up then.
Alongside this new gaming behemoth Hillyer explains that another eight large-scale casinos will be allowed, with a licence for up to 250 slot machines, as well as eight other slightly smaller gaming dens, each with room for 80 bandits of the one armed variety. He calls this “significant”, although it’s difficult not to detect a slight air of disappointment. A hungry industry, it would seem, still has a rumble in its stomach.
Of the changes that our interviewee seems most effusive over, the marketing liberalisation and alteration to the 24-hour ‘cooling off’ period generate most reaction. We’ll start with the latter.
“The relaxation of the 24-hour law is a huge change that came into effect almost immediately.” He continues; “Previously if you wanted to join a casino you had to sign up and then wait for a day before you could actually go in. Now if you’re on a night out and you’ve been to the restaurant, been to the pub and you’re looking for something new you can go to the casino, sign up and play straightaway, rather than having this 24-hour period of limbo. It allows our industry to become mainstream; we can now compete equally with clubs and late bars and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s my firm belief that casinos should be part of mainstream leisure entertainment.”
And, now that the marketing shackles are set to be unlocked, he might actually be able to try and achieve that.
“By the end of 2007,” Hillyer notes with a watering mouth, “we’ll finally be able to start getting across the messages that we really want to communicate.”
So, what are they?
“Well, what we’re looking to do is tell people that they can come to a casino as part of a night out, to show them what we have to offer and demystify the whole experience. A lot of the public might still think casinos are only for James Bond, but that’s not the case. We have relaxed dress codes, you can have a meal or drinks and not bet anything, or you can gamble 20 pounds as the main part of your night out. But all of these simple facts about casinos, facts that we need our potential customers to be aware of, haven’t been communicated because at present we’re simply not allowed to.”
So, what has Hillyer got planned for 2007? Is now the right time for the reader (if they inhabit Planet Agency) to get on the blower in breathless anticipation of the £20million above the line budget splurge?
“Not quite,” he says, with a laugh verging on the nervous, “I think in the re-regulated market one of the things it’s going to be very easy to do is waste lots of money. I’ve no doubt some players may well be piling in to above-the-line because it feels jolly macho. We certainly won’t be doing that unless it’s absolutely the right thing to do. We’re doing a lot of research with our customers, looking at how they became visitors in the first place, what are their likes and dislikes; and we’ll be using all of that groundwork to inform our media strategy. You don’t do things just because you can and I’ve got the feeling that there might be a difference between what we’re allowed to do and what Stanley actually ends up doing.”
With that in mind we’d say it’s a big gamble to start hunting the account right now.
Hillyer ends the interview with another cheerful observation of another potential dark cloud on his industry horizon: online gaming. “I don’t think the internet boom has had an adverse effect at all,” he observes. “There’s a lot of new people playing online and I think that’s actively helping to demystify the games. We’ve seen a growth in our business at the same time as there’s been a growth online. So, I think if anything it’s expanded the market, generated interest and all the ships have been buoyed by the rising tide.”
With such a positive attitude, and all the liberalisations to look forward to, it’s clear that this seasoned player has no intention of throwing his hand in just yet.