SkyCity Entertainment, New Zealand’s largest operator, recounts its experience as one of the first properties to open in the Asia Pacific region, saying the industry needs to make sure it’s sharing ideas and learning to ensure the doors stay open.
In an interview with Asia Gaming Brief, Matthew Ballesty, executive general manager for gaming, outlined the experience, walked us through the measures the company has taken and described the customer response.
SkyCity is New Zealand’s only listed gaming company, with properties in Auckland, Queenstown, Hamilton and Adelaide in Australia. It’s been a tough year for the operator, which suffered a devastating fire at a flagship project in October. The blaze at the under construction international convention centre in Auckland shut down the central business district in the country’s largest city for three days.
The coronavirus closed down the casinos once again in March, before being allowed to reopen on May 14. The country and its government, under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, won widespread praise for its handling of the pandemic, moving swiftly to shut down the country to stop the spread. As of June 2, it had not had any new cases for 11 days and was considering lifting remaining restrictions.
“We’re in the enviable position of being one of the first and it’s nice to see New Zealand lead in that regard,” Ballesty said. Ballesty said the company has taken a highly measured approach to put the right processes in place to ensure safety and minimize the risk of being closed down again.
The company was helped by the fact that the recovery process is likely to be VIP led, which although an important part of the business, involves smaller numbers of people and is therefore more easier to control.
“The areas where they reside are typically smaller spaces and more easily manageable with one entry and one exit. In a Covid environment they are a lot easier to manage in a safe way.”
“Where it gets more challenging is on our mass gaming floors where we have a vast amount of space and a lot of product spread out, so how we handled it there was that we are taking a measured approach to enable contact tracing.”
The group divided the floor into gaming zones, using more than 250 metres of hoarding to create separate sections, all of which had their own entry and exit. Starting with eight zones, the process was tweaked and is currently divided into 10.
Every other gaming machine was switched off and numbers were limited to three per table. The company also moved all excess seats and furniture from places where people tend to congregate to avoid large groups, leaving only about 100 chairs.
Clients were counted in and out of each zone on a regular basis, with surveillance also backing up the count. Staff were provided with yellow security jackets to give them an impression of extra authority to back up the rules and regulations on signage and to ensure social distancing.
SkyCity took the step to only open to club members to facilitate contact tracing should there be any need.
“We wanted to make sure we could manage demand. We knew there could be some problems if demand was too high so we wanted to get ahead of that,” Ballesty said. “We also know our loyalty customers and have a lot of details already for them so it made great sense for us to make it a restricted members-only casino that was VIP lead and make sure we know our customers should we need to contact trace.”
The company, like any others opening up again, was taking a leap into the unknown when it came to client demand. The impact of the pandemic on the consumer is still not fully known, while New Zealand’s borders remain closed to international traffic. That said, so far the response has been encouraging.
“We’ve certainly not seen the levels of visitation return as we just don’t have the capacity, so that’s worked out quite nicely. What we have seen is that those who have returned, and we’re still looking at the data, have probably spent a little bit more than normal.”
The company reported that revenue from electronic gaming machines in Auckland and Hamilton in the 18 days to May 31st had reached 80 percent of the average daily revenue in the eight months to Feb. 29, 2020. Table revenues in Auckland are at about 50 percent of normal daily revenue, while both properties are cash flow positive and profitable.
However, one of his key takeaways was how the pandemic has brought together a highly competitive industry to move forward together to share ideas and innovations.
“This is about humility and doing the right thing so we keep our doors open. We need to make sure we are sharing and learning from each other.”
SkyCity gets rap for online gambling promotion
SkyCity Entertainment was given a formal warning by the Department of Internal Affairs for breaching the Gambling Act after it emailed loyalty customers in March, saying that its online casino was still open for business despite the Covid-19 lockdown. The operator has a Malta-based online unit that offers services to New Zealanders. Although it’s not against the law for locals to gamble on these sites, it is against the law to advertise them. Local media reports cited department spokesperson Chris Thornborough as saying SkyCity did not intentionally set out to breach the Act. “So a formal warning is appropriate and proportionate,” he said, speaking to RNZ.
NZ launches app to curb gambling harm
New Zealand has launched a mobile app aimed at curbing problem gambling in collaboration with the Deakin University in Australia. New Zealand’s National Institute for Health Innovation says the tool is an interactive mobile program, called Manaaki. “We think it will help people who are having difficulties with any type of gambling activity and with any goal, from quitting completely or just cutting back,” the institute said. Manaaki is a cognitive behavioral therapy app and is based on the Deakin University GAMBLINGLESS on-line tool. While Manaaki is evidence-based, the method of delivery—via an app—is new.