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The Future of Land Based Bingo - February 2010

The future of land based bingo is about dealing with socio-cultural change more than anything else. The future is a vibrant one but with a much smaller industry in terms of the number of clubs. What size the industry will end up as, is impossible to tell but it will plateau and thrive as the hard core of bingo players replicate themselves. This article predicts that the future will be one of fewer bigger bingo halls with a small number of independent and temporary halls. As with any gambling sector, future success is also determined by political support and fortunately for bingo it is the politicians’ favourite form of gambling. While the industry can still mobilise large number of ‘bingo women’ it will be a particularly foolish government who ignores its demands.

Before discussing the tribulations that bingo has suffered over the last few years it has to be said that the number of bingo halls in the UK has fallen almost every year for quite some time. An old Annual Report of the Gaming Board for Great Britain tells us that the number had fallen below 1,000 for the first time in 1992/93 (972 licensed, 927 operating) and that this was a ‘continuation of the long-term downward trend since 1974’[i]. The downward spiral has continued since then with there being 641 licensed clubs as of 31/03/09[ii].

If this rate of decline continues unabated theoretically there won’t be any more bingo clubs left 2040, or by the time bingo’s current youngest player reaches 49. This we can safely predict won’t be the case and we can use the example of the cinema to explain why.

The number of cinemas in the UK began falling with the growth of television (kicked off by the televising of the Coronation and later the invention of the VCR), from a post-war total of 4,700, to 3,050 at the end of 1960, and to 1,971 at the end of 1965. The decline seemed terminal with the lowest point being 1984, when attendances were only 54 million, half the figure of just five years previously[iii]. But in 1985 came the introduction of multiplexes, multi-screen cinemas with food and beverage and retail offers, and lower prices than before. Also many smaller cinemas turned themselves into art house cinemas, showing non-mainstream films. Since then the number of actual cinemas has reached a plateau of around 700 (726 in 2008) but the number of cinema admissions have consistently increased year on year, with 164m admissions in 2008[iv].

Ignoring the fact that most bingo halls are actually old cinemas, the point is that with cinemas we had a leisure offer that was in what appeared to be a swan dive for a number of decades and then that decline halted and plateau-ed. A number of factors contributed to the terminal decline and a number of factors halted it. Cinemas fell out of favour with the British public because a) substitutes like the television appeared, and b) as people got richer their range of leisure options grew so they could go to a restaurant or a night club instead, and so c) the number of cinemas which had been built for the leisure environment of between the wars, when there was very little else to do, was far too many and so many of them closed down or changed use (many into bingo halls). What the introduction of multiplexes did was i) improve the product by offering more than one screen and so give the customer choice, ii) improve the product by having modern, well appointed furnishings as opposed to the more traditional ‘flea pits’ that years of under investment had created, and iii) priced the product competitively with alternate leisure opportunities, to make the product more appealing.

Bingo is following a similar trajectory. The number of bingo halls is falling mainly because the number of leisure opportunities for unescorted women has grown dramatically. When the decline in numbers first started, in the early 70’s, bingo was considered one of two places an unescorted woman could go out to; the other was the church. Since then society has allowed half the population to go out to pubs, clubs, restaurants, theatres, museums etc. without their menfolk and they seemed to have taken to it quite well, so it is not surprising that more choice has meant less bingo.

Like the cinema industry, bingo has been responding to the ever more sophisticated tastes of its punters. Bingo’s own form of multiplexes; the flat floor shed, have been around for almost twenty years now. Usually located in a retail park, these purpose built bingo halls have been replacing the traditional cinema conversions with well designed spaces for bingo, food and beverage and machine gaming. Now we are seeing the next stage in the evolution of the bingo hall with the Mecca Beeston in Nottinghamshire. A £5M development by the Rank Group that divides the bingo area (the auditorium) from the social area (the lounge) thus removing the main bone of contention in most bingo halls, the split between those who want to eat, drink and chat and those who want quiet and to play. They’ve even started experimenting with enhancing the core product; offering a film after the bingo, quiz nights, bingo accompanied rock ‘n roll music and, in an attempt to attract the younger players – Afterdarkbinglo where there’s dance music, lasers and punters daubed with luminescent ink playing for adult prizes. Entertainment and bingo is a leisure mix that has worked for decades and can always be reinvented.

So the industry can’t be accused of standing idly by, while the world changes. What does seem unchanging though is the appeal of the game and that is why this article is so certain that the industry will survive. Bingo is a game that is easy to understand, simple to play, provides excitement and anticipation and is beloved by many women, who fortunately for the industry, like nothing more than bringing their friends (including male ones) and daughters along to play with them. Hopefully, this will spawn new generations of bingo players. The challenge for the industry is to both cater for the demands of their core customers and also be able to adapt their product to entice new ones. While the game will always remain basically the same, grandma probably likes to play it in a different way to her granddaughter and this will be the challenge of the future. A tough one but an insurmountable one.

One behaviour that has united all generations of bingo players is their propensity to smoke, twice that of the population. So it is understandable that the smoking ban has been catastrophic for the bingo industry. Bingo ladies smoke and they like to do it in between the main games of bingo. This is when traditionally they would play cash bingo (a faster automated version of bingo) or the gaming machines, now they have to go outside and smoke or, as anecdotal evidence would have us believe, they are now staying at home and playing online and smoking. The impact is apparent in the industry statistics; in the 12 months after the ban came in (2007/08) gross gaming sales dropped 11% on the previous year[v] and the 2009 number of clubs is down 5% on 2008. With research showing that older ladies have the hardest time giving up, this will obviously continue to be a bugbear for the industry for quite some time and may see a dramatic shift of players to the online format.

Online bingo, like all forms of internet gambling is a major threat to the land based version. But as has been repeated in all four of these articles about the future of the British gambling industry, it is the live experience that will never be completely replicated online. Bingo has always been one of the more social and entertainment based forms of gambling and as long as it can retain its focus on providing a ‘good night out’, it should be able to compete against the digital menace. If it reduces itself to just offering gambling, then how can it compete?

Internet is the biggest long term threat to the business but at the moment its government who are causing it the most headaches. At present bingo is fighting, with considerable political support (bingo ladies go and vote and MPs know this), the Treasury’s recent decision to raise Bingo Duty up to 22%. Whitehall argues that as they have recently removed VAT from the participation fees (entry fees) they had to make up the money somewhere, bingo isn’t so sure and is asking for it to be reduced back to the 15% rate the rest of the industry is paying. While the campaign continues with over 150 MPs supporting it, the present economic climate doesn’t bode well for any reduction in taxes in any sector and if anything, this article is predicting tax rises in every sector, the Treasury’s coffers are more than just empty.

What this will do is undoubtedly speed up the decline in the number of clubs, with the small independents being the ones to fall by the wayside. Big clubs benefit from economies of scale and also from the ability to offer bigger prizes, bingo being a pool game and its big prizes that are one of the major factors that attracts customers. But that doesn’t mean that there will be no room for the little guy. With an economically-dictated focus on fewer bigger clubs, there will always be the opportunity for the niche player – just like with the art house cinema. Whether this be bingo clubs that focus purely on attracting young people with entertainment taking precedence over the bingo, or the reverse and a focus on just the bingo for the traditionalists there will be room for innovation. This article predicts that temporary bingo halls will spring up, in areas that don’t have a big hall in the local proximity and don’t justify the expense of building a small one. Village halls, cinemas, pubs and restaurants could all offer bingo as an easily operated additional revenue stream; the legislation exists in temporary use notices.

So the future for bingo is all about entertainment as it ever was. Fewer clubs because bingo takes its place in a growing pantheon of entertainment offers, but better product and more customer enjoyment. The industry will keep reinventing itself and keep its bingo ladies amused. Online bingo will be the 200 pound gorilla that has to be arm wrestled with on a daily basis but as long as operators can keep providing a reason for their ladies to turn up, they should survive and prosper..

References

  1. Report of the Gaming Board for Great Britain 1992/93, p.15
  2. Gambling Commission – Industry statistics 2008/09, p.6
  3. http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/cinemas/sect6.html
  4. UK Film Council Statistical Year Book 2009
  5. Gambling Commission – Industry statistics 2008/09, p.6