The importance and benefit of networking and collaboration can’t be over-stated during a period of intense disruption.
G3 speaks to Tiina Siltanen, General Manager of Casino Helsinki, at the moment that Finland doubles down on its casinos with the addition of Casino Tampere. We discuss the pandemic, the new location and the support and guidance provided by the ECA.
Why did Veikkaus Oy become a member of the ECA?
Veikkaus Oy has been a member of the ECA for many years. It’s important to be part of the association because the ECA provides a network for our organisation.
Finland is a country geographically distanced from the rest of Europe. Being a member of the ECA grants access to information and knowledge from across the entire membership. It’s a channel that informs us of the changes and developments taking place within the industry.
We learn from each other and provide information to members, but we can also gain insights as to the direction of travel of the casino industry. Where are we heading? What are the challenges we and other members are facing? We feel there is a true benefit in being an ECA member to both gain and give support.
What is your remit within the ECA and how much engagement do you have with the association?
My personal perspective is that I have a 20 year history in the gaming industry and I truly feel that we have a great industry of which we should be proud.
As a member of the ECA Board, I have the chance to promote the whole industry, not just Casino Helsinki or Veikkaus Oy. It’s a task in which I take great pleasure.
Finland has had representatives within the Board in the past, so when I was given the opportunity to become a member, I didn’t hesitate. I think it’s an honour.
Time is an important factor because when you accept the responsibility of Board membership. You need to understand that this is a commitment and it is a choice. The function of the ECA should not just be a discussion group, we must also be able to execute the strategies we agree upon.
The new Board commenced in the summer for its three-year tenure with the focus of building a new strategy for the ECA. We are currently discussing the strategy and choosing the subjects that shall promote for the next term. At the ECA General Assembly, we will be presenting the new strategy to all members.
How important a role does the ECA play in promoting the positive activities of casinos in Europe?
I see the role of the ECA in promoting the positive impact of the industry as a crucial one. We have a lot of members, which means that individual national laws and regulations are very different, and so we need to be able to support members at both an EU and national level.
The negative stigma our industry still faces is a subject that the ECA also needs to address. Land-based casinos are run professionally, they have highly-skilled staff, they hold themselves to a really high standard, and to be able to deliver this message from a non-profit organisation such as the ECA, is very valuable.
I think we have achieved so much over the last two decades, but there is still a lot of work to be done. One of the strategy questions we are facing as ECA Board members is that we need to execute and focus on the priorities, so that we can make a positive impact on the future.
What are the universal issues challenging all members of the ECA?
I think worldwide the land-based industry is facing the same challenge due to the pandemic, not just the members of the ECA. However, instead of trying to solve this issue alone, ECA members have come together to collaboratively share information.
The support of the industry has been wonderful to witness. Members have supported the success of other members during the re-opening phase of the casinos, or achieving longer opening hours. The joint challenge of the Covid-19 response has brought us all together and is a sign of the true spirit of the casino industry.
I think this spirit was always present – you saw it during conferences and exhibitions and at the European Dealer Championships, for example, but the pandemic response took this camaraderie to the next level.
Has business been lost to online gaming during the lockdowns that won’t return? And in your view – is land-based in opposition to the online sector?
I represent a generation that seeks to turn the table and considers the gaming industry as a whole, not divided into two different sectors competing with each other. We are already in a situation in which many land-based operators have an online operation or offer players a multi-channel range of products.
I believe online and land-based are already connected. Looking from the customer perspective, this is how they view the industry. I really hope we are able to work together as opposed to thinking of each other as competitors.
It is simply a fact that during the pandemic the land-based industry was hit much, much harder than the online sector. However, when the land-based industry re-opened, we saw customers returning strongly. I think this is clear proof that the future is bright for our industry.
Customers still want social gaming, social entertainment and a real connection with the dealer, everything we provide as land- based casinos. The player doesn’t need to choose one over the other – they can choose both.
Has Covid destroyed CapEx to the extent that European casinos are now the poor cousins of the global industry?
When you compare European casinos with the industry worldwide, we need to understand that casino structures are a little different in Europe. We are more focused on the gaming element within the casino and there aren’t the integrated resorts you see at the global level.
As such, the focus of the European casino sector is fixed upon stabilising operations for the next few years to make sure that we can provide the level of service our regular customers expect and to build back our customer base.
From the financial point of view, there are investments that remain essential beyond the need to satisfy game and technology advances. There is a need to keep step with regulation, which also includes Anti- Money Laundering restrictions.
Casinos still need to invest, but we have to be careful and judicious as to the areas in which we commit our budgets.
It is important to state that ECA members have experienced the pandemic differently, with localised responses that differ from member to member. We can’t generalise by saying that there’s one line followed by all the casinos in Europe.
Even at the local level there is great variety in the scale and types of operations being managed by members.
We have also seen many members using downtime during Covid to refresh their offers, adding new bars and restaurants, new management systems and technology to offer the best experience to customers upon re-opening.
I think at the moment casinos are more careful as a result of Covid, especially in terms of the types of major investments they make. However, we continue to see the commitment to new venues and infrastructure as this remains a dynamic business that seeks to offer the best possible levels of service and entertainment to our customers.
How positive are you right now in regards the future of casinos in Europe?
One of the focus issues for the ECA is making sure that we don’t become an over-regulated industry. When you are facing the financial challenges we’ve discussed, over-regulation makes it even harder to bounce back.
At the same time, we have to promote the positive aspects of licensed land-based gaming, while fighting against illegal operators in our sector. The ECA must help our members to recover and I am positive we can achieve this goal, but I also think that the next two years are about stabilising the industry.
We need to be careful and we need to be realistic. We can’t expect to bounce back to 2019 figures in the near-term – that’s just the reality of the situation. However, by sharing information with each other I think the whole industry stands the best chance to recover as quickly as possible.
Finland is at the forefront of changes to embed social responsibility within gambling policy and legislation. How have these changes affected business, especially when combined with Covid restrictions?
The gaming industry in Finland is a large business operated by Veikkaus Oy, but looking at my sector, Helsinki Casino and the coming new casino in Tampere, we have taken huge steps during the pandemic.
In the summer, we implemented carded play throughout the casino in Helsinki, including table games and slots. A few months later we offered a wide range of gaming tools for our customers, enabling time and loss limits on slots machines and further limits on table games.
We are building a whole new way of playing at the casino using technology to create an environment that was not feasible even just a few years ago.
It is a choice made by the company that comes with a price tag, but it is a choice that we see as the foundation for our operations in Finland.
We stand behind this choice and it is a very big part of building a positive image of the casino sector in the country. I don’t think the casino industry should be hidden behind a curtain and kept in the dark.
I think we should be able to openly build trust and be unafraid to show all aspects of our operations. We are proud of what we’re doing and this is the message we want to convey to the public.
We are also getting attention from ECA members regarding the impact of these changes. We are only at the beginning of this process, but we want to share both the practical measures we have implemented and the reasons why we’re adopting these practices.
Any operator is worried when implementing a change such as this, but customers have readily accepted the measures.
I think the pandemic actually helped with the implementation of carded play. Our regular customer base learned the procedures quickly and they find it very natural to utilise the card as part of their return to play. This was very important as we wanted to ensure that the changeover was as smoothly integrated and implemented as possible for customers.
The introduction of a new casino in Finland is a significant change to the gaming landscape in the country. What can you tell us about the new location and what it means for Veikkaus Oy?
A new casino is definitely a significant change to the gaming landscape in Finland. In December, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Casino Helsinki, while Casino Tampere is due to open its door on December 15. We have operated with a single casino for three decades and now we’re about to launch our second.
Understandably, we’re very excited to offer a new casinos to our customers. Casino Tampere is part of a new entertainment Arena complex. It is a whole new casino concept as we’re part of the overall services provided by the Arena, which is very modern with lots of entertainment and F&B offerings.
The new casino has a modern, open and bright look incorporating local Finnish timber. One of the standout features is the inter-connected digital signage system that is synched with the Arena.
Action and events taking place within the Arena will be displayed upon the digital signage, which will also change with the seasons. For example, we can entertain guests with the Northern Lights during wintertime. It is a very different venue, which is the exciting part.
Casino Tampere has a different look and feel, but still retains the high-level customer experience of Casino Helsinki.
What regular customers want from a casino is high quality gaming products and service. We carry the efficient operation, great service and high-quality gaming products over from Casino Helsinki to the Tampere offer.
We were also very conscious of the fact that Tampere is a much smaller city than Helsinki. It is not an international city and the casino is part of an entertainment complex, which means that visitors are not necessarily making the journey for the prime purpose of visiting the casino.
The customer profile will be different, which means that we need to create a different atmosphere within Casino Tampere. To achieve this, we have adapted the product offer.
As opposed to the very classical offer in Helsinki, we have a new social gaming area, which is easier for new players to understand the games in a non- intimidating environment.
One challenge all ECA members face is the loss of staff during the lockdowns to both competitors and as a consequence of many employees returning to their home countries during this period. It will take time to train the next generation of professionals and in Finland, the service sector, as elsewhere, is facing short staffing issues.
The casino industry is special in that you cannot train a casino professional in a few months. Being a high level dealer takes years of experience and while we still need dozens of gaming industry and customer service professionals, this sustainable casino for a new era of gaming will offer great facilities and jobs for many people.