Electronic gaming and the quest for personal space in Alberta’s casinos

Tom Nightingale

Relaunching the Canadian gaming industry has been a tough challenge in recent months during COVID-19. One province that has been ahead of the curve has been Alberta, which allowed casinos to reopen their doors for electronic gaming back in June and has begun reintroducing table games in recent weeks starting in early September. It’s not exactly business as usual – while there are no set capacity limits, social distancing remains key and the likes of Plexiglass and hand sanitizer have become vital staples of operations – but it’s a return to a form of normality.

With casinos beginning to open up in other provinces like Ontario and New Brunswick this week, Canadian Gaming Business recently spoke to Alberta Gaming, Liquor, and Cannabis (AGLC) about some of the casino trends the agency has noticed before and during the pandemic

Adapting to a world without tables

Casinos in Alberta were able to reopen for electronic gaming on June 12 under specific guidelines published by Alberta Health. Among those rules were that electronic devices must be at least two metres apart unless an adequate barrier could be provided. That, though, offered some leeway. As AGLC senior director of gaming Steve Lautischer told CGB, “we allowed [casinos] to open up within two metres and as they placed barriers, we were able to open more units.” He noted that some regulatory reviews were required to ensure the barriers didn’t obstruct surveillance or other equipment. Once those were satisfied, more devices could be enabled.

AGLC also worked with operators to help on the supply side as, with table gaming shut, getting hold of enough electronic tables was vitally important for casinos. “Many of them had electronic tables already, maybe in a limited form, but we worked hard to make sure that we positioned them to meet that market demand,” says Lautischer. “We made sure they had access to electronic roulette tables, electronic baccarat and so forth.” Electronic roulette is particularly popular in Alberta, he adds, so that a major focus. “A lot of the expected high-value devices were the ones that were sought after by Albertans.”

A boost for electronic gaming

That work paid dividends. With traditional table gaming still closed over the summer months, AGLC saw more play on electronic tables than ever before, says Lautischer. While that has predictably and understandably diminished slightly since traditional gaming was given license to reopen in early September, electronic play is still at a higher level then pre-COVID 19, and Lautischer expects it will be a trend that sticks around. 

“Because customers only had electronic tables to play, they started to latch on to them, get comfortable with them and their interfaces,” he says. “Even though traditional tables are now available, I think we’ve built a following with the electronic business now. We’ll probably end up with a better electronic table business than we had before COVID-19. So that’s one very obvious example of a trend that’s a little different as a result of COVID-19.”

Electronic gaming machines had been rising in popularity over the last few years even before the landscape shifted so dramatically with the onset of the pandemic in Canada. Lautischer notes that younger players often tend to favour the newer forms of gaming and he wouldn’t be surprised to see vendors and operators place more focus on them moving forward. Those games aren’t likely to gain too much ground on traditional slots and tables, but the AGLC expects a somewhat crowded marketplace, at least temporarily. 

The quest for personal space

The AGLC notes that another trend that was coming into focus before COVID-19 – somewhat ironically, Lautischer acknowledges – is customers’ quest for personal space. 

Players like to have space when they gamble, particularly on electronic machines, and one thing that has meant is a reduction in popularity of the typical slot machine model of a bank of four backed onto another bank of four. Lautischer notes the middle units were becoming increasingly ignored by players due to the lack of elbow room compared with the end machines. COVID-19, of course, has brought this more sharply into focus.

“We’ve been trying to create different types of shapes to these banks – football shapes, etc – always allowing for a greater distance between players. When we did that, we found that those banks of devices were more popular and more profitable because people would be more comfortable in all positions.”

With the health considerations of a pandemic and the increased use of barriers and personal space from a health perspective, the AGLC expects to see “a real optimization” in the long-term when it comes to the shapes and sizes of casino floors. “Even after COVID, I think it’s going to forever change how we look at banking and creating a casino floor in the future,” predicts Lautischer, although he notes it’s far from the easiest thing to adapt. 

Going hand-in-hand with that idea of redesigning things, says Lautischer, is an in-depth look at the number of machines on the floor. Do casinos really need to pack in as many slot machines as were present pre-COVID, given the quest for personal space? He thinks not, and in that sense, that chapter of the playbook could be rewritten. “I think you’re going to see a bit of a shrinking in the number of units out there overall at a global level.”

“In Alberta we’re always introducing new platforms and new concepts and we haven’t necessarily seen a change in that. I hear from vendors that they’re concentrating on different types of technology, maybe designing future slot machines that may have barriers quasi built into them so you can space yourself. But unfortunately, in our industry, we’re not that quick. It takes time to create to create the pivots when it comes to the actual machines. Most of the development cycles, for a new cabinet or new platform, re at least one- to two-year efforts to get something new. But there’s chatter about it and it mostly focuses on physical space.”

Moving forward, the AGLC reiterates that everything must be done on a safety-first basis in the current climate. Lautischer notes that Alberta has been successful due in no small part to the fact that both the province and the AGLC have been very cautious and careful to follow health advice. “You need to be nimble in terms of how you reopen, how you approach your floor, what you’re making available to the public, to respect the rules and keep people safe with social distancing and cleanliness. Take it one day at a time, don’t try to boil the ocean on day one. That’s the best thing you can do for the health of your casino floor in the long run.”

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