One thing’s for sure: For casino operators, 2020 has been a year like no other.
Closures, pivots, challenges, lessons. With the inexorable onset of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Canada in full force from March, the Canadian gaming industry was far from alone in grounding to an effective standstill in spring. Some provinces, though, weathered the storm more readily than others.
In Alberta, leading operator Pure Canadian Gaming was able to reopen for electronic gaming in June and for table gaming – to a limited extent, at least – last month. The health and safety requirements have been well-documented: masks, sanitizer, barrier, and the rest of it.
But what’s the new normal as far as gameplay goes? Canadian Gaming Business spoke with Vince Pao, Pure’s Executive Director of Marketing, about the rollercoaster ride.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What did reopening look like for Pure?
Vince Pao: We reopened slots on June 15 and table games/poker on September 5 and it’s definitely been difficult trying to navigate this new landscape. Our industry’s been flipped upside with many jurisdictions just reopening or still not open. Here in Alberta it’s been good, we were fortunate to have a low number of active COVID-19 cases which allowed us to reopen over a couple of stages. This staged approach allowed us to put our new standards to test, adjust them as needed, and implement additional measures to keep our guests and employees safe and healthy. We haven’t had any issues – knock on wood – outbreaks or anything like that that might derail our progress. We’ve seen people becoming more comfortable with the situation as time progresses.
Where some competitors chose to immediately reopen at full 100%
machine utilization, Pure took a more measured approach, increasing machine availability from 35% to 50% up to our current 80% to ensure adequate physical distancing and safety. It would’ve been an easy approach to just open the floodgates and turn on all of our machines, but we tested a few different versions of barriers between machines to address the issue of safety on a more long-term perspective. We’re super proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, it was a lot of work behind the scenes while we were closed. We needed to keep busy and anticipate and plan moving forward.
What has reduced capacity translated to in terms of staffing?
Our HR team was instrumental through closure, keeping in touch with all of our employees, updating our workplace pages, ensuring there was open communication with all of the teams. We were planning for reopening basically from the day that we closed, so teams were aware. With the reduced capacity, we’re able to schedule well, creatively to maintain shifts separate from each other so if there is any contamination, our teams are well separated, we have contact tracing in place. We’ve made it as safe as possible for our teams and our teams feel safe so they’re happy to return. It was difficult to see some resignations but some people just didn’t want to come back, which is understandable in this environment. What we found was the best thing for us was just to remain available. To be left in the dark in a situation where there’s so many questions would be so difficult for a lot of people.
What about gameplay? What’s the “new business normal” for Pure casinos’ players?
For a start, all self-serve stations have been removed from the floor, which has had the benefit of increasing our guest interactions. We’ve limited entrances to the casinos and are closely monitoring traffic levels on property. We’re also implementing paperless promotional draws and offers in favor of digital options to reduce touchpoints and reviewing new entertainment options that can better suit our new environment.
We definitely saw an increase in electronic table gameplay. When we first reopened, we didn’t have the extensive selection of Electronic Table Games (ETGs) that some of our competitors had. AGLC supported the opening of several replay arenas across the province – basically the stadium-style gaming with the live dealers at the front, playing to maybe 15 or 20 terminals. Through the summer, AGLC was able to secure additional electronic product and added in several replay arenas and additional ETGs. We got a roulette ETG that came in at Calgary and Edmonton during that period. So yes, we did see an increase in ETG play, people were looking to get some table games in and it was the only option. There’s definitely some residual on that with the properties that did have the full replay arenas. I’m not sure how well that’s translated over recent weeks now that table games are open. But of course with only three seats per table on blackjack, four seats on baccarat, it’s limited so when it’s busy in the evenings we do see some spillover onto ETGs where you see those seats get full again.
And from an operator’s standpoint, what trends are Pure noticing in this shifted landscape?
What we’ve observed is the market has really, really changed. We’re not seeing a whole lot of convenience traffic anymore. It’s destination traffic – people are coming specifically to game. A lot of businesses still aren’t open – retail isn’t open late anymore, a lot of restaurants are closing early, there’s some with last seating at like 7 or 7:30. So it’s hurt nighttime traffic, of course, and daytime traffic went down too with the older demographic not keen to come in. Also, people don’t really have a reason to go out after work now. They’re working from home or they go home after work and there’s no reason for them to leave. So we know that people are coming specifically for gaming entertainment – not to just meet friends and gather but to play. In fact, we’ve seen cash play and utilization go up. We’re not at last year’s volumes, of course, but things are starting to look better. When we first reopened, traffic was very slow and cash played was very low, but we think we’ve built some consumer confidence in them seeing that there’s been no issues with other operators or at any of our properties.
So what’s next? Do you stick at your 80% capacity or do you twist and aim to return to the pre-COVID-19 100%?
That’s a great question because you have to balance that level of safety and operational efficiency. Our key focus has been on safety and health of our teams and patrons from the start, which is why we took the graduated approach. Of course, slot optimization is always key for us. The 80% of average machines that we have on right now we have optimized to the most-utilized machines, analysing WPU and daily performance, so we feel we’ve got a strong mix open. The seats or machines we don’t have on right now are the low performers. Right now, we feel our facilities are safe and we’re happy with the performance of our 80%. We don’t want to push the envelope too much in terms of creating an unsafe environment. Better safe than sorry, and it’s a delicate balance. We of course would love to see the additional revenue potentially generated from that extra 20% but the risks at this point far outweigh that opportunity.
A final silver lining for us has been that the shutdown has allowed us to expedite the opening of our new Casino Edmonton. We had started renovations well prior to lockdown and when we were closed through spring we had the opportunity to actually open up all of the construction floodgates and really just go into full renovation mode near the start of June. Then, when we were given notice a couple of weeks after making that decision that we could reopen slots, we were in full renovation. So the silver lining was that we were able to push the construction schedule up by a couple of months and complete it. As you can imagine, it was a bit of a learning curve when we first opened in August. But for Edmonton to be able to open pretty much full speed was great. It was a big accomplishment for us, with one of the oldest facilities in the province, to give it a big facelift.