By Tom Nightingale
There are stories to be told all over Canada when it comes to gaming in 2020. In Saskatchewan, there’s been a clear focus when it comes to casinos and gaming. The province has looked to position itself so that the industry – and public health – remains resilient to the virus while ensuring that things don’t slow to a standstill.
In part one of a two-part focus on gaming in Saskatchewan in 2020, Canadian Gaming Business spoke to SaskGaming, the provincial government-owned and Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority-regulated corporation that owns Casino Regina and Casino Moose Jaw.
For the corporation, it’s been a case of pressing on safely and securely through difficult waters. The pace with which the industry has had to adapt has been remarkable.
“You can spend years planning for this type of crisis situation, but even the best planning doesn’t prepare you for how quickly you need to respond and evolve,” SaskGaming President and CEO Susan Flett tells CGB. “If you had told us in January that we’d be forced to close our doors for nearly four months, I would have told you you’re crazy! But that was our reality and it’s something in our nearly 25 years of operation we’ve never had to do.”
It certainly hasn’t been easy. In the best interest of their local communities and the province on the whole, Casinos Regina and Moose Jaw were closed just two weeks before the 2019-20 fiscal year ended at the start of April. In that short period alone, SaskGaming believes it lost between $5.2 million and $5.8 million due to the closures. Overall, the estimated loss of revenues for the two casinos was $30 million, by a late-October estimate.
There were personnel impacts, too, with nearly 600 workers laid off at the start of April in what Flett calls one of many “difficult decisions that no employer likes to make.” SaskGaming looked out for its employers as best it could, says Flett. She notes that the company continued to pay all employees for two weeks following the shutdowns and continued full benefits coverage for all temporarily laid-off workers. The temporary nature of many of the layoffs also meant that workers could return when the properties reopened but could access critical supports like EI and the CERB in the meantime. Ultimately, about 250 of those workers were able to be brought back for the initial reopening, and 35 more returned as table games reopened in October.
Shutting the casinos also had a wider social impact. SaskGaming’s revenue goes towards supporting the province’s General Revenue Fund which helps, among other groups, Saskatchewan’s First Nations and Métis communities. The loss of that revenue stream was by no means a loss felt only by the company itself.
A Safe Reopening
Casinos Regina and Moose Jaw both reopened in early July for the first time since mid-March 16 with the kind of stringent health and safety procedures that have been seen in reopened casinos across Canada, as per the Reopen Saskatchewan plan. Those include capacity and service limits, screenings, social distancing measures, increased sanitization and cleaning (particularly regarding high-touch surfaces), Plexiglas barriers, and mandatory masks.
Through careful management and all due consideration from operators, regulators, public health, and the Saskatchewan population, they have been able to stay open ever since. Table games restarted with limited capacities in early October but, in order to limit the risk of the virus spreading, all bets are placed by dealers after receiving verbal commands or hand signals. Guests cannot handle cards or chips, no food or beverages are allowed at tables, and spectators may not congregate at the tables.
The 24-hour weekend operations that had been introduced last year had to be scrapped to allow for ample time to clean thoroughly and fully each night. Earlier this month, too, alcohol service was halted after 10 p.m. at both casinos in compliance with Saskatchewan’s curfew on alcohol sales. That will last until at least mid-December.
With every cloud, though, comes a silver lining. A quirk of timing meant that renovations on Casino Regina that were already underway were able to continue during the temporary closure. As Flett notes, this allowed SaskGaming to contribute to supporting the local construction industry and related trades during the shutdown. Refurbishment of the on-site restaurant at Casino Regina was completed just as the pandemic hit, but capacity limits and health concerns mean it won’t be reopened for business until January 2021 at the earliest. Meanwhile, the Casino Regina Show Lounge is not expected to reopen until at least April.
Establishing a New Normal
SaskGaming’s properties may have been able to reopen relatively swiftly and remain in operation, a better scenario than has been seen in some other provinces, but it’s very much not business as usual. The current setup has slot machines limited to every third machine, table games restricted to three players, and Plexiglas barriers all over the floors. To help stay vigilant and continue to foster consumer confidence, too, guests can request their slot machine, touch-bet terminal, or table game to be cleaned on-demand.
“From our perspective, the last six months has been about adapting to the constant change that has been brought on by COVID-19,” says Flett, noting that the company has been determined to be proactive instead of reactive in pivoting its service and operations. Saskatchewan, like most of Canada, is getting deep into the expected second wave of COVID-19 this fall. It remains near-impossible to predict exactly how things will pan out for the remainder of the year and beyond. But come what may, SaskGaming is vowing to be ready to act in the best possible manner to whatever lies on the road ahead.
Certainly, being based in Saskatchewan rather than, say, the hustle and bustle of Southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe has some advantages. Flett acknowledges the province has performed quite well throughout the pandemic, and currently has the lowest unemployment rate in Canada. Measures have been brought in to help away from casinos, too, such as increasing VLT commissions paid to bars and restaurants for the remainder of 2020.
On the flip side, though, is that Saskatchewan, unlike Ontario and other provinces, has no electronic gaming portfolio to offer as an immediate alternative to casino gambling. “It’s clear that those provinces with online gambling channels have been better positioned to weather this pandemic because their land-based players have been able to pivot and take their play online,” Flett says. She hopes there will be provincial progress on that front in the near future, noting a spike in demand for electronic gaming in the midst of the pandemic. In the meantime, Casinos Regina and Moose Jaw’s electronic table games have seen year-over-year increases and the demand for touch-bet terminals also keeps climbing.
Putting Their Best Foot Forward
Discretionary spending, as one would expect, remains down amid economic uncertainty. SaskGaming’s casinos saw great turnout when they reopened – both Regina and Moose Jaw maxed out their lowered capacities within hours of reopening in July – but overall revenue and visitation is understandably lower than the same period in 2019-20.
Overall, though, Flett has been heartened by the response from SaskGaming’s core of patrons, saying that it was “amazing to see their loyalty.” She also emphasizes that navigating a crisis brought out “the absolute best” in SaskGaming and the casinos’ employees.
Moving forward, she is cautiously optimistic of being able to continue the company’s priorities of modernization and continued financial sustainability, as well as supporting local industries. Flett notes that as gaming revenues continue to increase again, the corporation will further support local non-profit and charitable organizations in their communities and help to stimulate Saskatchewan’s economy on the path to recovery.
It’s a long road and tough terrain the industry is walking right now, but SaskGaming seems to be finding the right path, and better times are on the horizon.