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  • Writer's pictureKara Holm

Why casinos should care about public perception

For the casino industry, public perception is a serious business issue, and one that is often underestimated.

Last weekend I was enjoying some down time, reading magazines, when I came across and article that reminded me of the negative way in which casinos are viewed by many members of the public in Canada, particularly by media and other thought-leaders.

The article “Casino Cuisine: Quebec is subsidizing an $11 million restaurant for high rollers. Not everyone is pleased,” appears in the May 2017 issue of The Walrus, on news stands now. (A version appeared on the magazine’s website in March of 2017.) The article is about a restaurant franchise called L’Atelier that opened in Casino de Montréal last fall. L’Atelier is a brand created by the most Michelin-starred chef in the world, France’s Joël Robuchon. The presence of the restaurant in the government owned and operated casino has generated complaints from some in Montréal’s thriving foodie community, according to this story. The author, a former food critic, grudgingly conceded that the food was fantastic despite the lack of local ingredients and its status as a "chain" restaurant.

Overall, I found the article incoherent and it was misleading from the title onwards. The Québec government is not subsidizing the restaurant, as suggested by The Walrus; Loto Québec is investing in a business it operates for profit.

But one message was very clearly expressed: casinos are depressing and their patrons should be mocked. In the first paragraph the author, Chris Nuttall-Smith, writes:

There are acres of electronic gambling machines and the people who play them, of pulsing light and sound and painstakingly considered stimuli, of mullets and comb-overs, of bald heads and she-bouffants, of Cash for Life strivers with unblinking eyes, attired in curling-rink chic.

The sneering and superior tone relative to the casino and its patrons continues. In addition to maligning the appearance of slot players, the author reports the table games pits as places of lost hope, and offers a sarcastic “shout out” to a table of women in the elite restaurant who were discussing 50 Shades Darker.

Beyond the cruel depictions of casino patrons and the unfavourable description of the environment, the article displays no understanding of the casino industry. It is clear that the author was not interested in doing any research that might challenge his prejudices before writing the article, or in providing accurate descriptions of the investment Loto Québec has made. He does not communicate the importance of dining options in the context of a casino entertainment experience. The truth doesn’t matter.

Although I was slightly horrified by the mean-spirited bias against casino patrons in the article, and the lack of balance about the contributions casinos make to their communities, it also served as a reminder of why public perception is such a challenge for Canadian casino operators.

The people who don’t like casinos, really don’t like casinos and aren’t afraid to share their “insights.” People who enjoy casinos are unlikely to advocate publicly for their preferences, meaning there is no opportunity for balance in the information that reaches those members of the public that still have a neutral view of casinos. There are some regional differences, but there is a significant part of the of the population that holds a negative view of casinos in every market – we estimate it to be 25% - 33%.

Why should we care about this negative perception? The industry has identified the need to engage new customers with the casino experience, so as to ensure the industry’s evolution and sustainability.

How can we successfully manage to attract new patrons to our properties – which offer lots more than gambling – if they learn from the media that people who visit casinos are in some way inferior?

The casino industry thrives when it has both a core group of loyal players and a large number of casual, infrequent patrons. This latter group is at risk through the constantly negative portrayal of casinos environments and their clients in the media.

In our experience, there is a clear understanding among government agencies, operators and suppliers that negative public perception is a problem that impacts financial results. Unfortunately, many people in the industry believe that there isn’t much that can be done about it.

At All-In, we believe that the industry should work towards influencing its public image in positive ways. Public perception is tied to social licence, and social licence is tied to financial results. We cannot ignore this issue.

Today we offer three ways to take control of the conversation:

  1. Stop apologizing. Gambling is a legal, regulated business in Canada and many states. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t be afraid to engage in the discussion with anti-gambling lobbyists. Always politely and generously, stand up for the positive aspects of the business.

  2. Casinos are huge contributors to their communities. After taxes, gambling is one of the largest revenue lines – if not the largest – on government balance sheets. Casinos create jobs, support other businesses, provide tax revenues, and support charities and community groups.

  3. Casinos are about entertainment, not just gambling. Focus on the destination aspect of the casino experience to encourage visitation from casual and infrequent patrons.

To be successful, the casino industry needs to position messages in a way that’s more relevant to the public. We need to commend Loto Quebec for an investment which will generate more revenue for the province, while at the same time, diversifying and enriching the cuisine of Montreal and creating a larger global stage for the fantastic home-grown chefs. Montreal’s chefs stand with the best in the world. We need to participate in the conversation about casinos and add our voices to improve public perception. We also need to be consistent and patient. This is the long game.

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