Head of the table

Leading UK casino chain Grosvenor recently installed the world’s largest table game wide-are progressive with Blackjack Ace-King Suited across 102 tables in the company’s 55 casinos. Rank-owned Grosvenor is building a reputation as a tech-friendly, forward-thinking gaming company – Casino International found out why, thanks to Product Development Manager Ian Shanahan and Head of Table Gaming Kevin Grahame.

CI: It’s pretty exciting that you have installed the world’s biggest table game Wide Area Progressive [WAP] side bet…

Kevin Grahame: We didn’t know that was the case at the time we introduced it. There are 102 tables connected to the Blackjack Ace-King Suited side bet at the moment.

CI: Where did the idea come from? Did you approach the supplier or the other way round?

KG: Neither of those actually. Ian and I attend ICE and occasionally G2E, and at ICE three or four years ago we searched the hall looking for a wide-area progressive. Like most people, we dabbled with the wide-area progressive for Super Stud, what was then the English version of Caribbean Stud Poker; that platform, through progressive buyouts of different companies, actually became obsolete and nobody wanted to support it. We were looking for a platform, and Shuffle Master – now Scientific Games – said they could do that for us.

The actual bet itself is ours, it’s not a Shuffle Master bet.

CI: So it’s your game, their platform? Who came up with the side bet?

KG: Ian and I had done some casino tourism and virtually every jurisdiction you go into a progressive is a key feature. On the global market there is clearly a customer demand for a progressive and we wanted to get back into that. We became more motivated to do that with the increased scale we got when we merged with the Gala and Grosvenor clubs, our scale went up to about 55. We knew there would be opportunities to do something with a progressive that hadn’t been done in the UK before.

It was certainly driven by answering what we believed would be a customer demand as we had seen the progressive on Super Stud being quite popular. We had seen in other jurisdictions progressives being popular, and we believed the present casino customer would be interested in that.

The other aspect of it is that both the product and the customer on table gaming in the UK, it’s a mature market. It’s a low penetration into the over-18 market compared to say the US, where it’s something like 25%; it’s still less than 10% here. So the view is that we should be trying to offer a product that would appeal to people that are not necessarily a casino customer at the moment, but that the bet by its nature and its payoff would appeal to them because they might be spread- or sports-bet players outside of casinos.

It’s got the potential to give us access to a market that is not a regular visitor to casinos.

CI: Successful side bets combine reasonable frequency and not messing with the flow of the game; how does this one work?

KG: No extra cards are dealt with this, it’s driven by the initial deal of the main game. The first four cards, two face up for the dealer and two for the customer, drive the game. Your £1 stake goes on a sensor and the bet is on.

What we have tried to do is to experiment with this; it’s a diversion from what progressives have been. We are going for high frequency, lower payouts. The mega payout of the three I still think is a life-changing event for whoever wins it. But the maths that we asked Shuffle Master for, even before we designed how the game would create the result, meant the payout would go at around £50,000 rather than £250,000. The philosophy for that is that with more than 50 units, we want to create a fraternity of people who have either had a smaller frequent payout, or know somebody in the club that has. We are looking years down the line, we are in it for the long haul and we want players who will recognise somebody who has won a progressive in a club.

Part of this is also trying to avoid appealing to players who might only visit when the jackpot is high, over £100,000 for example. We don’t want to disenfranchise our regular customers.

The other aspect to that is, we have a demand profile that we want to see from the game that will make it more likely to develop that winner fraternity I described. We’re not quite there yet but we are heading in that direction; even from a standing start it’s been a successful bet for us and we are trying other things to make it more successful and increase the frequency of the payout – and thus increase the fraternity more rapidly.

CI: It’s interesting that you have not gone and found a mature product, you have developed the one you wanted and you are in a unique position to evolve that. Is that where Ian comes in to it – in the development and refinement of the bet’s effectiveness?

Ian Shanahan: To an extent yes. My role within the table gaming team is about innovation, new products, trying to bring in what I think are concepts that will appeal to customers. The idea of the frequency hits was very much Kevin’s which I bought into straight away and it has developed to a point now where we are seeing that it is the right strategy. My role is very much about testing products, evaluating their success or failure the enhancing or modifying them. We work with many suppliers now and I hope as a company we have a good reputation for being open to testing. We see a lot of games and concepts coming through the casinos and I work hard to evaluate and establish them so we can get the right clubs with the right games. We have 54 casinos across the state and some of them are very different and like different types of games; there is no one shoe fits all. It’s about aligning products with different sites and different casino types.

KG: Ian’s being a bit modest there in that one of the things he has done through being a very good networker is to have those contacts and open up the channels with suppliers where we can say, Grosvenor is the kind of place where if you have something you want to get in to a club, come to us first.

Though we might have an idea what customers want, we don’t pick those games – what Ian does is he runs a showcase once a year where we invite an audience made up of management and customers and we show 20 or so games that Ian has sourced. We get people at that event to vote on what is the most enjoyable game for them. So by the time we go to an operator and saying, we would like you to try this game so we have fresh games on show, we have customer feedback that says not only do we think it’s a good idea, as far as we can within the mechanism we have created, the customers think it’s a good idea as well. Ian has developed that whole process.

I always describe it as, we don’t want to give up The Beatles; if a good game comes across that is going to break that cartel of roulette and blackjack in the UK market, let’s be at the front of the queue trying to find that.

CI: How much data do you get at the table?

KG: You’re obviously familiar with table gaming in the UK – one of the things we are starved of is data at the table. We have a lot of data on how many people play, how much is played, which clubs are at the top of the table for revenue generation. What we can’t do at the moment is link that to a system that tells us specifically who the customer is that is playing. We can gather information when we pay out, certainly for the main prize.

CI: What has the uptake been like and is it generating more play from existing players, or is it about new players?

KG: We haven’t been in the game long enough to know that. What we have seen is that there is a substantial amount of revenue that we can allocate to that bet; we can also see that there is no detrimental impact to the key indicators of handle and win percentage. On the short period of time we have had the bet in place, that may be blurred by the fact you have major players that either win or lose on the game, so there is a trend within a trend that is driving that rather than the adoption of the progressive, our data is not clear on that just yet.

CI: Has developing and implementing this given you any other ideas for the estate?

IS: We are always looking out for other progressives. We already have five clubs running various different poker progressives that Shuffle Master offer, and there are other games out there that we are looking into. We tried a system on a local network a few years ago but we always knew that the wide-area network, with that scale, would be the really popular bet. The frequency with which we can hit the progressives is greater than anybody else globally we think.

We see electronics now moving into table gaming more and more. It would be foolish of us not to consider using different products that will enhance the table gaming experience; without giving too much away we are looking at various other elements that have a progressive-type feel to them. They are a little way off yet though. It does give you ideas though, and it does lead on to other things.

KG: Ian’s done a great job of side-stepping the question there; what it has done is taught us the potential of blending technology through an electronic interface with a mature product like blackjack or roulette. Whoever cracks this, whoever enhances the variety and payout level for the customer, is really going to take the table gaming market by storm. That is the kind of challenge we are looking to rise to at the moment.