As CEO of European gaming giant SAZKA Group, Robert Chvátal knows more than most how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the industry over the last 18 months. But whilst lockdowns in a number of its markets have taken their toll on the group’s retail offering, he is bullish about the long-term prospects. In an exclusive interview for European Gaming, he revealed how the use of technology and a customer-centric approach is driving online growth and allowing operators to provide a safer gaming environment.
Holiday season is often a time for rest and reflection. How do you look back on the last few months and what challenges did it pose for SAZKA Group?
I’m pleased to say that we have managed to remain resilient in what has been an unpredictable period with often disruptive trading conditions. As people will know, 80% of our EBIT is generated through lottery-style games. Clearly lock-downs have had an impact on our operations, with retail in Italy and Greece in particular taking a hit. And yet our strategic focus on online channels paid off. I think the growth of digital sales during the pandemic is very supportive for our future development too. 30 per cent of GGR for our Czech business in 2020 came online and that continues to grow. In Greece, OPAP recently launched a digital entertainment hub and has seen really good take-up of online lottery sales, despite starting from a low base. Retail remains important. Picking it up and rejuvenating it in the coming months is a priority, but online is a rising star providing us with real guidance too.
Across the industry we’ve seen witnesses the introduction of a wave of new products and a freshening up of old ones. What part has SAZKA Group played in this?
With more and more customers heading online, as well as potential new ones sat in front of their computer and phone screens, it was imperative that we kept our product offering up-to-date and relevant. All our operator companies introduced new content suitable for their jurisdictions. Needless to say, we also introduced new lottery draws too. Hand in glove with this went customer engagement plans that allowed us to showcase the full product portfolio and content diversity that is so important these days. We also saw the roll-out of customer loyalty programs that rewarded our regular players, be they in-store or online. This helped to really personalise our interaction at a time when we were all distancing ourselves from one another as a society. The results to date have been very encouraging.
How has the pandemic changed the way that you approach marketing, particularly when it comes to players who have moved online and those new ones who are joining them?
Interestingly, we are gaining real traction with event-based jackpots with specific themes. Friday the 13th has become a real tradition for us, as many people will now know. There are some key dates when players like to try their luck such as Black Friday top. With millions of people online looking for a bargain, it is a date that resonates in some of our markets. We are often able to collect much higher wagers on these special dates because we’re able to market them better. Clearly customer loyalty takes on a new meaning online too. Traditionally, retail has been an anonymous experience with people going to a newsagent or a kiosk to buy a lottery slip. That suits some people and that’s fine, but it doesn’t allow us to capture anonymised information on consumer trends. Online obviously requires people to register and be verified, allowing us to ensure the are safer from a responsible gaming point of view, which is crucial.
What part is technology playing in providing a better player experience?
We are really making the most of big data, joining the dots between lottery and those who play other games. It has a huge benefit online. But retail loyalty is equally important for us. That’s why we offered virtual loyalty cards, where players register online with a mobile number. This then allows us to identify them as a unique player. We also have a proposition in retail loyalty called Wheel of Fortune where participants benefit by being offered a second chance within 24 hours of their retail purchase, for example. People are embracing it because they see the benefits of what is being offered. There is nothing worse than being bombarded with products and services in which you have no interest. Harnessing big data and processing it thoughtfully allows technology to tailor our offering. That has never been more important in a world full of distractions. We also see technology as a vital means of protecting players, more of which is below.
Player protection and the need for safer betting and gaming environments are rarely out of the headlines these days. How is the lottery sector and SAZKA Group in particular dealing with the challenges these concerns present?
SAZKA Group is committed to responsible gaming. It always has and always will be a central plank of our proposition as a business. All of our operator companies are part of European Lotteries, so there’s a strict and supervised responsible gaming certification mechanism. In some respects, we’re fortunate. In lottery wins are infrequent, compared to games with higher probability and higher frequency. The risk of excessive or problem gaming is small as a result. But there is clearly no room for complacency. Some of our companies run sports and casino betting too, of course, and put significant resources into ensuring customers are supported. We let them know about setting time and spending limits and the advantages of taking frequent breaks. We also educate our employees and store partners in responsible gaming training, so that they can apply the relevant standards and principles. At the end of the day, this should be an enjoyable and playful experience for our customers – and we need to play a central role in maintaining that.
Exclusive interview with Vladimir Malakchi: Evoplay kicks-off in Ireland!
Capping off an outstanding year for Evoplay with multiple industry awards and deals with major providers, including Relax Gaming, Bragg Gaming Group and Fortuna, we sat down with Evoplay’s CCO, Vladimir Malakchi to talk through his plans for their Irish debut.
The burgeoning Irish market is one of the fastest-growing markets in the iGaming landscape, but what promise does it hold for Evoplay?
I would say that the Irish market’s steady expansion stems from a crucial factor – a strong demand for iGaming. The latest research illustrates that Irish gamblers constitute one of the largest iGaming audiences across Europe. To be specific, around 59% of Ireland’s population regularly gambles online, rendering it a particularly attractive jurisdiction for providers that are looking to expand into up-and-coming markets.
Our recently established partnership with Novibet has allowed us to unlock the Irish market and reach iGaming enthusiasts across the country with our highly sought-after titles, including 52 gamification-packed video slots and 10 instant games, featuring bestsellers such as our World Cup-inspired Penalty Shoot-out.
How are you looking to cater to Irish players’ preferences, and how does that impact your game development strategy?
Online casino is in good company amongst some of the most popular types of entertainment in Ireland, and our rich portfolio is more than suitable to provide its players with the experiences they desire. The people in Ireland are sociable, outgoing, entertaining, and enjoy participating in healthy competition thanks to the nation’s rich heritage in sports.
Evoplay’s games are well-known for their innovative and gamified elements, which are core tenets of the development process surrounding each product. For this reason, we can rest assured that the variety of content we provide caters to all demographics of Irish players, with titles stacked full of social features such as leaderboards, live chats, progress systems, and tournaments.
The inclusion of these features ensures maximum excitement for players, thanks to their support of social interaction and healthy competition between players, with the experiences further enhanced by strong betting features, customisation, and well-designed peripherals.
Is there a particular demographic of Irish player that your products have seen success with?
As our development strategy is to create products that capture the imaginations of a broad audience, our games are popular with a real variety of demographics, from conservative players all the way to the next generation. Those coming from a background of traditional casino games will find a lot of joy in our impressive selection of our retro slots, such as the Fruit Super Nova series, while next-gen players seeking something fresh and unique can dive into our collection of modern experiences, featuring innovative yet easy-to-understand titles stacked full of social elements.
With almost half of the Irish population being interested in football, supporting football clubs and consuming a spread of sports content, our renowned football-themed instant game – Penalty Shoot-out – has every chance to become the next big hit in the market during the World Cup and beyond.
How have your Irish-themed slots been received by players in the region?
We already have Irish-themed titles in our portfolio, and that’s not only in regard to slots but instant games too, which have become the perfect accompaniment to Saint Patrick’s Day and a portion of our more traditional content.
Ireland as a country has a very rich culture and supplies us with so many exciting opportunities to develop themes and plots to create leading experiences. I am sure that the distinctive charm and the local peculiarities of Irish culture will inspire us to develop more titles that feature elements of Irish heritage in the months ahead.
Having recently taken your sought-after games portfolio live with Novibet, do you have any other operator deals on the horizon?
Ireland is a high-potential market with an online casino vertical generating more than €200 million year on year. Establishing an agreement with an operator as respected as Novibet is the first step in reaching Irish customers and making a statement about what we do at Evoplay. We definitely see more partnerships within the jurisdiction on the horizon and welcome opportunities to further establish a solid footing in the region.
Maximising casino cross-sell during the World Cup
The excitement created by the World Cup is such that it doesn’t just mean huge potential gains for sportsbooks – there is also massive casino cross-sell opportunities to be had.
European Gaming spoke to Alex Bolton, Casino Manager at Mobinc, about the initiatives the company is taking to maximise this potential as the tournament gets into full swing.
How big an opportunity is increased sportsbook traffic to operators when it comes to their casino sites?
Sportsbook is just one of the pillars accredited to the success of casinos and there’s plenty more to offer players. That said, the demographic it captures is far more distinct compared to those seen in more traditional gambling models, because in most cases the customer’s enjoyment of watching live sporting events often precedes their interest in betting.
As a result, the opportunity to acquire this particular type of customer is not one that casinos should overlook. A winter World Cup represents a great opportunity for all operators who should expect a rise in engagement with the number of sports fans eager to get involved. The festive season always sees a jump in casino activity, so the synergy we can expect from a corresponding World Cup is incredibly promising. Those who are well prepared can also maximise their revenue by supplying entertainment during the event’s downtime and off-peak matches.
How do they attract sportsbook customers to play casino games if they have not done before?
There are several methods for casinos to cross-sell traditional slots to customers that have been acquired by their sportsbook. One of the more popular methods is to run slot-focused promotions on the sportsbook, which gives players the chance to win rewards that are themed around live dealer titles or slots. The key is to showcase the value and experience of these products without customers having to risk their own money.
Moreover, you can cherry-pick a range of particular products to cross-sell to sports bettors, this can certainly enhance their user experience, whilst increasing the overall retention rates. By picking the correct products operators can deliver the optimum betting experience that sports-bettors seek, allowing them to dip in and out while also enjoying the matches.
What sort of promotions have you got planned and how will players and providers benefit?
We have several promotions lined up which will be running over the course of the World Cup and we cannot wait to unveil them to our customers, including free spins, deposit bonuses and vouchers redeemable for World Cup matches. The event is guaranteed to be a spectacle and with it occurring once every four years we hope our themed initiatives will be enjoyed by players.
Additionally, with some targeted cross-selling we expect our partner providers will also enjoy a piece of the action in what’s guaranteed to be a very busy time for the industry. With the World Cup just around the corner, we’re eager to get started.
Are there regional variations at work here and how do you tailor your offering to specific markets or in countries with teams participating in the World Cup?
We’re delighted to see Canada and Japan qualify for the World Cup; two of the biggest markets we operate in. What makes this more exciting is the fact that this will be Canada’s first-ever appearance in the iconic tournament, allowing us to tap into a brand-new demographic.
Through strategic positioning, we’re aiming to significantly enhance the experience for our Canadian customers as they follow their nation during its exciting World Cup debut. Meanwhile, with Japan being a more experienced participant, their involvement captures a recurring demographic of football fans and we’re primed to take advantage of this.
How can casinos convert newly arrived customers on a longer-term basis?
In an extremely competitive environment, to secure long-term conversion operators must provide the best casino experience possible. The quality and quantity of websites facilitating gambling in the current market are incredible, and when the bar is this high there is simply no room for complacency.
The market is also in a constant cycle of change with regulatory and market developments happening all the time. With this in mind, it’s vital for operators to be on the front foot so that they can ensure they’re catering to these changes, whilst simultaneously delivering an exceptional customer experience.
During massive events such as the World Cup, when community spirit is high, word of mouth can do wonders to get new players on board. Ensuring these converted customers stick around as the event comes to an end is the next challenge for operators, but a fluid gaming experience is essential, as are the RNG and live dealer content that complement the sports betting experience.
Q&A w/ Timothy Hill, Senior Project Manager at Betsson Group, on how an operator prepares for the World Cup
How does a tier-one operator such as Betsson prepare for a big betting event such as the World Cup?
The World Cup is a huge event for football and also for Betsson. A major sporting (and betting) event such as this touches nearly every department within the company from analytics to IT via marketing, facilities and commercial. Each of these departments must be in sync and we go to great lengths to constantly align so that we are fully prepared for when the first game kicks off. From infrastructure to promotions, everything has to have been tested so that we can be confident that our platform and systems can handle the significant increase in new players and bet volumes that we expect during such tournaments.
To make sure this is the case, we have been preparing since the start of the year. We have teams allocated specifically to this tournament’s activity and they have been laser-focused on making sure that we are ready for the biggest betting event of the year. Of course, we have to be ready for this major event, while also delivering the same superior player experience across all our brands and verticals in the build-up to the tournament and throughout. It’s a massive undertaking that requires strong internal communication and the ability to track teams and activities at all times.
What are the biggest challenges you face? How are these challenges overcome?
The incredibly high level of competition in each of our markets is probably the biggest challenge we face. Betsson is not the only operator looking to take advantage of the huge potential this tournament has to offer, so we have to ensure that we are the best across all areas from sportsbook promotions to payments. It’s all well and good being able to attract new players, but once they are active with our brands, we have to make sure they receive the best possible experience; doing this in multiple global markets is a significant challenge, to say the least. The surge in active players and bet volumes is another challenge, and operators must stress-test their platforms and systems to ensure they can handle the huge increase in activity. Finally, for tier-one operators such as Betsson, it’s important to make sure this tournament does not distract from our regular business. This requires a lot of multi-tasking within teams.
What has been the biggest lesson learned from previous tournaments?
Start preparing early and keep the momentum going. We’ve actually had more time to prepare this year since it is taking place in the autumn/winter, and this has really helped make sure that we’re 100% ready and firing on all cylinders. Any major sport tournament is such a big branding and acquisition opportunity that operators should give it the time and resources it needs and that’s why we’ve been working on our proposition for nearly a year now.
Does your approach to the World Cup change for each brand? How does it change from market to market?
In terms of the sports promotions we are running, we have a big global offer available in all markets and then local offers specific to each jurisdiction. We give our local teams the freedom and flexibility to tailor their marketing plans and campaigns as they know their audiences better than anyone else. In corporate, we see it as our responsibility to give them the resources, tools and support they need to do this.
Player acquisition is a key focus for many operators. What approach are you taking?
Bonuses and promotions are very important for player acquisition during sporting tournaments. Our flagship, The Betsson Million, is available in most of Betsson Groups core markets. Each player is credited with €1 Million in cash and can use the money to predict the outcome of 20 football match questions. An example of such question may be “Will there be more than 2.5 goals in the Qatar vs Ecuador match”. The player can invest the full million in ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or split the money 70/30 or 50/50 or however they chose. Whatever money remains after the match has been played is taken to the second question. The cash the player has left after 20 questions is theirs to keep without any wagering restrictions or requirements. All players get unlimited chances to win €1M, and the game is available 365 days per year. But this is just one aspect of player acquisition and to successfully onboard new players at scale, operators must provide a seamless user experience from the moment they arrive at the brand. This includes sign-up, KYC, payments, markets and odds, customer support and more.
It’s not just about acquiring players, either. Retention is hugely important, especially considering the bonuses some rival brands are offering to tempt players to their books. At Betsson, we’re looking to super-charge retention with a range of initiatives including football-themed slot games, incentives for trying casino and live gaming and in some market, we are also even offering a Football True or False online contest where players try to answer their way to a share of €1,500. In short, we want to welcome new players looking to bet on the upcoming exciting matches and then show them the incredible entertainment and betting experience they can enjoy across our brands.
Are big bonuses the only way to stand out from rival brands? If not, how else do you look to differentiate and drive player sign-ups?
Bonuses are a huge part of how brands look to differentiate in markets where they are allowed, but they are not the only way. At Betsson, we want players to know that we offer a huge range of betting experiences and options and cross-selling sports bettors to casino and live casino tables is a big focus of ours. To do this, we are running the football theme across our sportsbooks and casinos and have lots of special promotions, themed slots and dedicated live casino environments to help achieve this.
Just how important is retention during big betting events like the World Cup? Is it more challenging with so many bonuses flying around? How do you ensure players remain loyal?
As touched on already, retention is mission-critical for Betsson during sporting events and beyond. Due to the high costs of acquisition, it’s important for operators to retain players and mitigate churn as much as possible for as long as possible. That’s why the quality of the player experience offered once they have signed up is vital. When it comes to ensuring that players remain loyal, we do this via on-going promotions, the availability of markets and value of odds, a lobby stocked with a wide range of slots, casino and live dealer content, localised payment options and the best customer support in the business. The full package, if you like.
What does a successful World Cup look like for Betsson?
We want to see an influx of new players sign up to our brands, and for this to be a driver of higher bet volumes and turnover. Of course, it’s important to retain these players and we hope to see a positive response to our promotions and campaigns. The fourth quarter is often a strong one for gambling companies, and this huge event has a good chances of becoming the biggest sports event ever for Betsson!
How do you ensure that players acquired during the tournament continue to wager with your brands after the final whistle is blown?
It comes down to the retention tactics mentioned earlier. That this tournament is also taking place in the middle of regular football and sports seasons across the globe will also help with retention. In the UK, for example, Boxing Day is just a couple of weeks after the World Cup climax and is one of the biggest betting days in the English Premier League. So long as we can keep players engaged during the Christmas period, I think we will be able to drive loyalty for a long time to come.
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