Brand Health Check: Mecca Bingo

Players are abandoning the bingo house in their droves, and it's not all the fault of the smoking ban.

Much like an unfortunate player who repeatedly misses out on a full house by one number, Mecca Bingo is down on its luck.

The company has been hit hard by the ban on smoking in public places, which came into effect in England on 1 July, and the implementation of the Gambling Act in September, which excluded certain fruit machines from its clubs. Mecca Bingo admits that the knock-on effects have been worse than expected, so much so that last month it issued a profits warning attributed to a 'significant deterioration' in revenues.

However, while the smoking ban and Gambling Act have certainly taken their toll, the Rank-owned operator was already struggling to get punters through its doors. In recent years, Mecca Bingo has shed millions of players as it has struggled to move beyond its core market of working-class older women. This is despite deregulation of the industry in the 90s, which gave bingo clubs greater freedom to offer more substantial prizes, and the relaxation of membership criteria in 2005, which made it easier for people to join.

In a bid to turn around the decline in players, the operator hired branding agency Dave last year with a brief to dispel what Mecca Bingo claimed were outdated stereotypes of bingo and those who play the game.

Other drains on bingo clubs include gambling websites, which are undoubtedly having an impact on footfall, as younger players shirk gaming halls in favour of playing from the comfort of their homes. Poker, meanwhile, is growing in popularity, thanks in part to the relatively high profile of its professional players, who lend an air of 'coolness' to the game.

Mecca Bingo has admitted that it needs to come up with fresh ideas and has earmarked the theme of 'food and fun' as key to future growth, although details of activity around this have yet to be confirmed.

It has also embarked on a digital drive, rolling out an email marketing programme that allows club managers to create their own emails to send to local customers. But will this be enough to revive admissions numbers?

We asked Andy Mackenzie, executive creative director of 141 Worldwide/London, which works with Coral, and Simon Collins, commercial director of gaming marketing agency Cashcade where Mecca Bingo should go next.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - ANDY MACKENZIE EXECUTIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR, 141 WORLDWIDE/LONDON

The commercialisation of bingo has been going on for many years, turning it from an entertainment feature at British holiday camps into a multimillion-pound industry.

With the leisure sector expanding at breakneck speed, driven largely by technology, retaining an existing customer base is hard enough, let alone addressing failing revenues. So maybe Mecca Bingo should look into new income streams, or the way it delivers its product. It might also consider what else, from a leisure perspective, is attracting people.

I believe there will always be the hardcore bingo loyalist who will go to a club come-what-may, but perhaps radical promotions to try to draw in occasional players should be considered. This would mean Mecca Bingo trying to change whatever perceptions people have about bingo halls. Are there other leisure activities that could be accommodated in these often sizeable buildings to attract a different kind of customer? And could the Britishness of bingo be built on to deliver the pastime in a fresh and exciting way?

REMEDY

- Create Mecca Poker Clubs in premises.

- Consider bingo 'drive-ins' during the summer in the parks of major cities where there is an existing Mecca club.

- Tie in with the great British holiday and find a way to create 'Bingo on the Beach' at the nation's major summer resorts, offering prizes of nights out at Mecca Bingo venues.

- Create packages around hen and office parties.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - SIMON COLLINS COMMERCIAL DIRECTOR, CASHCADE

Despite a range of counter-measures, Mecca Bingo is suffering. It has been attempting to stave off drops in revenue, such as the 15% fall it suffered when Scotland implemented the smoking ban last year, but to little avail. Weatherproof gambling machines and a pared-down version of bingo appear to have fallen flat.

Plans such as smoking shelters were working in the short term, but recent results suggest the ban, which, of course, has now been implemented in England, has really started to bite with the passing of summer. Sitting in a smoking shelter seems too much to bear in autumn.

Mecca Bingo has said it is working on creating a 'bingo for the PlayStation generation' based on portable devices. This kind of offering is one way to deal with the problems, but misses the point of getting people into the warm environment of the club. Portable devices go against all that bingo stands for, leading to a loss of the sense of community. Such software might be better aimed at players only when they cease to turn up to the venue, rather than helping them to leave.

REMEDY

- Target young mothers. Look at the way cinemas operate special screenings for parents with young babies in tow. Facilities such as creches can help further.

- Expand the provision of food and drink to get people into the clubs.

- Target drinkers and diners in the evening with promotions and entertainment.

- Offer corporate events as one-offs.

- Remember bingo is becoming more mainstream with the onset of online versions.

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