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.