Gambling in Suburban Australia

Research Report – March 2019

4. Venue promotions, amenity and ambiance

It is illegal to directly promote EGMs in Victoria. However, indirect promotional strategies are customary, including free or subsidised meals and drinks and co-locating other activities at the venue in order to cross-promote gambling there. This chapter presents data about the ways in which venues promoted themselves in Sites 1 and 2. Also their effectiveness in encouraging residents to attend the venue (Bestman et al., 2016). Using the reports from local residents, it describes how venues embed themselves in local communities by providing spaces that may act to fill gaps in community amenity.

Participants reported on experiences in venues, including the range of activities available at these venues and the appeal of promotions, which influenced the way they frequented and used these spaces. Additional data about factors contributing to the characteristics of venues, including a range of illegal activities in and around venues, are also presented (see section 4.2).

The findings from the study are reported under the following thematic headings:

  • cross-promotion of EGMs
  • family-friendly venues
  • free drinks, cheaper meals and food service to machines
  • mood and ambiance
  • illegal activities in or around venues.

These findings are reported together, rather than by site, as the promotional strategies were very similar across venues. For instance, one corporate entity operated three venues across both sites.

Participant codes

Quotes from participants reported in the results section are coded to provide anonymous context with reference to the site (1 and/or 2), study categorisation (person who gambled [G], significant other [SO], local resident [LR], Vietnamese local resident [LRV] or professional [P]) and gender [M] or [F].

4.1 Cross-promotion of EGMs

Participants in both sites reported receiving venue marketing and promotions, such as venue vouchers that could be redeemed either for food, drinks or on machines in the venue.

Participants in both sites also described going to venues for purposes not related to gambling; for example, to take advantage of free or subsidised meals and drinks, or to use toilets, carparking or other facilities offered by venues, such as sporting grounds.

One mother reported developing gambling harms from EGMs while attending a venue through her son's sport training, which is held at an EGM venue:

When [I] took my son to [sport facility provided at the venue] … it was cold … so I'd go in [to the venue] and have a cup of coffee. And then I wanted to wander around and see what else you can do. So, I went and had a look and to try [an EGM] and - I think I put $5 in one time. But then when you go Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturday for training ... Training goes for like two hours sometimes … Me being the single mum, I had to stay there … You can't make many friends … the one thing that got to me, was just having free tea and coffee. (1GF)

Several participants who gambled described using EGMs after initially visiting a venue only to use their bathroom facilities:

I'm a bit wary of … railway station toilets … If you've got like a club where you know the toilets are going to be clean ... you just walk in and you go, 'Oh whilst I'm here'. You feel a little bit guilty just using the loo and then walking out again … so you might put $10 in [an EGM] … It's an expensive way of doing it. (2GM)

Venue layout and the ambient sounds of the EGMs in the bar and bistro areas tempted some patrons who previously had no intention of gambling to use EGMs:

We'd have a counter lunch and a few beers and it was really good. But to get out of the hotel, you had to walk through the gaming room … And that'd be the trap. Because [friend] would say, 'Oh you know, let's put $20 in'. Rubbish. It'd be $200 by the time you'd leave ... you went to the bar and you'd start hearing the bells and whistles from the machines and, 'Oh well, let's go over'. (2GM)

Figure 4.1: Subsidised alcohol and live music promotion, Site 2

Figure 4.1: Subsidised alcohol and live music promotion, Site 2

In Site 1, participants were more likely to report that heating and air-conditioning available in EGM venues made them attractive during different seasons:

They're nice and warm in there, they don't have to put the heater on [at home in winter] … Why go home anyway? I have to put the heater on … I might as well stay here. And you have coffee when you want it, then at 6 or 7 o'clock and savouries will go around … For that little piece of pizza … they will spend maybe another $100. They [venue] do it on purpose. (1GF)

A venue professional described the club's desire to increase crossover from the non-gambling spaces at the venue to the EGM gambling area:

We actually did a survey about … our bistro patrons and also of our junior [sport] players' parents and families … And there's only 8% of the families that actually play the pokies … And they're here, you know, a couple of nights a week for junior training and then they're here for games on the weekend ... And we did a survey of bistro patrons and about the same there … We get about a 10% crossover from bistro to games … I thought that was a bit on the low side [in terms of crossover]. (1P)

Figure 4.2: Venue promotions, Site 1

Figure 4.2: Venue promotions, Site 1

Figure 4.3: Promotions targeting a broad demographic (e.g. 'model waitresses' and a singing group) at EGM& venue, Site 1

Figure 4.3: Promotions targeting a broad demographic (e.g. ‘model waitresses’ and a singing group) at EGM venue, Site 1

'Family-friendly' venues

Participants in Site 1 found the provision of playgrounds and activities such as free face painting and free meal offers particularly appealing. They described attending EGM venues with children. This appeal is compounded by the lack of alternatives described by participants in Site 1, as documented in chapter 3. While there are no EGM venues with children's play areas in the immediate vicinity of Site 2, participants in both sites described the 'family-friendly' nature of EGM venues generally:

If it's school holidays and we've got them [children], there's not many places you can take special needs kids. So, we go [to EGM venues]. (1SOF)

Even though my children are not that young anymore, in the past that's a big pro if your children can have a little bit of a play … So very family friendly even though … through the glass wall you can see the pokies, nearly. So, it's very contradictory in that sense. (1LR)

Almost all participants who commented on this in both sites were concerned about exposing children to gambling:

A lot of these places have really low-priced meals and families will go there … and its impossible not to see the flashing lights. If you're a child, they're very quick, they pick up on anything that's like that and so it looks enticing right from the get-go. (2LR)

When describing a venue in Site 2, one participant felt the hotel environment was not one she would like to take her child regularly, especially when there were many other suitable places to visit in her neighbourhood.

Free drinks, cheaper meals and food service to machines

Many participants in Site 1 and some in Site 2 reported attending venues for the subsidised food.

Figure 4.4: Promotions targeting children at an EGM venue in Site 1

Figure 4.4: Promotions targeting children at an EGM venue in Site 1

Figure 4.5: Seniors meal promotion, Site 1

Figure 4.5: Seniors meal promotion, Site 1

However, some participants in Site 2 noted that the meals in this area were now expensive:

Now the local RSL, for example, you used to be able to get a massive counter meal for $7 or $8, now you go to the RSL and the pokies, that counter meal is now $32. (2P)

Vietnamese participants in Site 1 reported that gambling businesses ran specific promotions for their community:

On the Viet News newspaper. Every week, weekly paper, there are ads for the hotels and poker machines included, with some free services and free items. In Sunshine, it has the voucher so when you go there you can redeem the voucher for food. (1LRV)

On the whole, participants were cynical about many promotions such as loyalty cards and free meals:

They'd be getting it back in the pokies. Oh, for sure. I mean, there's never a free meal, is there? (2SOM)

I know it is nothing for free. They are after something else. (1LRV)

However, these marketing strategies were still reported to be effective. Many people who gambled responded favourably to free drinks:

A lot of venues give free coffees and that, which I appreciate. (1GM)

For some participants, promotions offered through club memberships were attractive, people who gambled described how these promotions encouraged them to use EGMs. For instance:

I park there. See, I parked there today [for free] ... they charge you $40 [per yearly membership]. And when it's your birthday, they give you a drink and they give you $30 worth of food. (2SOM)

Some venues were reported to provide free bus transport and subsidised meals for seniors' groups to encourage use of their gambling facilities:

They'd contact the groups and tell them they're going to organise buses for them … offer them … discounts on their meals and bring the crowd in and that's how they'd hook people in as well from this area to take them into town. And then the groups might make a couple of dollars on the deal. (1LR)

We're going on tours and they would take us somewhere to a buffet restaurant where all you can eat and then you gamble. So, you go and have a meal and then you go in to the machines and play the machines. (1SOF)

A number of professionals in Site 2 described how bus trips were often targeted to particular ethnic groups by some venues, including the casino:

Those groups were mainly aimed at Europeans, so, we'd try and hit the Greeks and Italians and Croatians and Spaniards and stuff. Because they're more social. So, they generally have more social clubs whereas the Asian market was predominantly ones or twos, most singles or double gamers ... They'd pay for their own bus but we'd provide them with a meal voucher, a drink voucher and $10 of gaming credit ... All bus groups, we were targeting pokie players ... You do the bus drop off at five and then the buses weren't allowed to go [back] … until nine 'cause that gave them time to have their free meal and drink ... [and] three hours to have a punt ... It's pretty well targeted. (2P)

And we found a lot of ethnic groups were ... getting on buses and going to casino and we actually - with the group's consent, surveyed some of their losses and they were amazed with how much the group had lost. And we're talking about people mainly on Centrelink payments ... And we had one group spend about $3,000. This was a bus of 50 people. The other one spent about - another one spent about $600 to $700 ... And the condition was that they had to stay within the casino complex for at least three or four hours. (2P)

The service of food and drinks to participants using EGMs was described as particularly problematic:

They're sitting there, they don't have to move ... During the football season I saw them wheeling around pies to people … I was like, are you serious? Like those people are not going to leave those machines … That's terrible. (2SOF)

If you're sitting there and you're winning 10 or 20 bucks or something and next thing this girl comes next to you, you know, she gives you a little paper plate with a couple of sausages and, you know, you've got your beer there or whatever or your glass of wine and 'ka-ching, ka-ching', you've got everything. Two hours later, something goes off. You know, number whoever machine's on, you've just won $100, you know. Oh great. They don't make you sit there for 10 minutes, they make you sit there for 10 hours. (2GM)

This matched researcher observations; for example, a coffee and cake trolley circulating at machines mid-morning was a scheduled weekly occurrence at some venues:

They wheel a cart around there to all the people and it has coffee and tea and biscuits and they don't have to move from their chair ... Like if they're thirsty, they have to get up off that machine and maybe that gives them a couple of minutes of not wasting their money and a couple of minutes is better than nothing. But if they're wheeling around coffee to people, nah [they won't move]. (2SOF)

Figure 4.6: EGM user served food while using two machines simultaneously

Figure 4.6: EGM user served food while using two machines simultaneously

Some participants reported that draws, raffles, mystery boxes or other promotions happening at a venue would encourage them to stay longer and, in some cases, bet faster:

One of the things that does increase my gambling that the RSL does … [is] giving out tickets when you get certain combinations on your machine and then having a draw … If you're playing and, you'll have somebody calling out, and it'll be for like an hour or so and they'll say, okay if you get a king in each corner … put your hand up … and they give you like a little raffle ticket and then at the end of every 20 minutes or so they do a draw … It might be a grocery grab or something … I always have found that I bet faster, I play more to try and get whatever combination it is. (2G1F)

The Responsible Gambling Codes of Conduct indicate that people who gamble should not be encouraged to gamble for long periods of time. These industry-developed codes require staff to intervene when they observe a gambler demonstrating signs of problematic use of machines. However, researcher observations, combined with reports from people who gambled and professionals, demonstrated that codes were regularly breached in both sites. A full description of this issue is provided in an earlier paper (Rintoul, Deblaquiere, & Thomas, 2017).

4.2 Experiences at local EGM venues

Mood and ambiance

Venues were described by some participants as providing comfortable recreational and dining opportunities:

I think it was mainly - I think just cosiness, the lights, the relaxation of it all. Um but in the end it's not [relaxing]. (1GF)

In some cases, convivial surroundings were described as facilitating long periods of gambling:

The staff are welcoming, you know, they make it a nice place for people to go, have a drink, you know, take your time. If you want to socialise, you can, if you don't, you don't really have to … It's an inviting place and they can sit there for hours and really not have to think about anything and just zone out if they need to. (1P)

While some participants described venues as welcoming and warm, many participants in both sites - significant others, people who gambled and local English-speaking residents - described EGM venues as 'depressing'.

There's no buzz, it's like real depression … You can just feel that they're there to win and they're trying but you can actually sense it's really flat. And even the staff know it 'cause even they're not as bubbly. They try to be but there's not - there's this real lull. It's almost like a funeral, like - it's like a wake. (1SOF)

One participant reported that visiting an EGM venue left her feeling anxious:

I'll go into the [club venue] with my boyfriend, watch football … have something to eat … maybe twice a month and I watch the people feed the money in there … It gives me really bad anxiety. (2SOF)

Others observed the aggressive reactions of gamblers who were frustrated:

Heaps of times … People come and hit the machine, you know? They swear at the machine. Get quite cranky. I mean you know, partners are fighting as well. (1GM)

The mesmerising effects of EGMs often led to prolonged machine usage, reportedly affecting hygiene:

You smell - if you go to other chairs, it's urine, because some of those players, they urinate in the thing because they're hooked into it. They don't move. (1GF)

The smell. Some people would go in there not having showers or some people would be quite dirty … It can be depressing sometimes … The [local venues] … they're very depressing. (1GF)

Illegal activities in or around venues

Some participants in Site 1 reported attending EGM venues because they felt other spaces in the community were unsafe (see section 3.2). Paradoxically, however, there were a range of illegal activities observed at venues by the researchers and reported by all categories of participants. An explanation for this paradox may be that some venue patrons were not attuned to the activities of others when attending venues, as noticing these activities sometimes requires relatively prolonged observation of the behaviours of others. However, participant and researcher observations documented evidence of drug dealing, particularly in Site 1:

Gambling venues are also used to deal drugs ... Oh, it's usually in the car park, yeah. Car park or hop in the car … That ... quite often happens. (1GF)

One participant reported her ex-partner purchased cocaine at an EGM venue in Site 1:

Before we eventually split, he was also drawn to drugs ... He bought them at some of the [EGM] venues ... And then he brought them home and I confronted him and I said, 'Don't bring them in the house, we've got a child'. (1SOF)

A venue professional in Site 1 confirmed drug dealing was not uncommon:

We do have problems with a few druggies [sic]… We get some that like to do their deals in the car park ... especially around sporting grounds and whatever, they seem to be a prime spot for them. (1P)

Drug-affected patrons were also commonly observed by researchers in Site 1. An ice (crystal methamphetamine) user reported that EGM venues are attractive places for people using this drug, aside from being the only place open overnight, as the lights and sounds of the machines complemented the stimulating effects of this drug:

[The drug] ice and gambling go hand-in-hand together ... Well, because ice you're up all the time, so you're up all through the night, what's open at night? Nothing but pokies. So, you find yourself on ice in there in a - like in a bad state of mind. (1GM)

As this professional reported:

There's a link between alcohol and drugs and gambling as well, especially with pokies. Um, I've heard a lot about that with clients too who, when on drugs or heroin or ice or anything like that, they tend to enjoy the pokies because of the lights and the colours and it keeps them in that sort of trance so they feel like that provides them with something, I guess. (1P)

Money laundering was also reported by many professionals and some participants who gambled in Site 1 and some professionals in Site 2:

Money launderers tend to operate around the local gaming venues and their modus operandi is to purchase cheques off people who've won. [Venue] had a lot of money laundering troubles … People were standing over players who might have $1,500 on the machine, a security guard or a staff member, neither of which are working there anymore, would alert this particular gentleman, you know, 'There's one over there'. They would then go and buy the winning off them for a reduced price. You know, if it was $1,400 [cheque], they might give them $1,100 cash. And the security guard would keep his $50, the staff member would keep their $50 and it was going on for a while. (1P)

There'd be an occasional time where the venue could give you … a payout because the machines weren't working or their computers were down or whatever and they'd give you a piece of paper and you'd have to come back the next day and get it. And then you would get the floating people around to come and offer you the cash for the ticket … They knew that you were regular and vice versa 'cause you'd see them. And you'd just say, 'Hi', and sometimes they would have pockets of money. And if you could get paid that day at the venue, they all say, 'Do you need the money? I'll help you, I'll give you the money', and you give them the ticket. (1GF)

Venues are typically open late at night, often for up to 20 hours a day, and have large volumes of cash circulating through the premises. As a result, they are attractive targets for armed robberies. During the course of fieldwork in Site 1 there were a series of armed robberies reported by participants and the media. Observations of venues and the local area undertaken by the research team were suspended for several months as a precautionary measure. Armed robberies also affected the willingness of some people who gambled to attend venues:

There's one big, big reason [I no longer go], now [my local venue] has been held up three times. And I would hate to be in there on a day they're held up, especially how they go up to you and have you get on the floor. (1GF)

Venue staff were also significantly affected by these experiences:

[Venue name 1]'s been robbed the most ... There's one lady that works at the [Venue name 2] that left the [Venue name 2] and went to the [Venue name 1] and the [Venue name 1] got robbed … She was the manager on duty and she's still suffering with pain now … This is like six years ago. (1GM)

Armed robberies ... they're getting nasty, yeah. It was alright when they were just affecting staff and security but now they're starting to get to patrons as well ... They're brandishing guns and machetes in people's faces, they're taking wallets and purses ... For old [venue] they've three [robberies] in four weeks. (1P)

4.3 Summary

Participants reported that community members and families are attracted to gambling venues by a range of heavily promoted, loss-leading non-gambling activities and facilities, including free or subsidised meals and drinks.

While there were many similarities in terms of venue facilities and marketing strategies in both sites, illegal activities in and around venues were reported by participants more frequently in Site 1 than in Site 2. Researchers observed, and professionals and participants who gambled across both sites reported, that the presence of illegal activities, and of people who gambled who may present as depressed or who are prone to violent outbursts, undermines venues' presentation of themselves as welcoming locations for community members.

Despite this, many residents still attend these venues. According to participant reports, this may be because there are few alternative spaces for affordable meals, particularly in Site 1, or that for people who gambled this does not detract from their attendance, given many of these participants have experienced gambling-related harms, which may override other potential concerns about ambiance.

Venues across both sites use a range of similar marketing and promotion strategies to encourage attendance at their venues. It is customary for a range of facilities to be offered in order to encourage those using non-gambling focused facilities or activities to also use the more profitable EGM area of the venue. Indirect promotions, such as subsidised or free meals and drinks are also attractive to young families with children. Previous research (Bestman, Thomas, Randle, & Pitt, 2017) has found that peripheral exposure to EGMs through attendance at venues influences children's attitudes towards gambling and may normalise EGM use.

Participants and researchers observed that Responsible Gambling Codes of Conduct are routinely breeched in both sites, not just in individual cases but systematically. Some of the policies and promotions described (e.g. serving food to people who gamble in situ) appear to be designed to achieve outcomes that are contrary to the codes, raising further questions about the effectiveness of the current approach to regulation (Rintoul et al., 2017).

Recent media reports appear to support this study's researcher observations and reports from people who gambled about the actual practice of EGM venue operations. Australia's largest local hotel gambling operator has been described as maintaining a database of regular or 'VIP gambler' profiles. Details recorded include favourite sporting teams, the name of the gambler's partner, and other personal information. This information, along with preferences for free drinks and food, is allegedly shared among venues operated by this company and then used to provide a familiar and welcoming environment for people who gamble to 'keep them in the room' gambling longer (Klaus, 2018). It is notable that this behaviour is not illegal, although it almost certainly breaches Responsible Gambling Codes of Conduct in all states and territories.

This conflict - between marketing designed to extend time on devices and codes intended to protect people who gamble from harm - is something that regulators and policy makers may wish to explore further in the light of the evidence presented both in this report and through revelations reported in the media (Klaus, 2018).