GBGC: ‘Covid-19 changes to outlast pandemic’

Operators are redesigning future ventures for the post-pandemic era.
Operators are redesigning future ventures for the post-pandemic era.

Observers believe some changes in procedures and consumer habits are here to stay.

Asia.- Casinos and gaming operators across Asia have seen unprecedented losses in the past quarter owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It seems clear that a full recovery can come only after travel restrictions, capacity limits and social distancing measures are lifted – perhaps even only after a vaccination is available.

But as eager as casinos are to begin the road to recovery, many observers believe some of the measures introduced as efforts to prevent contagion could remain in place even after the pandemic has blown over. They really will become the new normal, as it were.

Warwick Bartlett CEO at Global Betting and Gaming Consultants (GBGC), told Focus Gaming News Asia Pacific he was highly impressed by some casinos’ protocols on reopening.

He mentioned Wynn Resorts’ implementation of temperature checks for all visitors, sanitized elevators with restricted use, extensive hand sanitizing stations, new card decks and social distancing.

“All of which comes at a substantial cost to the operators, but it is necessary,” Bartlett said.

Barlett said many changes introduced because of the crisis have actually proved popular with players, and good for business.

He said: “Social distancing at the tables with screens separating players according to some reports has proven to be popular with gamblers. They feel more secure that the casino is doing something to protect them and also many players like the idea of the separation.

“Although we are social beings we do like our space as well. This feature may remain if customers prefer it.”

There are suggestions partitions at tables and the separation of machines may become new standards as consumer habits shift.

Ben Lee, a managing partner at management and marketing consultancy IGamiX was one of the first to raise awareness about the need to close every second machine and table.

He told Focus Gaming News Asia Pacific: “We are likely to see these measures continue until we have an effective vaccine. The last any casino here in Asia would want is to become a cluster, which would likely result in it being shut down.”

Jennifer Song, an equity analyst at Morningstar agreed that some distancing measures are likely to be maintained.

She said: “Although Covid-19 appears to be contained in Macau and mainland China, we think the safety and health issues still remain a top priority for casino operators.”

She told Focus Gaming News Asia Pacific recent management briefings showed casino operators were keeping health and safety at the top of the agenda.

“We think social distancing measures will still be in place for a longer period,” she said.

She doesn’t believe this will allow casinos to request an expansion of gaming areas in order to accommodate the same number of machines and tables as before.

“Macao SAR government has a cap on table growth, so it is unlikely the government will increase the table allotment in the near term, she said. “We don’t think casino operators will request more or that the government will allow more.”

Ben Lee is not expecting casinos to ask for any increments either.

“With gaming likely to remain quiet for quite some time until people get comfortable with crowds again, the machine market is likely to remain depressed as operators stretch the lifespan of their inventory,” he said.

Will enhanced sanitation routines continue after the pandemic is over? “Absolutely!” Lee says. The IGamingX executive believes hand sanitizers and regular hourly cleaning will become “de rigueur” even after it is no longer enforced by regulalors.

He also foresees that cleaning staff will continue wearing face masks and that automated temperature checking stations in employee entrances may continue.

Jennifer Song agreed. She said: “We would expect a higher hygiene standard in place even after the pandemic, so sanitation routines will likely remain as well.”

Changes to the gaming floor and even to architecture made due to Covid-19 are also likely to affect decisions on investments and future projects to develop integrated resorts.

The American operator Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment recently said that the pandemic-provoked delay to construction work on its South Korean casino and hotel project had created an opportunity to adapt its design to potential changes in safety norms and standards that could emerge after the pandemic.

Genting Berhad, meanwhile, is re-evaluating plans for its US$3.3 billion expansion in Singapore. Revealing half-year results in August, the company said construction work had recommenced but that it “envisioned that new design changes will be necessary to adapt to the post Covid-19 environment.”

Architecture and design is not the only aspect being reconsidered for a new post-pandemic norm. A recent survey of 500 gaming venues in Australia and New Zealand showed that lessons are being learned as to how to adjust business strategy to mitigate the impact of a health crisis, especially regarding communication and the loyalty of both customers and staff.

Financial lessons have been learned too. Jacintha Poh, vice president – senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service told Focus that gaming companies in Asia had learned a key lesson from the pandemic: to ensure liquidity is sufficient to cover at least 12 months of cash burn.

A comprehensive analysis by Moody’s indicated EBITDA of gaming companies with exposure to Asia Pacific would fall around 70 per cent in 2020 before a gradual recovery begins in 2021.

Liquidity would remain enough through increasing debt and slowly recovering earnings, but capital expenditures would reduce pace, Moody’s predicts.

Poh said: “The measures taken to boost liquidity varied across the companies but first and foremost was to raise debt either through bonds or banks. Next was to holdback capital spending, cut back dividends for some and at the same time, reduce operating cost.”

Of course not all of the potential changes taken to navigate the pandemic will sit well with gaming companies.

Bartlett warned: “Covid -19 has caused the Macau government to lose a lot of tax revenue, so we could see either an increase in the license fee or a rise in taxation. The cards are stacked against the operators in the negotiation if this occurs.”

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Asia Pacific Casinos Covid-19