There is little doubt that business development chiefs want conferences to come back. But do they want them back with all the restrictions that will come with a hasty return? And do they want so many?

On 10 March, SBC Events optimistically postponed its CasinoBeats Malta event until June. It also postponed Betting on Sports America to the more realistic date of December 2020. A month later it accepted the inevitable and made CasinoBeats an online event.

On 24 March, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK’s lockdown, Clarion Gaming postponed ICE North America. It was due to take place in May but is now scheduled for 2021. Just three days later, SBC announced it would hold a Digital Summit across five days from 27 April – 1 May. Clarion soon followed suit with the announcement of a free digital version of ICE North America, as organisers hurried to offer participants an alternative to cancelled events.

Since then, SiGMA Group rescheduled its Asia events SiGMA Manila and AIBC Manila to 2021. ICE Asia was postponed until 2021. The Indian Gaming event was postponed until further notice. The IAGA International Gaming Summit, G2E Asia, ASEAN Gaming Summit, East Coast Gaming Conference, the OIGA Conference and Trade Show all cancelled or postponed.

Throughout all this, the big question was whether G2E would take place in Las Vegas in October. Along with ICE Totally Gaming in February (and to a lesser extent G2E Asia in Macau) it is one of the year’s flagship events. If you are only going to attend one, depending on your geographic focus, it would be one of these.

G2E is organised by the American Gaming Association and Reed Exhibitions. The event seemed so far away they were understandably reluctant to cancel it. However, as lockdown continued into its third month it became harder and harder to envisage a scenario where the industry could meet safely and within guidelines.

Las Vegas casinos reopened in June, but the organisers were still reluctant to commit to a physical event. So many questions remain unanswered. Would people travel to the event from the US or from overseas? Would executives be too busy trying to save their businesses?

Konami took the decision in May to withdraw from all trade shows until the end of the financial year and focus investment on its employees. Many will be feeling similarly, even if they will not say so publicly. One marketing exec confided that he hadn’t even thought about G2E, let alone ICE. Plans would normally be sorted for both by this time of year.

The only thing that the organisers of ICE and G2E were willing to admit was that neither event would look the same as normal. What else could they say? Their businesses are in danger as much as any of their exhibitors. [G2E has since confirmed that there will be no physical event in Las Vegas this year].

Events go digital

In the meantime, the digital events started to take place. On the surface, the numbers are impressive. The digital version of ICE North America is said to have attracted over 4,000 registrations from 558 companies, based in 85 countries around the world, and recorded over 7,000 visits to the site. The SBC Digital Summit in April claimed over 10,000 delegates. But were contacts made and were they meaningful?

Among the handful of attendees Gaming Intelligence surveyed there was respect for how quickly SBC got their event up and running. One attendee says he made a few leads but not the suitcase-full he would normally at a real-life conference. Business development chiefs have had a busy lockdown as operators focus intently on their online operations, but there are drawbacks to doing everything on Zoom.

“I believe in face-to-face contact, when you’re establishing a relationship,” says Continent 8 managing director Americas Nick Nally. “Once established, it’s easier to do a Zoom.”

“My area of business is new business,” says Red Tiger Gaming commercial director Chris Looney. “The best business comes from the best relationships, immersing yourself in the operator’s business.”

He cites a deal done with Swiss Casinos. He met the team that were going to launch the land-based casino group’s online operation, but it was not until visiting the land-based casinos and getting to know the core business that a deal could be struck.

“I don’t think you can replicate that relationship through Skype or Zoom,” says Looney. Looney and Nally both admit it is hard to measure return on investment from trade shows. Looney describes it as “the unanswerable question”. But suppliers will be looking in closer detail at the numbers – and particularly the number of shows they visit and the number of employees they send.

A medium-sized stand at ICE would cost around £300,000, and then you have to consider other costs such as connectivity, plus transporting and accommodating 50 or 60 staff. That will cost another £100,000. For the bigger suppliers it will be a £1m+. At a time when staff are being furloughed or let go, that becomes harder to justify – as Konami recognises.

“Covid-19 will change the way we think about shows and the way shows are done. Sometimes it feels like there is a show every other week. It is an important channel for us. It’s still a good platform to launch products but do we need to go to so many?” asks another seasoned marketing professional.

“It is over-saturated,” says Playson business development manager Lars Kollind. “Every year I look at the iGaming calendar and have a hard time understanding why we need to go to all the events. It’s the same people attending.”

Successful emerging suppliers such as Big Time Gaming and Relax Gaming have thus far refrained from spending anything on splashy stands but that might change as they grow bigger.

Suppliers at an earlier stage in their development are even more loathe to spend money on smart stands. ReelPlay chief commercial officer David Johnson enjoyed a long career at Cryptologic and NextGen/NYX before launching ReelPlay. He has seen how companies grow and how they deal with trade shows, but the industry is changing.

The emergence of games aggregators means suppliers can get to know their customers better if they are closely aligned with the aggregators. For an aggregator like Relax it might make sense to bring all their supplier partners together on one stand. Microgaming and Playtech have done something similar – although they own the studios that they show off on their stands; they are not just partners.

“We haven’t typically done deals at trade shows. At this stage of our growth it’s more about enhancing the throughput of licensed content to known partners,” says Johnson. “We are very active all year round – visiting our operators in Malta, Gibraltar and the US largely, so our partners see us regularly and we aren’t reliant on trade shows.”

He goes on to say that certain shows do offer value. For example, the Latin American or Tribal Gaming contacts made at G2E would be very difficult for a European supplier to access from home.

Kollind says that ICE has always been a tremendous success and echoes Johnson’s thoughts on G2E, but the future of others must come into question.

Future plans

Everyone welcomes a break from travelling. Not only is it good for the planet, it has given everybody a chance to reflect, analyse and prioritise. And there are a lot of people doing their sums.

“We had already taken a group decision not to exhibit at every show this year,” says Looney. “We will have to look at the whole picture. Do we do it the same way? I’m not sure.”

The event organisers try and reassure us that although conferences will not be the same as previous years, every precaution is being taken to protect attendees. From hand sanitisers to a careful re-evaluation of layouts to allow for physical distancing and the provision of personal protective equipment. But how do you greet somebody at your stand if your smile is hidden by a mask and you are too scared to shake their hand?

If Covid-19 flips the world into recession it will affect every business, and gambling industry conferences will be no different. There will be casualties. G2E Las Vegas has been cancelled for this year but the question remains: will ICE take place? No one is willing to answer that question just yet.

Gaming Intelligence

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