Hospitality beyond borders

Mike Watret, Operations Director, Carlton Clubs chats to Peter White

What is the history of Carlton Club’s Mike?
Like many other bingo operators, Carlton Clubs Plc evolved from the decreasing popularity of cinema in the 1960’s. Previously operated as CAC (Caledonian Associated Cinemas) the company was the largest Scottish independent cinema operator, based in Inverness and with theatres across all of Scotland including many islands. A management buy in by the current owners in 1998 led to the company rebranding to Carlton Bingo which remains the largest independent operator of bingo clubs in Scotland whilst also operating two clubs in North East England. The company employs 300 individuals and operates from a registered office in the traditional home city of Inverness and an operations office in Stirling, Central Scotland. 
What has been the approach employed by the head office to the 18 clubs across Scotland and England? Centralisation, often characterised as the one size fits all or local, with each operation incorporating their own individuality that’s often founded on the club’s locality and the community it serves?
We operate with a blend of both. Club Managers are responsible for all local club decision making whilst getting behind centrally driven company promotions and marketing. We believe each club knows its own customers best, particularly given the geographical distance between clubs from Fraserburgh in the north to Hartlepool in the south.
What was the course of your career progression that lead you into the Leisure Entertainment industry?
Like many others I worked part time at a bingo club  whilst at university and loved it instantly! I started with Carlton in 1991 before enjoying 19 years with Gala Bingo in various job roles and returned to Carlton in 2012. All of my time in the industry has been weighted to operations.

What do you consider are amongst the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of your role as Operations Director? 

We are privileged to work in a fantastic industry. It has been beset with numerous, significant challenges over the last 25 years and, in particular, the last decade. When things go according to plan there is a great sense of achievement and I think the most rewarding aspect over the last few years has been the ability for the industry to steer a route through a challenging economic and legislative environment.

When not at work have you’re a favourite pastime or hobby?
Football. I am a season ticket holder and shareholder at Queen of the South football club. Bingo Life is a freely available publication online and App which has a readership that extends beyond its target market that involves patrons of Bingo 
For anyone considering a career in the Leisure and entertainment industry what would you say are amongst the key qualities for success in this employment sector?
Like people, love customers. Flexible working approach, desire to get results and ability to innovate.
Carlton Clubs Plc has gained a reputation, as having a friendly working environment, which must be very satisfying for the company?
With all clubs concentrated in the north, the company remains at a size where there is a family feel about the place and we operate on an informal basis. We have some fantastic staff and some great length of service in the company which is celebrated at 10, 20 and 30 year intervals.
How has this year been going so far with Carlton Clubs Variety fund raising?
Over the last 18 months all clubs have engaged in lots of different activities supported by some very generous Carlton customers. Our highlight each year is an arranged 11 aside football game between Carlton and Gala which has raised over £20,000 for charity over the three fixtures that have taken place. I am pleased to say Carlton currently lead this series by 2 to 1!!! In 2015, Carlton also ran an invitational golf challenge which was well represented by industry operators and suppliers. Proceeds from the Golf Challenge contributed to our company’s total donation to Variety and we will be running the event again this year.
Can you explain a little more about how Carlton Bingo has evolved over recent years?
The contracting bingo industry has become more settled in the last 18 months and particularly since the government reduced levels of Bingo duty following a great campaign led by the Bingo Association. Carlton continues to invest in building infrastructure and in the last two years has invested significant amounts of capital expenditure in modernising the machine estate, building external gaming / smoking areas for customers and minor club internal upgrades. In the year ahead we plan to spend £500,000 upgrading one of our central Scotland sites. We are always on the lookout for new development opportunities
Do you think the style and format of land-based Bingo venues are likely to change in the future due to the rise of online gaming through the internet and smart phone app’s?
Absolutely. You could argue that the format of venues is always changing to keep pace with change. It is clear that the bingo club of the future needs a smaller footprint and is geared to adapting to developing technology. Customer accounts/wallets, food and drink, the potential advent of direct debit payment, TITO technology – all of these drive changes to the venue layout and the way in which bingo is delivered to its customers.

Technology plays such an important part in our lives and it has certainly affected our leisure time. How has it affected the offering within your Bingo establishments?

The key change in the last 10 years remains advances in electronic bingo terminals. In equal measures these have helped the industry develop during difficult times by maintaining prize boards and income levels and by helping to keep entry level pricing low. It is clear too, however, that EBTs have also alienated some traditional players and, at Carlton, we are mindful of this in how we present our electronic offering to players.

What is the split overall would you say across all eighteen Bingo establishments between traditional play paper, and play on electronic tablets?
Carlton continue to restrict the numbers of tickets available electronically together with the numbers of packages available on sale. We take a conservative approach here, mindful that our customers levels of disposable income have come under increased pressure in recent years coupled with our social responsibility obligations. We continue to have two businesses who trade successfully without electronic terminals, one of which has grown its admissions consecutively for the last 4 years. In the remaining clubs, 1 in 3 customers plays using electronic terminals and generate 50% of club ticket sales. It’s all about finding the right balance for each individual club.
Promotions and incentives are an important mix for patron loyalty. What are the provisions like at Carlton Bingo for as far as prizes and rewards for patrons and are they linked into the Online Bingo Website
Carlton’s land based and online business are managed separately with offers designated for respective players. Promotions and incentives remain a central plank of our marketing efforts. There is a combined company approach (one off special bingo deals, added value sessions, bigger linked prizes) together with individual club manager monthly plans which include datal promotions, regular monthly promotions and discounted sessions. Promotional autonomy remains key for the Carlton local club manager in ensuring we match the right incentive with the right customer.