Being a VIP should be decided by customers who should also be able to back out
Sarah Ramanauskas is a senior partner at Gambling Integrity, a team of experts helping operators focus on safer gambling. Here she shares her experience to answer our questions on VIP schemes
Why are VIP schemes now in the spotlight?
The head of the NHS’s Mental Health Division has written to the Gambling Commission stating her concern about how free bets and VIP experiences can prompt people to carry on gambling against their wishes. This comes after a report from the Gambling Commission that gathered information from nine of the largest operators. It showed that while VIPs made up between two and five per cent of all customers, they made up between 48 and 83 per cent of total deposits. There are calls for VIP schemes to be banned outright. My view is it’s not that clearcut. At Gambling Integrity, we believe gamblers should have the ability to choose the level of relationship they want with their gambling brands and that operators should be able to reward loyal customers, as with any other business.
Surely customers expect to be rewarded for being a regular customer with their preferred gambling brand?
When I was working as a researcher at Betfair we looked at our customers’ views on VIP membership. Many felt uncomfortable with the idea of being a VIP. They weren’t VIPs in other areas of life and they felt it drew attention to the amount they were gambling. While a high-rolling horseracing punter may feel they deserve to be wined and dined in return for their betting custom, someone playing online slots may be concerned they have been given their own account manager.
Are there current restrictions on how VIP schemes work?
Not exactly. The licensing codes governing the industry have general restrictions on how marketing bonuses can be awarded. For example, a reward can’t be given based on a customer gambling for a predetermined amount of time, or gambling at a certain frequency.
How do operators decide who is or isn’t a VIP?
Looking at how VIP status is assigned throws up a number of grey areas. At the moment, many of the operators we work with assign VIP status based on a few months’ worth of play. Someone can meet the spend level one month but then not the next. There should be a much longer period over which someone is judged to be spending enough to get extra awards and incentives. Operators have to carry out checks on source of wealth for larger gamblers anyway, so they should be able to get a handle on what is a reasonable amount for a regular player to spend each week or each month. Any decision on whether or not to reward players should be based on an understanding of what level of play is affordable for them.
How about if customers were asked if they wanted to join a VIP scheme?
Absolutely, there should be a joint agreement between the gambling company and the customer, so everyone is clear – and the customer doesn’t feel they are going to be encouraged to gamble too much.
Could a VIP scheme be part of a gambling operator’s responsible gambling strategy?
People should be encouraged to make positive decisions before they start playing about how much they want to spend. Being a VIP should be another positive decision from the player themselves. Operators need to make it clear what they get as a result of being a VIP customer and allow them to back out at any stage. The online sites, in particular, offer lots of ways of controlling your gambling: deposit limits, cooling-off periods. But customers often don’t know they are available. The relationship an operator has with their regular customers should be an opportunity to get to know them, understand their situation and work with them to keep their gambling spend within a limit they can afford – which will change over time.
What is the ideal situation in your view?
The customer should be in control of the relationship with their gambling brands and be able to make responsible decisions on spend. On the flip side, the gambling operator must recognise if a customer starts to spend time and money they obviously can’t afford. Loyalty rewards definitely shouldn’t encourage unaffordable spending.
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