With the Bingo club's reopening date of May 17th getting closer and closer. As part of BingoDaily's campaign to meet the people behind the scenes in UK bingo, we got the rare opportunity to exclusively interview Jonathon Swaine, the Retail Managing Director for Mecca Bingo owners – the Rank Group PLC.
In a candid and revealing interview, Jonathan discusses Mecca's reopening, its 60th anniversary, and the future of UK Bingo.
BD – Jonathon, following the Government announcement and the outlined four steps to freedom, Mecca Bingo looks set to re-open doors on May 17th, what has been the reaction of the Mecca team?
Incredible! There’s no denying it’s been really difficult for our teams and our customers over the last year. With bingo being such a strong, close-knit community, our teams play an active and vital role in their local areas. We’ve continued a great deal of that outreach during lockdown – cooking community meals and supporting charities, as well as calling customers to say hello and check in, but our team really do miss seeing people in our venues so they’re already counting down the days to reopening.
BD – All things being considered, are all 63 venues in England expected to open on May 17th. What changes can Mecca Bingo visitors expect?
All being well, we should be able to open all our venues – obviously, we are ready to adapt to updated government guidance, but that’s our hope.
In terms of changes, we’ll welcome customers back to the bingo that they know and love – all with the same high standards around social distancing, contactless interactions, and cleanliness. This time around though, I think the mood in the country will be different and we will be tapping into this feeling with a few surprises up our sleeves for our customers!
As part of the constant evolution of Mecca in venues, we are looking at new ways to bring added flexibility and versatility to the bingo schedule – more ways to play, more chances to win, and tailored ways to socialise and catch up with friends. We know that people have really missed an evening out over the last year and are going to be really excited to get together – we’re privileged that we’re able to offer an entertainment experience with the thrill of a possible win, and the added option of food and drinks – all in large, open spaces. We know our customers can’t wait to come back and we expect to see strong demand for bingo as a post-lockdown leisure activity.
BD – The lockdowns have hit the hospitality industry hard. How has Rank managed to bear the brunt of the financial impact of the lockdowns on its Mecca bingo halls and Grosvenor casinos? And how has staff morale been kept high?
There’s no escaping how damaging this has been for the leisure and hospitality sectors, including bingo. Mecca has a robust business model and a thriving digital business – despite the challenges, we’re extremely positive about the road to recovery and the insights we have from our customers support that.
Team morale has been exceptional – we have very resilient teams and support networks and it’s been humbling for me to see the Mecca family pull together to support each other despite the challenges, as well as using their time to support worthy community initiatives.
BD – Upon reopening, do you expect customer numbers to increase more than ‘usual’, or are you expecting people to err on the side of caution and stay at home?
There are two considerations here. One is that by the time we reopen, the majority of our customer base (circa 80%) will have been fully vaccinated. Already, 75% of regular customers have said that they’re keen to return. I’m very confident that we will see the large part of our existing customer base return in May and June. I do think that may be some caution in a few of our customers initially, but I don’t this will be safety related. Some of our customers have been confined to their homes for a long
time and may feel a little trepidatious about getting out and about again and meeting up with friends. So, helping each other, engendering support, helping to reconnect people with their friends – that’s where we come in.
In terms of attracting a new, wider audience, we expect to see a surge in demand here. I predict that the experience economy will boom this year and beyond – partly because of pent up demand after a year at home, but partly because people will come to expect more from their leisure time and spend – and entertainment is key to that. This makes me hugely excited about how we can evolve the bingo proposition to meet that need.
BD – BingoDaily has reported some magnificent Mecca charity initiatives over the last 12 months. Do you know how much money has been raised and how many meals/care packages delivered during the pandemic?
We are so proud of our Mecca Team with regards to ongoing fundraising efforts and community initiatives. Our Everyone Deserves A Christmas Campaign raised almost £200,000 for local community charities as well as delivering 3,000 Christmas hampers to those families most in need over the festive period.
Over the past year, we’ve provided over 70,000 meals for those in need, making a huge difference in addressing the food poverty challenges we’ve seen become a bigger and bigger challenge in the UK. We’ve also continued to support our long-term charity partner, Carers Trust, raising nearly £300,00 during lockdown alone, and £2.7m to date over the past 7 years since we started our partnership with them.
BD – 2021 is a massive year for Mecca Bingo, its 60th anniversary. Mecca has already said it “has big plans to bring bingo back bigger and better than ever this year” Can you share some of those plans?
Absolutely – and there is a lot to look forward to! As part of our 60th birthday we’re launching a number of new game formats, both in venues and online as well – this will include a wider product portfolio to create new ways to play – watch this space!
We’ll also continue to ramp up live entertainment – bingo style – in venues as the relaxing of restrictions allows. We’ll also be celebrating National Bingo Day on June 27th and we have a top-secret concept coming later in the year – you heard it here first.
In summary, we want to create more opportunities for people to play – their way. Bingo is a much-loved game and the format is so diverse and inclusive – we want to preserve that unique magic of the ‘waiting on one’ feeling whilst creating new touchpoints for customers to engage with so it’s as immersive and exciting as possible.
BD – Reaching 60 years and being able to mark a diamond anniversary is a remarkable achievement in a sometimes-difficult industry. What do you attribute Mecca Bingo’s enviable longevity and success to?
A number of factors. One is that we’ve always remained true to the brand values and heritage – bingo is built around people and community – evidence of the value of that is stronger than ever and it’s a true USP for bingo that you won’t see in other leisure venues like cinemas, restaurants, bowling for example.
And a core part of that is about our people. Our teams and customers live and breathe bingo – and as such, they are brand advocates – they champion Mecca and everything it stands for. There isn’t much that is more powerful than that.
BD – From a personal point of view, when and where was the first time you played bingo? And do you still play?
My mum was a cleaner in a care home and sometimes during school holidays I would go to work with her. Now and again, the residents would play a book or two and I would join in.
BD -Before joining Rank in October 2019, you had a long and successful career in the pubs and hotel industry, what was the appeal to moving to the land-based gaming industry, and was it a steep learning curve for you?
Yes, I was fortunate to spend 14 years working at one of the best companies in the sector (Fuller’s) but when the time was right to move on, I wanted to learn something new. So, moving out of that part of the hospitality sector would broaden my experience and help to keep me fresh. I am naturally curious and am passionate about working for customer-facing businesses – passion and curiosity get you through that learning curve!
BD – Finally, 2020 was a difficult year for the UK bingo scene. We estimate around 20% of UK bingo halls closed last year. What does the future hold for UK bingo?
It’s a stark fact and one that we’re in no illusions about. However, there are always opportunities and I think this is the year for bingo to truly bounce back. We have a very clear vision around the evolution of bingo as a game, and the role our venues play in delivering that memorable experience.
Our job is to seize the moment, protect the sector, and lead by example. We’ve been on the high street for 60 years – our wit and our heritage got us here and we have firm roots – now it’s time to show that we’re the trailblazers of the bingo industry – and I can’t wait to showcase what that looks like.
Many thanks to Jonathan Swaine and all the team at Rank for the interview