The Gambling Law Review: Editor's Preface
A few days ago I took the Tube from my home in London to visit the ExCel centre in Canary Wharf to go to the International Casino Exhibition. It seemed like a long time since I had been to the ICE. In truth, the tone of the conference was somewhat subdued compared with the razzle-dazzle of previous years. Some of the larger land-based games providers had stayed away – an indication perhaps that the casino industry is still in its recovery phase and not yet ready for new investment. But there were few masks to be seen on the tube train, or among the delegates. People were shaking hands again. Although our economy has not returned to normal, and the bill is yet to be paid, it is important also to remember how far we have come: the ExCel centre had been a temporary Nightingale hospital from April 2020 to April 2021, with a capacity of 4,000 beds for covid patients (a precaution that proved fortunately unnecessary). There is no doubting times have changed very quickly – both for the better and the worse: in the Preface to the last edition of this work, I commented that Ukraine was one of the few countries that had undergone significant changes in its gambling law during the course of the previous 12 months. That seems now to be a poignantly irrelevant observation. But however terrible the situation in Ukraine has become, my task is to look elsewhere, and introduce a work on the past year in gambling law, and the predictions for the next.
Last April, I tried to identify some of the key themes that might emerge in a post-pandemic world in order to assess what our 'new normal' for leisure and entertainment was going to look like. At that time, it appeared that the pandemic was already coming to its close and that we might very soon enjoy an easing of restrictions. I did not realise that we were only about half way through the process with another full year of lockdowns and restrictions still to come (to say nothing of a further programme of booster vaccines). So it is perhaps only now, in April 2022, that we are able to start perceiving how a world that has to shrug at the continued presence of covid-19 might look.
One of the first points that I raised was that, in the years of the pandemic, Western society had refocused attention on domestic homes, and had made an important social transition to home being a place of work as well as normal domestic life. I venture to say that when seen in terms of an impact on the overall population, that change has probably been the single largest social change so far this century. I am certainly still working mostly from my home and, like millions of others, enjoying a different perspective on what it is to be at work, including differing pressures, changing patterns of social interaction and the extra time that used to be spent on a (usually unpleasant) commute. The average commute to work across the UK is approximately 40 minutes each way (with London having a far longer average 74 minutes each way), and so reducing or eliminating travel to the workplace has probably increased the time available for work or leisure by as much 5 to 10 per cent across large parts of the services economy, as well as reducing that aspect of the cost of living.
Since the winding back of restrictions at the beginning of 2022, we have seen a sharp increase in workplace attendance, but a very large number of businesses have now adopted a 'hybrid model', and employees are increasingly asking for that to become a permanent feature of working patterns. Consequently, from Tuesday to Thursday, life resembles its pre-pandemic rhythm. But Mondays and Fridays have a different feel. Since January, those who operate restaurants and bars have seen a dramatic increase in the normal patterns of attendance, but there have been significant changes that require adaptation. I do not think that I predicted that the enthusiasm for home-working would stratify society by age. Those in their 20s and early 30s heavily favour a full-time return to work, while those over the age of 55 tend to want to work from home permanently. That reflects not only a desire for training (and perhaps also the lack of space available for work in smaller homes) but also more deeply that work is actually a social space – with many singletons looking for friendship and entertainment as much as for professional experience.
I also predicted that the substantial shift from urban living to a disaggregated workforce would be permanent. I think now that this was a hasty prediction and, in any event, it is far too early to tell whether this will happen. The first point is that although there are many renters or flexible workers who can make the move from cities to the countryside (or vice versa), there are plenty of others who are tied by more long-term commitments such as children's schooling to stay put. The other factor is that cities are places not just for work, but concentrations for leisure activities – and the public has shown a very strong desire to get back to enjoying itself in theatres, concert halls, bars and casinos. So while many have reassessed that a life nearer to the countryside is more healthy and cost-effective, any exodus has been nuanced. It seems likely that we will only see the true level of change in three to five years. Let us not forget also that working patterns are not necessarily confined by national boundaries. Several governments have been quick to recognise the advantages of attracting generally affluent desk-based workers to populate sunnier and cheaper living destinations – with countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal all developing 'digital nomad' visa schemes to allow workers to work for up to a year abroad without becoming liable to the (full) tax implications of residence abroad.
All these complex changes leave a significant question mark over the planning uses of parts of our urban centres. Although there has been a significant return to work, and offices and shops are returning to their pre-pandemic levels of use, there are clearly some long-term shifts in the way that urban space is needed, and that process will continue as retail and office space is reused either for residential projects or entertainment space. Restaurant and entertainment attendance has rebounded – though still not to pre-pandemic levels, and there are a lot of changes to the labour market in those industries that will take time to be solved.
Meanwhile, the rise of the home as a centre of personal entertainment continues unabated. The 5G network and fast broadband continues to level the playing field across the developed world as consumers demand the ability for the whole family to stream entertainment and work from home at the same time. In the UK, a recent survey (namely Bazaarvoice 2021), 55 per cent of UK consumers said that they would prefer to shop digitally rather than in store. At the same time, the same survey gives insights into how our shopping methodology has changed, with more than 75 per cent of US online shoppers saying that they 'always' read reviews before making a purchase. These new 'networks of trust', whether expressed by influencers, reviewers or affiliate schemes have become some of the most important drivers of customer behaviour. We have seen a rapidly growing sophistication in controlling the authenticity of reviews, social media messages and the news itself. Another change is the move from social media from being a place merely for messaging to a direct place for purchase – with one in three of those surveyed having purchased an item through social media for the first time in the last 12 months. To be clear, these were technological and social trends that were not specifically linked to the pandemic, but they have been accelerated and then cemented in our habits by the necessity of lockdown and the subsequent longevity of our confinement. And, let us not forget, they are also vastly more convenient for us, while allowing retailers and service providers to understand their customer base at a level of detail impossible a decade ago.
What does this mean for land-based gambling? As with shopping generally, we have seen certain types of gambling product transfer substantially from a land-based to an online model. Lotteries and sports betting are both areas of focus, since (apart from track-side betting) the convenience of online betting and lottery tickets is not counterbalanced by any real 'thrill' from physical attendance at the licensed premises. However, the more socially focused forms of gambling – casino and bingo to give two examples, are predicted to rebound strongly, though in the case of some casinos, we have yet to see the full return of tourism to pre-pandemic levels.
Speaking of tourism: 2022 seems likely to be the first time that many of us get to have a holiday in a long while – and we can all see that the skies are criss-crossed with vapour trails in a way that we have not seen since 2019. That will provide a very important boost for many countries that rely on summer holidays as an important part of their income. But the future looks somewhat more challenging for a large-scale return to business travel. There will of course be a large increase. But it is harder to justify a marketing budget with business-class flights having managed two years of videoconferences.
Last year, I tried to predict the way that the economic shock of the pandemic would impact on our leisure spending. I think I was probably wrong (twice!). In the first place, the rebound of the world's economies has been somewhat stronger than many imagined possible – but the combination of money to spend and scarce resources has led to inflationary pressures that have been much worse than predicted – and have been further compounded by uncertainty over energy supply. If there is any good to come out of the current war in Ukraine, it may be that the world will have an even more acute incentive to turn away from excessive reliance on resources that are controlled by a single axis of political power.
What does this mean for leisure spend in the Western world in 2022? It will divide society in unfortunate ways. Many who experienced a long period of economic uncertainty, will have those stresses compounded by a period of sharp price rises. Others, as usual, will have had money to invest in rising markets, and will be feeling as though they have enjoyed 'a good lockdown'.
Turning to this year's edition, developments in gambling law and practice have been somewhat muted. As a case in point, the UK's own government review of the Gambling Act has been postponed twice. The main exception to this slower tempo has been the US market, which continues to grow and expand legally and economically, and upon which much attention has naturally been focused.
I wish to thank my contributors for their usual careful and detailed analysis of the gambling laws of their individual jurisdictions. I hope that next year's guide will cover still more. Let us hope that next year we can each report that some of the troubles that have plagued our society in recent times will be closer to resolution, and we can turn our attention more squarely to the regulation of entertainment.