Money rules and sex sells at the iGaming Supershow

The online gambling community got together in Amsterdam RAI to discuss trends and law-changes affecting their industry and to find new business opportunities. PHILIP HOFMAN visited the fair expecting it to be just like any other business conference.

Outside Amsterdam RAI ’s hall M, about 100 people, mostly men, stood chatting and smoking on grey pavement tiles under an equally grey steel roof. Most of them wore jeans or chinos with a shirt, some with a blazer. They were here for the iGaming Supershow, a trade fair for the online gambling industry. I slowly moved through the crowd, into an open door. Three cheerful ladies in t-shirts manned the registration desk. At least 50 people queued up behind it. Progress seemed slow. As I stood contemplating what to do to avoid a long wait, three fat, dark haired men in their forties greeted each other loudly nearby. “How’s it going man?” - “Good to see you!” They hugged, patted one another on the back and spoke with an American accent. They looked oddly similar, as if they were siblings.

A blonde woman in a white shirt standing behind a tall information desk pointed me to a small office nearby, to see if the organisers could give me a press pass without having to queue. I wandered into a messy-looking TL-lit office. Open boxes filled with leaflets and conference programmes stood on the floor. A table was covered with pens, staplers and loosely arranged papers. A man in a black polo shirt typed on a laptop behind a tiny desk set in a corner. I greeted him, but he took no notice of me. I continued a few more paces into another doorway, from where I heard voices. A middle aged man with short, dark blonde hair in an oversized red polo shirt spotted me. “Can I help you mate” he said in a strong Cockney accent. “Hi there, I’m here to write about the fair; I’m trying to get hold of my press pass,” I said. He smiled and said “The registration desk is just ‘round the corner,” while gesturing in the direction I came from. “I know…” I said, pausing deliberately. “Have you seen the queues…by the time they’re gone there won’t be much left for me to report on…” He grinned and said slowly “Just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean you don’t have to queue like everyone else...” I gave him a perplexed look and sighed. “You know what,” he said, ”don’t bother with a bloody pass; just walk right in.” “Shoot past ticket control?” I said with surprise in my voice. He shrugged and said “You can give it a try.” As I approached the ticket inspector I lingered for a few seconds until he was distracted. Then I rushed past him onto the fair and kept going for another fifteen meters or so, until blending into a small crowd.

***

The brightly-lit exhibition hall was larger than I expected; about 300 metres long and 50 across, with a high ceiling. The floor was covered in carpet as green as Kermit the Frog. People strolled along promotional stalls in different shapes and sizes carrying names and slogans such as Betathome.com –Life is a game!  Revenu Jet – Taking your traffic to new heights, and Playmillion.com – Don’t gamble your income. 

A man looking like Mr. T. from the 1980s television series The A-team stood by one of the smaller promotional structures. A cardboard wall behind him carried the slogan Come on! Join our A-Team! Mr. T. stared blankly at the illuminated screen of his mobile phone. A large copper-coloured sign attached to one of his many neck chains hang limply in front of his torso, just brushing the top of his beer belly. It said "Get some NUTS". The two male reps on the stall wore identical black polo shirts and gazed into the distance. There were plenty of promo girls at the fair, to brighten things up. Some paraded around in black glitter dresses falling just below the buttocks. Others wore lace hemmed Alpine dresses showing lots of cleavage. Girls in tight fitting black miniskirts with white stretch tops and a black tie offered a chicer, casino-like touch. Three more promo girls strolled past Mr. T. and his colleagues on tall, high-heeled sandals. They wore bright red dresses made out of a stretchy fabric that sealed their bodies so tightly that the seams of their underwear were visible. One towered over her colleagues and most of the fair’s visitors. Passing men turned to look at her. She kept tabs on who was looking from the corners of her eyes, while keeping a poker face. Every few paces the tall woman stroked her shiny light brown locks away from her face, as she was trailed by her two shorter colleagues. A man in a tie-less, light grey suit gazed at the tall promo girl, before our eyes met. He bulged his cheeks, let his breath escape and said with a lazy English tongue “Not bad…not bad at all.”

***

The smell of fresh coffee filled the air around the Winner.com stall. About ten people jostled around the corner that looked like a coffee bar.  I joined the queue. Within 30 seconds a thick-set man with a wide neck, an even wider cheek line, dark hair in a military style buzz cut said something to me. He had piercing, bluish-green eyes and the gaze of a night club bouncer you do not want to mess with. “Do you want a coffee?” he said with a French accent. “Oh, yes please,” I answered, “a cappuccino please.” The man mumbled to the girl behind the bar: “A cappuccino…” She looked a bit overwhelmed with the sudden demand for coffee, blushing slightly, but quickly handed a cup that had just been brewed to my host from Winner.com. He placed it in front of me on the bar. “Thanks” I said. “Are you an affiliate?” he asked. I told him I was a reporter, writing about the conference. He said “Okay” and nodded.  I sensed he did not want to spend too much time with me after that admission, so I quickly asked him what he hoped to get out of the fair. “We have 30,000 affiliates but we are always looking for new ones,” he said curtly. He admitted that he cherishes the big ones, treating six of them to a game of golf the day before. “It’s a good way to strengthen the relationship” he added soberly. I asked him whether the last few years have been a good time for online gambling. “Oh yes, a very good time” he answered confidently. “Every time there is a crisis, people bet more.” He then glanced over to his left, his right, gave me another quick look and said “Ok, good luck, I have to go.” At my request he handed me his business card. It said Tony Simouni, Media Director. Tony turned around and wandered off, not going anywhere in particular, by the looks of it.

***

I took the last sip from the paper cup of cappuccino and walked towards a sizable green balloon a bit further down. The balloon was tied to the Paddy Power stall, which looked like a miniature Irish pub. The bar stools and tables were made out of a corny looking brown wood, the floor and the bar out of corny looking imitation wood. Inflatable pints of Guinness, three times as large as the real ones, stood on the tables. Below and behind the bar the name “Paddy Power” was written in big white letters. Next to the name it said Paddy Power Vegas, Paddy Power Live Casino, Paddy Power Sport, Paddy Power Games, Paddy Power Bingo, Paddy Power Poker and Paddy Power Casino. 
As I recorded this important information in my notepad, one of the promo girls in the red stretch dresses approached me. As I looked up she said “Hi, would you like to win an iPad mini?” She handed me a leaflet in the shape of the small iPad. I hesitated for a moment and she said “If you give me your business card you will have a chance of winning one every hour today, starting from twelve.” I did not have a business card on me, so she took me to the stall of Perhead Gaming Software, the company running the raffle. A blonde American encouraged me to write my name and email address on a piece of paper so I could place it in a glass bowl filled with business cards. I did so. If there was anything I wanted to know about “White labelling,” the American told me, all I needed to do is ask. I thanked him for the kind offer and said I would keep it in mind. A white label, somebody had explained to me earlier, is a gambling module that a website owner can give its own name and appearance, to earn a percentage of the bets placed by its visitors.

***

The Mybet.com stall was home to the promo girls in the white and blue Alpine dresses with the lace around the cleavage. Mybet.com men sat talking to each other at picnic tables. They wore knee-length brown lederhosen and white short-sleeve shirts. I moved on a bit, then stopped to make a note. A woman with an unfamiliar accent suddenly said “Hi, do you want to know anything?” Surprised, I asked her who she worked for. She pointed at the cardboard wall next to me. It had a name on it: Gratorama. And a slogan below it: Fun is money. She extended her hand and said “I’m Dafna. What company are you from; are you an affiliate?” Dafna seemed about 35 years old and wore dark blue jeans with a pastel coloured flower print blouse. I told her I was there to write about the conference for a paper. She said “Oh, I see, nice.” Then I asked her what Gratorama was. “We do online scratch cards,” she said enthusiastically. I asked her if that was a new thing. She looked surprised. “No,” she said, opening her eyes widely. “Do people like online scratch cards over here,” I asked.  “They love it!” she said. “Really?” – “Yeah, they do.” Dafna went on to tell me that Gratorama was “growing fast in countries like Holland, Australia and Sweden – lots of countries.” I asked her what country Gratorama was from. “We are based in Cyprus,” she said. “And yourself,” I asked, “where are you from?” She looked surprised I asked her a personal question, but answered “Israel.” I said “I see. Is Gratorama an Israeli company?”  –“The company operates from Cyprus,” Dafna said.  “Why from Cyprus,” I continued. I could tell from her facial expression that she found my line of questioning somewhat strange. I could not blame her. “…I don’t know…that’s not really my investigation,” she said hesitantly.  –“You mean it’s not your responsibility?” I said. “No”, she answered. “So what do you do for Gratorama?” –“Affiliate marketing,” she said. I nodded understandingly. There was a brief silence. Dafna smiled and said “Okay, nice talking to you, good luck with your article.” “Nice talking to you too,” I said. She turned away from me and walked over to a few people hovering by the Gratorama stall. I stepped behind it to peacefully jot down some notes. As I penned, I suddenly noticed a 50 euro bill laying on the floor – a welcome boost to my Holland Times fee. A closer look revealed it was a promotional leaflet, as some company names were printed on the left side of the banknote: Netopartners, ScratchMania and Gratorama. I continued to scribble. 

“Sir…sir! You dropped a bill,” an American sounding man with grey hair, a white shirt and a black leather briefcase slung over his shoulder said as he passed me. His facial expression told me he was not joking; just surprised I did not pick up the money. “Thanks!” I yelled after him and picked up the leaflet. 

***

I wandered over to the “Business zone,” which had cobalt blue carpeting. The stalls were smaller and simpler; square booths of about 10 square meters. One of them had the name Bluff Europe Lyceum Media printed overhead. Two greying men in jeans were squatting down behind a mini Ping-Pong table and tinkered with an iPad. No promo girls in sexy outfits here. As I passed two women wearing trousers and t-shirts I heard a monotonous voice with an Eastern European accent say “Do you want white label?” She pushed an A4 sheet into my hands with a complicated, colourful diagram explaining the Plus–Five concept. 

***

After lunch I visit the lecture by John Acres, titled Gambling is Dying – And The Internet Alone Can’t Save It! John Acres had a full head of grey hair, a round, friendly face with soft features and a short grey beard. Over his stout upper body he wore a white, short sleeve Havana shirt with an open collar, hanging loosely over light grey slacks. He had dark brown loafers with thick black rubber soles on his feet. The room was only half full; about 30 people had remained in their seats after a sleep inducing panel discussion about the new Dutch gambling law. Acres dragged his chair to the edge of the low set stage, as close to the audience as possible and sat down. He leaned forward in the chair, resting his left elbow on his knee, holding a microphone. 

“Hi everybody, can you hear me okay?” A few nods and some murmurs.  “So who is this old guy wanting to talk to you about the gambling business?” he said with a smile. “My name is John Acres and I have been in the land based casino business for 40 years. I started in 1972 in Las Vegas, one of the few places people could actually legally gamble.” Acres knew why the gambling industry is dying. “You cannot walk through a casino today without tripping over walking sticks and wheelchairs. The average age of our customers is 63 years old. Ten years ago, it was 51. Our customers are dying.” Acres said that Casinos have lived off the attraction of being a forbidden fruit for too long. When gambling was prohibited in most places, everyone wanted to go to Las Vegas. “Today there are 800 licensed casinos in the United States,” he said. He paused to let this statistic sink in. “It is no longer novel.” He said that casinos long had the attitude “Take ‘em by the legs and shake all the money out of their pockets. ” According to Acres the future of the people in the room lay in the insight “…that you’re not in the money business. You’re in the emotion business. Customers must get emotional gratification.” Acres stayed quiet for a moment and peered over the online gambling operators in the room like a father who wants to make sure his children have taken on board an important life lesson. 

Gambling businesses are better off not going after the big gamblers, Acres continued, particularly not “folks who gamble their last cent hoping it will pay the rent. Apart from the moral issues, gambling addicts are just not good for business. We should go after average people who gamble small amounts now and again for fun.” John Acres illustrated his point invoking the Coca-Cola story and a scientific experiment with chickens. The words entertainment value and unpredictability fell more than once. “…as soon as the chickens did not know when the grain would come, they’d be picking all day, hoping for an unexpected reward” said the casino man. A circa 30-year-old man in the audience seemed unconvinced. “A lot of small players do not make up for losing the big spenders,” he said matter-of-factly.

As warm as John Acres seemed and as spirited as he spoke about his profession, I felt it was time to leave the iGaming Supershow. With Acres still talking, I picked up my bag and quietly left the room. It was windy outside, but clouds had given way to glorious sunshine. Cycling into town, I imagined John Acres in the 1970s in Las Vegas and wished I could have been there with him. We would have dangled forbidden fruits, shaken people by the legs and made lots of money. 40 years later we would give fatherly advice to people in the gambling business, warning them against making the same, lucrative mistakes. And nobody would listen to us.