Associates have been urging us for years to attend the Global Interactive Gaming Summit and Expo, but there seemed to be a lot of hype, an emphasis on partying and not too many detailed reports of its proceedings, and that deterred us. This year we decided to get on over there and see what all the fuss was about.
We came away deeply impressed with a truly world class event, brilliantly organized despite a late change of venue and date in the wake of the SARS hysteria that swept the globe just six weeks before the opening.
69 topflight speakers offered the 800 delegates from some 36 countries an abundance of valuable information on every topic relevant to the world of online gambling. At times over the three intensive days delegates were faced with difficult decisions because more than one of the 31 sessions in the multi-track conference rooms of Montreal's huge Palais de Congres Montreal conference center interested them.
After listening to major addresses such as "The Future of Interactive Gambling Around the World" delegates were faced with a selection of individual sessions under the broad headings of Payment, Marketing, Technology, Legal & Policy, Special Issues and Licensing. And in each of these categories top speakers and panels covered a range of interesting topics.
There were times when it would have been an advantage to be in two or even three places at once, so diverse and useful were the topics under discussion and the quality of the speakers.
This conference caters for everyone from new people just entering the industry (there were very educational introductory sessions on everything newcomers to the industry need to know about setting up business) to well established operators and the multitude of services that they need.
Adequately funded newbies following the advice given here should experience few problems in setting up honest and efficient businesses.
It is also an amazing opportunity to network, because truly everyone who is anyone in the business is there, and for us it was a real pleasure to make personal contact with industry folks we have been in email contact with for years. Take along a good supply of business cards because you will need every one of them!
On the Expo side there were 41 well-staffed exhibitors this year including most of the top gambling software suppliers. Delegates used the facility to talk business with providers, look over and try out both existing and planned games on large flat-screen plasma displays or exchange news and views.
Microgaming was probably the most professional and there is the promise from them of no fewer than nine new games bringing their total selection to a mind-boggling 150 games. Golden Palace's Casino and Poker Blasters stand was eye-catching thanks to some of their now famous tatooed models who sashayed around advertising their presence. Playtech, iGlobal, Cryptologic, the ubiquitous NetTeller, Real Time Gaming and others were all there.
Look out for Golden Palace's bold move into the "white label" poker room field in the near future under the brand Poker Blasters, by the way - they will be showcasing some major developments soon that involve Kahnawake licensing, no down payment, no financial risk and an attractive percentage of the rake in the hugely popular new area of multiplayer P2P poker.
Expo was a great opportunity to talk to providers about the behaviour of certain slow or no pay casinos using their product, pointing out the importance of satisfied players and the impact this sort of thing can have on provider royalties. Another major cause of ill-feeling is casinos that fail leaving unpaid players. Some, like RTG assured us they are tightening up their licensee discipline. Others, like Chartwell Tech shrug off the responsiblity and claim they operate "hands off" as far as the players are concerned but have been burned by failing licensees, too.
One intriguing exhibitor at the Expo was Mah Jong Mania, a company which is bringing the ancient Chinese game of Mah Jong to the internet, where their new software will allow players to compete for real money. The company plans to launch their software later this year at a site called at Mah Jong Club, and wants to licence this innovative software to existing online casinos.
Other news from the Expo hall is that brand new Flash games will be available at the popular Intercasino site, although for now these games are only available for free play. The suite includes Blackjack, Let It Ride, Craps and video slots. The new technology of wireless wagering will become reality later this month or early next when Winward Casino in collaboration with Phantom Fibre becomes the first casino to offer wreless casino games for real money play. Anyone with a Palm operating system or pocket PC operating system will be able to play the games.
The Playtech guys used the GIGSE interest to announce Ruby Bingo as the first online bingo game to go live with Playtech software. The games are fast, smooth and aesthetically very appealing and integrate slots and scratch tickets into the bingo experience. Ruby Bingo is a sister site to Ruby Casino. This energetic provider also announced the launch of its new progressives portal Win A Jackpot.
And a short distance away on the iGlobal stand the news was going out that PartyPoker.com has surpassed Paradise Poker as the most popular poker site on the internet. Launched in August 2001, PartyPoker now hosts anywhere from 4000 to 6000 players playing at any given time, with 40 to 50 percent of 'em gambling for real money.
The new "white label" trend is catching on fast in the industry following the success of Be The Dealer (who were also there headed by the personable Ishai Shotten) The latest exponent of the trend is DirectGambling.com who will provide clients a casino with no cash upfront requirement. Owners get 66 percent of such a casino's net gaming revenue and the "white label" concept is designed to appeal to internet marketers who are currently earning 25 to 35 percent commissions as affiliates promoting existing casinos. WPith DirectGambling.com owners choose your own domain name, have their own unique casino brand, and DirectGambling.com looks after the rest. The owner's only input is the marketing of the site. The software is provided by SoftGambling.com.
NETeller is a name familiar to everyone in the business, especially following the mounting US problems with credit cards as a vehicle for making online casino deposits. This ubiquitous brand had a large stand with the important news that it is to launch NETeller China and NETeller UK in September this year. The new sites will make it easy for players to use different currencies particularly, British pounds, Euros US dollars and Canadian dollars. Last week NETeller doubled their weekly deposit limits for players from US $1500 to US $3000. And their big news for casino operators is that they are moving to 100 percent non- refutable funds starting July 1 2003. That means full indemnification on all NETeller transactions – no chargebacks, NSF charges, or no-authorization charges in the future.
Affliliates have become an important marketing force in the industry, and a substantial gathering of some 80 delegates attended an "add-on" session catering for their needs. Oriental Gaming's Ted Loh shared some interesting privacy features in Internet Explorer 6 which benefitted many of those attending, and Casinomeister's Bryan Bailey discussed the increasingly important question of the responsibility of the affiliate for the quality and fairness of casinos to which players are referred by his or her site. Regrettably, members of the Gambling Portal Webmasters Association who were in Montreal did their own thing due to strong feelings on Gator, which had been due to address the session but in fact did not. They missed out on some good stuff.
Partying after hours has always been a strong feature of GIGSE and other major conferences and this one was no exception, from the huge opening reception sponsored by Surefire Commerce to the numerous private parties (some of them pretty wild!) thrown by various suppliers in the business. We spoke to many interesting people, among them the new Angelciti group exec Wilson Lee about the ongoing player complaints his casinos are experiencing and he promised to apply a fresh mind and an objective eye to the issues.
Making a grand entrance at the party was John Abbot's top online gambling portal Gone Gambling with a glossy brochure outlining the many features of this respected site and a perambulating, way larger than life onion with boobs as a clear identity signal from the popular portal. Marketing and advertising brains behind GG, Debbie Silverman was working the crowd, too.
Apart from the obvious benefit of having a ball, these get-togethers are a great opportunities for networking or getting a message across.
Some new operators are successful in this business far faster than others, and Vegas Partners Tyrone and Errol are good examples of what can be achieved in a mere eighteen months by thorough research and strong funding. We met them at the conference and enjoyed a fascinating insight into the perils and profits of online casino operations. Vegas Partners operates Crazy Vegas (which has the stunning new MGS Viper software) Sun Vegas, 777 Dragon, Cinema and Arthurian casinos and will probably soon manage Casino US. Their research included attendance at an earlier GIGSE.
These partners are strong believers in the need to treat the consumer - the player - right and establish strong bonds of trust and loyalty. It is a strategy which has worked well, given them a meteoric rise in the industry and led to planned expansion in the European market, too. They monitor leading message boards, deal with player problems as fast as possible and pay out quickly in addition to offering both signup and ongoing deposit bonuses that are fairly applied. The much-vaunted Asian market has been a disappointment to them, and they believe that not enough study has been carried out on cultural differences, internet access and established land-based moguls there.
GIGSE has become the premier timeframe in which industry organizations make important announcements - where else would one find such an influential and diverse gathering of industry people? A heavyweight new player assurance group recognized this fact by holding a key press briefing at the height of the conference.
Headed by London-based full-time chief executive Andrew Beveridge, the e-Commerce and Online Gaming Regulation and Assurance (eCOGRA) directors launched a set of industry standards they call eGAP (Generally Accepted Practices) with the emphasis on player protection, prompt payouts and efficient casino operations. Initially supported and funded by top software provider Microgaming and the large Casino On Net casino group, eCOGRA will eventually include many other software providers and casinos within its membership. These will all commit to agreed standards of game fairness and player-sensitive conduct enforceable through the organization and monitored via an Audit Panel comprised of leading international and independent audit firms. Rather than source code testing, eCOGRA has opted for continuously reviewed outcomes based verification of casino results. A responsive player complaint infrastructure will be introduced.
But the main value of any conference is the quality of the information it imparts, and this is where GIGSE scores handsomely. In Montreal you could sit in on a discussion on international banking and the implications of the US Patriot Act and its concerns regarding terrorism and money laundering. Or debate the high-powered team from the Isle of Man and find out why their licensees have dwindled and what they are doing about it. And they were urging your input too, admitting that some bureaucratic mistakes had been made and that they were receptive to any suggestions for the future. Or you could listen to an equally influential executive from the Alderney jurisdiction, and get the latest from British experts on the Budd Report and gambling reforms just ahead.
Marketing has always been a critical element in online gambling success, and there were sessions devoted to the many aspects of this discipline including customer acquisition and retention, branding and the legalities of advertising internationally.
If payment solutions were your bag, there were several top sessions devoted to this critical area, and technical buffs were well served with panel discussions on everything from forthcoming gaming developments to new wireless technology and from geo-location and screening innovations to protecting casino systems from the depredations of criminal hackers.
Latest threats in the ridiculous US legislative situation were under the microscope in other forums led by luminaries like Frank Catania, Jeff Modisett (an ex State Attorney General) and D. Brett Hale of the AGA with the inevitable conclusion that regulation and not banning is the way to go. And for the UK market, representatives of seriously committed and large international names were all there too, giving advice, opinion and recommendations. Special issues such as the rise in popularity of P2P betting exchanges and opposition to them from some quarters formed the basis of a debate involving Tim Levene of pioneer Betfair, Terry Lillis of MultiBet Australia and Joe Tighe of Trading Sports.
The closing plenary session of this remarkable conference symbolized its expert and international nature. Titled "The Cross Border Border Debate - Odds on the Outcome" it was moderated by Mark Balestra and consisted of a panel of top betting company executives with first hand experience of monopolistic State attempts to curtail cross border gambling, US campaigns for regulation and "sovereign" rights.
Sportingbet's Mark Blandford, David Briggs from Ladbrokes and the articulate Michael Carlton from Victor Chandler International in Gibraltar showed unanimity in being ready to fight for regulation and a preparedness to pay taxes in order to carry out legal business. On the other side of the divide was Danish government taxation expert Peter Sehestedt defending the sovereign rights of states to keep the gambling business of their citizens to themselves. An actively participating audience was treated to fascinating insights into recent attempts by the Dutch lotto to exclude outside gambling suppliers despite the spirit of the European Union agreements and particularly the Treaty of Rome, and to a wide-ranging discussion on the global nature of the business and its future.
Perhaps predictably the conclusion was that gambling online is here to stay but faces many challenges, principally in legislative and political arenas in different parts of the world, with some countries like the United Kingdom taking a more practical and regulatory approach than others such as the United States, where a combination of political manoeuvring and vested interests is pushing for banning instead of regulation to the benefit of all.
It was an appropriately hopeful ending for an informative event that covered such a wide range of critical online gambling concerns, and the River City Group team, especially president Sue Schneider and the ever-helpful convenor Mariah Echele should be feeling the pride and satisfaction of a complex organizational job very well done.
This was GIGSE's fifth annual presentation - make sure you don't miss the sixth!