AGA Chief Takes Stock of First Year Accomplishments

Editor’s Note: Geoff Freeman officially took over the reins as president and chief executive officer of the American Gaming Association in July 2013 from Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. in July 2013. In an interview with Casino Enterprise Management, Freeman reflects on his first year, the accomplishments made and the challenges ahead for the industry.

CEM: Looking back at your first year at the helm of the AGA, can you discuss some of the insights and lessons learned?
Geoff Freeman: It’s been a great year. It’s been a lot of learning that’s gone into it, understanding of the industry, the complexities of the industry, the challenges that we face as an industry in the years ahead, particularly domestically. There’s been a lot of learning that went into that. But it’s also been an excellent year. It’s been an excellent year of building a very strong team here at the AGA, putting together a strategic plan that our board can rally around. We’re beginning to make headway on some very important issues such as what we’re doing with FinCEN, what we’re doing with the Get to Know Gaming Campaign, the efforts underway to develop new champions in Congress. I’m really proud of how rapidly we’ve been able to get alignment around our core priorities and begin to put some points on the board.

Talk about a few of those points in your strategic plan and what’s most important to members right now.
Freeman: When you look at pressing issues facing the industry, one is our relationship as an industry with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network within the Treasury Department. There’s no doubt they’re taking a hard look at casino gaming, trying to learn more about how our business works and how individuals that wanted to use the industry for nefarious purposes might do that. Fortunately we have a lot of safeguards in place that we’ve been able to make FinCEN aware of. I think that through the dialogue we’ve created we’re learning from them, they’re learning from us and we’re all getting better at doing our jobs.

Do you have a sense of where FinCEN might be going with that, or a resolution about where the line is going to be drawn on what operators need to do? Or do they just need to continue doing what they’ve been doing but do it better or more consistently?
Freeman: One of the things we’re facilitating is frequent interaction between FinCEN and leaders in the industry. We just had some great discussions out in Las Vegas, not just during the Bank Secrecy Act Conference that took place, but in a private two-hour meeting with the director of FinCEN the day before and a tour of one of the VIP areas at one of the prominent Strip properties the day before. So there’s a lot that’s going on behind the scenes where we can learn from FinCEN as to their specific areas of concern, and they can gain a better understanding of how the industry works and the safeguards that are in place. I’m very proud of that. Those discussions continue… Every one of those meetings provides more clarity, provides more knowledge for both parties and I think it puts the industry in a better place There’s no doubt that we as an industry have heard the message that FinCEN sent loud and clear. They’re not just looking at us; they’re looking at all areas of financial transactions happening in this country and all areas of improvement. There are things that we can do better and are doing better because of FinCEN’s involvement. We welcome the engagement we have with them, and we look forward to strengthening that partnership in the months ahead.

You mentioned two other points you wanted to talk about.
Freeman: One of the points is our Get to Know Gaming Effort. [One of the things I’ve learned] in the first year of heading the AGA has been that we as an industry at times can fight a traditional lobbying battle in the halls of legislatures, and at times what we’ve found is we could really use one heck of a PR campaign as to the value of the gaming industry. And that’s where the AGA can provide extraordinary value, in helping to tell the story of what this industry is and complement the great lobbying efforts that this industry has deployed for many, many years…We’ve got great stories to tell. We’ve got partners out there in law enforcement and government and elsewhere who would like to tell those stories, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it easier for them to tell those stories and to make sure those stories are heard so I’m very proud of the Get to Know Gaming Effort. It’s in the earliest stages right now. This is a campaign in perpetuity. We as an industry have a great story to tell and a long way to go in telling it and we’re ready to do that. We just did this national survey of more than 1,000 casino goers. The numbers came back better than ever. People view gaming more favorably than ever. We gained an understanding of who it is that enjoys the product, [and] it’s a much more diverse community than some might think. And I think most importantly, those Americans looking at the industry see the industry as a mainstream business and would support policy that treats the industry like a mainstream business. I think we’re going to make great headway as we go out to promote policies that support innovation and reinvestment. I’m very excited about what the Get to Know Gaming campaign can do to help us do that.

The final area I’d mention that I think is of critical importance is, as we tell our story, we develop new champions. We develop new champions in Congress, we develop champions in other communities, I mentioned law enforcement, city government and elsewhere. We have a responsibility to not just educate but to recruit, to mobilize those who are or should be proud proponents of gaming. We’re already doing that on the congressional side. We’re doing more behind-the-scenes tours, back-of-the-house tours for members of Congress, bringing them in the casinos, meeting the employees, seeing how the business works behind the scenes. That is critically important. As we look ahead we need to make sure that the industry’s understood. That’s the first step to preventing harm and paving the way for new business.

Can you address responsible gaming and where you may be heading on that front?
Freeman: I view this as a very serious issue, and I know the industry views this as a very serious issue. Fortunately, nearly all of our customers are able to enjoy the product responsibly, but there is a very small portion of our customer base that needs assistance. And we have a responsibility in that area to help, and I think we’re helping right now through the research the industry funds through the NCRG and there’s more that we can do. We’ll be looking to bring some responsible gaming expertise into the AGA, to be more active in this area both from a research standpoint, a treatment standpoint, as well as educating the industry as to what it can do on the front lines to assist those customers in need.

In Las Vegas we’ve seen a visitor’s study that showed the age of the average visitor skewing younger. Talk a little bit about what that might mean in terms of what gaming offers and how gaming can adjust its product to address those younger players?
Freeman: A couple of really interesting things came out of the most recent Las Vegas numbers. You see that visitor traffic is up, and the age of the customer base continues to decline, which is attractive. But the other side of that you also saw the slot play I think last month (May) was down about 3 percent, and there’s a lot of that consumer spending that’s going on in the nongaming activities. One of the gaming opportunities we have looking forward is to figure out what it is that will attract that younger generation to the gaming floor. We’re looking for AGA to play a critical role in that process to help pave the way for the industry to innovate by making sure that there are public policies that support innovation at both the federal level and the state level. We’re in talks right now on some big efforts to get under way in the area of gaming innovation, and we’ll have more to talk about on that in the next couple months. I think Nevada is an area where the AGA will play a very critical role moving forward.

On the issue of Internet gaming, how has the AGA’s stance on that evolved over the last year or so?
Freeman: Internet gaming, as everyone knows, is a complex issue. Every industry confronts complex issues, but the job of the trade organization and certainly where I made my focus is to concentrate on issues where we have common cause. Where we have common cause right now is on getting out there and telling the story of gaming. We have common cause right now on paving the way for innovation. We have common cause on developing champions for the industry. That’s where we’re going to focus our efforts.

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