IGE: Business with an International Flavor

January in dreary and chilly London may seem like a bad time overall and a good time to fire your travel agent, but I find the annual jaunt to jolly old England one of the highlights of the gaming trade show circuit.

Another trade show at Earls Court has come and gone, with the International Gaming Expo (IGE) concluding its three-day run during the last week of January. As of this writing, show organizers had not shared attendance and visitor numbers, but both of the big halls at Earls Court were full and bustling during a transition year that saw the amusement side of U.K.’s gaming business break away and stage a competing show at the same time. The combined history and politics of this event is always a fascinating sub-plot to this show, formerly known as ICE (International Casino Exhibition).

The mainstream casino gaming suppliers have always gone about their business at this show as the various bluebloods and gaming monarchs of the U.K. gambling and amusement scene jostled for position. There’s not a gambling trade organization in the world with more history than BACTA, which traces its roots back to the late 19th century. BACTA used to stand for British Amusement Catering Trade Association, but now it just goes by BACTA. Keeping the BACTA name clearly was more important than coming up with a new acronym even as the group has evolved beyond the amusement and catering arenas.

With BACTA and its pub fruit machines gone from Earls Court, the IGE show now features a focus on more traditional casino equipment while also embracing online gaming and other new technologies that are already in play in various international jurisdictions. There’s no question the show and the attendees, like the city itself, create a melting pot of international flavors. More accents are heard here than at any gaming trade show in the world. And more real business is conducted here in terms of suppliers getting firm commitments or actually signing orders on the spot. G2E remains the king, but that honor is largely because of the sheer wow factor of what’s on display in Las Vegas.

Comparing London and Las Vegas is both a laughable exercise and something that produces a lot of laughs. One city is centuries old; the other decades old. One has constant clouds; the other steady sunshine. One has cool taxis; the other just long taxi lines. One has casinos that look like you’re gambling in a small museum; the other has casinos the size of airplane hangars. One has Big Ben; the other has a chubby casino host everyone calls “Big Ben.” One has distinguished Beefeater guards standing watch; the other snarling nightclub security goons with clipboards.

Whatever your preference may be, I enjoy visiting London and figure I have made about 15 trips in the past 10 years. I could never live there, though, and wonder what kind of existence it is to pay 1,000 British pounds (roughly $1,600) monthly to live in a closet-sized apartment in a crumbling building that is more than 100 years old.
Everything is spendy in London, which, according to Forbes magazine, ranked No. 3 on its 2008 list of the world’s most expensive cities. There’s no question the biggest downside to having a large gaming show in London is the overall costs of attending and exhibiting. The prices for space at Earls Court have long been the most expensive on the global trade show circuit, especially relative to the value of the British pound vs. the U.S. dollar. Throw in all of the other direct trade show expenses, not to mention lodging and meals for staff, and yikes, the company finance person starts shuddering.

As executive director of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers (AGEM), I spend a large amount of energy working with the various trade show organizers around the world to ensure our members are getting a fair shake. There’s no question AGEM-member companies, especially the large slot machine companies, pay the majority of the bills for trade show organizers. AGEM has done a good job negotiating price discounts and other concessions with a variety of shows. While AGEM does not have a formal relationship with IGE and its owner, Clarion Gaming, it’s pleasing to know Clarion has listened to our members’ concerns about the price of exhibiting in London and has released dramatically reduced pricing for the space at IGE through 2013. Clarion even addressed the issue of expensive electricity by announcing all exhibitors will receive free power no matter how many slot machines or other devices are plugged in. Seems almost too good to be true, but thanks, we’ll take it!

Clarion’s motives were driven in part by a desire to clear up industry rumors about the London Olympics in 2012 somehow affecting the overall schedule at Earls Court or other rumors about moving the show to Amsterdam.

AGEM’s influence at IGE this year also extended to a sponsorship agreement with the European Casino Association (ECA) that allowed AGEM to participate in the International Casino Conference (ICC) the day before IGE began. Our growing European membership base was able to experience a special reception at The Ritz Club Casino, billed simply as “the world’s most luxurious casino.” For those lucky enough to be there, it was hard to disagree with that billing. Not that any of us could afford to do any gambling in the casino. After all, we needed to save our precious pounds just to cover the basic expenses of visiting London.

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