Crown gambler came for free Phil Collins tickets, then lost $30,000

A regular gambler at Crown Melbourne has described losing $30,000 after visiting the casino to collect free tickets to a Phil Collins concert as an example of how the casino uses giveaways and promotions to “play” its patrons.

Victoria’s royal commission into the James Packer-backed casino also heard on Friday that members of Crown’s popular loyalty program – which gives them rewards and other benefits the more they gamble – are more likely to experience gambling harm than other punters at the Southbank complex.

Crown says it should have done more research into whether its loyalty program encouraged people to gamble at harmful levels. Credit:Scott McNaughton

But Crown’s chief marketing officer Nicolas Emery could not say whether the program encouraged people to gamble more than they should because Crown had not conducted any research into that link.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Geoffrey Kozminsky put to Mr Emery that Crown would have already done exactly that if it was to “proactively prioritise the welfare of customers”.

“I agree that certain research can and should have been done sooner than this,” Mr Emery responded.

Crown decided last month to conduct research into whether the loyalty scheme encouraged dangerous levels of gambling, as part of a suite of changes to its responsible gambling practices submitted to the inquiry ahead of its public grilling on the topic. Crown has long refused to give data to academics who wanted to conduct research into gambling harm at the casino, the inquiry was told on Thursday.

‘It’s all calculated – it’s pretty smart, they know how to play you and they play you quite well.’

An independent NSW inquiry found in February that Crown was unfit to run a casino in the state because of money laundering and other probity issues at the group. Victoria’s royal commission is now examining its Melbourne casino licence, with its approach to responsible gambling a key issue.

Mr Kozminsky said the inquiry had received evidence from one patron who had lost $30,000 after visiting Crown Melbourne to collect Phil Collins concert tickets given away through the loyalty scheme.

“It’s all calculated – it’s pretty smart, they know how to play you and they play you quite well,” the patron said.

A Crown employee had given evidence in a private session that the purpose of this kind of “visit and get” offer was to encourage the member to gamble. “A gambler is a gambler, a punter is a punter,” the employee said. “They’re not just going to come in and park their car, jump on a bus and go to the football, they’re going to come back and play.”

Crown spends about $1.9 million on its responsible gambling program annually, which Mr Emery accepted was a “rounding error” in the context of his $500 million annual marketing budget.

Other promotions at Crown include raffling a $295,000 Aston Martin to patrons who had gambled at the casino on 16 days out of previous 40 days; and cash giveaways of up to $25,000 on its gaming floors.

Commissioner Ray Finkelstein, QC, asked whether the unstated assumption was that the winner would gamble the cash they won.

“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Mr Emery responded. Commissioner Finkelstein requested that he “think about it now”. Mr Emery said the answer was “yes”.

Mr Emery said that the royal commission had prompted Crown to review whether direct marketing offers to loyalty members were rewarding them to gamble in excess of their historical levels. About 0.5 per cent of its members were being targeted in this way, he said, and that would cease.

The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s chief executive Shane Lucas told the inquiry it was difficult for his organisation – a statutory authority appointed by state parliament – to form an opinion on Crown’s approach to responsible gambling because it did not have a “transparent relationship” with the casino and could not demand it hand over gaming data.

“Why not write them a nice letter saying ‘this is what we need, and would you make it available?’,” Commissioner Finkelstein asked.

Mr Lucas said the foundation’s approach could be influenced by an understanding in the academic research community that Crown would either simply refuse a request for information or seek to influence the research’s outcome.

The commission is expected to continue public hearings until the end on June and will report back by August 1.

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