The Belgian gaming market still seems to be one that flies under the radar for many international betting companies. But according to David Carrion, COO Interactive at GAMING1, this jurisdiction is undergoing tremendous growth and offers the perfect opportunity for those looking to build a brand and create a unique proposition for players. 

In part one of a chat with CasinoBeats, Carrion takes a look at the Belgian opportunity before analysing some of the regulatory challenges that this market holds. He dissects the recent advertising ban and outlines the reasons why he believes product is the key to player retention.

The story of GAMING1

GAMING1 first made its mark on the Belgian market back in the early nineties, starting out as a land-based operator. But as with many companies looking to keep up with industry trends, GAMING1 made its transition into the digital space. 

This move, Carrion told CasinoBeats, was largely driven by the Belgian regulations which stated that you must have a land-based licence to operate in the online space. He said: “I think the company founders were very bold in jumping on that opportunity. They started to develop proprietary technologies in 2010, which you could say was slightly later in the game than others. 

“That was quite a bold move, but what it meant was they could develop the entire casino platform in-house, as well as a game studio to fulfil the requirements of the Belgian regulator. We can definitely say that we exceeded expectations from the beginning.” 

In addition to the advantage of being the market leader in Belgium, Carrion pointed out that this market, like others in Europe, remains difficult in terms of regulation. The sector remains the regular target of regulatory frameworks that are sometimes difficult for businesses to consider.

He continued: “Belgium still seems to be a market that flies under the radar for a lot of people. There was then a demand from smaller land-based operators that wanted to enter the online space in Belgium. 

“However, you do not have the same type of ecosystem in Belgium as you do, say, in the UK whereby you have plenty of providers that can offer you a platform. Given that the market was closed, there wasn’t the interest for providers to enter the Belgian market.”

After a few years, GAMING1’s founders identified an opportunity to expand into the B2B space with plans to develop its own platform and proprietary technology. The brand currently supplies its B2B service to nine different operators with a B+ licence.

Carrion said: “You have to keep in mind that there are only 11 brands operational in Belgium, so that’s a very strong positioning which has allowed the group to scale its online business. 

“We’re very focused on Belgium, and the reason is that we’ve been in this market for over 30 years. Our Circus brand was born there. However, the legal framework there is also a daily challenge. We strive to defend the sector and to operate always and exclusively within the framework defined by the regulator. At the same time, we are committed to developing and offering an excellent product.

“And while the popularity of betting is growing rapidly, the market as a whole also places a huge focus on responsible gambling and the duty of care when it comes to advertising. Brands take a strong stand in creating a balance between a competitive industry and one that operates responsibly. That’s created a solid base for us.”

Moving from land-based to online 

The move from brick and mortar to online may sound easy on paper, but it can come with its own unique sets of challenges. Do you take the same approach to marketing? Will players be as receptive to online betting as they are to the roulette tables? Will moving online cannibalise your land-based traffic?

From Carrion’s experience in the retail gambling industry, land-based and online may both fall under the same umbrella of gambling, but they require entirely different strategies. He said: “We decided to take that approach in Belgium, but we have created a synergy between our brick-and-mortar casinos and our online brands. 

“For example, we have a fully integrated loyalty program across land-base and online. You can earn points across both. Players can have their VIP status recognised across both verticals – this is a really strong omnichannel strategy that has really worked for us.

“I come from the land-based industry myself, and I can tell you that we really have a strong integration compared to other brands. A lot of companies claim to have that omnichannel strategy, but it is very complex to achieve – both from a technological standpoint as well as from a regulatory perspective.”

This omnichannel approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by other operators. Over the last few years, there have been multiple international companies approaching GAMING1 asking to replicate the approach they have taken in Belgium and apply that to new markets. 

Starting with Portugal, GAMING1 signed a joint venture with Estoril Casinos which Carrion noted has proven to be “very successful”. This joint venture model has also been rolled out in other markets, including Colombia, France, Peru, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and, most recently, the Netherlands

Belgium: the origins of GAMING1’s story 

But with international expansion already underway, Carrion explained that the Belgian market will always be central to GAMING1’s growth strategy. This, ultimately, is where the firm’s story opened.

Carrion said: “Belgium, by default, was always going to be a big market for us because we’re a Belgian group. That is where our story began. We lean on Belgium because it’s a market that just keeps growing! 

“It’s not a huge market, compared to say the Netherlands or Spain, but it does have a limited number of operators which makes things much more interesting. But I do think that there is still plenty of room to continue improving the product. 

“Part of the problem with smaller markets is that it isn’t always as competitive, and in some cases, the player doesn’t get as good of a product. But we’re on a mission to change that. I think that there’s plenty of growth opportunities for us. 

“Belgium is a good margin market for us with our own technology and the taxes are favourable too. We can build a solid foundation for our products and will continue to expand in our home market.”

This solid foundation has been evident in the performance of GAMING1’s 777 and Circus brands, both of which have gained considerable market share across the Belgian market. If you combine the two, Carrion explained, GAMING1 has achieved a dominant market share. 

The Circus brand in particular has performed considerably well, with Carrion confident that the brand is outperforming current market growth. However, he did note that it is often tricky to determine how the Belgian market is performing since the regulator only publishes reports biennially. 

But by using H2 gambling capital projections, brands are able to get a ‘feel’ for the market and how they are performing. The COO said: “At the end of the day, there isn’t much official data – and the data we do have is segmented into A+ and B+ licences. So, it is difficult to gauge market performance, but what we’re doing is clearly working! 

“Circus is the brand where we put the majority of our efforts over the past three years. In the past, we only owned a portion of 777 and after a CVC round of investment, we consolidated and now own 100% of that operation. 

“From an operating and product perspective, we’ve positioned ourselves very strongly. The brand awareness and metrics for 777 are incredibly strong in Belgium, so we’re in a good position. That brand awareness is great to have given the advertising ban too – we’ll be putting a lot of focus on 777 and will continue to do so over the next few years. “

Advertising ban: the fall-out 

The Belgian advertising ban came into force from 1 July 2023 as part of the government’s strategy to crack down on addiction and debt. Under the guidelines there will also be further limitations on gambling advertising in stadiums and sports sponsorships. 

From the perspective of firms such as GAMING1, this could have far-reaching effects on the ability to engage new bettors and build brand recognition. 

Carrion commented: “To give you an idea, we predict that in the second part of this year, we will lose 400 billion impressions as a result of the advertising ban. This covers social media too. You can take this in a number of ways though – you could argue that this is precisely why the advertising ban should be in place because that is a lot of exposure. 

“But if you think about it, Belgium has a population of just over 11 million people. Of course, there is a portion of those people that are under 18. It works out at around six or seven impressions for each person over the course of a month. If you spread that across multiple touchpoints, it isn’t as much as you’d think. They’re also very light touch impressions, so quick one or two second glimpses of an advert. 

“The other side of that coin is that it makes it much harder to build that brand awareness and brand recall. If you think about big brands such as Coca Cola, they roll out different advertising campaigns throughout the year – because if you’re not reminded of them existing, then eventually you might choose to drink Pepsi or switch to another drink, right? But for betting brands, this is much more difficult to do. 

“The advertising ban will mean there is a direct impact on brand awareness, and will likely have an effect on the short-term plans for acquiring new players. This is something that perhaps could have been addressed and looked into further when implementing this change.”

To navigate the challenges brought about by this ban, Carrion urged betting companies to get more creative and ‘up their game’ on the development of their products. This, he believes, is the key to retaining players and keeping them coming back to your site. 

He continued: “By definition, gambling is an acquisition industry. We engage players very quickly. A considerable portion of our revenue is generated from first time depositors that we hadn’t previously engaged with. So, if you’re hindered in your ability to reach these new player bases, this will undoubtedly have an impact on your growth. There is only so much you can do with retaining your existing players.

“This is why it’s so important to provide your players with a great experience – to ensure that they will want to keep coming back to you. In our case, we are in a unique position because we have more than 40 Slot Casino rooms in Belgium as well as two casinos. I think this helps with building brand awareness for Circus. 

“This has been a deliberate part of the group strategy, to take an omnichannel approach to gambling. The 777 brand, on the other hand, is different because even though there is no land-based presence, there is that recognition of the brand. The name 777 has a ring to it, when we’ve conducted research, people recognise us, so we’re very well placed in the market.”

Setting the boundaries

Given that this advertising ban has only been in place for just over two months, the impact that this will have on the player experience is yet to be seen. 

Carrion explained that there needs to be a thorough understanding of the true impact of these new measures from the regulator, as well as operators and suppliers. Gaming companies, he added, must also be proactive in fine tuning products and adapting to upcoming changes.

“I suppose you try to do everything you can within the boundaries that have been set to maximise the opportunities available. For instance, if it’s specified that deals signed before a certain date remain valid, but after that, you cannot sign any more agreements, that’s a way of being proactive,” Carrion said.

“It’s crucial to understand the implications of the new regulations and changes to gauge their impact on the player experience and brand awareness. The goal is to remain as creative as possible to stay relevant, given that entertainment remains a priority for customers. If we’re restricted in how we can deliver that entertaining experience to players, then that is going to impact player experience.”

This has become particularly apparent when looking at segmented communications, a marketing strategy that is currently prohibited in Belgium.  

For Carrion, this decision was somewhat unviable as it involves contacting every player about every offer, regardless of preferences. Ultimately, this will have a significant impact on player satisfaction.

“Something that is no longer permitted in Belgium anymore is segmented communications. Imagine going to a supermarket and only buying oranges, but not being able to learn about an orange sale. This approach becomes unviable as it requires informing everyone about the offer, even those who aren’t interested. The point is that there are always complexities that require flexibility and an evolving strategy to remain relevant while staying within boundaries.

“Our consistent approach is to evaluate from the player’s perspective, considering if it benefits or hinders them, striving to maintain relevance. However, limited lead time requires quick reactions. Their intentions seem effective, a positive aspect, but growth is hindered, making it challenging to consistently see the positives.”

Stay tuned for part two, where David Carrion walks us through developments in the French and Dutch markets.