Robert Chvátal: SAZKA’s transformation has pushed the static boundaries of European lotteries

Speaking exclusively to SBC Leaders, Robert Chvátal reflects on his eight tenure leading SAZKA Group, transforming the Czech operator into Europe’s dominant pan-national lottery operator that now targets winning the National Lottery’s 2023 stewardship by putting forward a generationally innovative bid to reinvigorate the UK’s lottery market. 

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SBC: Thanks for speaking with us. 2020 marked your eighth year of leading the SAZKA Group. How has this Czech business transformed itself into a pan-European lottery operator?

Robert Chvátal (Group CEO SAZKA):  Thank you for speaking with me. When we took control of the Czech Republic’s National Lottery in 2012, SAZKA Group’s strategy centred around making lotteries entertaining while focusing on what makes customers play more regularly and safely.

Another great example is OPAP in Greece; at a time when investors and businesses were leaving Greece in droves due to the global recession and subsequent Euro crisis, we took the decision to show confidence in the Greek market, purchase OPAP via the government’s regulated process, and ultimately revitalise a lottery that had been underperforming for years.

It’s now one of the best performing lotteries in the world based on sales per capita.

From a technical perspective, if you look at how we have improved each of our lotteries, whether that be in Greece, Czech Republic, Austria or Italy, our customer centric approach has been fundamental to our growth. We listen to our audiences, understand the peculiarities of customer behavior in each market, and plan accordingly.

Starting in the Czech Republic, we recognised how lotteries across the continent had become increasingly irrelevant in the modern gaming landscape. Instead of taking the easy route of leveraging a shrinking pool of old but loyal players, we’ve reversed this trend by reinvigorating lotteries using digital innovation to attract new players – both in retail and online – which is why we’ve achieved one of the highest global lottery growth rates of any lottery operator over the past nine years.

SBC: 2020 was a tough year for all lottery operators; how do you see the sector rebounding from the pandemic?

RC: SAZKA Group’s recent Q1 results is a clear indicator of how lotteries can thrive as we emerge from the pandemic. In the Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy we’ve even enjoyed our best-ever quarters, and we expect to see similar results in Greece now that retail is reopening.

We’re obviously delighted that retail has bounced back so strongly in most of our markets during Q1, but it’s clear that the pandemic has rapidly accelerated the shift to digital. World leading lotteries of the future need to be digital first, which also means deploying more technology in-store to ensure that retail remains relevant and exciting.

In Greece, we’re even helping retailers benefit from the transition to digital by creating a rewards scheme that gives shopkeepers a proportion of digital sales for players they help get online.  Additionally, we track in store traffic through beacons installed in our stores that notify us each time an in store customer is playing online

I believe there is a bright future for any lottery if it can develop a strong mix of unique experiences for both the retail and digital segments. But to achieve this, big investments in technology must be made while partnerships with leaders in digital innovation are also crucial. This is what SAZKA Group is currently focused on.

SBC: Has 2020 fundamentally changed how national lottery firms should be operated, in terms of benefiting society and good causes

RC: Naturally, public spending will be a major issue due to the actions taken to support businesses and jobs during the past eighteen months, which is why lotteries and the contributions they make to society are more important than ever.

We’ve always ensured that our lotteries maximise returns to society and good causes, both through taxation, and our own initiatives such as OPAP’s redevelopment of the two largest children’s hospitals in Greece, or SAZKA’s support of the Czech Olympic Committee.

In the post-pandemic world, increasing returns to society and good causes will only grow in importance. This is why it’s more essential than ever to grow your customer base while ensuring responsible play, as this is the surest way to guarantee more sales and even larger returns for good causes.

SBC: SAZKA Group has made no secret of its intent to operate the UK market. Can you shed light on SAZKA Group subsidiary Allwyn’s bid for the National Lottery?

RC: In my eyes, The National Lottery is one of the most prestigious lottery institutions in the world. Allwyn’s team, spearheaded by Sir Keith Mills and David Craven (Allwyn’s CEO) and supported by the likes of Vodafone, Justin King, Brent Hoberman and Dr. Mark Griffiths, is building an exciting and credible proposition for The National Lottery.

If you look at our track record in Europe, we have consistently improved lotteries, refreshing them with our brand portfolio and by adapting to the unique characteristics of each market by implementing a mix of products and approaches that are tailored for those consumers. So, rest assured – our talented team has exciting plans for The National Lottery!

While I would love to talk more about our plans for the UK, under the Gambling Commission’s communications protocol I’m unable to do so.

SBC: As lottery and wider gambling businesses re-emerge from lockdown, what advice would you provide to business leaders confronting future unknowns?

RC: As I’ve said, lotteries are more important to society than ever, so any operator should be prepared to shoulder bigger demands from regulators and governments.

To deliver for the needs of both customers and wider civil society, lottery operators must speed up the digital transformation of their business by offering customers an omnichannel presence. This is about making sure that players and potential players feel connected to your brand no matter what restrictions we could face in the future.

Knowing your customer and being able to predict their future demands is key – omnichannel presence provides more customer touchpoints which are key for gaining this insight.

Of course, the technology that makes this omni-channel presence possible will also be crucial as we emerge from the pandemic into an increasingly digital world where the need to improve how lotteries protect their players is vital.

It’s all about speed of intervention and prevention – in Greece, our team developed an algorithm that trained on real-time data to better predict and manage problematic behaviour among players. It has proven to be thirty times more effective than the self-exclusion schemes that have been prevalent in.

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