|Once bingo seemed to be in
terminal decline, but this national pastime is holding its own against
austerity, online gambling and the smoking ban. Theres even a new breed
of youthful card-dabbers knocking back Jägerbombs as they
Earlier this year in Arlington Road, Camden, north London, a
massive queue formed outside an industrial-looking building in this side
street. Fashionable young people in their 20s mostly, some in their 30s,
dressed up for a night out, energised and excited. Two queues, in fact
there was another smaller one heading the other way: for the guest list.
A club? Too early, it was only 7.30pm. Must be a gig then. Who was
playing? Actually, everyone was about to. Playing bingo!
its new bingo reinvented for a new generation, for the 21st century, with
bells and whistles, but still unmistakably, undeniably, bingo. There are cards
and callers, numbers to be crossed off or dabbed, lines and full houses to be
had, winners in waiting.
Traditional bingo has been hit hard in the past
20 years or so: by the national lottery; by scratch cards (basically, instant
bingo); by the smoking ban (about 60% of bingo players smoked, and half of them
stopped coming when the ban was introduced in 2007); by the internet and the
rise of online
bingo and other gambling; and by austerity.
In 2014, George Osborne
halved the tax on bingo halls, from 20% to 10%, and the
decline began to slow, almost but not quite to flat, so now its
kind of level, maybe a whisper south of level, says Baron. So the
rot has stopped, if thats the right word, but were not into growth
just yet. What needs to come first is the investment. The first priority for a
lot of operators when the 10% duty came was to to get up to standard, put that
new roof on or refurbish those toilets, do the things theyd perhaps been
a bit slow to do.
The levelling out of what looked like the
terminal decline of a national pastime is not just reflected by a healthy
turnout in one bingo hall. In October, Caledonian Investments, the trust that
manages the wealth of the Cayzer family, one of Britains richest, agreed
a £241m deal to buy Gala Bingos 130 clubs (although not its online
bingo business). Gala Coral, itself planning a merger with Ladbrokes, is the
UKs biggest bingo operator, with 38% of the UK market, 4,000 employees,
more than a million active members and 15 million visitors a year. Its pre-tax
profit in the year to September last year was £33m. Oh, and they are even
opening a brand-new £5m bingo club in Southampton this year.