News Analysis: Casino cities still have much to play for

Now Manchester has been recommended to host the UK's first regional 'super-casino', Hannah Marriott finds interested parties rethinking their PA strategies.

When Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell declared last week that the Casino Advisory Panel had selected Manchester as preferred location for the UK’s first super-casino, she surprised many.

The councils and lobbyists behind bookmakers’ favourites Greenwich and Blackpool were certainly taken aback and, along with a host of commercial organisations, have been left reassessing their comms tactics.

Blackpool insists the decision is not a foregone conclusion because CAP’s recommendation has yet to be voted on in Parliament. Barbara Aird, PR manager at the council – which, like Manchester, is advised by lobby shop LLM (see below) – says: ‘This is just a recommendation, not a decision. We will be pulling out the points on which we disagree and explaining why, and local MPs will be going to see Jowell.’

Similarly, Cardiff Council – which is advised by Bell Pottinger Public Affairs – has pledged to step up its attempt to bag the licence, and will continue to put its case to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Greenwich case is complex
The case is more complicated where Greenwich Council’s bid is concerned. Its proposal identifies Dome owner Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and Kerzner International as the likely operators. AEG was at the centre of a major controversy last year when it emerged that Deputy PM John Prescott had stayed at owner Philip Anschutz’s Texas ranch.

AEG uses Freud Communications, which insists its account is a consumer brief that does not include any public affairs – a number of recent articles have suggested otherwise after chairman Matthew Freud hosted a dinner for Anschutz and Jowell.

Some commentators claim the controversy surrounding Greenwich’s bid explains why it was not recommended, and that many Labour MPs will have been relieved at the announcement.

Greenwich Council says it ‘welcomes’ Manchester’s good fortune and has no plans to challenge the recommendation. AEG will only say that it is ‘reviewing its options’, sparking speculation it may launch legal action.

The local authority chosen to house the casino will have to run an open and competitive bid for an operator, so there was no guarantee that AEG would have prevailed had CAP chosen Greenwich. But the Millennium Dome would have been the obvious choice of venue in the borough, and its redevelopment has been planned with a casino in mind.

Indeed, Greenwich’s proposal to CAP pointed out that, while the Dome will still be home to a music arena with restaurants and bars, a 2005 National Audit Office report said income from the arena alone would not generate a ‘fully commercial’ return for AEG.

Insiders speculate that AEG is more likely to wait for a chance to lobby for another super-casino licence than take its concerns to court and risk ostracising the Government. Other councils and casino operators are also likely to be lobbying for more regional casinos to be granted. PRWeek has learned from one public affairs consultant that MPs have already received briefings from some of the councils that were not recommended – but any challenges are likely to fail. ‘The Government is chuffed to pieces and will whip the Labour vote,’ he says.

Commercial interests
Commercial parties still have plenty to campaign about. If the Manchester recommendation is upheld – which seems likely – Kerzner International and developer ASK Developments are favourites to undertake the work.

ASK is a client of Manchester-based Spinoza Kennedy Vesey PR, but Kerzner – formerly a client of College Public Policy managing partner Warwick Smith when he led Citigate Public Affairs – says it is ‘yet to appoint’ a public affairs agency.

Separate from Manchester and the super-casino plans, Jowell last week granted permission for 16 smaller casinos – opportunities being eyed up by dozens of operators.

Bell Pottinger, for example, works for Aspers, the joint venture between casino operator Aspinalls and Australian business Consolidated Press Holdings – a likely operator had the Cardiff bid been successful.

Agency chairman David Wilson says Bell Pottinger is supporting Aspers’ ambition to bid for some of the smaller casinos. Similarly, PPS Group director Richard Evans is advising Gala Group on pitching for contracts to operate smaller casinos.

Despite last week’s Manchester decision, there is clearly a great deal still to play for in the battle to be home to, build, and operate casinos – whether ‘super’ or somewhat smaller.

As one commentator notes: ‘When the decision was made, the Government used fairly ambiguous language, which will lead to even more of a concerted effort by all parties to argue their points.’ The lobbyists, at least, will continue to cash in.

CASINOS: interested parties and their PR/PA advisers

The councils Councils that applied for the regional casino included Blackpool and Manchester – both of which use LLM Communications – and Cardiff, which retains Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. Blackpool and Cardiff plan to lobby MPs to vote against CAP’s recommendation in Parliament.

The casino operators AEG (Freud Communications); Aspinalls (Bell Pottinger Public Affairs); Kerzner International; Rank (Quintus Public Affairs); MGM Mirage; Hilton/Ladbrokes; Genting Group Malaysia/Stanley Leisure (APCO); Harrah’s Entertainment (Hill & Knowlton’s Carl Buyoir); Gala Group (PPS Group); and Las Vegas Sands (Edelman). These are a few of many operators that have been linked with various bids. Most are also thought to be considering bidding to run the regional casino, or one of the 16 smaller casinos.

The Noble Organisation Based in Blackpool, The Noble owns the Blackpool Coral Island complex of amusement arcades, casinos, restaurants and bars. It has been lobbying for the regional casino to go elsewhere, using Lexington Communications.

The Salvation Army and The Methodist Church In-house teams working together to ensure the Government closely monitors and evaluates the effect of the new casinos.

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