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Building Better Futures

In Conversation with Kevin McGowen, CEO Ambassadeurs Group.

To celebrate the launch of the new Ambassadeurs Group website, Kevin McGowen talks to an interviewee, Claire, about how AG is building better futures. It is a celebration of innovation, industry disruption, raising industry standards and giving back – all the things that help build better futures for the AG WorkFamily, people, planet, members and communities.

AG includes gaming, e-commerce, hospitality, and events. And Kevin explains how AG’s core purpose is shaped around giving back. Listen to the podcast or read the full interview below:

Claire: This is the Ambassadeurs Group podcast, where we are talking all things building better futures. It aims to be a celebration of innovation, industry disruption, raising standards and giving back; all the things that help build better futures for people, the planet, members, and communities, wherever they are. I’m Claire Oldfield and I’m delighted to welcome our first guest. There is no better way to begin than through a conversation with Kevin McGowen, chief executive of Ambassadeurs Group, and the driving force behind the group’s positioning as a company with a core purpose that is shaped around giving back.

Kevin, welcome.

Kevin: Thank you Claire.

Claire: So, I’m going to start talking a bit about you, rather than about the group. And a sort of very open-ended question… what drives you? You’re a very energetic innovative human being. What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Kevin: Well, basically, I love making a difference for peoples live, and I feel it’s an opportunity for me due to the privilege I have in my life. I was awoken during the Covid lockdowns, and I realised at that point that the situation for the world was going to change and the 2020s were probably going to be the most dramatic changes in society in 70 years, and I feel that we have an opportunity, I have an opportunity, to help push that forward and make a difference for people so that we do it the right.

Claire: So, I have introduced you as the Chief Executive of the Ambassadeurs Group, but obviously one of the parts of that groups is a very iconic casino, Les Ambassadeurs Club. How did you end up running that?

Kevin: Ah great question, I was recruited in 2011 to join as the chief marketing officer. In the past, the majority of my experience has been on the marketing side for hospitalities for integrated resorts, private members clubs, etcetera.

Claire: So, we will come back to this idea of the marketing because I think that does help you with these innovative ideas and the way you have driven the group and are driving it forwards. So, lets turn to the Group, and the Group is more than one company, it’s more than a casino, it’s more than a club, and over the past months – and I think as you will probably tell me changed and spurred on by covid – you’ve put a Group together and central to that Group now is this idea of giving back. Can you give me a little bit of an overview of what makes up the Group?

Kevin: Sure. So, during the Covid lockdowns we had a lot of free time, and we focused that time on research to better understand what the trends are of society, and we realised that most of these trends would be a digital first approach, rather than the traditional model of going into bricks and mortar facilities. Obviously, that’s accelerated over time with the lockdowns and behavioural changes. So, what we wanted to do was make sure that we had enough diversification and that we had enough interest and enough access to different emerging markets, different businesses to invest in. So that if ever something happened again when people needed to stay home, we could still transact with them, that we could still offer them great services and continue to build on that customer relationship side.

Claire: So, lots of this then is about future proofing, not just the business but actually the way that staff behave and are treated and how members behave and are treated. And then, I’m very struck by it’s about more than that now – you’ve got travel as part of the Group, you’ve got an amazing restaurant. Its more than people would think when they just think about Les Ambassadeurs Club or Casino.

Kevin: Very, very true. If you think about Les A, Les A is definitely an iconic private members casino, and historically, we have catered to suitable wealthy foreign nationals. So basically, millionaires and billionaires. A huge chunk of that business for the last decade has derived from the far east, so PRC China, Hong Kong, etcetera. That particular market made up such an important percentage of our business, so that when it was turned off, we had to blink for a second and reassess the situation.

Claire: Lets move onto the idea of purpose and I have spent a bit of time now looking at how the Group fits together, and beyond the work that I do and the conversations I have with people at Ambassadeurs Group, I look at purpose more generally. I’m very struck that you’re very clear now, you’re a Group with a core purpose, and its important. It’s attractive for employees, potential employees, customers, members in your case, beyond that, investors, and people you want to do business with. Lots of companies fail because they don’t walk the walk when it comes to purpose. What makes the Ambassadeurs Group different? How are you putting purpose at centre, but also living it?

Kevin: Ok. Well, because the majority of these new diversified companies that we’ve created are start-ups, we are able to kind of bake that into the DNA at go live. So that makes it much easier in respect of adjusting things to make sure that we put stakeholders and our work family in front of the bus, if you would, before any other transactions. And the reality of it is that its not difficult to build a business model like that, that is sustainable, that generates profits for the shareholders, but it also has an approach that is far more balanced than what we were able to do before Covid.

Claire: And one of the very big things you’ve done is this industry leading pledge to give 1% of your gross gaming yield back to research and education. Again, that is industry leading, what prompts that, and what comes out of that?

Kevin: You know, we decided that again, the vast majority of our cliental are oversees, suitable wealthy foreign nationals, who in many cases that is a scenario where those persons do not participate in UK society, right? But we see what’s happened in UK society, and we’ve seen that this is a huge business and its very attractive for local consumers if they want to play online, if they want to do sports betting and go to casinos, etcetera. But we see that with such a big business, we see where there’s always opportunities to raise standards and help improve lives. And so, in our particular case, where we don’t transact very much those audiences, we saw this as an opportunity to again, help raise standards. And it’s a bit symbolic in a way, somebody has to start the process and because financially this does not cause harm to our organisation, because of the way we structure our business, we felt that prevention and education is the right message, and so, were hoping that this would inspire other organisations to just take another look at the model and see where they can help improve as well. Now, some businesses can not afford to generate that level of donation, that’s ok. But. At least it inspires the idea and encourages people to put things forward.

Claire: I think that that’s very true and the other thing that strikes me about this is about innovation, and innovation isn’t always about something digital, or something that looks like its around cryptocurrency. It can just be innovating with what you have and thinking differently.

Kevin: Indeed.

Claire: And it feels as though you think differently about quite a lot of things.

Kevin: Are you calling me different?

Claire: Erm… yes. Different, and different is good. And also, an industry disruptor.

Kevin: Yes.

Claire: Which I think is a positive thing, and actually, that leads me neatly, thank you Kevin, into the next set of questions, which are around the very obvious industry disruption and the way in which you embrace new technology. Do you want to give some examples of that? I’m thinking as perhaps a starting position, payments systems. I think you’ve looked quite a lot at those and how they can be done differently.

Kevin: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you might have heard of something called blockchain, crypto. Again, during the lockdowns, when people were staying home and protecting each other, everyone had a lot more free time on social media and on television and different input sources to learn about crypto. And for us, we’ve always wanted to make sure that we were relevant, and we had relevant payment systems, so that we can transact with our consumers. And when we saw blockchain, we started to understand that the fact that it is available, it is auditable, it is immutable, we felt a lot of comfort with that process. Because again, from a responsibility standpoint, the regulations that we follow require us to better understand source of funds to do risk assessments to understand where there might be risks with customers or funds that we should not be transacting with. And so, we are looking towards launching what would effectively be a crypto out initiative. What that means is that in the current model, with gambling, if you come into the casino with a suitable source of funds, say a transfer from your bank account, you play, you enjoy yourself from a leisure and entertainment standpoint, and let’s say you’ve won some money. Currently, there’s the option of transferring it back to your personal account, perhaps leaving a non-deposit for another visit, perhaps taking a little bit of cash packets out, if you’d like to do some shopping, or something known as a winner’s cheque. And a winner’s cheque is basically saying I don’t want to take cash out because that wouldn’t suitable, but I’d like to take this check and when I make it home, I can deposit this, or I could take it perhaps to another casino. That’s always worked very well for us, for the industry. The challenge is it’s a 300-year-old technology, and the banking industry is rapidly trying to eliminate it. And so, because the regulation from the 05 act is not fit for purpose for the digital age, that has put us in a bind, where we do need to have an alternative solution for customers. So, looking at crypto transactions looks to be a very very sensible way forward, again for the reasons I mentioned. It is easy to monitor, it is fully auditable and source of funds in this type of scenario are customers’ winnings, as validated by the casino. So, I’m happy to allow customers to be able to take their winnings and transfer it to a suitable wallet, after of course all of the suitability tests that we would do to make sure that that’s a perfect process.

Claire: And again, it just goes back to this idea that you’re thinking about the future, you’re future proofing the business, but also being in step with members.

Kevin: Absolutely. Yes, their demands, their interests and so on.

Claire: Exactly, yes.

Kevin: You know, at the end of the day, we have 300-plus members of our WorkFamily, and they’ve entrusted me to make sure that we run the business effectively, and then, as you said, is future-proof. The worst thing we can do is put our head in the sand and just hope that these things will come across and the business will be fine. The realisation is that we have this opportunity to help set the standard for this, because we do believe this will be the payment methodology in the future and we want to get it right.

Claire: So, lets talk about your WorkFamily. Again, very struck by the fact that it is a WorkFamily. You don’t very often mention the word employees, or staff. It is the WorkFamily. They have to live all the ideas that you come up with as the leader of the businesses. So, how do you communicate with them beyond their day jobs? So, this idea that everything that you’re doing is about building better futures. Whether it’s innovation and payments, or whether, we will come to charitable work in a moment, but whether its at that end of the spectrum, or anything in between. How do they get on board and understand the bigger purpose?

Kevin: Got you. Well, I would say first of all I’m a very approachable CEO if you would. I grew up in this business 28 years ago and I value hospitality workers. I know exactly their thought process and where they’ve come from, because I’ve lived that journey myself and I will never forget that, and I appreciate the hard work that they do. So, I’m available on a personal level. In addition, obviously, lots of standard communication with our comms channels and so on. And lots of what we would call state of the union addresses if you would. So, all staff update meetings, where we have the opportunity to present how the business is doing, what the challenges are that we’re facing, and how we intend to make it through those challenges and succeed. The biggest opportunity that we have in terms of investing into our WorkFamily is through what we call the Ambassadeurs Academy, and so that is a new initiative that is launched this summer, and it basically allows all of our staff, if they wish, to participate in some pretty amazing courses that are certified courses, all done through the organisation. So, if someone is a croupier currently and they would like to develop some digital skills, to perhaps be a copywriter, there would be courses for understanding that, and then we would provide work for them as well. If you think about, again, these changes over the course of this decade, the concept of hybrid work is quite topic and as far as we are concerned, you could be a croupier, you could be a doorman, but you probably have more in you and you’ve never been given the opportunity to actually explore that. So, that’s the purpose of this, it’s to take courses, learn about those particular things, be compensated for completing them, and if there’s opportunities to diversify within our organisation, perhaps I want three days a week to work on premises, perhaps I would like to be home two days a week, we want to create opportunities so the same work family can fulfil many different jobs, different aspects and understand that side of their own personalities as well.

Claire: That’s amazing in terms of opportunities, and other things I’ve seen that have happened in the group are you allow volunteering to happen. So, particularly, I saw this during mental health week earlier this year, where you offered the opportunity for work family to go and work in a garden in Battersea or take part in some cooking from a charity that was focused on helping migrants get better integrated into society. I mean those are all great opportunities for staff and I suppose give them a more rounded perspective on life.

Kevin: Absolutely. You know, again, we want them to feel that we are contributing to our communities.

Claire: So, let’s move on to the communities.

Kevin: Ok.

Claire: You’ve, again, looked very hard and carefully, I know it, at what we can call charitable work, but its centred around giving back, and you’ve split it into four key areas. So, mental health and wellbeing, education, safer gambling, and your community. I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit and ask you to give me some tangible examples of this giving back in action. I’m thinking particularly about setting up a women’s network that’s to help the work family and then things like charitable golf days, where you’re helping specific charities, like the Prince’s Trust.

Kevin: Thanks for that. In respect to the women’s network, I think we all understand that it’s been a boys’ club for thousands of years now, and so, we have a big opportunity to, again, leverage the access we have, and the privilege we have, to be able to affect change in this case. So, if you look to just starting at Les Ambassadeurs Club, the casino side, historically it’s been almost all men in leadership capacities prior to my arrival. And I’ve always wanted to make sure we have the appropriate balance of diversity in this case, and we have some amazing, amazing ladies that run this business now, and that’s because we gave the opportunity for those persons to receive the same education and the same certification that the old boys club used to get, and it’s been inspiring for all of us along that way. What we’re truly trying to do, again, is expand our network. And so, in some cases we have very specific goals that were trying to achieve on our own, but when we partner with other groups, from perhaps influencers or other community projects, they may have particular interests and they need assistance with that, and that falls within these categories. And really, what we want to do is inspire along this journey, and so, some of those particular groups might have greater reach than we do, so it’s quite logical to network and collaborate, as our influencer friends would tell us, to be able to get to make difference for everyone, get the word out.

Claire: And then, another organisation that you’re supporting is the OppO Foundation, and that’s about supporting military veterans who have come back into civilian life. And were talking at this point around a great event, which you’re supporting, which gives back, which supports sporting military and charity all at once. Why is that such a good fit for you?

Kevin: I think for many reasons, but ultimately, look, it’s been a difficult 21st century, and we’re hoping of course wars would be over by now. And, obviously, the Ukraine situation just reminds us that the human race has some more growing up to do, and at the end of the day, no matter what good government systems might be out there in terms of welfare systems to give back to persons that have been wounded in battle, there’s always more to be done, and I couldn’t image the sacrifices that certain individuals have made just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and its difficult to see that so many individuals, their lives effectively end at that point, and there’s better ways around that. So, if we have the opportunity to be able to promote giving back and helping individuals to reboot their lives and not let that define them, and instead become something inspirational, of course, we must do this, we must.

Claire: So, I’m going to wrap up in a second, and I’m going to ask very open-ended question. I know you could probably talk forever when I ask this question, but give me a very succinct answer to what’s next? What’s the immediate next thing that you’re tackling?

Kevin: So, good question. I think I have 100 different initiatives, but really, it’s about formatting the network that we have put together for our ecosystem, so that our members would gain additional access remotely to the travel services, concierge services and so on. And also having the opportunity to experience some of the best features of their favoured club, Les Ambassadeurs Club, away. An example of that would be that they could log in if they wish and be able to have a quick punt at playing with croupiers that they’ve known for years and that they trust. Its kind of a one-of-a-kind opportunity. So, we’re integrating all of those services for our members because of course we want our members to continue to be happy with us. The members have funded all of the donations that we have been able to secure for the year and they are loving it.

Claire: And its very nice, it’s a very nice circular story that it is giving back can sit alongside a casino.

Kevin: Yeah, I guess to me its just natural, but I do understand that a lot of outsiders might say why they are doing that, they don’t have to do that. Well, that’s the whole point, just because we don’t have to doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Really, what were looking at is we want to raise the standards for this industry, so that we are contributing to good causes, to helping our communities and so on. And evidence that there are ways for gaming businesses to be positive, as opposed to what’s perceived perhaps in the media as only negative and praying on the vulnerable. Now way, we don’t believe in that at all, and we’re showing it, we’re proving there is a better way.

Claire: And that all links back to this great idea that you are building better futures across everything, for your work family, for other stakeholders, for communities and the members sit at the heart of that.

Kevin: Indeed, indeed.

Claire: Kevin, thank you so much for talking. That was inspiring, and innovative, and it was lovely to speak to you, thank you.

Kevin: Thank you too.


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