Turning Albertans’ Vices into Virtues

Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission president and CEO Bill Robinson is using technology to turn your vices into virtues

Photo by Alan Schietzsch

Bill Robinson understands the importance of moderation. That’s why with every move he makes as president and CEO of the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC), he’s concerned about social responsibility.

But he also wants the AGLC, a crown corporation, to remain profitable while helping charities raise money by hosting casino gaming. The commission is in a unique position as both the regulator and supplier of slot machines and gambling components, while it also controls liquor sales and collects a provincial markup.

So that the organization continues to attract customers while providing a better platform for its social responsibility messaging, technology increasingly plays a key role in the AGLC’s modernization. As a government entity, the AGLC faces obstacles to rapidly implement new technologies, but Robinson has helped instill a “can-do” attitude in the organization. “We want to make sure that with whatever product we have, there’s an educational component, there’s a social responsibility component, and we backstop against every one of our programs that go out to the general public,” he says.

The AGLC contributes over $2.5 billion annually to the treasury of Alberta, which is the second largest revenue generator for the province. This is made even more impressive when factoring in how the AGLC balances its private-sector mandate with its social-responsibility mandate as well.

Robinson also stresses the importance of his mission to help charities raise money. There are about 13,000 registered charities in Alberta that can go into the casinos and host two-day events where they work to raise funds based on the amount of play. “Our whole program really is based on allowing the charities to raise money and making sure that they have an environment to work in so that they can garner revenue to do projects in their communities,” he says.

The president and CEO also brings a unique perspective to the AGLC—he spent 34 years with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, working everywhere from highway patrol to homicide. He was destined for Ottawa ever since he learned about the opening at the AGLC. Robinson says the commission’s cornerstone of social responsibility is one of the things that attracted him to the job. His years on the force give him a better understanding of the impact gambling and liquor can have on society.

That understanding spills over to several of the AGLC’s initiatives to educate consumers about the risks of excessive drinking and gambling. One of its programs is GameSense—an approach that includes an interactive website as well as advisors who are available to inform players about how games of chance work and how to maintain healthy gambling behaviours. They also educate casino staff on ways they can help and recognize problems.

The AGLC’s video lottery terminals display GameSense messaging that reminds players of how long they’ve been playing and suggests cool-down periods. The commission wants to expand this messaging to all of its products, Robinson says.

But that’s not the only way that the AGLC is moving the gaming space forward, chief information officer and vice president of innovation David Oh is working to modernize Alberta’s gaming industry with an omnipresent channel where players can experience games on traditional slot and video lottery machines, online, and through a mobile app. He wants stakeholders to be able to sign up for a charitable gaming license or special event liquor license on these same channels.

Policy restraints mean the commission isn’t as nimble as its private sector counterparts, but Oh says Robinson has helped the organization focus on delivering results rather than just talking about innovation. “You’re going to see us improve the channels that we have on web, but you’re also going to see us start to tease and test out mobile apps,” Oh says. “I would say in a couple years, we would probably see something that’s as comprehensive as we envision.”

The commission already has begun updating its central system to move away from paper processes and allow stakeholders to apply for licensing through a fresh website. The updated system also will allow it to offer player cards, which help build loyalty and assist the commission in collecting timely information to better understand its players.

“We’d like to do everything immediately and get it all done,” Robinson says. “But you have choices and unfortunately you have to really put a strong prioritization assessment behind all this. I think our biggest challenge is composing ourselves to get the important things done, the things that will pay off in the future, and weighing that against the things that will pay off in the present.”

One of the biggest issues facing the gambling side, according to Robinson, is determining what the industry will look like in just five to ten years. “The millennials coming up into the marketplace, that’s going to be the biggest question mark,” he says. “They’ve played Xbox and electronic gaming in their parents’ basement since they could walk. As they come up, they’re looking for unique and challenging and head-to-head play. Most of our traditional casinos today don’t align with that reality.”

In order to remain relevant, the ALGC will have to keep tabs on young people’s interests and find ways to capture and maintain their interest. These days, people want immediacy—they don’t necessarily want to stop at a brick-and-mortar store to buy a lottery ticket or go to the casino to play games, Robinson says. That’s where mobile apps can fill a demand while also offering opportunities to design customized messaging on responsible gaming.

The AGLC created a think-tank team to draw on the best minds inside and outside of the organization to come up with new ideas and ways to improve programs. “Those are going to be our challenges of the future,” Robinson says, “how we enable the smartphone generation and beyond to be able to access products.”