Winnie Wong has been with Sands China for almost six years. Prior to that, she was CEO of the Guandong Group, a junket operator in Macau. At Sands China, she has been the vice president of corporate communications and vice president of operations for Sands Cotai Central. In her most recent role as chief responsible gaming officer, Wong oversees an aspect of supreme importance to the company and the government of Macau.
Wong spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros at the Gambling and Risk Taking Conference (the “Eadington Conference”) in May.
GGB: You were recently appointed to a new role at Sands China, as head of the responsible gaming efforts there. Why is that such an important issue for your company and the officials in Macau?
Winnie Wong: Macau sees responsible gaming as very important. The Macau government has a committee that is made up of scholars, researchers, public officials—not only regulators, but also the social welfare bureau. They have regular meetings and give the casino operators guidelines and regulations to follow. They really see responsible gaming as all stakeholders’ responsibility—not just the government, not just the patrons themselves, but everyone who has a part to play in the industry.
Are these regulators and public officials educated about responsible gaming?
Yes, they do a lot of research, primary data collection, which is done by the local government for policy design purposes. At the same time, I do see them attending international conferences from time to time.
Las Vegas Sands has always had a very robust responsible gaming program. What kind of expertise did they bring to Macau?
In 2004, when my company opened its first casino—Sands Macau—we already had our own self-exclusion program. The Macau government’s self-exclusion program didn’t start until 2012, so our exclusion program was well before that. Today, the government requires casinos to train their front-tier staff for responsible gaming-related issues, but we go beyond that. We train 100 percent of our staff, be they casino-related, non-gaming related, admin staff or operation staff. We train every one of them.
Las Vegas Sands also has developed a global training program. We call it the Responsible Gaming Ambassador’s Training Program. Every year, we rotate and train about 100 staff members in each region. And this goes beyond the training that I mentioned, which is included as part of orientation training. It is eight hours of intensive university-level training, developed by University of Nevada, Las Vegas Professor Bo Bernhard. These team members are on the floor 24 hours a day, and they are there to see if any patrons may have a gaming disorder problem. If they see that, they will help and refer these customers to seek professional help.
We don’t replace the government. We are not treatment centers. We are not counseling experts. But we are there to help, and to provide help when customers need it.
Is there a cultural difference between what is considered problem gambling between Asian gamblers and American gamblers?
From a practitioner’s perspective, I would say people in the Asian culture don’t normally reach out for help. They are quite laid-back. So we’ve used a lot of community support. And the reason why we see training as so important is because Macau has about 600,000 population, with a working population of roughly 380,000. Of that, about 110,000 work in the gaming and hotel industry. So, 30 percent of the working population works in the gaming-related industry. If we train our staff to have high awareness of problem gaming behavior, they can reach out to people, and those people could be their family, their friends or someone they believe needs help.
Part of responsible gaming education is informing players about the odds of winning—that every game has a house edge. Do Asian gamblers understand that?
We as an operator design a lot of training programs for our staff where we mention about what is a game of chance. What is probability? What is the house advantage? So we help teach people to play with a sense of having fun. It is entertainment, instead of a tool to make money. In short, we help people make informed choices.
How much research is being done in Macau to understand problem gambling in the SAR?
My job requires me to do research regularly, to keep myself abreast of responsible gaming trends. And I must admit that I find much more information on Australia and Canada and the U.K. There aren’t too many studies that focus specifically on Asian people. There are scholars from universities in Macau who are now doing lot of research which is Macau-specific. But I do see opportunities to do more.
Do you think Macau is doing a good job at making sure that people gamble responsibly?
I think we are. There is always more that can be done, but Macau has been doing a lot. And I think the government cares, and the operators care, so that makes up a very good ecosystem.
Last year, the government did research to understand people’s awareness on what is meant by responsible gaming. The percentage has increased dramatically since just a few years ago. Over the last five, six years, it went up from single-digit awareness to last year, more than 60 percent of people are aware what is meant by responsible gaming. So yes, I would say Macau is keeping up.