SBR | SBR interviews Alistair Assheton from VIP Sports

Top executive in the online gaming industry Alistair Assheton holding the aces – founder VIP.com-Leisure and gaming director 2005

This Interview with Alistair Assheton -CEO of VIP Sports- is part of the series of interviews by the SBR team. The questions are posted by SBR Will Gatten, an industry expert.

INTERVIEW, Part I

SBR Will Gatten: Hello Alistair, thank you very much for having accepted our invitation…

SBR WG: Alright Mr. Assheton, we would like to start by introducing you to the players, let them know who the man behind V.I.P. Sports Management is; could you tell us… where are you from?
Alistair: I was born in South London and we moved to the countryside of Devon in South West England when I was seven, and that’s where I grew up.

SBR WG: Where did you go to school? What did you study?
Alistair: After my regular schooling in Devon I went to university in Birmingham – England’s second city – where I got an honours degree in International Business and Modern Languages. As part of that course I was lucky enough to spend 12 months in northern France at a top-notch graduate business school in Rouen. I am still fluent in French, and dabble in German – my Spanish and Dutch are still rather embarrassing I must say!

SBR WG: How does a well-educated Englishman get involved in the offshore wagering industry of the American market?
Alistair: Well that is an interesting question, although I know of many other people with excellent educational backgrounds in our industry. I think that in order to succeed in this industry, just like any other, you need a strong element of business sense as well as experience and intuition.

We have never considered ourselves in “the American market” as such though. We are simply providing a service online from our offices in Curacao, and currently we have players from more than 80 countries regularly playing with us. We now have a full service dedicated European site up and running at beteuro.com which is receiving rave reviews to date.

I got into the online gaming industry when a good friend of mine whom I met back at school in France developed the software that enables online sports betting (we still use the modern version of this system – from IGW Software). He and I spoke back in the mid 90s, where at the time I had little idea what the Internet was, and I was working as a commodity trader in Europe. My wife and I took the decision to take on the system and operate an Internet gaming business that encompassed all forms of “recreational gaming” – we developed a casino early on, and a dedicated soccer betting site back before the big companies in the UK caught onto the medium.

SBR WG: Of all places, what brought you to Curaçao? Is it to be able to monitor everything from your laptop, while zipping on margaritas and toasting under the tropical sun?
Alistair: What a great idea that is! Seriously, and possibly ironically, the main driving factor for us was the ability to get a recognized government license to set up our business. Back in 1996 and 1997 when locations were reviewed, there were far fewer options than is the case today. At that time, we really only had a choice of 3, and for our needs – specifically capable, professional staff, and excellent Internet infrastructure (as well as the license) – Curacao came out head and shoulders above the others.

SBR WG: At that time, was Curaçao the ideal place to start building your company, is it a good place for business today?
Alistair: Curacao is the main island in the Netherlands Antilles – part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and also it is the largest of the ABC Islands, being Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. It is a very friendly island, with a skilled and motivated workforce, and great infrastructure. If anything, the business environment here has improved greatly – with the government regularly seeking the industry’s opinion through our “Curacao Internet Gaming Association”. We feel well represented, and the experience has been positive for us to date, though not without minor challenges – that could be expected anywhere. Since arriving here, my wife and I have had two lovely young children – both of whom are attending local schooling – in Dutch – so we feel very attached to the island which we now call home.

SBR WG: So you ARE a happily-married man, father of 2? That’s really interesting… How does your doing business from offshore affect the upbringing of your children? How do you feel about the potential short-comings of a place like Curaçao, when compared to London for example?

Alistair: That’s an interesting question, as my close friends will attest to the fact that London is one of my least favourite places on the planet! Of course it has much to recommend it in many ways, but I am a country/rural person at heart and the traffic, noise, and the lack of personal care I find unnerving there more than in any other big city. Curacao is without doubt a fantastic place to bring up young children – with a great climate, excellent health and education facilities and a generally “child-friendly” attitude, we’re delighted to be able to raise our children here! That said, when we travel, it is always a treat to go to a concert, or a major sporting event – sometimes if only to be in a crowd of people. For the most part, the children get everything they could possibly want on the island, and it is the parents who appreciate the opportunity to travel on occasions to other events around the world.

INTERVIEW, Part II

SBR Will Gatten: Talking about business, would you please tell our readers what in your opinion has been the secret for the success of your business model? What is your business model primarily based on?
Alistair: Well firstly I thank you for suggesting that our model is indeed successful. Certainly when we set out to offer gaming over the Internet the very first thing we decided was that we would set out to appeal to the “recreational” player – the sort of person who enjoys watching the games and having a small bet to make it more interesting. We have built our model around providing service, and as a company we are passionate about that. I very much believe that our customers want to the best possible service they can get – whether they are at a grocery, a bookstore, insurance outlet or bookmaker. These are smart, professional people from many walks of life – and they are used to excellent service. We see no reason for players to put up with anything different when gambling with us. To be frank, I have been surprised at the number of businesses setting up along the lines of “we might not be good at taking care of you, or your money, but our prices are 1 or 2 cents ‘better’ than elsewhere”. It seems to me there must be a market for this ‘bargain basement’ approach to the industry, but our aim has always been to differentiate our product based on the quality of the experience the player receives when they play with us.

SBR WG: So, your goal is to offer VIP treatment for EVERY player? What’s VIP treatment in this industry?
Alistair: The first, and I think the most important, issue here is to note that overall – frankly – this industry suffers from a lack of consistent, supra-national regulation; in no small measure due to the reticence of the American lawmakers to reflect on this and work with the industry – in stark contrast with leading countries such as Curacao, the United Kingdom, Alderney and others – who all work diligently to protect players’ interests. In general then, this means that the number one priority for every player should be to ensure his/her funds are safe when sent offshore. Hardly “VIP” in itself – but an important reminder. To us at VIP, we believe that every player should be treated as an individual, and we go to great lengths to listen to our customers through feedback surveys, questionnaires and just asking questions when they contact us. Our staff are highly trained in Service Skills, and these skills are developed with ongoing internal and external training during the quieter Summer months. In summary, it is very simple – if each time a customer contacts us they leave feeling that we handled them effectively, professionally and competently, then we will both win. This is a model that has proven successful for us, to the point that more than a third of all new accounts now come as referrals from existing players – and we offer some great incentives to our players to tell their friends about their experiences with us too.

Finally, we respect loyalty in our players. This year we have totally revamped our player Loyalty Program to reflect the continued patronage of our longest standing customers, and we have created a tiered system to reward our players based on the level and length of their time with us. This program allows us to give great gifts and promotions to our loyal customers, as well as some exciting incentives for new players to come along and try us out.

SBR WG: O.K… so these bonus packages, constant promotions and various perks… how can your model be profitable, despite of them? What type of players are you trying to target with your model of business?
Alistair: As I have described, in general our business is set up to target the gambler who does not consider his gambling to be his main source of income. In fact, it is possibly not even his primary leisure activity. We do not discriminate on wager size – in fact our online limits are as high as anyone I believe starting at $5,000 a side for NFL for example – and we do not look to get players who are wagering their last few dollars on an outside hope. The typical VIP player is a college educated, high income earning individual – probably male – of between 20 and 40 years of age, who is wagering on a few games each week for relatively small stakes. Our average wager, including parlays and exotics, is around $55 in football season – and we welcome all players of all sizes into our mix.

Our promotions are heavily weighted to rewarding our players for their loyalty, and in doing so we are able to ensure that the benefits of these promotions are felt by the people who most deserve them – our players. Low juice specials, and referral incentives are there to appeal to regular players and we firmly believe that this is philosophically right as well.

SBR WG: We understand you have always paid big winners promptly, but it’s also a known fact that you limit professional action. What’s your take regarding bettors playing “middles”?
Alistair: We do always pay players promptly – that is indeed something very much at the core of our service philosophy. As a player, it is your money, and you have the right to have access to it promptly at all times – indeed more promptly in most cases than going to a bank to get it!

As I have stated, we are not actively seeking players for whom gambling is a primary source of income – they have particular needs not consistent with those of the majority our players, whose interests we must keep at heart.

As a company. we have no particular position on middles as such; this type of play usually involves legitimately exploiting differences in prices between companies – I was a commodity broker for several years, and I made my money doing it there – same principle, different environment! That said, in all honesty players who only wish to exploit these arbitrage opportunities may well find that other sites serve them better, and we do on occasion (though much less frequently that perceived) lower player’s limits to reduce the amount by which they can take advantage of the differences that arise. We very rarely actually have to close down a player’s account – and in the unlikely event that we do, the funds are sent promptly in every case.

SBR WG: Alistair, the VIP group recently launched BetEuro.com. What’s your game-plan with this new approach to the European market? How do you plan to compete in this long-established market, such as Europe, when there are shops like BetFair.com (sports exchanges) out there?
Alistair: Beteuro marks the next phase in our strategy of offering relevant products to different markets. This site offers a sportsbook and casino focused on events of interest to people in Europe – it accepts the Euro as its standard currency, and so far the growth has been explosive. Our approach is fresh I believe because of our dedication to player satisfaction and service – something that has been lacking until now in the European market. Since we launched VIPsoccer.com back in 2000, we have been learning much about this market, and our new site is structured to be language focused, rather than geographically arranged, to account for the different languages and interests of the different markets. Europe is a complex patchwork of different interest groups with different needs, and we are well placed to offer a product of relevance to a great proportion of the population there – many of whom have never gambled on the Internet before.

SBR WG: After this move, what are your plans of expansion? What’s your take regarding Asia?
Asia is an area we have watched closely for some time. We have made a few small inroads to this market – enough to know that even more so than Europe, Asia is a series of very disparate markets – often with very divergent interests. There is no doubt that in general it is a region where the populations gamble considerably, and we are now evaluating various strategic opportunities to allow us to grow our presence there in the months and years ahead. For now, we are strongly focused on our product itself rather than specific geographic regions. We launch our online poker product this month and expect that to generate significant interest as we refine it based on the feedback from our players. Our sites will be available in multiple languages, and multiple currencies by the year end, and at this point we will be well positioned to offer our service to punters in all areas of the world – whatever their interest!

SBR WG: Thanks Alistair… throw us a bone here… What kind of NFL season are you expecting this year? A good one for the players?
Alistair: NFL season – and the few weeks running up to it – are always the most exciting times of year at VIP. This year we have spent considerable time and effort on staff training initiatives, as well as upgrading our telephone and Internet infrastructure. We’re looking forward to seeing a record season in terms of the number of wagers placed – and we expect them to come from more players than ever before. As to how it goes for the players individually, that remains very much in the hands of the teams themselves and despite what some conspiracy theorists may believe, we genuinely have no control over the outcome of any sporting event – with the possible exception of the Beach Volleyball competition held here annually, which we hope to win ourselves!

SBR WG: Thank you very much for your time and good disposition, Alistair.
Alistair: It is my pleasure – and please pass on my best wishes to all your readers that they will pick the winners this season too!

This Interview with Alistair Assheton -CEO of VIP Sports- is part of the series of interviews by the SBR team. The questions are posted by SBR Will Gatten, an industry expert.

Will Gatten: SBR Senior Analyst and General Manager
Once the Marketing Director of a major sportsbook, Will now uses his knowledge of this industry and his understanding of business models to help players make an educated decision.

Bron: SBR

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