A full-blown February ICE at London’s Excel Arena was a more than welcome return to normality for all concerned. The industry’s premier international event was, as anticipated, a vast spectacular, brilliantly showcasing all that is exciting about the global gambling world.
The published numbers are outstanding – more than 50,000sqm of show space was a record breaker, as was the number of unique visitors, at 40,000+ and passing the previous record by some 4,000. And, with the number of visitor days, which measures repeat visits, topping 79,000 the importance of the event cannot be overstated.
In terms of the split of visitors, the balance was very even, with 50% of attendees working in both land-based and online sectors, with the remaining 50% operating solely in the online space.
Stuart Hunter, Managing Director of organisers Clarion Gaming, is also super-positive about the future, saying that “Significantly, more than 80% of the available stand space for the 2024 edition was re-booked by 1600 hours on Thursday (the final day of the 2023 edition).”
All in all, a fantastic achievement by organisers, exhibitors and conference and seminar contributors alike, with the aisles, meeting rooms and concourse a relentless buzz of activity from start to finish.
A more detailed appraisal of the exhibition itself will follow in our next issue, including more specific feedback from exhibitors. But for now, we take a more general approach to the subject of ICE…
It all began in what was a ‘tent’
Having exhibited at, reported on and casually attended more than 25 editions of what the ‘old school’ used to refer to as ‘the London show’, I have witnessed the growth of ICE from its beginnings as an extremely odd ‘tent’ in the middle of the floor of the original amusements show at Earls Court, to the remarkable spectacular it is today. Back then, in the early 1990s, the ATEI (Amusements Trade Exhibition International) was itself a large event, effectively controlled by the UK trade association, BACTA. The floor was dominated by the coin-operated amusements sector, ranging from the soft gaming AWP manufacturers, through video game giants like Sega and Namco, to all the components and ancillary suppliers and even a sprinkling of parks and rides providers. It felt massive at the time, but times have indeed changed.
At that time, the land-based casino companies were barely involved, and were almost an afterthought. Sports betting was a retail product, with little widespread B2B activity, and, of course, there was no such thing as online gaming. As mentioned, the first incarnation of ‘harder’ gaming at the show was a dedicated marquee, erected in the centre of the ATEI and, to be frank, looking rather odd. This ‘tent’ contained the prominent slots and table game manufacturers and various supporting suppliers. But, as the saying goes, “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”
Rapid expansion and the arrival of online gaming
These monolithic companies within the land-based sector don’t really do ‘small’, and so the casino exhibition expanded rapidly, first moving to a larger dedicated space upstairs in Earls Court and eventually becoming the more dominant sector, resulting in the move to Excel and the separation of the two events into what is now the much smaller EAG in January and the vast ICE in early February.
This expansion was hugely accelerated by the birth and growth of the online gaming and betting sectors and today, it would be fair to say that it is now the land-based sector’s turn to look across the halls as their younger online colleagues evolve into the ‘big hitters’ in the industry. Many traditionalists have joined the party, of course, but there is little doubt where the greatest future potential lies. Ironically, this growth that was inevitable anyway has been accelerated by a global pandemic that forced millions to stay at home for months on end.
And so, here we are. Still heading to London once a year to experience all that is new and exciting in global gambling, meet the people who matter to us and witnessing what is continuous growth and diversification.
And it just keeps getting bigger and better
In terms of the event itself, the ‘Wow!’ factor never diminishes. Each year, the new products get more creative, the exhibitors get more diverse, the additions to the programme get more varied and credible and the entire experience becomes more informative and more eye-opening.
The only downside, if there is one, is that from the perspective of people like ourselves, and possibly even exhibitors, relentless growth brings with it a ridiculous workload. When I arrived at the show, first thing on Tuesday morning, I was greeted by our Sales Director, Tatiana, who presented me with her schedule. This consisted of back-to-back meetings, every 30 minutes, for the entire three days. She also gave me a list of separate people for me to see because she did not have the time.
And whilst one answer to this might be to recruit more people, the problem with that is that these were people she wanted to see herself, so she was frustrated. And adding more time is not the answer, as the final day of the show – of almost any show – is always noticeably quieter on the floor. That said, having too much to get done is far better than having too little, so this is not really a complaint.
The fact is that we, hopefully like you, enjoyed a magnificent if exhausting three days. We met some amazing people, some stunning companies and saw some outstanding product and service developments. The ambition and creativity across this industry is incredible and we must all have so much to follow up on as we plan the coming weeks and months.
A rising tide lifts all the boats
Finally, a couple more personal observations, one serious and one less so.
Firstly, going back to the ‘old school’ times and an observation of how attitudes have so radically and positively moved on. Back then, the business appeared more aggressively competitive. On the show floor, although not in the evenings, the land-based companies demonstrated open rivalry, and when exhibiting, visiting the stands of competitors felt like an awkward and unwelcome experience.
This is in total contrast to the newer and fresher online sector. Here, the philosophy appears far more collaborative, with the widespread view that a successful development by any one company actually benefits everybody, and embracing one another’s successes seems far more common. This attitude that ‘a rising tide lifts all the boats’ creates a far more pleasant industry environment and, to me, makes perfect sense.
Secondly, let us praise the Docklands area of London, and how it has improved even in the relatively short period since ICE moved out there. The Elizabeth Line is an absolute dream, as anyone who has used it to travel in and out of the centre of the city must surely agree. But for me, the humour this year came from my hotel situation. I booked late, my own fault, and was pleasantly surprised to find somewhere close by that wasn’t too extortionately priced.
My amusing hotel anecdote
In the earlier 2000s, a former employer of mine had a satellite office at Canary Wharf. Back then, The Britannia Hotel was new and high-end, and I was happy to be booked in there last week. So when I walked in on Tuesday evening, truly shattered having risen at 5:00am to travel, spent a full day at the show and keen to relax before heading to the Natural History Museum for the amazing London Baby event, my expectations were somewhat dulled by the welcome. The bar was full of construction workers in full workwear, all working on the Novotel directly opposite, and when I grabbed a well-earned beer one of these boys told me he was on ‘Prozzie-Watch’… For the uninitiated, a ‘Prozzie’ is a hooker, and a favourite haunt for the local ladies of the night is now – apparently – the reception and bar area at The Britannia Hotel. Some of you may make a note of this for next year, me I made straight for my room and ran a hot bath!
ICE 2023, you were amazing! Note to Self: Book hotel earlier and choose carefully.