SkyCity is luring Tauranga pensioners to its Hamilton casino with a free bus and cheap meals. A cynical corporate targeting the vulnerable or a helpful social service?
In the end, the bus wasn't big enough. The 48-seater coach arrived at Mt Maunganui at 9am, ready for a 9.30am departure, and already a group of elderly people were waiting. One couple, pensioners who admitted they were problem gamblers, had travelled from their home in central Tauranga, even though the bus stops in the city. They wanted to make sure they got seats.
By the time the coach made its third and final pick-up, in Greerton, the seats were all taken and people were turned away.
"Is it anyone's first time?" the driver asked. Only a couple raised their hands. "If you lose all your money, we'll give you a free ride home." He may have been joking but, as it turned out, plenty of those on board blew their cash.
Welcome aboard the pokie bus, SkyCity's service from Tauranga to the Hamilton casino. It began a couple of years ago as a once-a-week service, but proved so popular, it now goes twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, and, if it's really busy, two buses are used.
It seems Tauranga's large number of pensioners are keeping the service running – free buses offered in Auckland and Rotorua were discontinued because of lack of uptake – attracted back with vouchers for free meals in the casino's Vue Bar. Last Wednesday, almost everyone on board was above pension age.
SkyCity says no-one is obliged to gamble when they get to Hamilton, or even go inside the casino, but the driver told passengers there had been "problems" in the past with people using the bus as a free ride to Hamilton.
The Problem Gambling Foundation says it is another example of the "serious questions" that surround the host responsibility programmes of SkyCity, at a time when it is under intense scrutiny over the "pokies-for-convention centre" deal with the Government.
"Our concern is that this is targeting a vulnerable group of people, for whom the impacts of problem gambling are often more severe because of the limited incomes they have," foundation chief executive Graeme Ramsey said.
"I think it's a cynical commercial move."
But casino general manager Arthur Pitcher rubbished that. He said the free bus was put on because elderly customers who found it difficult to get to Hamilton had asked for it. "It's inspired by the people. I think it's quite patronising to suggest that pensioners don't know how to look after their money."
It was easy to spot the regular gamblers on Wednesday's bus – they had loyalty cards. Most on board had them. One man admitted he was using the bus to get to Hamilton for a business meeting, while a woman in her 80s said she planned to go shopping.
But when the coach arrived at the casino about 11.30am, most made a beeline for the ATM machines, Vue Bar for their free meal, and then to the pokies.
No one used the card tables, which lay empty. Some showed signs of being problem gamblers, staring intently at their machines as they pumped in $20 notes one after another. The Star-Times did a random audit and found that almost all of the 130 people playing the slots in the early afternoon were elderly.
One was on crutches, another was in a wheelchair, while one woman wheeled her oxygen tank from machine to machine.
At 3.45pm, everyone climbed back on board the bus for the return trip, and compared fortunes. One woman started with $100, got up to $200, but ended up losing the lot – "I've got a free ride home, so it doesn't matter" – while another finished $90 up and bought a new handbag.
For one couple, it was the third bus in a row they had caught, lured back by a couple of "big" wins of about $150.
But this time they lost everything they came with. They said the free bus and bigger jackpots than were available at their local venues was what brought them back.
"The casino's machines don't stop. The ones [in Tauranga], if you get a payout ... it stops at $500. At the casino it will just keep going," the man said. His wife said she considered herself a problem gambler, and had sought help in the past.
She was surprised SkyCity did not provide any information on problem gambling to people on the bus. "They should be doing more to help people."
One woman had used the bus to get to Hamilton to see her granddaughter, and put $5 in the pokies as a "token gesture". She said she "hummed and hawed" for a long time about using the bus because she did not believe in gambling.
She noticed that the driver handed out vouchers for free roast lunches on Sunday, and several people indicated they would return for that.
"I thought, `That's the carrot'. For people who were gambling, it's leading them back."
But Pitcher said none of the regular bus passengers had showed signs of being heavy, problem gamblers.
How does he know? "We have trained staff keeping an eye on everybody. None have showed signs of it. You've got slots in pubs and clubs five minutes from where they live, problem gambling people tend to be very isolated and not draw attention to themselves, you wouldn't jump on a bus once a week if you were a major problem gambler. These are social people, they enjoy the trip out."
Pitcher said criticism of a bus he arranged to take people from Timaru to the Christchurch casino in the 90s was firmly rebuffed by the elderly who used the service. "People said, 'Are we supposed to sit at home and wait to die? Aren't we allowed any fun'?"
He said the casino bus was no different from courtesy buses put on by pubs and clubs that also had slot machines.
But Ramsey said it was naive to think the service was harmless and that none of the passengers were problem gamblers, and it was worrying that no information on gambling harm was provided.
"Is it harmless? What you're doing is inducing people to go and gamble, that's the bottom line. We know that elderly people are a group who are particularly susceptible to developing issues with pokie machines. All organisations have a requirement to act in a socially responsible way and you have to question if this is a socially responsible initiative."
- Sunday Star Times