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Rank closes sites as smoking ban hits bingo 15/02/2007
Simon Bowers Thursday February 15, 2007

Rank, the gambling group, is to close another nine of its bingo halls, taking the number shut in an 11-month period to 15. Bingo revenues in Scotland are down 15% since the introduction of a ban on indoor smoking last March. The impact on profits, estimated to be about 25%, will be revealed with Rank's full-year figures next month. The smoking ban spreads to Wales and England this spring and summer. The group is talking to regulators about licensing outdoor "bingo gardens" for smokers to continue playing. The company is hoping to relocate some of the 230 staff affected by the closures.

The bingo club where Prince William paid a surprise visit last year is to close down as part of a wider plan by Rank Group to mitigate the impact of the smoking ban on its Mecca chain.

The Mecca Bingo Club in Reading, where the Prince and a group of fellow cadets took a break from their army training at Sandhurst in October, is one of ten clubs being closed by Rank with the loss of more than 250 jobs.

The company said that eight of the clubs earmarked for closure, including one in Fulham, are former cinemas. They were smaller and more difficult to manage than the new generation of large flat-floor venues that bingo operators increasingly concentrate on.

A spokesman said that whereas about 50 per cent of Mecca’s customers were smokers, the proportion was as high as 70 per cent in some of those being closed. “The former cinemas tend to have poor ventilation, which creates a smokey atmosphere that makes nonsmokers less likely to go.”

He said that some of the clubs, six of which are freeholds, had a high alternative-use value, while some, including those in Sheffield and Hull, were close to other Mecca venues. “Some of these would have closed anyway. It’s simply good estate management.”

The club in Hounslow, near Heathrow, closed last weekend after its sale to Goldcrest Homes, the housebuilder, for a rumoured £3 million. The others to shut are in Islington, North London, Hull, Liverpool, Swansea, Welling and Wolver-hampton.

The company, which in September announced 200 job losses at Mecca, saving £10 million, said that, where possible, it would try to redeploy staff to some of its other clubs, limiting the number of redundancies. It did not expect the closures to have a material impact on the group’s financial position; analysts estimated a hit of no more than £1 million on its 2007 operating profits.

After the closures announced yesterday, Mecca will remain Britain’s second-biggest bingo operator behind Gala Coral, which has 175 Gala Bingo venues around the country. Neil Goulden, Gala Coral’s chief executive, said that although the group constantly reviewed its estate, it had no plans to follow Mecca’s lead in closing any clubs because of the impending smoking ban. It also plans to apply for gaming licences to allow punters to play games while they are having a cigarette in enclosed outside areas.