Number Four, Shock and Awe

Mecca Bingo, York Street, credit Wikipedia

Number Four, Shock and Awe

Bill Hartley in bingo world

They say all roads lead to Mecca but in Leeds you first have to go through the bus station. Location is a key feature with Mecca Bingo, most of whose 76 locations in Britain tend to be conveniently situated for public transport. The one in Bradford, for example, boasts that it is served by seven bus routes. Of late the name has been shortened simply to Mecca and though bingo is the core activity it’s now a broader gambling experience. For example, buy a breakfast and it comes with ten free goes on the ‘slots’. The Mecca experience really does start that early in the day, with the first eyes down at 11.00 am and that breakfast can be brought to your table.

The name dates back to the 1930s when the company started out running nightclubs and dance halls. In the 1990s it was sold to Rank and is now of sufficient significance that via a Google search, the name is to be found just below the other Mecca. Over a million people are said to make this version of the hajj each year and the company also operates in Spain and Belgium. Moving with the times, another revenue stream is digital. WhichBingo gave this version an award for best customer service.

In fact, customer service is the first thing the visitor becomes aware of when entering a Mecca establishment. It is members only, though this needn’t trouble the newcomer, since there is no preliminary of proposing and seconding here. A bit of form filling and a credit card size piece of plastic is issued within minutes of arrival. Beyond the front desk the visitor enters a soft, calm, windowless world. First though it’s necessary to navigate past the sentries: an array of slot machines where the users play with rapt concentration. Ladies of pensionable age wander from machine to machine, trying their luck. Banknotes can be easily exchanged for coins, without moving more than a few feet. The further one goes into the building the greater the sense of entering a cosy place. The Leeds establishment is large with a high ceiling but still manages to feel welcoming. Much of this is due to the people who work there. If the shortage of staff in care homes continues, then job applicants with Mecca on their CVs should be prioritised. Or at least the company could be asked to provide a staff training programme. There is a complete absence of condescension; staff treat customers as friends and generate a sense of common purpose. A rough calculation during a Saturday lunchtime visit to the Leeds Mecca gave an estimate of 150 people in the place. It is probably a lot more when the evening games are in operation.

Everything is geared up to being safe and welcoming and is designed to keep members on the premises for as long as possible. Slots can be played for 10p a spin and a session of bingo, depending upon the time of day, can cost as little as £2. The food is basic but reasonably priced, with snacks costing under £5 and a main menu where most items can be had for less than £10. As with that breakfast, there’s no need to leave your table. Alternatively, members can avoid the troublesome business of having to locate a member of staff to order food, by scanning their phones or going to the website. Additionally the Leeds Mecca has several bars dotted about the place and the best bargain is a pitcher of four pints of lager for £10. There are various spirits to be had (two for £5) or a bottle of the ‘house’ wine for £11.00. Cocktails aren’t overlooked but there is no Casino Royale style barman to mix one. Instead they are available on tap. In short, eating and drinking is very cheap at Mecca and in common with other gambling establishments, there are no clocks in the place to remind people about the passage of time.

After that first eyes down Mecca remains open until 10.30 or 11 in the evening. Customers can even pre book their tables in advance of arrival. The clientele is overwhelmingly white, working class and female. Most are elderly and the prices seem to be set for those living on a state pension. Since they come in significant numbers, even during the middle of the day, the business model seems to be low price-low profit margin, with a high turnover; all customer needs being met on the premises, so they only need to leave when it is time to go home. Judging by Mecca’s profits the model is working well.

Overall, Mecca seems designed to provide a safe haven from the outside world, particularly for the elderly, who can arrive by public transport and enjoy a few hours of fun among kindred spirits. Its a case of number eight, heaven’s gate. Although it might be sacrilegious to make comparisons with churchgoing, there is something pulpit-like about the positioning of the caller high above the tables. Interestingly this job is usually done by a man. He has the rapt attention of those below as he calls out the numbers and for those who may be hard of hearing they also appear on an electronic board. No-one will be left behind by the speed of the process. Absolute silence prevails as the numbers are called out and there is an air of tension, broken abruptly, when someone announces they have won.

With a clientele which is overwhelmingly female and elderly, how will the business be sustained? Some younger women do go and even a few men but hardly in sufficient numbers. Perhaps the future lies online where younger people can play anonymously. Interestingly given the current obsession with expunging anything that may be deemed racist or colonialist, the name Mecca remains proudly in place. There was an incident a few years ago in Luton. Some Muslims objected to the name being used when an outpost was established in the town. However, after a few broken windows the fuss died down. Incidentally Luton gives a good idea of the scale of Mecca operations. Here, the building can accommodate 1033 people and has 160 bingo ‘terminals’. Further to the Islamic theme, the majority shareholder in Mecca is based in Malaysia. Given that this is a predominantly Muslim country, it’s good to know that they can live with this use of the name.

William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service 

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