Sarah Hitchcock: Successful OLG link-up shows the way for Bede

Bede Gaming’s Sarah Hitchcock reflected on four years of working with OLG to build compelling digital products for the people of Ontario.
Image: Shutterstock

“The focus is on finding more operators with OLG’s way of thinking, that is those who put digital innovation at the heart of their growth strategy,” said Bede Gaming’s Sarah Hitchcock, as she reflected on four years of working with the government agency to build compelling digital products for the people of Ontario.

On a more general level, we discussed her dual role for the platform provider, and the Bede approach for moving a traditional lottery sector organisation away from legacy technology.  

We also go deeper into their work with Canada’s OLG, with Hitchcock explaining how Bede – in a little over a year – has worked closely with management and the OLG organisation to deliver a raft of firsts for OLG customers, from native apps for lottery and casino, to live casino and an online sportsbook.  

SBC: Thank you for talking to us. First of all, how has your role changed in recent times and what is now your key focus?

SH: When we were selected as OLG’s new digital partner, my role as EVP Bede Canada was to head up the transition and run our Canadian office. The focus was very much on building relationships with key stakeholders to facilitate the transition period and to support operational changes needed during this digital transformation. 

Since the launch of OLG’s new gaming platform, in October 2020, I have been executing a dual role by also acting as Chief Product Officer at Bede. This is to reflect our commitment to the continued development of OLG’s digital transformation, whilst also asserting the importance we place on giving great products and experiences to the customers of all our clients. 

Our key focus has, and will always be, creating cutting edge products for iGaming in whichever vertical operators are in. Lottery has always been a priority. It is the largest value sector but one that has been hindered by legacy technology and traditional processes. 

We are very selective in who we work with. Our partners must share our vision for excellence and this is why our work with OLG has been so transformative. They absolutely share the same vision. 

The focus is on finding more operators with OLG’s way of thinking. We’ll be concentrating on regulated markets in Europe and North America and looking to build upon the strong foundations laid with The Rank Group, OLG and – of course – the Gauselmann Group. 

SBC: Okay, so you mentioned OLG a few times. When did you actually onboard OLG? How long has that project been going?

SH: Bede’s focus with all customers, and potential customers, is about engagement, both to understand the project and the operator’s strategy and goals, but also to understand its people, who they are, and how they like to work. 

OLG, like many lotteries, is a state-owned organisation and is governed by rules and processes about how and when it can procure services. Bede has been engaged with OLG since 2017 when it ran an initial RFI, and culminated in Bede being selected as OLG’s new digital partner in 2018, replacing IGT. 

Since the very beginning, Bede and OLG have worked closely together to design and build a compelling digital product offering for the people in the Province of Ontario. It is this tight-knit partnership and support that is inspiring for everyone involved. Together we’ve built a fantastic lottery product and experience that players are really engaging with.  

Since launch, OLG has experienced transformational growth and we are extremely proud of our role in enabling this. But this is just the start; even in a little over a year, we have given their customers a number of firsts; native apps for lottery and casino, online sportsbook, live casino, lots of new games from new suppliers and multiple new product features to improve operational performance. 

SBC: Is it fair to say that your focus has become more about iLottery integration on the Bede platform?

SH: At Bede, we try not to think of the world in terms of product verticals or integration but of giving end user customers a great experience. For the lotteries themselves, the foundation of their offering is the lottery product, and Bede and OLG have a game changing roadmap of product development in the months and years to come. 

We’ve already launched some new digital lottery games, but are looking at the end to end user experience and how we can bring our experience and learnings from casino and sports to enhance lottery both in itself, but also across a portfolio of products.

Whilst lotteries are different to casinos and sports operators, their customers actually have a lot more in common than they might have originally considered. This is why Bede and OLG have built an integrated roadmap that transforms the lottery digital offering and experience, including a wide range of great new products. 

This is critical when you look at the evolving regulatory picture in the lottery sector. Whilst in Europe, many lotteries can offer a wider spectrum of products including sports and casino, in North America the picture is fast changing. In Canada, the provinces can all offer the full spectrum of gambling products, and now with support of single event wagering on sports they can really compete with the grey market operators. 

In the US, whilst Covid was certainly a handbrake on regulation, lotteries are witnessing first hand the importance of having a digital offering, and so over the coming years we expect to see significant advances in iLottery, as well as those that offer online sports and even some casino games. It will be essential for those lotteries to find a digital leader like Bede to partner with. 

SBC: Looking back on the integration for OLG; what were the major challenges?

SH: From a technical programme point of view, we had lots of experience of successfully delivering large, complex pieces of work, including new integrations and large scale data migrations, so we were well prepared and setup to deliver this part successfully. 

What was new for Bede was that OLG was our first lottery client, and first government organisation. They have to abide by different processes and governance structures. 

Whilst this was a learning curve, we installed a team of experienced leaders into OLG, so that we could work hand in hand with them and the local regulator (the AGCO), so that we could foster tight working relationships. All of this contributed to our success.

What we found was that there were key learnings and teachings from both sides. Whilst ours, as I’ve mentioned, was on the alignment with government structures and procedures and working closely with government officials; theirs was on becoming more agile, nimble and working in a cutting edge technical environment. We definitely grew together. 

This comes with its own challenges for a huge corporation like OLG but it was an important exercise and one which will stand them in good stead for the future. It isn’t just about the products but about pushing innovation throughout all departments in the business. So the integration has been hugely beneficial for both sides. We’ve both become stronger businesses as a result.

SBC: You were acquired by Gauselmann in March 2020. How important is it to convey the message that it is business as usual for Bede, even after becoming a part of such a huge gaming ecosystem?

SH: Becoming part of Gauselmann was a significant step in Bede’s story and maturity, and it offers us, our customers and our partners incredible opportunities to leverage different parts of the group. Gauselmann and its subsidiaries have a great reputation in the industry of being supportive B2B partners and it is this ethos that binds us. 

Our customers want to see that we are not only committed to them but continue to invest in giving them the best products and services for each market. Being part of Gauselmann lets us double down on this. As an example, through our contract with OLG, we were able to make it a lot quicker and easier for them to launch the market leading casino games from our sister content company, Blueprint.

Bede continues to win big deals across the world, and being part of Gauselmann will be one of the big contributing factors in that success. 

SBC: When it comes to lottery, how difficult is it to educate people about the synergy between online and retail? And how do you go about bridging the two?

SH: This question is a challenge in many sectors, and within ours, it is keenly felt not just in lottery, but in casino, bingo and sports betting. Retail has existed for over a hundred years and is the foundation of many operators’ success. Digital is a much newer vertical, which has only been around for a few decades, and for lottery, even less. 

Business is about understanding customers and giving them what they want, when they want it, and those that give them the most relevant offering will enjoy the most success. Covid has shown everyone that the vast majority of customers will go online, and of those most will remain, so operators have had to tear up the rulebook and accelerate their digital ambitions. 

Evidence shows though that it’s not about replacing retail with digital but about a combined experience, which focuses on convenience and on targeting. A good example of this is AmazonFresh; a retail store from a digital business, which recognises that customers do want to see and feel food products, but want it in a quick, frictionless way. 

It is no different for lottery retailers. Lots of customers still want to buy their lottery tickets in a shop, and it is for the lottery operators and their digital partners to work with retailers to use products and data to give those customers the right bets, games and experiences at that time, as well as rewarding them for their loyalty. 

SBC: Everyone is talking about the US market; what will be at the centre of your strategy for the US? What will be the Bede Gaming USP?

SH: From Bede’s perspective, we are looking at the US as part of a wider North American strategy, with OLG being the first big part of that. We are continually talking to a large number of potential operators across the region. 

The US is definitely experiencing an explosion of activity including significant M&A, and it clearly has huge potential, but whilst we are witnessing a massive land grab, it will take at least another five years in my opinion to level out and for most to achieve profit. 

Many of the first movers in the US, and most of the current participants in the US are using digital platforms ill equipped to deal with both the complexity of 20-30 similar but different regulations, coupled with the performance needs of each of those. This is where Bede is different, and why when coupled with our experience of delivering across digital and retail, we expect to succeed. 

SBC: And let’s also discuss Canada; you’ve mentioned Ontario and the work hub you have over there; how do you scale up your services across the country?

SH: The Canadian market is changing, faster now than at any time before. The provincial lotteries have experienced stellar online growth, we have seen the regulation of single event wagering on sports, and now the Ontario market is being opened up, which could be the precursor to regulation elsewhere. 

It is very exciting, and whilst the opening up in Ontario could be seen as a potential threat to OLG’s position, we, and they see it as a huge opportunity. The grey market has been able to offer a much broader range of content but without the restrictions. In the  levelling out of the market, we see the trust Ontarians have in OLG helping good causes in the province as being a core differentiator. 

That coupled with the variety of first class, engaging content OLG now offers and the reaction time OLG now possesses, we’re all excited about the future. It’s a safer, enjoyable environment to play, so any competition only enables further innovation in this entertainment space.

Being at the forefront of technology and digital in Toronto is where we want to be. With all eyes on this, I expect Bede to continue to lead the way, both in Ontario and beyond. 

SBC: What might the shift in the market mean for the demands OLG puts on you as their gaming provider? Can you preempt how that might change?

SH: The changing regulatory landscape is part and parcel of our industry, across all sectors and geographies, and a significant part of our plans and products are designed to preempt and react to this. OLG’s decision to change digital partner to Bede was to be able to rapidly respond and provide the digital products and experiences that Ontarians would love. That is as true now as it will be once the market opens. 

Of course the dynamics of the market will change, with previously grey operators becoming licensed, but as I said before, we think this will be of benefit to OLG as the market levels out, and as we have been seen in other markets, you simply can’t put a price on the trust Ontarians have in the OLG brand. When coupled with OLG’s unique position on providing the lottery, and their unparalleled retail estate, this gives customers the only destination where they can play on all product verticals.  

SBC: Finally, you mentioned your dream of becoming the major lottery provider in Canada and how that connects on a provincial level, but let’s look a little more short-term – what would constitute a successful 2022 for Bede?

SH: Bede is currently working on a wide range of exciting projects with new and existing customers, as well as continuing to invest and innovate in the platform, our products and services.

In North America, for OLG we will continue to roll out game changing product launches and features over the coming months, and explore new opportunities where they arise.

In Europe, we have recently launched in the UK with Eyas Gaming, as well as having migrated the GameOn Media brands onto the Bede platform, and the early performance metrics are really encouraging. As we move into 2022, we have a great roadmap of deliverables for our European brands into existing and new markets.

Bede has never been in better health, with a great portfolio of customers, great relationships with key partners and a product that is unrivalled in the marketplace. We’re no longer a new unproved contender in the market, we’re here, we’re thriving and it’s because our platform is the future of safe, engaged gaming.