22 January 2021

Resurgent casino still hoping to redevelop site

| Ian Bushnell
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Casino Canberra

Casino Canberra says business is back to pre-COVID trading levels. Photo: File.

Canberra’s casino is restoring its fortunes after COVID-19 dealt it a horror hand last year, slashing revenue in half for the first six months of 2020.

COVID-19 restrictions forced the casino, along with other hospitality venues, to close for around five months from March to August.

Casino owner Aquis Entertainment has told the Australian Stock Exchange that a strong December quarter saw trading levels return to pre-COVID levels, to the point where it no longer qualifies for the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper subsidy program. JobKeeper payments to the casino ceased on 4 January.

It posted a first-half loss of $2.6 million, despite receiving $1.6 million in wage subsidies towards a payroll bill of $2.18 million and a refund of almost $1 million for gaming licence fees from the ACT Government.

The casino received $1.4 million in Commonwealth grants during the September quarter, mostly JobKeeper wage subsidies.

The casino maintained a skeleton staff during its closure. It recalled most of its 235 employees who had been stood down without pay when it reopened in August. JobKeeper subsidies were paid from 28 September to 3 January.

CEO Allison Gallaugher said all casino staff were now back at work and the business was operating under the government’s one in four square metre rule which allows 505 patrons on site.

Ms Gallaugher did not mention the impact ongoing international border closures and loss of tourists will have on the business.

The company’s December quarter report, which should show the improvement in trade, is due later this month.

The casino last year had to rebuff claims from the United Workers Union that it was misusing the JobKeeper scheme by forcing staff to take annual leave.

It said then that it had negotiated agreements with some staff with large leave balances, and JobKeeper would mean casino employees would have a job to come back to.

Last year was a tough one for the casino with the unravelling of a complex sale to Blue Whale Entertainment that included plans to revamp the venue and continue pursuing development plans in the precinct, which was considered vital to the future of the business.

Aquis told the ASX in March 2020 that was still hoping to redevelop the prime city site and was in talks with the government. Then COVID-19 hit, putting the casino’s plans on ice.

The government has said it remains open to proposals but probably smaller than the company’s original $330 million unsolicited bid the government rejected in 2018, but the ball is in Aquis’s court.

Ms Gallaugher has confirmed redevelopment is still on the agenda and talks are continuing.

In 2019, the casino was posting losses amid falling revenue due to fewer overseas high rollers coming to Canberra but Aquis had embarked on cost-cutting, a staff restructure and an overhaul of its VIP program that it said in March 2020 was bearing fruit.

It took heart from increased revenues and less volatility in the second half of 2019 and predicted this to continue and stabilise over the coming year, just before the pandemic forced the business to shut its doors.

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