Saved by Bingo

Born in Ayr, a town immortalised in the Robert Burns poem ‘Tam o Shanter’, according to which it is the home of ‘honest men and bonnie lassies’, Shaun Gibson Operations Director for Carlton Bingo was initially set for a career in accountancy, when a very different numbers based business stepped in and saved him.

Growing up in 1970s Ayr with his elder sister, Shaun’s first school, Forehill Primary, presented no opportunities to misbehave, thanks to the fact that his mother was a teacher at the school. Any bad behaviour or poor conduct was quickly reported back. While many of his wider family were fishermen, Shaun’s father broke with tradition and became one of the very earliest computer consultants, when computing by modern day standards was in its infancy.

Shaun did not share his father’s interest in IT but he did share his love of the accordion, which he started to learn at the age of seven, initially playing the piano accordion before progressing to the much more complex button accordion. This and a love of sport, both as a participant and spectator, have delivered a variety of overseas travel and memorable experiences.

“I used to be a keen sportsman playing football, volleyball, squash and rugby. I have always had a keen interest in sport right from my first school days. Although my playing days are behind me, I now watch on TV and occasionally swing a golf club, helping to support golf ball manufacturers in the process!” Shaun said.

While the Irish football team have led him around West Coast America and the Scottish rugby team to Paris and Rome, his accordion playing abilities have seen him touring France, Germany and parts of Canada.

“I do enjoy watching sport and combining this with visiting places. I followed Ireland around the USA West Coast on a rare occasion Scotland did not qualify for a World cup. I have also been to Paris and Rome when Scotland have been playing rugby. I also used to play the accordion with a fiddle orchestra and toured France, Germany and parts of Canada which was a fantastic experience.”

Having made the decision to pursue a career in finance, Shaun attended Glasgow University to study accountancy, feeling that a life in audit, with balance sheets and profit and loss statements was his calling. Sport remained a passion while at uni and saw him become Captain of the University’s volleyball team, a sports connection that presented another international connection, this time with Russia.

As Captain of the volleyball team Shaun was involved in the hosting of the first ever visit of a volleyball team from Russia. Language was no barrier as the Russian team came equipped with their own ample supply of vodka, which they were only too happy to share with their hosts, the night prior to the match.

Now whether this act was one of selflessness and done in the ‘spirit’ of friendship, or a conscious premeditated act of sabotage no one is able to say for sure. Nor could any conclusions be reached about the abilities and sporting prowess of the teams. However, what this historic moment in East-West cultural exchanges did demonstrate, as evidenced by the results of the following day’s match, is that the Russian Team’s ability to handle large quantities of alcohol far surpassed that of the Scottish team, who were left to nurse hangovers and a humiliating defeat.

It was while at university that Shaun secured a part-time job as a supermarket shelf stacker. “I started stacking shelves at Safeway (now Morrisons) to help pay my way through university. I have always said that I could yet end up back there at some stage, when the Bingo career has run its course, but not just yet!”

As his accountancy course came to an end Shaun started to consider his next move. Safeway was not appealing and accountancy, after studying it for three years, had lost some of its glow.

“After my course had finished I had no burning sense of direction and I was not as sure of accountancy as I had been when leaving school. I saw a job advertised for the leisure industry, stating at 11am. To my uni conditioned body clock this seemed ideal!

“Turned out that the role was with Mecca Bingo. So, as many people have said before, I thought let’s give this a try for a bit. The ‘bit’ has lasted thirty-one years and I’m still in it!”

Shaun’s first steps in the bingo industry started as a trainee manager at Mecca Bingo Rosyth, before moving on to Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow, including a brief stint with Gala (now Buzz). In 1997 he joined Carlton Bingo as a general manger, initially in Whitley Bay (which was his first GM position), then Hartlepool, Livingston and Dunfermline. 2015 saw him move away from being club based into an operations role.

“I am currently Operations Director with Carlton Bingo, a role I took up in April 2022 after Carlton became the first bingo company to become an employee-owned business, which was an exciting process to be involved with.

“Bingo has afforded me the chance to meet and work with so many great people and characters, customers, staff and other operators. It is a unique business and has certainly changed over the years, but what has always remained constant is the community aspect. I did have the opportunity back in 2014 to be one of the hosts for the National Bingo Game’s VIP Cruise, which took 130 winners round the Med for a week, all expenses paid. It didn’t matter which club the winners came from, they all had a great time together.

“I believe this was highlighted during lockdown when you could see hundreds of comments on Facebook about how much bingo customers missed their local club and the social contact that bingo provided for them. Just ask the government how many of our customers emailed them when we asked for their help in our campaign for equal support for the bingo sector. They responded in their thousands!

“Since lockdown putting fun back into bingo and building community has been a key activity and not just through games and events funded by the clubs. Many players view their involvement with their club as much, if not more, about social than the bingo. Carlton had been looking at activities, away from the club, paid for by customers but organised by club. Criag Oliver, GM at Dunfermline is taking players away for weekends. In May 2024 200 players are off to Blackpool, with a full schedule of activity, and will be taking over an entire hotel. Each place paid for by the player.

“More recently we have been extremely pleased to see the increasing numbers of younger customers joining our clubs. During a period of rising costs, I believe bingo is seen as a value for money leisure activity by all age groups. You can play bingo, have a meal and enjoy a drink for £20.

“Appealing to a wide variety of age groups can be a challenge but people love the core product, and combining this with new fun late-night shows, along with more traditional events, makes it more appealing and accessible.

“We (bingo clubs) are seen as a safe, friendly and fun environment by customers and getting that message out to a wider audience is the next challenge we need to overcome.”

While a return to contact sports, at least as a participant, is not on the horizon, golf and accordion playing are. Having had his button accordion tuned, partner Kerry, who he met at bingo over fifteen years ago, is hoping that golf remains the primary appeal! While not a pro at the stick and ball game, Shaun helps colleague Stephen Morrisson with Carlton’s Annual Charity Golf Day – a great day out and a good excuse for operators to get together and raise money.

As he contemplates whether or not a return to Safeway (Morrisons) will ever actually happen, Shaun is currently being distracted by the arrival of a new Springer Spaniel puppy called Snoopy. Despite this and the tuned accordion waiting in the corner he still finds time for the occasional game of bingo.

“I do enjoy a game of bingo and recently went back to the Edinburgh Cappy (my second ever club), which brought back some good memories and I won which, as we all know, is not essential to a good night out at bingo but always helps!”