The only way is Wirral

Despite the Wirral Peninsula being part of the Liverpool City Region, the River Mersey provides not only a physical divide but a psychological one too between what many Liverpudlians see as the ‘real’ scousers and ‘Woolybacks’, who live across the water.

As a lifelong Woolyback, born, bred, still residing and never left, Cheryl Gifford, Mecca Bingo’s Marketing Director, is possibly the poster child for the ‘only way is Wirral’. An ardent fan of the area, Cheryl also has a great love for the city of Liverpool, as it was there that her family settled three generations ago when they came over from Ireland.

“Liverpool is such a great city and has so much to offer: Eurovision took place there earlier this month and the biggest contemporary arts festival in the UK, the Liverpool Biennial is back this June. I love it.” Cheryl said, “But I am not sure I can ever leave the Wirral.”

Born in Bebington, forty something years ago, where her mum was also born and still lives with her dad (another Bebington native), Cheryl attended Wirral Grammar School. Early work experience included the usual paper round, sweeping up in a hairdressers and a stint at the local shop. When it came time to enter the word of work full-time, bingo was not even on her horizon, let alone radar, as an option. Instead, a life of law enforcement called.

Cheryl knew that she needed a job and waiting on police recruitment might just take longer than she wanted to wait. So, it was back to retail, but this time Tesco and not too long after she moved in with husband to be, John.

After three years with Tesco Cheryl knew she wanted a change and spotted that Mecca were recruiting for their new club in Birkenhead, “I thought it would get me out of Tesco and that it would probably only be for a year, but I got hooked. As all of us in the industry know, once you do bingo, it’s hard to go back. And yes, it was the people: Team Members and customers that made, and make it, the place for me to be.”

Starting as a Customer Service Manager at the age of 20, with no experience of bingo Cheryl got to see exactly what made the club tick. “I started in 1997 at Mecca Birkenhead and became an Operations Manager in 2005, with a stint at Ellesmere Port, before becoming a Trainee General Manger (GM).

“As a trainee GM I worked in Hyde Road (Manchester), Crewe and Stoke, before taking my first GM role in Mecca Sale in around 2008: I still have really fond memories of my time at the Sale club, now sadly no more, and learnt so much, working with a really great team.”

Having moved to Sale as a GM, Cheryl’s next clubs were Oldham and Blackpool.

“I was lucky in respect of the clubs I worked in, both as a trainee and GM,” Cheryl continued, “and always managed to go to clubs that were within commuting distance of home. Fortunately, I like driving, which is no bad thing really!”

The demands of long commutes enabled Cheryl to remain Wirral based, close to friends, family, beautiful countryside and beaches, and the town she loves. Something of a bonus when three years on from marrying John in 2000, son Joe arrived.

“Our wedding was such a special day. I know everyone says that, but we were able to be married at Christ Church in Port Sunlight, which is only ten minutes away from Bebington and has an extremely long aisle, over 150 feet long. Amazing to walk down on your big day.

“I learnt a lot in those GM years, about business, life, and myself! It’s funny how the instincts and characteristics we are born with surface somehow and reveal themselves, whatever you end up doing.

“The real revelation for me was delivering my best friend’s baby, not intentionally but out of pure necessity. I had agreed to be on call when the time came close, as her husband (who is lovely!) is not particularly organised or good under pressure. I got the call and was there within 30 minutes, by which time things had progressed substantially and quite unexpectedly.

“My friend’s mother phoned the hospital while I remained with the mother-to-be, trying to keep her calm. Instructions were relayed and shouted as to how to proceed, as it became very apparent that no ambulance was ever going to make it in time. The instructions were vague, and it was closer to an instructive ‘guide and catch’ situation than instructed delivery. Good training for many a work project!

“As anticipated the husband was useless, and in the middle of all this my friend turns to me and says, ‘I knew it would be alright, I could see you had gone into manager mode’!

A relatively brief stint as an Area Manager for the Midlands, where Cheryl’s love of driving came into its own with a two hour commute each way, was the prelude to taking a Support Office role in 2018 at HQ in Maidenhead.

Spending two or three days each week in Maidenhead, Cheryl has held a number of roles there, including a year on cross-channel and two years in the Transformation Team, before taking up her current role as Head of Marketing. Her career at Mecca has afforded her an enviable and informed view of the business, from customer facing and businesses management, to support and player engagement channels.

“Bingo at its heart hasn’t changed and is still the same brilliant game it’s always been… but everything around it has evolved, including customers’ expectations and the wider leisure off er.

“Quite rightly, there has been an elevated scrutiny on compliance over the years, but as long as that is proportionate, it’s less of a challenge and more an opportunity to showcase what we do really well, whilst operating responsibly. Equally there are more ways to play, the constantly improving technology in our venues has made the experience smoother and more fun. There’s been a real diversification of the offer, greater variety of F&B and a real focus on the overall experience, broadening our target audience and appeal.”

But what of the challenges in a market that is subject to increased regulation and some uncertainty under a looming new act? “We recognise the importance of operating responsibly and strongly believe that the bett er informed all our stakeholders are, the higher the quality of the engagement. We’re pleased to note that in terms of recent publicly made outputs from the UK Gambling Commission, there does seem to be a clearer desire to work with operators to really understand what we’re doing in bingo and why we’re trying to do it in the interests of our customers.

“Like all leisure businesses relying on discretionary leisure spend, the cost-of-living crisis for our customers and the increase in operating costs as a business, combine to give us a challenging trading environment. However, we’re in it together and our teams are leaning into those challenges. An evening at the bingo represents a fantastic night out in terms of value and we work hard to ensure the pricing of our offering is really competitive.

“The uncertainty of a government review into gambling stalling over the last two years added greater pressure, but now that the process is moving, greater clarity from government and regulator in regard to where we are heading is welcome, as we plan our roadmap to modernise our customer proposition and allow our post-pandemic recovery to continue. Certainly the latest changes proposed in the White Paper in regard to B3 machines will help, but why not take this opportunity to go further? Club bingo is not just a game, it’s a community that is facing some very real challenges.”

Are those challenges insurmountable? What is the future for bingo? “The future of bingo is bright! There are fantastic new concepts emerging across the industry and at Mecca, we’re constantly investing in our estate and proposition to remain a credible, attractive option for people seeking a fun experience. We must never underestimate just how valued a social amenity so many of our clubs are.

“Whilst there are obvious opportunities in terms of online growth, we also recognise our clubs are cherished community assets. At the same time, we can see how the online proposition can sit hand in hand with a club experience. We have an ever growing number of customers who regularly play with us both in club and online, as it allows them the flexibility to enjoy a game of bingo in a way that fits with their lifestyle and the moment they are in.”

The flexing between point of engagement, in club, online and mobile is a significant step on from the early 00s. Has as becoming an omni-channel brand and operator of scale been a great challenge?

“The benefit of the Mecca brand is the cross-channel opportunity, it’s obvious, and something we are committed to developing. Of course, there are challenges, but these are not unanticipated or insurmountable. We need to give customers a seamless experience online and in-club, that combines great customer service and appealing products. We’re continuing to work hard on making the cross-channel experience as accessible as we can across all our target audiences. We won’t stop trying to refine that.”

And what of challenges away from work? “Improving my photography skills! Oh, and walking more of the tracks on Snowdon and in Snowdonia in general. I made it to the top for the first time in September 2021 and felt a great sense of achievement. It took three hours! There are many paths to the top and each offers a different view and challenge. Living in the Wirral we are only just over an hour’s drive away.”

And you can’t argue with that!