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The Sky’s the Limit: Michael Ahearne

Michael Ahearne

As CEO of SkyCity Entertainment Group, Michael Ahearne is in the business of getting people into venues. So when COVID hit, and lockdowns closed their doors, he had to rethink the entire strategy. Here’s what he discovered.

For the past two years, much of the globe, and its residents, have existed in a state of suspended reality, waiting for life to return to normal, or at least, some version of post-COVID normal. Many businesses didn’t make it out the other side of the pandemic, having found the financial and logistical challenges too substantial to recover. However, others used the time to recalibrate and consolidate – turning it into an opportunity to, like a butterfly from its cocoon, emerge better than ever before. For SkyCity Entertainment Group, this was precisely what they did.

“COVID has been very disruptive to an organisation like ours, where we would typically in our venues have thousands and thousands of people visiting us, enjoying our precincts in the hospitality venues, whether it’s casinos or restaurants or bars,” CEO Michael Ahearne explains.

“With transactions having to move online during COVID and the transition of customers from bricks and mortar to online, we’ve seen our online gaming business grow significantly.”

“While we’ve had a challenging time over the past few years, we’re very confident about a really exciting future for our business.”

And now, with the world in recovery mode and lockdowns finally over, it’s only onwards and upwards for the business. “While we’ve had a challenging time over the past few years, we’re very confident about a really exciting future for our business,” Michael enthuses. “We’re looking forward to seeing the return of domestic customers and international guests as our sector recovers. We’re also seeing the borders change. So it’s now going to be much easier to come to New Zealand as an international tourist.”

Taking to the skies

Michael started his career as an accountant, working with a range of organisations, until securing a position with The Star Entertainment Group as Manager Business Analysis and Special Projects in 2000, where he then worked his way up to the COO Gaming over the next seven years, while also undertaking a Master of Business Administration at the University of Technology, Sydney. “It was really challenging, but useful as well in terms of broadening my thinking and knowledge to general management rather than just finance.”

After 10 years with The Star he relocated to Aristocrat, as COO ANZ, before moving to Ireland for three years to join Paddy Power Betfair. At that point, he received a call from SkyCity’s CEO. “I’ve always known SkyCity as a really good organisation, a great business here in Auckland. I really love the land-based gaming resort entertainment and tourism industry, because it’s a people-centric business, and that’s always appealed to me.”

Absolutely essential to a business as comprehensive as SkyCity is, of course, its reliance on high-quality and trusted partnerships. Within every section of the company and every stage of the supply chain, from the farmers growing the produce to the businesses supplying their goods to SkyCity, each one is as vital as the last. “Our ecosystem for food and beverage involves sourcing locally where we can – that’s great from an environmental perspective, but it’s also wonderful to be able to support our local businesses,” Michael explains. “It’s about our partners contributing to a really robust system. We need them to bring new ideas and new opportunities to us. I would say this has been a tough time for SkyCity, but that also means it’s been an incredibly tough time for our suppliers, which are largely small businesses. So we’re looking forward to seeing our business grow and flourish and that will be very helpful for them as well. We’re really looking forward to that.”

A brighter future ahead

One of the most significant drawcards for visitors in the future will be the opening of the New Zealand International Convention Centre (currently under construction in Auckland), where a major fire broke out several years ago. “We’re expecting to open in 2025, and that will be a really exciting attraction that will bring international tourism that New Zealand hasn’t been able to have before.” But even for the existing facilities – 18 restaurants, 15 bars, three hotels and four casinos across four locations (Auckland, Adelaide, Hamilton and Queenstown) – there’s an ongoing focus to innovate, improve and evolve. “We’re constantly refreshing our product,” Michael says. “We’re always looking at our restaurants and bars and assessing whether it’s time for an upgrade. We’ve had great success in Adelaide – our building management systems there use new technologies where an app allows us to optimise utility usage and water use. The installation of electric car charging stations in our car parks is also on our agenda.”

Taking advantage of technological advancements such as these have already proved instrumental to not only setting SkyCity apart from its competitors, but also streamlining systems and expanding their offerings. “We are seeing increasing technology entering the customer journey,” Michael says. “For example, I’d expect to see more automation technology and robotics coming into the food and beverage sector and our restaurants soon. From a gaming point of view, we introduced facial recognition technology into our land-based casinos in 2019 and have continued to invest in and enhance that technology since then to improve our host responsibility processes and practices, even in areas such as table games, where you can digitise goals and experiences.”

And what does that mean for the company? From here, the sky is literally the limit in terms of what they can achieve.

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