Karolina Pelc: Taking on live casino
Since joining LeoVegas three years ago, casino director Karolina Pelc has made it her mission to take live casino to the mobile masses, and has now fixed her sights on what needs to be done to attract more women into the industry and grow them into leaders. She spoke to Hannah Gannagé-Stewart
At 34 years old, LeoVegas casino director Karolina Pelc has built up an enviable CV. Not only has her 15 years in gaming spanned senior roles at Bodog, Betsson Group and latterly LeoVegas, she started by earning her stripes in the land-based casino world.
Pelc has been heading up LeoVegas’ casino product and operations department for more than three years, having joined from the head of casino role at Betsson owned Betsafe in 2015.
In that time she has built the team from scratch and was responsible for the launch and continuous growth of the operator’s successful live casino product vertical. Although she says she never intended to end up in igaming, her path into the industry saw just one brief deviation away from gambling.
Starting with a job as a dealer in a casino while she was studying in Poland, the 18-year-old Pelc enjoyed the buzz of the casino floor, getting to know the habits of high rollers and getting to grips with how the business worked.
When Poland joined the European Union in 2004 she came to London and worked in Mayfair members club Fifty, where she honed her understanding of the needs of VIPs and celebrities. “It was actually very eye opening, and something I found very useful in my future career in online gaming”.
Little did she know back then that over a decade later she would be leading the 13-strong casino team at LeoVegas, which under her leadership is laser focused on bringing players the ultimate gaming experience.
Having launched a real time data-fuelled live casino lobby last year, and a feature that enables players to deposit money without leaving the game on mobile, Pelc has more innovation in store in the next few months.
“We’re going to use a lot more data from our APIs, because we want to personalise the experience even more for players, make it even faster and truly tailor it to their preferences,” she says. “There is a lot of talk in the industry about artificial intelligence or machine learning so we also want to learn from the buzz around that and try to experiment with some recommended engines”.
As far as Pelc is concerned, despite her platform’s early success, live casino is barely out of the starting blocks in the context of the market as a whole.
“Live casino product growth is only just starting, it doesn’t really have a mass appeal yet. It’s still considered by players to be complicated and expensive, so there’s still a lot to do to challenge that perception and educate them on how easy and fun it is to play.”
Pelc takes a forensic approach to marketing. Her one side step away from gambling was a nine-month break between working in land-based casinos and getting into the online market.
A three-year-long stint as a dealer in casinos on cruise ships cemented her career path and clearly appealed to her sense of adventure. “I had a lot of fun travelling and seeing the world,” she recalls.
As soon as she returned to dry land she fired off CVs to London’s recruiters asking for roles in igaming. They were all rejected due to a lack of marketing experience.
Undeterred Pelc found an entry-level marketing job, got several months’ experience under her belt and fired out another batch of speculative applications before landing her first role at InterCasino. Her boss at the time was Betsson’s group operations CEO Jesper Svensson, who she says remains a close friend and a mentor.
Reflecting on the operator’s recent brush with the Gambling Commission in the UK, Pelc acknowledged that LeoVegas seemed to have fallen short. “We seem to have had inadequate measures in place in the past and the focus on strengthening our compliance processes is super sharp now,” she said.
Although the £600,000 penalty incurred by LeoVegas was only made public in early May, the operator appears to have been taking action since the GC’s investigation. Last December, it cut back on the number of affiliates it works with due to breaches of the marketing rules.
Separately, a recent iGaming Tracker analysis revealed that LeoVegas excluded more games than any other operator from its homepages after the GC tightened its stance on marketing that could appeal to children last year. Despite the recent revelations, Pelc insists compliance is critical to her team. “It’s very important to us and we don’t want to cause anything that would make the gambling commission lose trust in our brand.
Sometimes it’s tricky to understand the requirement but I think at the moment there is much more being done by the regulator to explain the requirements fully to operators”. Pelc’s passion for igaming is evident in almost every talking point about her work. She has an innate understanding of her players; what they want in the games, how they use the devices they play on, and why they head to one brand over another.
She says working at LeoVegas, with its focus on mobile, has highlighted trends in player behaviour she hadn’t seen in previous roles. “At companies with more desktop-based traffic, you would see peaks at lunchtime, after work, or at weekends, but we don’t necessarily see the same thing. People are playing on their way somewhere, when they are waiting in a queue, in a shop, or on holiday,” she explains.
In particular, she has noted that July and August are the busiest months for Swedish traffic at LeoVegas because people take their phones on holiday. Historically, they would have been the weakest because no one has their desktop with them while they’re away.
On top of that she says the whole way you design a game for mobile is intensely different. In her team, prior to launching a new game, every aspect is tested to make sure mobile players have the same experience
they would on a desktop.
“The amount of little nitty gritty things you have to look at when you test a game on mobile is huge, she explains. “The way the game behaves changes with the level of connectivity, it has landscape or portrait mode, it varies on different devices and operating systems and then there’s the player experience itself – how many things can you reach with your thumb?”
To ensure the LeoVegas game portfolio stands out, Pelc seeks close and exclusive working relationships with all her suppliers – albeit she says some are better at collaboration than others. She finds that smaller, more agile companies that have time for a proper dialogue lead to more interesting collaborations.
Pointing to LeoVegas’ partnership with Evolution, she credits much of the success of the live casino products to a strong account management relationship.
“The account manager has been crucial, and it is often his work on analysing and crunching data that finds out whether we need further expansion because the table occupancy isn’t optimal, or whether we should consider localising tables for certain languages because we see in the data where it shows increased traffic in that market,” she explains.
Commenting on LeoVegas’ recently acquired Italian brand Winga, she says: “Italy is a relatively unpenetrated market when it comes to mobile products, I think it’s going to give us a very strong position,” she says.
“Live casino is very big in Italy so I’m very excited about going in there with an extension of our live casino strategy with some exciting ideas we have for the market, with Evolution as one of our partners and the multi-supplier strategy we have in other markets.”
Pelc’s relentless enthusiasm for live casino and the growth potential for the LeoVegas brand makes it hard to believe she’s actually been on maternity leave for the past year. Returning to work next month, she will work from home to begin with before transitioning back to office life.
She makes no bones about the importance of allowing woman both to have a family life and succeed at work. She says LeoVegas has wholly accommodated the birth of her first child but she is aware that the industry in general is not always as supportive.
“It is possible to balance a successful career and have a very fulfilled family life, that’s where I see opportunity rather than challenges, just offer more family-oriented benefits and spread the awareness of the opportunities in the industry for them,” she says.
Pelc says igaming offers a range of opportunities for women but there is a lack of understanding from outside of the industry, which calls for more to be done to promote the ample roles in sectors such as marketing and tech.
“The industry is perceived as very male dominated and some examples of sexism do exist but that is diminishing these days. I think we should fight this external perception and try to showcase our new refreshed images; the tech environment, an exciting marketing industry with lots of room for growth.”
Meanwhile, a problem she says is not limited just to igaming is the deficit of management roles and mentorship for women.
“It’s one thing to attract women in and another thing to keep them for years to come and grow them into future leaders and I think more could be done on that aspect,” she adds.
To help attract more women into the industry she patently has boundless enthusiasm for, Pelc is working closely with industry-led project, All-In Diversity.
She and co-founder Kelly Kehn are former colleagues and share a long-held belief that women are underserved and underrepresented, and that more should be done to attract them in. She says she gets messages on a daily basis from women in land-based casinos who want to move into the online sphere but are struggling to get a foot in the door.
“I’m planning to do a bit more in that area to try to bridge the gap between offline and online and try to show women, such as myself, how you can get into online gaming and the sorts of jobs that you could be doing,” she pledges.
Pelc practices what she reaches when it comes to managing work and family life, her nine-month-old son Henry Rufus accompanying her to all industry events. She has one ear on the door throughout this interview, awaiting his return from a walk with his dad.
Her passions outside of work have the ring of a one-time traveller and adventurer. Time spent in Asia sparked an interest in yoga and holistic medicine, while the self-proclaimed clean eating enthusiast also enjoys cooking and food styling.
Pelc’s ethos to the barriers presented during the course of work, and life, can perhaps be summarised by her attitude to some of the more arduous regulatory requirements levelled at the industry.
“It’s tricky for us,” she says of the GC’s ratcheting-up of advertising controls, “but compliance always trumps everything else, so we just have to do it”. She’s matter of fact. Just do it.
Related article: Q&A: Karolina Pelc, LeoVegas