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  • From Charlie Chaplin to Magic Mike: Simon Thomas on the history of Hippodrome Casino
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Much like the 24/7 operations of the Hippodrome Casino he opened in 2012, Simon Thomas doesn’t stop.

When he isn’t roaming the venue’s plethora of gaming, hospitality and entertainment options to ensure things are running smoothly, he’s just as likely to be meeting with politicians and industry stakeholders to help them understand the importance of the Hippodrome as a linchpin of London’s bustling nightlife.

The historic venue welcomes some 1.5 million customers every year and employs 725 staff across its range of gaming floors, bars, restaurants and theatre.

iGaming NEXT editor Conor Mulheir joins Thomas on a walking tour of the Hippodrome, to discuss the landmark venue’s past, present and future, and how it’s helping to make casinos “more acceptable” in 21st century London.

A history lesson in the Hippodrome

The London Hippodrome was opened in 1900 and sits on the corner of Cranbourn Street and Charing Cross Road, right in the beating heart of England’s capital.

The venue first opened as a “completely bonkers” indoor circus, Thomas explains, with a giant water tank occupying the space where the modern day casino’s main gaming floor now sits.

At that time, it was home to performers including “Charlie Chaplin, Houdini, high-diving dwarves, lions, sea lions…” before becoming home to the Swan Lake ballet in 1910 and eventually becoming a music hall, where the first jazz ever performed in Britain was seen in 1919.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the venue continued to operate as a music hall, before rebranding as the Talk of the Town under ​​Bernard Delfont and his partner Charles Forte in 1958.

“Stringfellows was a brilliant nightclub in the 80s, so-so in the 90s, and awful in the 00s. And it lost its alcohol licence in 2005, coinciding with the Gambling Act, which was the first time casinos were allowed to be fun.”

There, the pair created an 800-seat dinner dance venue home to performers including Sammy Davis Junior, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Stevie Wonder, Cliff Richard, and a host of other musical legends.

“That was great until the late 70s, when television took over,” Thomas explains, at which point “all that talent went to TV, and along came Peter Stringfellow who turned the venue into Stringfellow’s nightclub, the first superclub in the country.

“He spent a million pounds on lighting alone in 1983,” says Thomas. “It was off the charts.”

However, outrageous investments in decor notwithstanding, the nightclub eventually had to face the music.

“Stringfellows was a brilliant nightclub in the 80s, so-so in the 90s, and awful in the 00s,” Thomas recalls. “And it lost its alcohol licence in 2005, coinciding with the new Gambling Act, which was the first time casinos were allowed to be fun.”

Time to spin the wheel

With the introduction of the Gambling Act, which revolutionised the UK’s gambling industry and set the stage for the sector we see today, Thomas saw the opportunity to undertake the Grade II-listed building’s most recent transformation.

One of the biggest changes brought about by the Gambling Act was that “casinos were allowed to promote, have live entertainment, and serve alcohol on the gaming floor,” he explains, in stark contrast to the highly restricted options they had previously been allowed to offer.

In addition to changes in what services casinos could offer, the new rules also meant “you didn’t have to be a member before you walked in, so it became much more like the international casinos.”

A whistle-stop tour of the Hippodrome

Thomas had seen similar changes play out before in the bingo hall industry, where a comparable deregulation took place around 1990.

In his previous life as a bingo operator, he explains: “I took bingo from being a converted cinema with 300 old ladies playing ‘housey housey’ for a fiver, to a huge flat bingo floor of 65,000 square feet, with three bars, two restaurants, two cabaret stages, a wedding licence, 800 car park spaces, and 265 slot machines. It was brilliant to learn how to run a multi-discipline entertainment venue.

“When I started, bingo was the king attraction and had just a small bar and a small restaurant. When I’d finished, bingo was just one part of a much bigger entertainment complex. And in 2005, the opportunity came to do the same thing in the casino sector.

“I didn’t know casino, but I knew how to take all the disciplines and make them work together.”

Thomas sold his bingo business in 2005 to start work on the Hippodrome.

“I got the building in 2005 and the gaming licence took three years. The planning was quick, and we started work physically on site in 2009.” The build took three years and the renovation cost around £45m.

Through the extensive renovations, Thomas created the Hippodrome which can be seen today, boasting three casinos, two restaurants, a theatre, eight bars (with a ninth in the works), a cocktail lounge, rooftop terraces and more, all set out over 80,000 square feet.

Adding some Magic

Today, one of the Hippodrome’s key attractions is its resident theatre show, Magic Mike Live. 

The show was opened by Hollywood darling Channing Tatum, lead star of the Magic Mike film, in 2018, before going on to break West End records for advance ticket sales.

Thomas says of the event: “It’s one of London’s best shows. It’s had 1,440 performances, and it’s still full – I think we have two tickets left this week, for example. It’s extraordinary, and we get massive PR and press from it.”

The show’s audience, perhaps unsurprisingly, is made up primarily (though not entirely) of women, a demographic not always linked to the world of gambling and casinos.

Actress Kristen Bell provides the Hippodrome with free PR on The Kelly Clarkson Show

Of course, that’s no accident, as Thomas explains: “It really adds to the whole atmosphere and character of the Hippodrome. Casinos traditionally are quite male dominated, and this helps rebalance it, by having a more balanced environment which attracts more people.

“The ‘talkability’ of the show gives us great PR, and it also makes the whole building more acceptable, and more normalised.”

Giving Magic Mike a home at the Hippodrome was nothing short of a master stroke, as evidenced by the show’s now years-long sellout run. 

Back when Thomas and his team were considering the best ways to make use of the building’s theatre space, however, it wasn’t the first thing they had in mind.

“Naively, we started by trying to get a show that was going to pull in gamblers,” he says. “But we actually realised, after a while, that no such show exists. 

“What does exist is a show that makes the building more acceptable. 

“Naively, we started by trying to get a show that was going to pull in gamblers. But we realised, after a while, that no such show exists.”

“It’s a stunning product in its own right, just the most incredible show. It’s high energy, and everyone comes out with a big smile on their face. There’s nothing rude or crude, but it’s sexy, it’s funny, it’s edgy. The guys are super talented, and we have people come back to see it again and again.”

Ultimately, Magic Mike serves to bring in an audience that may not otherwise consider the Hippodrome as their London destination of choice.

The building’s diversity of entertainment options is one of the keys to its success, says Thomas, as it helps to bring in an ever broader range of people into the venue for a variety of different reasons.

Ultimately, Thomas adds: “The more people you get into the building, the more money they spend. And I don’t really care which product they spend it on, as long as they have fun… And talk about the place.”

What’s next for the Hippodrome

As with all gambling businesses operating in the UK, change is afoot for the Hippodrome this year.

As chairman of the casino group at the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), Thomas has consulted extensively with the government in recent years, on how best to make the upcoming Gambling Act review work for businesses and customers alike.

His key priority for the casino sector is to help bring it in line with its counterparts in gambling jurisdictions around the globe, so doing away with regulations which are no longer fit for purpose is top of the list.

“By law, we’re only allowed 20 slot machines, which is a throwback to the old regulations, and we’re hoping we’ll get that changed in the white paper,” he explains.

“At peak times, I have 1,500 customers here in the building, and just 20 gaming machines, all with queues.”

The shortage of slot machines is one of few complaints Thomas regularly receives from visitors.

“I get negative social media on two things in particular. One is when the doormen don’t let people in because they’re drunk, and the other one is people complaining about the lack of slot machines. ‘You call yourself a casino and you’ve only got 20 slot machines. Why don’t you put more in?’ they say. Well, it’s the law.”

“In terms of what we’ve done for the casino industry, I think we have demonstrated quite well what casinos are capable of being, which is a really integral part of the whole night time economy.”

In addition to allowing for more slot machines, Thomas hopes the white paper will also bring about modernisation around payment methods (the Hippodrome remains a primarily cash-driven business), permission for the introduction of a sportsbook offering, and the ability to extend credit to high net worth overseas players, “as is normal in casinos all over the world.”

Those changes would allow Thomas to continue on his mission for the Hippodrome, which is to hold up the casino as a key offering in the plethora of options available to London’s residents and visitors.

“I’m so excited for what we’ve done to the West End of London,” he says. “We were the catalyst for the whole redevelopment of this area, and we’re an important part of the local community.

“In terms of what we’ve done for the casino industry, I think we have demonstrated quite well what casinos are capable of being, which is a really integral part of the whole night time economy.”

If the steady stream of customers coming into the casino this evening is anything to go by, the Hippodrome has definitely demonstrated that, and then some.

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