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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.
When the ExCeL opens its doors to the gaming industry for ICE London 2023 this week, it might feel like stepping out of a gaming industry time machine.
It could be the first time since February 2020 that many delegates will have been to an event of this scale, with more than 35,000 people expected to attend across the three days.
Nobody could have predicted the future when the industry last congregated for the show with those kinds of numbers, when Covid-19 was still a whisper associated with China. Back then, there was a strong expectation for senior management to spend sizeable chunks of the year out on the road, almost like a Formula 1 team travelling from race to race during the season.
Three years later and the landscape has changed. Following a plethora of online-only events during 2020 and 2021 as the world adapted to remote working, we may now only just return to normal, following an ICE London in April of last year with a lower-than-usual attendance figure.
Whether the iGaming sector will truly go back to the way things were remains to be seen, however. In November, Terrapinn announced the cancellation of the World Gaming Executive Summit (WGES), which felt like the first significant post-Covid casualty for gaming events.
As we look ahead to a full schedule of events for 2023, one key issue stands out: is it feasible for senior execs to commit as much time and money to attending industry events as they did before the pandemic? It is a question which has provoked a torn discussion in recent times and is among the many parts of working life which may never be the same again.
A demanding schedule
While ICE London is at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the turn of the year, the schedule at a glance still appears demanding; at least if you want the full experience. iGB Affiliate London runs into the same week as ICE London, and following that, almost every month on the calendar showcases at least one event organised by one of the standout industry-event providers.
The table below, which depicts the main 2023 events after ICE week, illustrates just how hectic it can be, and that is before factoring in the preparation time required for each show.
Difficulties for online shows
Once your events schedule for the year is planned out, executives must consider what they can gain from each show. There seems to be a clear consensus across the industry that trade shows should be considered separate and may not work the same online.
Of all attendees at ICE London this year, few will have experienced as many gaming shows as Richard Thorp. Thorp is the co-founder and director of supplier RPM Gaming, but he has worked in the industry since the mid-1990s and his CV counts the likes of Ladbrokes, Blue Square and Racing Post as former employers.
When asked by iGaming NEXT whether he attended the online-only conferences that became a necessity during lockdown, he says: “I attended a few and didn’t get a lot from them. We still work with a lot of Asian operators, and I think they tend to prefer face-to-face time.
iGaming NEXT MD Pierre Lindh: “I think launching several new shows every year would be a dangerous strategy.”
“I don’t think the software is there yet and it doesn’t really work. Also, a lot of introductions are made outside the shows themselves. The shows are the place where you have the chance to meet fellow professionals, but a lot of those introductions happen at networking events in the evenings.”
Issues with online shows were magnified for businesses that had recently launched and were still trying to make a name for themselves in the market. That was the situation faced by CEO Eric Frank when trying to grow his consultancy firm Odds On Compliance, which launched in March 2021.
“Given the time we started, we had to leverage social media and LinkedIn very well and we had to adapt that business model to make connections,” says Frank. “Online webinars are obviously fantastic and a good way to get a wealth of information, but it’s far more difficult after the session when you don’t have the opportunity to walk up to people and introduce yourself. Conferences held in-person allow for that.”
A global calendar
With time proving increasingly precious for executives, event organisers must innovate, especially as the market could become saturated by the likes of Clarion Gaming (which operates ICE London, iGB Affiliate and iGB Live), SBC Gaming and SiGMA. Clarion Gaming and SBC Gaming were approached for comment for this article.
SiGMA alone runs six shows (the only one not mentioned in the table above is SiGMA Africa in January), with the aim of covering separate geographical regions.
Eman Pulis, founder of SiGMA Group, tells iGaming NEXT: “Since there’s already a great number of events happening in North America run by G2E, Clarion, iGaming Next and SBC, we decided to focus on our six shows rather than create more of the same in North America. Three of our shows are considered more international, while the other three have a more regional focus.”
One issue of this approach is whether it’s feasible for any company to travel to shows across several regions, especially while keeping a close eye on costs, as is the trend in 2023. On a very different scale, the pandemic showed employers did not necessarily need their staff to work in an office for 40 hours a week to achieve the same levels of productivity.
Similar logic can be applied to external meetings, and of course, trade shows. It could prove more difficult to convince bosses to dedicate a large portion of their budgets for conferences these days.
Pierre Lindh, managing director of iGaming Next, thinks we may have reached a crossroads.
He believes the curve will have to flatten when it comes to creating new trade shows. “I think launching several new shows every year would be a dangerous strategy,” he says. “I don’t think the winners will be the ones who can organise the most shows. It will be about nurturing two or three shows and building them into something great.”
Odds On Compliance founder Eric Frank: “We will certainly have to re-evaluate which events are right for us. Who are the absolutely critical people you want to be in front of?”
That is not a view that Pulis necessarily agrees with. When asked about the dangers of increasing the number of shows that SiGMA has to offer, he says: “Gaming has truly become global these days and if a company wishes to operate in multiple markets, then it simply must find the time and resources to learn those markets, and learn to do business with the people behind those markets.”
It’s not just time in the schedule that executives must think about. The next matter to consider is how companies manage their annual budget for shows; particularly if they are a start-up. When factoring in the cost of travel and accommodation, day-to-day expenses, tickets to attend, and the expense of showcasing your products when you have a stand, it all adds up, to say the least.
It is commonly whispered in the industry that some companies spend six or seven figures on their stands alone at ICE London. Even when shows are weighted towards conferences rather than expos, this can be financially challenging and arguably difficult to justify.
Lindh of iGaming NEXT says: “We wanted to do events that aren’t necessarily in direct competition with SiGMA. What we figured out is that SiGMA and most other events are 90% exhibition and 10% content.
“The conference part is usually in the backroom. We thought, why not flip it around and see if the industry would like it? We set out on a thought leadership-first strategy, which we felt didn’t really exist at the time.
“Before the pandemic, the only way to really consume thought-leadership content was through ICE VOX, but it cost about €1,000 to attend. We decided to put it out there without that cost and monetise through advertising. We felt that model was a lot more relevant to the situation at the time.”
Before we discover the full extent of the value of industry shows for the remainder of the 2020s, it seems we may see an initial period of testing the water, with companies attending international events on a regular basis in what could be described as the first full year of so-called normality since the pandemic.
What comes after this will be the real test, when companies can gauge their budget versus reward outcome and benchmark spend against pre-pandemic activities.
Odds On Compliance co-founder Frank says: “We will certainly have to re-evaluate which events are right for us. Who are the absolutely critical people you want to be in front of? I think those in-person opportunities are invaluable. They need to be taken advantage of, but it’s just a question of how many we can fit into one schedule.”
Thorp, meanwhile, is adamant that trade shows provide value, especially when top-tier operators are in attendance. “Depending on their focus, I think people should still go to as many events as they can,” he says. “I expect we will see more conferences across Africa and Asia in the next few years particularly.
He continues: “Overall, I think it’s about going to the events where the right people will be. Sometimes it’s B2B people selling to other B2B people, so you’ve got to have the right mix.”
In 2023, the pressure is on events companies to prove that in-person conferences are just as important today as they always were.
The Rank Group’s Grosvenor Casino venues in London may be forced to close this weekend after the operator’s Unite union members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike.
A total of 150 workers from seven of the capital’s land-based casinos are planning 72 hours of industrial action for the weekend beginning Friday 9 September.
The Rank Group union members voted 91% in favour of the strikes after rejecting retention bonus payments of £600 and £800 as “totally inadequate” during the cost of living crisis.
The striking workers are predominantly croupiers and dealers, but food and beverage and waiting and kitchen staff are also set to take action.
Unite insists that Rank Group, which returned £74m in pre-tax profits this year, can easily afford a more realistic offer to the workers.
Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary, said: “Here we go again: Grosvenor Casinos is another big money company that is raking it in but refusing to pay its workers a wage that they can live on.
“It’s just not acceptable and this huge vote for action underscores the sense of anger across this workforce. Our members at Grosvenor Casinos will have Unite’s full backing in this fight for a fair deal,” she added.
Unite union’s Dave Turnbull: “Grosvenor Casino’s chronic recruitment and retention issues prove that the current pay rates are just not sustainable. Not improving pay is just not an option.”
In a statement provided to Bloomberg, Rank Group said the company was disappointed by the move against the backdrop of an extremely challenging trading environment.
The casino staff are not alone in their strikes this weekend as vast sections of the UK workforce are scheduled to take industrial action over pay disputes.
In recent weeks, postal staff, dockers, bus drivers and BT workers, as well as airport and railway staff, have called for a pay increase to combat double-digit inflation, stagnant income growth and rising energy bills.
Addressing the situation, Unite’s national officer for the hospitality sector, Dave Turnbull, said: “London is one of the most expensive cities on earth for workers to survive in, which is why the message from the members could not be clearer: Only a substantial uplift in pay will do.
“Grosvenor Casino’s chronic recruitment and retention issues prove that the current pay rates are just not sustainable. Not improving pay is just not an option.”
Rank Group returned to profit in the year ended 30 June 2022 as NGR more than doubled year-on-year to £644m.