After plying his trade building bingo halls in the 1980s and 90s, Simon Thomas has turned his hand to the casino market – and in doing so has breathed life back into a London icon.
Entrepreneurs are, in essence, naturally predisposed to gambling and risk-taking. But for Simon Thomas, it is the desire by others to have a flutter that fuelled the growth of his past bingo empire and now is helping to put his West End casino on the map.
Gambling runs in the family for Thomas, whose father, James, built up his own entertainment and bingo business starting in the early 1960s when he founded Thomas Automatics, a manufacturer and supplier of amusement and leisure equipment.
Having grown it over the next 25 years to include his Showboat Entertainment Centre of amusement locations and Beacon Entertainment bingo halls, Thomas Sr. then part sold the business group to The Rank Organisation in 1987, but not before peeling off some of the more lucrative amusement and bingo sites to hold onto in the family.
It is here that Simon Thomas steps in. Instead of going straight into the family business, he decided that he needed to bring something to the party and so read electronic engineering at Bristol University before spending two years working in the city for Singer & Friedlander.
‘I had a family business to go into, but felt that it was important to be independent and bring something with me to the business and acquire awareness of what real work was like, rather than the cosy confines of family enterprise,’ Thomas explains.
With his teeth cut in the city, Thomas then felt he was ready to return to the family firm and took over the smaller business that had been left following the acquisition in 1989.
Back to basics
His passion for the leisure and entertainment industry, which had been imbedded in the Thomas family for the past six generations, saw him take the small family business and grow it once more to a state where it owned the largest bingo hall in the country. Thomas’ Cricklewood bingo hall had 2700 seats, three bars, two restaurants as well as wedding and cinema licences. He describes it as a ‘great learning experience’ for what he has now gone on to do with his new casino business.
It was during the 21st century that Thomas experienced his breakthrough moment. As part of his role as president for the industry’s trade association, he was privy to the innermost details of the government’s new Gambling Act legislation.
This development, combined with is own research of how international markets were responding to smoking bans, led him to conclude that now was the time for change.
Thomas says, ‘By the mid 2000s it was clear that the smoking ban was going to be really detrimental to bingo halls where a lot of money is taken during the intervals, and the new gambling act was going to take away a lot of the higher earning products.’
He believed that both would be disastrous for his business, but forecast what was bad news for the bingo halls would be great for casinos. Prior to the Labour legislation, casinos were not able to advertise and promote, couldn’t have live entertainment, were unable to serve alcohol on the gaming floor and visitors had to be members for 24-48 hours before they could gamble.
By stripping away all those restrictions, Thomas saw an opportunity for him to use his experience of altering products and gaming venues to create a casino business.
A second sale of the family empire gave Thomas the funds he needed to run with his ambitious product: but first he had to find a venue which was fit to create a casino venue able to utilise the new relaxed regulation.
West End draw
The Hippodrome building in the corner of Leicester Square has a long and decorated history. Having first opened in 1900, after being designed by Frank Mitcham, the site began life as a circus variety theatre. With a 100,000 gallon tank in the basement, polar bears and sea lions thrashed around while midgets dove in from the minstrel gallery 60ft up.
It was then converted into music hall in 1909 by enlarging the stage and advancing the proscenium to suite the site for variety rather than circus use. The legendary Harry Houdini performed there during the Hippodrome’s spell as a theatre and revue-style space.
Fast-forwarding to the 50s, it is here that the Hippodrome was transformed into the Talk of the Town and saw the likes of Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Tom Jones grace its stage. However, Thomas says it was during this period that the unique and ornate design that Mitcham had envisaged and created was compromised.
He explains, ‘At that time they stripped a lot of decorative plaster work away, put a false ceiling in and did a lot of structural damage without really investing back into it.
‘In 1983 Peter Stringfellow took it up and did a very nice nightclub job to it, but nothing really structural.’
Having acquired the building in 2005, Thomas then embarked on a time-consuming and painstaking £40 million reconstruction of the building. He wanted to bring some prestige to the location and change the way people view casinos.
Despite jumping ship from the bingo business to the casino trade, Thomas says that many of the skills he acquired during his time with the family business are transferable.
‘It is an unknown in that the casino product is different, but it is known in that a lot of the skill base of managing mass-market entertainment venues with bars, restaurants cabaret are all very relevant,’ he says.
‘A lot of skills that I bring to it, which is the ability to market this sort of venue with multi products and understand how the products interrelate with each other, wasn’t a skill base that was in the casino business as they weren’t allowed to promote or have live entertainment.’
Despite the creation of the new Gambling Act back in 2005 (enacted in 2007), Thomas believes the government’s attitude to gambling is ‘very confusing’. The tenants of the act, he says, were to protect the vulnerable to make sure gambling was run honestly whilst also being reactive to change if anything threatened that.
‘What has happened is that betting shops have got a product called fixed-odds betting terminals which allow users to play roulette harder and faster than you can in a casino, in an environment which is entirely unsuited to it,’ Thomas explains.
The fixed-odds betting terminals that he refers to have already been openly criticised by Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, who has labelled her own party’s Gambling Act legislation back in 2005 as a ‘mistake’.
But for Thomas the gambling industry is a ‘misunderstood product’, which will always have its concerns despite it being part of mainstream entertainment.
‘Customers can have a really good evening out. They come with a set amount of money to spend, no different to if they went to the theatre or cinema.
‘The only difference is that if you go to the theatre, there is no chance of coming out with more money than you started with.’
It’s going to be a constant learning curve for both the government and the country as a whole, Thomas believes. He is adamant that his new Hippodrome Casino has done considerable good for the area. Beyond renovating two Grade II listed buildings in bad condition and removing two nightclub licences which were causing public order offences, Thomas says that the casino has created 500 new jobs at a time when new employment is ‘scarce’.
‘We are taking tourist income and putting it into UK coffers, whereas a lot of British people go to casinos abroad as the ones here don’t offer what they want,’ Thomas argues.
‘English is the second largest group of people going to Las Vegas, so Engalnd plc is losing money to gambling – which makes this a good model of how gambling can be good for the economy.’
To make his casino business a success, Thomas is banking on the location’s close proximity to Chinatown as a major revenue stream. The Chinese, he explains, are culturally predisposed to gamble more than the west.
‘They all believe they will be wealthy and gambling is a way of doing that. If they lose then that is just their luck that day, they can just work to get it back as they have a fantastic work ethic.’
As an interesting aside, the Hippodrome Casino has been Feng Shuied to make it more attractive to Chinese punters. Thomas has installed a second door leading onto Chinatown and explains why this appeases his Asian customers.
‘The front door belongs to the boss, i.e. me, and they are less likely to get out with their money. But the second door doesn’t belong to the boss so they believe they are much more likely to get out with their money there.’
Marketing the casino to the high-rolling Chinese set has meant producing tailored content in Cantonese and ensuring that directions within the site are in their native language.
While Thomas has yet to market the Hippodrome directly in the Chinese market, he says he has been working with agencies bringing Chinese to the UK to make sure they know about the casino.
So far Thomas has taken the 94,000 sq ft site and achieved faster growth than he could ever have expected. The business started off with a target of 2000 admissions a day and it is already averaging 3200. It began with 35 gaming tables but has now raised that to 40.
Heading into its first Christmas, Thomas says that the Hippodrome Casino is experiencing increased interest on the event and party side. Despite the UK still experiencing recessionary times, he believes that penny pinching will not affect how many people he can pull through the door.
‘The reality of cash businesses in the middle of a recession are that people still want to gamble and drink. They might not buy a new car or fridge, but they still want an evening out and a good time.’
With its proximity to the bright lights of Leicester Square ensuring that it receives upwards of 250,000 possible ‘punters’ walking past its front door every day, the casino is well placed to cement its position as a destination for not only gambling, but eating, drinking and live entertainment.
As Thomas puts it, ‘The Hippodrome has got the DNA of the West End running through it.’