When the 2005 Gambling Act relaxed casino membership rules and gave the nod to bigger venues, it was predicted that the ‘mega casinos’ associated with Las Vegas would become a familiar sight in the UK.
But many of these ‘new generation’ casinos never materialised. There are around 150 casinos in the UK – only ten more than a decade ago. Casino at The Empire, based in Leicester Square, is currently one of the country’s biggest casinos at 55,000 square feet. But it’s about to face stiff competition from a new neighbour a few doors down.
Simon Thomas and his father Jimmy, who both made their names in the bingo business, have spent £40m turning the Hippodrome, a famous London landmark, into the capital’s largest casino. And after seven years of preparation, Thomas is getting ready for the opening next month. Measuring 90,000 square feet, the Hippodrome Casino will house three gaming floors, five bars, four dining rooms and a 180-seat cabaret theatre.
‘The typical British casino is like a 1970s backstreet gambling den. We’re creating an international-style leisure venue with bars, restaurants and entertainment as well as a casino. If people want to come in, watch a show and have a few drinks without doing any gambling, we’ll still be happy,’ Thomas said on a recent tour of the building.
Thomas is hoping to attract people who don’t normally visit casinos. Some 73% of Britons participate in gambling, but mainly by playing the national lottery or fruit machines. Casinos account for less than a tenth of the £10bn the UK gambling industry is worth, according to research by H2 Gambling Capital, which monitors trends in the industry.
‘We’re hoping to attract three types of people. British casino goers, the Chinese and tourists,’ Thomas said. ‘Most casino games are international, particularly Roulette and Black Jack. Baccarat is much more popular in Asia, so a quarter of the tables will be Baccarat.’
Thomas expects the business to turn a profit quickly. The venue will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entry will be free, and open to non-members. Its location in one of London’s busiest tourist areas means he’ll attract a large number of passers-by. He’s anticipating more than 2,000 people will come through the door a day, who will each spend between £35-£50 in the casino; and extra on food, drinks and entry to the cabaret. Around £12m worth of cash deposits are forecast to be taken in the first year.
Next month’s opening will also coincide with the start of the Olympics, although this wasn’t the original intention. ‘The Olympics will expose us to a lot more people, but we want to attract people who will keep coming back,’ Thomas said. ‘The other side of the Olympics is that the Games will disrupt the entire area and make deliveries more difficult.’
Located in Leicester Square, the Hippodrome opened in 1900 as an entertainment venue featuring circus and variety acts, which included a troop of high-diving acrobatics. It later became a cabaret venue called Talk of the Town with appearances from Shirley Bassey and Cliff Richard, before being taken over by Peter Stringfellow in the 1980s and turned into a nightclub.
After changing ownership, the venue closed in 2005. A year later, Thomas got planning permission from Westminster Council to renovate the building and in 2008 he acquired the gaming licence. In 2009 the decorating and restoration work began and Thomas also decided to take over the Grade 2 listed building next door, Cranbourn Mansions, to increase floor space.
He initially encountered opposition from other casino owners, but managed to persuade the Council that a casino would cause less grief than a nightclub. ‘We’re creating 450 new jobs and are restoring one of London’s biggest landmarks. Why should anyone have any complaints?’