English French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish

All Round Entertainment

Peter White catches up with Simon Thomas as the Hippodrome Casino keeps innovating and evolving

Launched in 1900 as a circus theatre, transformed into the world’s most famous restaurant cabaret club featuring the biggest showbiz stars, then onto its latter days as a nightclub before eventually falling on hard times. It needed sparkle. It needed life. Casino Life was present at the birth of the Hippodrome Casino project as it emerged Phoenix-like from the rubble.

Simon, almost four years on from us wandering through the forest of scaffolding wearing hard hats and visualising elephants swimming in the orchestra pit, how do you feel about it now?

I’m still excited to be honest! The Hippodrome continues to be exciting; a stimulating project, although at times it feels as though progress could be quicker, but then again we’ve always got a bigger and better idea on the horizon. Nevertheless, I can see how much we have achieved, the opportunities there are and how much there is still to do.

Above all it’s not just me that thinks this and is as involved as I am. I have a fantastic team working for me, who love the Hippodrome and are all working in the same direction to make it better.

Can you elaborate?

We are continually trying to improve. That means each level we reach we don’t stop there, but are continually developing the next stage of product offering, and to bear our service levels. Equally important is ensuring we have a happy and motivated team of staff. I only employ people who smile at interviews and we work to ensure staff members remain happy in their job – and it’s that ethos, alongside a property that is both beautiful and steeped in history, that means the customers want to tell their friends about it.

Tell us a little more about the history of the Hippodrome?

I am very fortunate to have such a great property in terms of both its size and spectacular location, and with such a rich history divided into three eras. It all started out in 1900 through the Circus period with the high diving dwarfs and swimming elephants – as you mentioned above. Then came the next period when it was called the ‘Talk of the Town’ and the likes of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Jones, Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey would be seen regularly performing. This was then followed by the nightclub era with Peter Stringfellow who created the country’s first‘superclub’. After Peter’s era there was a period of neglect, after which we picked up the baton.

It wasn’t easy to build a casino within the existing space but we’ve used its best features to our advantage. Knowing that the smoking ban was imminent we were also able to build in key design aspects to keep our clients happy yet stay within the law, such as the West End’s largest ‘indoor/outdoor’ smoking terrace.

As we learn more about the building and how people use it - and more people use it in different ways - we are constantly refining and improving as we go along.

How have you changed the use of the space?

The basement is a good example. It started life as a Chinese-themed area but we realised it was better to have this theme running through our main gaming area on the ground floor. This gave the main floor a critical mass of people and energy so it performed better, as well as being easier to manage. This then gave us the opportunity to make the basement a destination casino in its own right leading to “Lola’s underground Casino” - a themed speakeasy-styled Casino that is a little bit more risqué, with slightly louder music and Burlesque dancers situated in the middle of the gaming tables. It’s also where we have the craps tables, and it all leads to a very cool bar. Now people go “wow!” when they go into the basement as well as going “wow!” when they walk into the main atrium.

Lola’s, by the way, was named after a showgirl called Lola Maguire who performed in the Hippodrome in early 1900’s and who reputedly ran illegal drinking and gambling after the; it seemed a fitting tribute to her.

How important is hospitality and entertainment?

Essential. As part of the move to create an all-round entertainment experience there is much talk about designing products to appeal to millennials as though you can have a slot machine for that particular type of player, which in my view misses the issue. What I have created is a fantastic venue where people of all ages can enjoy a broad range of product offering so people can have different experiences at different times. The hospitality and entertainment offering are an important part of this. With six bars as well as the three floors of gaming and poker decks we give people lots of reasons to come in. Just look at Heliot Steak House, now easily the most successful casino restaurant in London and attracting more than 1000 diners a week. The USDA Prime Steaks served at sensible prices by happy and enthusiastic staff are a reason to visit us alone, and we were judged Best Steak Restaurant in London by the country’s largest restaurant booking service. Quite a prize for a casino steak house!

That said the 180-seat music & cabaret is also bringing in thousands of people every month. It’s going from strength-to-strength with a range of shows from crowd-pleasers such as the Rat Pack, Elvis & Burlesque to stars like Michael Ball, Dionne Warwick, Joss Stone. Pop legend Prince chose us to stage the final gig of his recent UK tour. Coming up we even have Matt Cardle, Dire Straits, Bucks Fizz and more – it’s an amazing and eclectic mix to keep gamers and new visitors happy.

How else are you broadening the product offering?

By looking at quiet times and turning them into opportunities. For example, the theatre space was largely unused during the day so now is turning into a successful conference centre with delegates particularly enjoying the fact they are ina well-located historical venue rather than a sterile hotel basement. Another example is the American Football where we have turned the quieter Sunday evening bars into a vibrant American Sports Bar environment full of lots of NFL fans.

Tell me about the Crystal Rooms?

The Crystal Rooms is a fabulous amusement centre that is on the South West Corner of the Hippodrome facing Leicester Square. Hitherto it was a completely separate business run by an adult gaming company. I acquired it last year. It was always part of my masterplan to incorporate it into the Casino. This ambition was finally achieved in November when negotiations with Praesepe’s Nick Hardy were finally completed. I am delighted it is running successfully now and over the next 12 to 18 months I will incorporate it into the main building. It gives me great street frontage, another entrance and much needed space for more EGMs.

A lot of work is going into updating the UK legislation so all UK Casinos have more suitable level of slot machines. When and if that happens the Crystal Rooms space will be even more valuable.

Do you think the law will be changed?

Yes. It’s clearly ridiculous that Casinos, which are universally acknowledged as the right place for harder gaming with their high levels of supervision and regulation, are restricted to 20 slots. Nearly everyone agrees this is wrong and needs correcting and our trade association NCF, has had very positive discussions with the Government about correcting this.

Online business - what are your thoughts?

Something to make the most of - hence we have www.hippodromeonline.com our branded online gaming site powered by Betway. We have our PokerStars Live branded poker deck that offers online players the chance to play offline cash games and tournaments. We even attracted Rafa Nadal & Ronaldo here for a charity tournament.

Also we were the first property in Europe to accept MyVegas points from the extraordinarily successful social gaming website. The actual crossover from online to offline is still relatively small but it is very much two-way and we are seeing a good number of people who have learnt to play games online but want the energy and glamour of the real world experience.