Gaming and giving back is proving to be a winning formula for the iconic Mayfair casino
Until 2020 the world of the ultra-high-net-worth was predictable. UK summers were all about visitors packing London’s high end hotels, eating in the best restaurants, shopping in department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges, and – for the privileged few – gaming in casinos such as Les Ambassadeurs Club in London’s Mayfair.
Fast forward to 2022 and the post-Covid world looks very different. Overseas visitors are returning, but in a less predictable pattern overall. According to VisitBritain, UK visits overall for 2022 will rise to 26.7 million this year, pushing spending to £21.6 billion – but still down around 30 percent on 2019 levels. The VisitBritain estimate for summer 2022 visitor was recovery to two-thirds of pre-Covid levels.
Yet, when it comes to the ultra-high-net worth there are reasons to be optimistic. There are implications for the wider economy that they are leading the way back to something like pre-Covid normality. At Les Ambassadeurs there is an important barometer; a return to 24-hour opening is within touching distance. “It’s not at full-tilt – but we are close,” says Kevin McGowen, chief executive of Les Ambassadeurs.
The iconic Mayfair casino is benefiting on two counts. The first is a general return of the key Middle Eastern and Far Eastern summer members. The second is that Les A, as it is affectionately known, used the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 to quietly carve out a clear point of difference – one shaped around the idea that giving back and gaming are not mutually exclusive. It is a positioning that has enticed the Middle Eastern and Far Eastern members back to the casino in summer 2022. “We have always prided ourselves in having the highest possible standards in customer safety, value, product and service,” says McGowen. “But returning and new members will have noticed an emphasis on putting stakeholders and good causes at the front of all initiatives.”
Members have seen this in tangible ways such as the Good Causes Jackpot Zone in the Club’s outdoor-garden gaming area, where members have been encouraged to donate a meaningful amount of their slot-jackpot winnings to good causes. The offerings have led to over 140 progressive-jackpot payouts, with over £800,000 in good-cause donations and a steady increase in overall member generosity. More broadly, Les A club is contributing one percent of its gross gaming yield to GambleAware in 2022. This means members know that a portion of their gaming automatically goes towards supporting safer gambling education, harm prevention and treatment.
McGowen and his team are constantly looking for innovative ways to frame activities with the good-cause messaging. The casino’s Summer of Sharing was launched to support a variety of good causes, staff and members. The central idea is that members can contribute through direct generosity in the form of donations and tips, and also earn points when spending in the club, including the restaurant at 6 Hamilton Place, the Members’ Gift Shop, and by booking travel and holidays through Essential Experiences. These points can be converted into prizes for members and more direct generosity. Points also mean the Ambassadeurs Group WorkFamily can earn a share by way of an achievement award and, crucially, more points mean more goes to the chosen good causes. A standalone brand has been created to promote the Summer of Sharing, using a cool logo and vibrant colours. Shirts, badges and sashes have been worn across the WorkFamily, and the casino staff have embraced the good cause messaging through the club so members and the WorkFamily alike can be inspired by the concept.
“It’s a win-win-win for our members, our WorkFamily and society,” says McGowen. “We want to make sure that our members can share their good fortune with others in a pay-it-forward approach that is uplifting and inspires others to participate. At the same time, their activities are helping the levelling-up agenda by supporting some fantastic, good causes. Our WorkFamily are more engaged than ever before and are actively submitting their own ideas for future inclusive promotions like the Summer of Sharing.”
Other high-end casinos such as Crockfords, Crown Aspinalls and Park Lane Club are also seeing the steady return of the overseas UHNW. It is an important moment. The ripple effect from the UHNW spending is a key indicator for the broader economy. Research undertaken by EY for the National Casino Forum examined the contribution of the UK high-end casino industry on the UK economy. Its findings remain relevant today. Spending trends by the UHNW are not just confined to the casinos they frequent; there is a wider impact.
The EY report centred on the eight high-end London casinos that were operating at the time – Clermont Leisure, Crockfords, Maxims Casino, Les Ambassadeurs, The Ritz, Crown Aspinalls London, Playboy and Park Lane Club – all serving international mobile high-net worth individuals (HNWIs). In 2016 these eight Mayfair casinos accounted for 28 percent of the overall casino market in the UK. The elite four, Les A, Crockfords, Crown Aspinall and Ritz generated £180m – some 65 percent of the total, with the rate of international visitors reaching 87 percent in some venues.
Of the eight casinos the report centred on, only four still have their doors open for business. Covid was brutal for the land-based gaming sector, which either forced the permanent closure of venues or stalled re-opening. But another factor was already impacting the sector as lockdown came to an end – and this one is legislative. The international UHNW visiting the UK are forced to use cheques in order to be able to play. Processing those foreign cheques has become increasingly difficult with banks withdrawing their services. There have long been calls to amend Section 81 of the Gambling Act 2005, to replace outdated cheque transactions with an advance facility, commonly used in other jurisdictions for high-net worth players from overseas. This would enable them to settle their bill with one transaction at the end of their trip. Amending the act would give a small but significant impact to the high-end casinos.
It is just over a year since casinos were given the green light to reopen, on August 15, 2021. Casinos remain an important driver of growth and spending. Key findings from the EY report revealed £74 million of indirect and induced effects of the high-end casino industry. Through its supply chains, it supported value creation in a number of industries in London – these included £14 million in the rental and leasing services industry, and £3 million in food and beverage services. As the EY report points out, high-end casinos are highly labour intensive and support many jobs. They also contribute significant revenue to the UK Exchequer, through business taxes such as corporation tax, and gaming industry duties such as Machine Gaming Duty and Gaming Duty. Beyond this, there are licence fees that come with the food and drink consumed in casinos.
It is the UHNWIs who play in the Mayfair casinos who have a particular – and significant – impact on London.
This is because they are far more likely to combine their trip with other tourism, sports and cultural activities, as well as business interests. They are also likely to travel with an entourage. At the time of the report the estimated contribution of tourism activity was between £120 million and £200 million a year.
“The spending starts in Mayfair,” explains McGowen. “Visitors come to the UK to spend the summer here. They are not in the casino all the time – although they have access to the concierge-style service that comes with being a member of an elite club, and that is an important attraction.” He points out that they want to come to London because it is a great city. “They might have their children in school here or have business or property interests in the UK,” he explains. “They want to go shopping and eating – and they want to play. So, they stay in Mayfair to be close to their clubs. Of course, many of our members rarely travel alone.”
Future-proofing a city is about more than putting in place key infrastructure such as digital connectivity and sustainable power supplies. “It is about ensuring people have great places to visit,” says McGowen. “For Les Ambassadeurs’ members this is about giving them a great membership experience, in a great location.”
As summer 2022 comes to a close, the high-end casinos are looking to the Qatar World Cup in November as the next staging post for a revival in their fortunes. The football event is expected to bring an influx of new overseas visitors to the clubs. “The habits of our members around sporting events are returning to pre-Covid patterns,” says McGowen.
It is proof, perhaps, that the UHNWI are returning – and that they are helping economies build back.
*** This exclusive feature interview with Les Ambassadeurs was originally published in September 2022 in Casino Life Magazine***