Entrepreneur Simon Thomas, who
sold his bingo empire in 2006 for £80m, is now spending £20m on turning London's iconic Hippodrome on Leicester Square into a casino with capacity for 1,800 punters. The former music hall, which over the years has played host to a galaxy of stars from Houdini to Frank Sinatra, will reopen at the end of next month offering food and drink as well as roulette, blackjack and poker
business:life: Your family has been involved in the UK leisure industry for six generations and you have worked particularly closely with your father. What key lessons has he taught you?
Simon Thomas: Leisure certainly seems to be in our blood. A few generations ago the family were travelling showmen doing fairgrounds and their culture of hard work and stubbornness still rings true. My father built up a business and sold the month before the 1987 stock market crash and I sold the bingo company in 2006, so timing would seem to be a good lesson. And he has been a great role model for hard work, though he can be too stubborn at times. But above that are two key lessons. One is that all businesses are essentially the same: about managing time, money and people, with the emphasis on the latter. And the second is a great philosophy. When you have a problem there are only three choices: change it, accept it or walk away. If two of them are not possible, then just get on with the third and, with enough work and effort, anything is possible.
BL: Why the casino business?
ST: Before the new Gambling Act in 2005 you couldn't advertise or promote. Nor could you have live entertainment, alcohol on the gaming floor, or electronic gambling and you had to
be a member for 48 hours before you could gamble. The removal of all of that moved casinos from being very specialised businesses into a mass market space that I was familiar with.
BL: What's the Hippodrome's appeal?
ST: Location, location, location: it ticks all the boxes three times. The Hippodrome is a landmark building that is already known by 60 per cent of people in London — a quarter of a million people a day walk past the front door. Leicester Square is the second busiest tourist destination in London after Buckingham Palace. And we have a second entrance directly into a busy street in Chinatown, which is gold dust from a casino point of view. We had the whole building feng shuied and the feng shui master explained that the Chinese prefer to come in through a secondary entrance because going in through the bosses' entrance at the front eats their luck.
BL: What proportion of your customers do you expect to come from Chinatown?
ST: Traditionally, among the casinos in that area it's maybe half Chinese, half Western. Ours will probably be slightly less than that because traditional casinos aren't really friendly to non-gamblers. We're coming at it from more of an international leisure destination point of view. We will have five bars, a 200-seat cabaret space, a restaurant, four private dining rooms, three floors of casino and a two-floor smoking terrace. It's a much more glamorous environment, which will appeal to lots of people who won't gamble.
BL: You're setting up on the same square as The Empire casino. Is there a market for both of you?
ST: The casino industry is dominated by four large companies and they work very hard to keep out new entrants. When we made our licence application, we lost the first time round because the Empire was just opening and it confounded our market research. A year later, when we went back on appeal, the Empire was overflowing, and it helped make our demand evidence work. That said, we'll be bringing a lot more than the Empire has. It is perfectly nice, but it's in a sub basement and is predominantly a casino. We are mainly ground floor, have a beautiful theatrical atrium, and lots of good lateral space. We are very confident that we will likewise be full.
BL: I hear you poached one of their key staff?
ST: The Empire brought down a very good marketing man from the Midlands as part of their efforts to anticipate and combat us. His
job was to maintain good relationships with all the decent clients so, as the entrepreneur, you look at it and you say, "Fine, let's employ him"!
BL: You spent £600,000 restoring the original Flemish Renaissance plasterwork. Do you like it?
ST: It's beautiful. Most of the original plasterwork was stripped out in what was dubbed 'Operation Pick-Axe' in 1957 when it was converted into Talk of the Town. They also put in a false ceiling in the four-floor atrium. It's important for me to use the history of the building, its grandeur and splendour, and re-create a fantastically theatrical experience so people walk in and go "Wow!" Restoring the atrium and the plasterwork is part of the fun.
BL: You were granted a licence in 2008, the year the credit crunch hit. Bad timing?
ST: In terms of what we're offering and the location, I have 100 per cent confidence that even if the economy was significantly worse than it is now we would still be full to overflowing. The economic situation is what it is. Have I been fortunate with it? I sold out [Beacon Bingo] in 2006 at the top of the market so that was lucky.
I was then was delayed for a year by the licensing process and so I got the licence in 2008, which meant that when we started work we were able to negotiate very favourable rates with contractors, so perhaps that was lucky.
In 2009, the adjacent building became available and we were able to take that over and expand the scheme by an extra 25 per cent, so that was probably quite fortunate. Recruiting more than 450 staff now when there are a lot of very good people available, again puts us in a very fortunate position. At the end of the day people still want to go out and enjoy themselves and if we can offer a great evening out where people can have a drink, a meal, spend some money on roulette or whatever and get incredible value for money and a really fun experience, then there will still be a lot of people coming in.
BL: You are a Mensa member. What's your IQ?
ST: I did that ages ago for a bit of fun. It's 161 from memory, but I don't have time to use the membership. Maybe when the Hippodrome is up and running I will be able to delve more into it!
Interview: Dominic Midgley.
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