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The King of London

British casinos took a giant leap forward when Simon Thomas and his father Jimmy took over the fabled Hippodrome theater in London and created a casino for the new world

The King of London

For Simon Thomas, becoming owner of the Hippodrome in London was far more than simply operating a casino. It was also preserving a historical legacy.

The Hippodrome opened 124 years ago on Leicester Square, the entertainment capital of London at that time and still today. On opening night, January 15, 1900, it featured a musical variety show called Giddy Ostend, featuring a 4-foot, 6-inch comedian, Little Tich.

But the facility was built to thrill, with a 100,000-gallon water tank that would host aquatic performances, complete with synchronized swimming, diving and boats. The ceiling was cantilevered and eliminated posts, giving all visitors a clear view of the proceedings.

It was an immediate smash hit. Owned by Edward Moss and designed by architect Frank Matcham, the Hippodrome thrived for many years. In 1910, it was redesigned as a musical hall, with more than 1,300 seats. Over the years it hosted the U.K.’s first jazz concert by the original Dixieland Jazz Band, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake performed there for the first time outside of Russia, and Julie Andrews’ stage debut at the age of 12.

But when musical theater had run its course, the owner Bernard Defont gutted the interior in 1958 and opened London’s hottest dinner theater at the time, Talk of the Town. Dozens of acclaimed acts performed there, including Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey and many more. Talk of the Town closed in 1982, but “the greatest disco in the world” opened a year later under the ownership of nightclub tycoon Peter Stringfellow. Stringfellow sold it, and in 2005 it lost its license. The venue then returned to its circus roots with Cirque.

The lease to the property was then obtained by the Thomas family in 2005. And that’s where it got interesting…

Building a Casino

During the renovation process under Thomas’ leadership which started in 2009, the neighboring building also became available, Cranbourn Mansions. It was a “gentlemen’s” apartment block, and this was incorporated into the plans, nearly doubling the square footage of the property. Still, the renovation was planned to return to the original atmosphere and design by Matcham.

When it opened as the Hippodrome Casino in 2012, it immediately became the largest and busiest casino in the U.K. Simon Thomas drove the development with the wise counsel of his father Jimmy. Jimmy passed away in 2022.

Simon Thomas says that running a casino in the U.K. isn’t as easy as it might be in other jurisdictions. The regulations can strangle the most profitable parts of the casino. One example is slot machines. The Hippodrome has been limited to 20 machines. But the recently passed White Paper from the U.K. Gambling Commission was good news for the U.K.’s land-based casinos, allowing them more slot machines, Thomas says.

“The principal tenets of the changes were to modernize the law since the last changes in 2005,” he explains, “to make sure the balance between player opportunity and player protection was there and rebalance online and offline gaming.

“It’s now agreed. The only thing stopping us taking advantage of it is that the actual regulations have got to be laid before Parliament. We’ve got a bit of consultation ongoing just to confirm the finer detail, but from a land-based casino point of view, we’re finally going to be allowed to have more slot machines.”

With the revised law, Thomas says the land-based casinos will be more on a level playing field with other jurisdictions.

“It should have been reviewed in 2013. It didn’t get reviewed. So we’re 10 years late, but it will allow us to quadruple the number of machines we can have up to 80. And we can also have a betting license so we can have sports bars, and have more forms of electronic payment—just modernization, really. And the high-end casinos will in time be allowed to do credit for high-end overseas banked customers, more like we can in every casino worldwide.”

But just as things were improving, the pandemic dealt the Hippodrome, and all British casinos, a wicked blow.

“Covid hit like a sledgehammer. We were shut for 320 days,” he says. “Stage one of the pandemic gave us a lot of worries. It felt like we were going to go bust. My salary bills alone were £2.5 million a month. I had £12 million in the bank, so that didn’t look good. In stage two, we said that we’ll find a way through this—borrowing money, cutting costs, rationalizing, government furlough, etc. But stage three was the most interesting part. It’s a real Hippodrome story. We thought, let’s take this and flip it the other way around. Make it an opportunity, not a problem. We’re normally open 24/7, so to have 320 days of being closed gave us an opportunity to do all sorts of things that would’ve been a real challenge when we’re open.

“We did some big infrastructure projects, changing things like updating our air conditioning and lifts. We also built a fifth floor on the top of the building which is now a really cool roof terrace. We doubled the size of our fourth floor to get some more outdoor smoking and gaming tables. We moved our poker rooms and completely refurbished the areas. We call them our PokerStars Live suite of rooms.

“And we repositioned ourself in the market. I think we had perhaps been a bit cautious on our pricing, wanting to have the security of volume, but when our volume was restricted by regulations during Covid, we increased our minimums to play to the upper parts of our customer base, and as the restrictions fell away, we held them there, and as a result we’ve come out of Covid flying. We have 10 percent less customers and twice as much profitability. And recently we’ve added on two parts of the building we didn’t control.”

The pandemic brought other challenges as well.

“Covid changed people’s attitude to work,” he says. “And I think a lot of people who would have had their first job in a bar, didn’t go into hospitality. That’s going to take a few years to work through. But thankfully people like what we do and we’re fully staffed.”

The gaming at the Hippodrome is quite diverse.

“We’ve got 35 gaming tables and 18 poker tables,” he says. “We’ve currently also got 20 gaming machines, and 145 electronic roulette terminals at a lower price point than the live tables. Obviously, we’ll reduce some of those when we add the additional slot machines. But we’ve got plenty of space to play with to place the new slots.”

In addition to those improvements, Thomas has recently added a Chinese restaurant called Chop Chop, which has earned rave reviews from London foodies, plus a café. He has also refurbished the Hippodrome cocktail bar on the first floor, now called Permission. And Thomas says he’s creating a secret bar in the basement of the casino, the details about which, he is cagey.

“I can’t tell you about it because then it wouldn’t be secret,” he laughs.

Creating the Magic

With the Hippodrome being in the heart of London’s theater district, five years ago Thomas added the Magic Mike Live show to the offerings of the casino, and he says that has made a very positive difference.

“The biggest change to the demographics at the Hippodrome has been Magic Mike Live. Each week we get 3,000 people attending, predominantly 18-to-50-year-old women.

“The demographics have always been incredibly wide at the Hippodrome because we’ve got such a wide range of products and attractions, but it was still predominantly men. Magic Mike Live has helped address the balance and show we cater to everybody.”

Magic Mike Live is presented in on the former stage platform of the original Victorian theater—with a high-tech inner core of sound and lighting. It holds only 325 people. It’s very intimate, and every seat in the house is great, says Thomas. The show is approaching its 2,000th performance and still sells out, delivering profit, PR, awareness and acceptability.

“I’ve seen the show dozens of times, and I love it every single time. It’s funny. It’s sexy, clever, sassy and a lot of fun.”

Although the U.K. has had sports betting for years, Thomas says one of the changes proposed in the White Paper, allowing casinos to offer sports betting, will allow casinos to finally capitalize on that kind of wagering.

“We show every sports game live and we do particularly well with American sports in our sports bar,” he says. “Because of the time zone difference, most of the sports bars in London are closed when a lot of the American sports are on. We are open and we are definitely the best place in London to watch NFL, because we’re open 24/7. We also stream some of the ultimate fighting and boxing from Vegas as well. And then we’re building up our hockey, basketball, baseball coverage as well.”

Thomas admits that it’s not likely to be a big revenue driver, but it is another amenity to bring people into the Hippodrome.

“The reality is a lot of people, particularly in the U.K., use an app for sports betting,” he says, “so it is not likely to be a big earner. But it’s part of the showmanship of the property. We’ve already turned our lower ground casino, Lola’s, into a sports bar in anticipation of more people coming to the property to watch and bet on sports. It has a 10-meter screen and nine very large plasma screens, so can show a lot of sports simultaneously.”

And like many U.S. casinos, the Hippodrome has an online gaming site, with live dealer games as well as the omnipresent slot games. He says the site is very popular because of the Hippodrome brand.

“We’ve also taken Evolution’s online Lightning Roulette, and made a live casino version in the Hippodrome. The project is in its infancy, but I’m really excited for that product,” Thomas explains. “Roulette in a live casino environment works. The fun of the game and the excitement of a live casino combine to make a great experience.

“However, when you take the excitement of the live casino away from the roulette game, and restrict it to a screen, it can be a little bit flat. Evolution very cleverly brought a game show-type approach to online roulette with Lightning Roulette, and more volatility with 500-to-1 jackpots. I wanted to take that online excitement they’ve created that works on a screen and do it live, adding in the casino environment to see if it’ll be even better. So far so good!”

Future Shock

When asked how Brexit has impacted the gaming industry in the U.K., Thomas says it’s too soon to tell.

“Brexit’s not a one- or two-year project,” he explains. “It’s 20, 30, 40 years. The potential positives are obvious. We get control of our regulations and we get control of our borders. The negatives are equally obvious that the European community will try to punish England and make it as hard as it can, because it doesn’t want other countries to leave Europe. And the Brexit effect was confused by Covid, which was all happening more or less at the same time.

“There are some real opportunities with Brexit as well as negatives like the logistical challenges of delivering goods to and from Europe. But it hasn’t really affected tourism, and when the U.K. offers tax-free shopping to tourists again, it will be the only place in Europe that the 258 million people in the Schengen block can go to for tax-free shopping.”

Many of the forthcoming changes in U.K. gaming regulations are introducing regulations onto online casinos to address concerns on problem gambling. Thomas says the land-based casinos in England have always had strong regulations.

“The statistics worldwide say that problem gambling is relatively small, but let’s be realistic,” he explains. “It’s a small number of people that are harmed a lot. So it’s important. And it needs dealt with in a mature and balanced manner. There is a small part of the population with issues, but a huge part of the population to really enjoy the gambling pastime without a problem, and their needs are important as well.

“In the U.K. we take responsible gambling seriously; we always have. We’ve got problem gambling help and chat lines; we have self-exclusion schemes, we have strong regulations and a strong regulator. We have all sorts of counseling available. The staff training and level of supervision is very comprehensive. We need to deal with the negatives and expand on the positives.”

He points to the U.K. problem gambling helpline, run by GamCare, as one of the main resources for problem gamblers.

“GamCare has been operating it for over 20 years. And it’s actually expanded recently to add a Netline as well because the youth these days don’t actually speak on phones. They send messages. The Netline has recently overtaken the helpline. If there isn’t a Netline in the States, then that’s definitely something that should be developed. It’s very valuable.

“I was a trustee of GamCare for 12 years and was quite involved in the setting up of all of the helplines and systems. If people are in distress, it is important that there is somewhere they can go to and be directed into help or counseling.”

Thomas is coy about whether he would be interested in opening other Hippodrome casinos.

“There are no new casino licenses in the U.K., and in any case only a couple of cities I would be interested in, and I would love to have a go at a couple of them,” he says. “But I must be realistic. Two things—one, I’m having an awful lot of fun with the Hippodrome. It takes up a massive amount of my time, and we’ve still got lots to do and lots of opportunities, particularly with the regulatory changes that are going to allow us to do more.

“The second thing is the way licensing works in the U.K. Casino licenses are limited to whatever city issued them, and there are no new ones. So, take Manchester for example. If you get a license in Manchester, you can only use it in Manchester. There may be a dormant license there, but it will be owned by one of the major operators who will already have other sites in Manchester. The chances of them selling me a dormant license cheaply when they’ve already got existing sites is very small because they’ll know full well that I’d disrupt the market.

“But I’ll never say never. We are always looking, but in the meantime I am having a lot of fun with the Hippodrome!”

To view and hear a podcast of this interview with Simon Thomas, visit GGBMagazine.com.

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.