Simon Thomas: To build the Hippodrome, the brief was simple. Push the boundaries
We invite you to read an exclusive interview with Simon Thomas, Executive Chairman of Hippodrome Casino Ltd, in which we discuss the unusual relationship with his father that helped to build a large business in the gambling industry. You will also find us discussing Simon’s early career, responsible gaming, innovating, establishing business relationships, and the difficulties that are numerous in the gambling industry.
Career Beginnings: Starting from your first-class honours degree at the University of Bristol, through your time at the merchant banking company Singer & Friedlander Limited, to your role as Managing Director at Thomas Estates Ltd — what experiences from that period helped shape your career in the gambling industry?
The short answer is, they all did. I think it’s vital to be able to learn from a range of environments and disciplines and it’s what I’ve encouraged my own kids to do. I was very fortunate to have an excellent education at Uppingham where they taught me simply to enjoy the acquisition of knowledge, in all areas. It’s a somewhat hackneyed adage that ‘learning is fun’ but it’s fundamental.
Bristol University ‘trained the brain’ and I made some solid friendships that survive to this day. And Singers allowed me to learn from some truly inspirational business leaders and to dissect their decision making. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate.
And of course, going into partnership with my father was an experience because he was a true innovator and developed markets throughout the world. Coming into his business with some life experiences brought a different viewpoint to things, which led to some ‘rigorous’ discussions. But we both learned to compromise, and I think the Hippodrome is testament to a mix of old values and forward-thinking innovation.
Innovations in Entertainment: Over the years, you’ve been associated with companies known for their innovations in the entertainment industry, such as Thomas Estates Ltd and Hippodrome Casino Limited. What motivated you to introduce pioneering solutions in this field?
My dad was forever looking for opportunities through developing new ways of entertaining the customer, and he had a sixth sense for what would work. He used his money to build new markets, and his vast network to sell the new products he developed; I often suspected his overall business plan was a crystal ball.
The forerunner to the Hippodrome was a bingo hall in Cricklewood I developed into the largest of its kind in the country; a true entertainment centre that combined theatre, gaming, food, drink, community, and employment. It took advantage of the bingo deregulation of the early 1990s in a way that no one else did. I think we were even the first bingo hall to have a wedding licence, an idea I swiftly brought to the Hippodrome.
To build the Hippodrome, the brief was simple. Push the boundaries. We interpreted new and enlightened legislation that freed a sector that had stood still for decades through punitive rules and regulations. The experience doing the same for bingo two decades before was very useful.
2005 saw a new gambling act that allowed casinos to become fun, venues that were now allowed to combine – as we have done at the Hippodrome – world class entertainment, a food and drink offer that appeals to the widest possible audience, together with a formidable core gaming offer. We have also developed some strong food, gaming and entertainment partnerships with the best in breed – including Hollywood star Channing Tatum who brought his hit Vegas show Magic Mike Live to us five years ago, a show that remains one of the fastest selling productions in West End history and is still playing here to 95% capacity audiences, and world class food partners such as the One Group and the Royal China Group. As well as the inimitable Max Halley.
I’m optimistic the potential new legislation offered by the current gambling review will bring further opportunities and we will see significant changes once again across the casino family.
Transformation of Hippodrome Casino: Hippodrome Casino is a casino complex that underwent a remarkable transformation from its inception in 2005 to its opening in 2012. Could you share the major challenges and achievements during this process?
The challenges were just as we expected. And many more on top of that.
On an infrastructure level we had two Grade 2 buildings that required huge amounts of work while adhering to numerous permissions and must-keeps.
Gutting and rebuilding a historical London theatre, with the only ingress to the premises being a relatively small double fire door, was the architectural equivalent of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.
We were intent on retaining or rebuilding many of the original features, but fortunately this was a building designed by one of the all-time great theatre architects Frank Matcham, whose sense of space and spectacle matched our own ambitions.
Along the way, we solved many issues.
Other casinos objected. Since opening I’m delighted to say the owners that raised concerns have become firm friends.
Heritage organisations were troubled at the idea of us transforming an entertainment icon into something other than a theatre. We were transparent in our ambitions and once we explained our concept to bring back the core 1900s structure while re-purposing it for a new audience, we won round our most vocal detractors. During the build we were a revolving door to keep everyone engaged and informed, vital when there’s nervousness about what we’re doing.
We also had to impress a local authority who quite rightly wanted to know who we would be attracting to the West End and where a new casino would fit within the local business eco-system. After all, a few years before their much-publicised goal to clean up Leicester Square included the removal of a liquor license from the Hippodrome as a nightclub. Ironically this led to the premises being available to us.
We have legion supporters for what we have achieved. I firmly believe we have not only built a business of which the West End can be justifiably proud and saved a much-loved structure along the way, but we play an important part in the onward success of the area.
As one local restaurant owner told me as we emerged from lockdown and curfew: ‘If the Hippodrome does well, we all do well.’
It is always important to me that we are good neighbours, and ensure we fight for the community to bring collaborative success. Along the way we have won more than our fair share of awards for best casino here and across Europe, and gongs for our restaurants and staff.
But more importantly, we’ve made thousands of friends.
Role in Industry Associations: You’ve been actively involved in various industry associations and committees, including BACTA, the Bingo Association, NCF and BGC. What aspects of this role have been most satisfying for you and have influenced the development of this industry?
Experience has revealed that in trade associations there are 20% doers and 80% followers.
I much prefer to be in the part that puts in the effort in and is able to identify opportunities and influence change.
Over the years I have been involved in all forms of legislative development and keep a close eye on legal change.
For instance, connections I made with contemporaries in other countries ultimately helped me see the threats and opportunities the 2007 act would bring to my own area at the time; and the dangers of the subsequent smoking ban which was a catastrophe for the bingo sector. And more recently, as the head of the land-based casino section of the BGC, I am in a great position to try to bring the current gaming review to fruition.
Sustainable Development and Social Engagement: In your bio, you mentioned your participation in charitable organizations and committees dealing with issues related to gambling and social matters. What values guide you in matters of sustainable development and social engagement, particularly in the context of the gambling industry?
At the end of the day, the thing I enjoy most is sitting down for dinner with my family. It doesn’t get much better than that.
And that sense of security is core to what I do in my business life.
I have to ensure that people gamble safely, which the vast majority of them do. But I strictly adhere to the rules and invest massively in customer care and advice. And looking at the positives, a really interesting frontier is to start thinking about customer wellbeing – to understand how the casino experience provides enrichment (mentally if not always financially) to the customer. How does playing games provide intellectual stimulus? How does the casino facilitate socialisation? Harm prevention is important but on its own is not a sound basis for building a business. If we really understand what healthy, positive gambling looks like (which may not be the same as ‘safe gambling’) then how does this affect how we design and operate casinos in the future?
Anyway, the criticisms are sometimes very unfair and based on questionable evidence. So, I find myself having to jealously guard the reputation of an industry I grew up in and have developed over the years.
We are an easy target for anti-gambling sentiment in a society increasingly dependent on social media and its influencers, who enjoy taking pot shots, so I endeavour to provide positivity and balance…and yes, sometimes strident opinion.
But I think I’m allowed to do so. I employ 750 people, contribute millions to the Exchequer, support and sustain a vital part of central London and campaign tirelessly for what many consider the jewel in the capital’s tourist crown. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved.