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Realtà Realtà - Simon Thomas, Hippodrome Casino

By - 13 ta' Mejju 2024

With an impressive international cohort of leading CEO’s sharing their perspectives, concerns and visions for the coming year, the IAGA Summit’s CEO Roundtable will opine on a wide range of issues including the biggest challenges and opportunities they see facing the industry. Panelist Simon Thomas, Executive Chairman, The Hippodrome Casino London, previews the topics he’ll be addressing in Washington DC, 28-30 ta ’Mejju.

Simon, what for you are the most pressing issues facing your business right now – and what do you see incoming on the horizon?

I’m a firm believer that all ‘pressing issues’ are actually opportunities. The obvious challenges that face us all equally give good businesses the opportunity to outperform if we manage them well, and I am looking forward to the next few months. I think summer will be a very busy period as London finally forgets its Covid trauma and stands firmly back on its feet. Who knows, we might also get some visitors from the Paris Olympics.

Obviously, Government’s review of the UK Gambling Act is highly anticipated. After years of discussion and negotiation with a highly receptive Culture Media & Sport department we’re looking forward to some legislative reshaping that will improve areas of concern within the wider gambling sector, but also pave the way for innovation and investment for UK land-based casinos with betting being allowed in casinos and more gaming machines. Exciting times.

European casinos bounced back after Covid, but rising cost of living pressures continues to bite into discretional spending – is this an issue for the Hippodrome / are you changing or adapting your offer in response?

These are difficult times, no doubt about it. Cost of living, produce expense, transportation, consumer confidence at a low ebb, rising crime; circumstances would appear to be against businesses.
But we have a saying at the Hippodrome; find a way or make a way. Brazenly stolen from Hannibal when he was planning on taking his elephants over the Alps. In our case, it means there’s a solution to most problems.

It’s not in our blood to consider cost cutting strategies and retreat, which so many businesses do in stringent times. Our policy is to simply make things even better for the customer.

Time and again we see venues slam on the brakes throwing brand values in the bin as they save money and deliver less; this is a surefire way of shedding customers.

During Covid we invested £3m in new spaces, including a three-tier outdoor terrace and the beginnings of what is now Chop Chop, a new Chinese restaurant that has leaped to an incredible 10th place on Trip Advisor’s London best restaurants list; we completed this work in record time, because we were closed, and confident about our re-opening. We used lockdown to think about what changes we could make to the business, to reshape and reframe. The venue was also empty and the best builders were available so what better time to build for the future.

In 2024 we’re more determined than ever to offer customers more, with the imminent opening of a ninth bar, a secret bar, a reformatted Heliot Steak House, and ambitious plans to extend over the old theatre roof and up to the iconic charioteer overlooking the entire West End. These are not small projects, but I find life is more exciting when you think big.

You’ve always been an early adopter of the latest gaming technologies – what are you currently excited about, and what are you steering clear of?

On the steering clear: I receive many approaches about virtual reality. Which irks me somewhat, given I’ve spent fast approaching 20 years developing and running a business that is all about delivering the best possible ‘real life’ experience. Why would I want to introduce tech that allows people to virtually leave the building I’m so proud of. They’d miss so much. I want to deliver reality reality.

On things that excite me: there are some great slot machine advancements, including touchscreen, interactive bonus rounds, progressive jackpots – these all enhance play and deliver the kind of innovation our customers may enjoy and it looks like we can finally offer them in numbers. Cashless payments will help streamline transactions and improve convenience and reduce operational overheads, and facial recognition and AI are beginning to be more useful.

I studied electrical engineering at university. I’m tech-savvy and excited as the next man to see what it can deliver. I’m also focused on what my customer wants, so view all advancement through the view of ‘how do we want our customer to feel about this’, and my customer is not a teenager.

Sticking with technology (though not necessarily gaming technology), what do you see as the possible applications for AI in the land-based gaming sector? Are there any threats that you envision too?
There are three main areas I can currently envisage AI assisting us: enhanced player experience; operational efficiency and compliance. It is early days but it has to help. It is just finding out how!

The IAGA Summit takes place this year in Washington DC – what would your message be to policy makers as regards the land-based casino industry, what help, support and consideration would you like to see for your industry?

I would urge policymakers to do three things where casinos are concerned. Number one – take the time to really understand what we do, how we operate and our place in the communities we serve. Let’s face it, the very word casino is redolent with a colourful mythology; but the reality is rather different. Number two – respect the wishes of casino customers in terms of how they choose – as adults – to get their kicks.

Contrary to what some moralists assert, casino players tend to be intelligent and informed consumers. Their rights to privacy and choice should be preserved within reasonable parameters; and they deserve the same respect accorded to consumers in general.

Number three – work with operators to raise standards for customers – in terms of service and enjoyment as well as harm prevention. Understand how policy decisions can either enhance or diminish the experience and enjoyment of our customers.

Oh sorry, there’s a fourth. And possibly the most important one of all. Don’t forget, casinos are about fun, enjoyment, people metaphorically kicking off their shoes and having a laugh. There’s a tsunami of criticism from the anti-gambling lobby that persistently forgets the vast majority of people who gamble do so for enjoyment, play carefully and remain safe. It was for a good reason the early machines were called ‘amusements’. It’s as true now as it was then.

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