Casinos generally evolve over time; it’s extremely rare for a casino to open and remain unchanged. We learn what works and what doesn’t, who our customers are, and how best to serve them, and as a result the casino floor evolves and improves according to those needs. On its debut in the summer of 2012, the Hippodrome’s basement level hoped to capitalise on an entrance which opened in to Chinatown, but the owners have since learned what their players want, and they reacted. Forward to summer 2014 and Lola’s Underground Casino opened in the Hippodrome basement, a quite unique offering even in a city the size of London. Chief Executive and Chairman of the Hippodrome Casino Simon Thomas talked to Casino international about the project. Casino International: What have you done to the basement? Simon Thomas: We have turned it into a stand-alone destination within the building itself. When we opened we always knew that it was the start of a journey; we had completed the build and were then opening a very large empty box, albeit a beautiful one, into a market that had no idea about urban resort casinos. As we learned to use the space, we also learned how customers use it so we built in a lot of flexibility. The main floor worked brilliantly from day one and got busy very quickly. As time has gone on the quality of everything has improved; the basement area has gone through more of a journey though. It started life aimed at Asian players, and the early learning curve taught us that the Chinese players prefer to be on the main floor for ease of access, and that from an operational point of view it was better having the Pai Gow games and the Roulette, Blackjack and traditional ‘Western’ games all on the same level in an area open 24 hours a day. The basement area would then kick in later in the evening when demand increased, rather than have two floors half-open, 24 hours a day. The end result was that when the main floor is very busy in the evening, people come in and say ‘where can we go?’ We guide them to the tables in the basement – but as soon as you use the word basement it implies a secondary gaming area. Rather than fighting the fact that it is a basement, we thought we had better embrace it and we developed the underground casino connotation, with underground being slightly risqué, slightly naughty in this context. We built it [Lola’s] around a character who performed here in the early 1900s called Lola Maguire, and it became Lola’s Underground Casino. We completely made the space over; when you go downstairs now, instead of going into a basement which is a lower-energy version of the main gaming floor, you go into a much higher-energy space. People are choosing to gamble there, drink there because it’s a different feel but that is consistent with the underground styling, idea and theme; you actually walk in through an entrance which is a barber’s shop giving a nod to the Speakeasy-style operation in the US, while the other side is walking through what feels like a Victorian street. You walk into something decorated in the style of how the backstage area of the Hippodrome might have looked when it opened, the engine room of a new type of theatre, but instead of the bustle of an entertainment palace we have a Craps table, much louder music than the rest of the venue, different lighting and greater energy; the centrepiece in the middle of the main gaming pit is a dance cage with a burlesque dancer in there from 8pm to 4am every night. CI: With separate ‘clubs’ within the casino, are these spaces hireable for customers? ST: We have private functions in the bar area of Lola’s, and we also allow a bit of Learn To Play, but at peak times the gaming areas are all busy. For the FA Cup we’re hosting a private party for The Sun newspaper with a panel of football experts. But at heart we are a casino and even though, for example, we had the James Bond premiere [Skyfall] offered to us, it was on condition that we close part of the gaming area and let them use that as well – we said no, because we must have consistent, high-quality gaming. CI: How big is the event side of the business for you? ST: The Hippodrome, being a category-changer, suffers a little bit because people are used to British casinos being small and very limited, whereas we are much more like a Vegas-style urban resort casino. A very effective form of marketing for us is events, because people will come, they are curious, they attend an event here and we have designed the building so there are some really good event spaces. We can do anything from drinks parties for ten to conferences, screenings, dinners for 200-300 people quite easily. We’ve hosted film premier parties and major fashion shows. And of course we can now host weddings. Add to that the incredible location of the building, in the middle of London immediately above Leicester Square tube station, open 24 hours a day with all casino facilities available and it suddenly becomes a very attractive venue. When we started people were not confident enough to align their brands to a casino and Christmas parties in year one were numerous, if not the depth of quality we wanted; by year two we had brands like Barclays, UBS, CBRE, PWC, John Lewis, Tesco to name a few. People come with perhaps low expectations of a casino and it’s so easy to beat those expectations. Also, when they have had their event it’s not as though they finish and think, where shall we go? They want to stay, and it’s a great way of getting people to experience and explore the whole building. With word of mouth from these experiences, our admissions have gone from 18,000 in week four to 35,000 a week with really very little conventional advertising. Other areas we have improved by refining layout; Lola’s was good and has now become fabulous; the smoking terrace has undergone an evolution, to the point where we have a Roulette and a Blackjack table out on the terrace; the VIP rooms have evolved as business has increased. And we will soon relaunch the third floor gaming areas as an entirely new concept too, another stand-alone brand within The Hippodrome family. It’s been an amazing journey and what’s really exciting is that close to three years down the line, we realise we are nowhere near the end of the journey and we can see scope for improving things further. Watch this space.