The UK has enjoyed two new casino openings in recent times, in Leeds and most recently, Bath. Paul Sculpher, in his role as Managing Director, Strategy and Operations, GGV, is involved with both casinos and brings us his unique perspective on the projects.
The 2005 Gambling Act is now regarded as ancient history and while it has many imperfections, and some would argue missed opportunities, from a personal perspective it was a fantastic opportunity to get in at the ground floor of what appeared to be an imminent sea change in the nature of the UK casino industry.
It might not have worked out quite that way for many, but by leaving my job as GM of Aspers Newcastle in 2008, I was in a good position to take advantage. I was able to work my way into the group of 16 local councils who had the right to award a 2005 Act licence, and six of them eventually engaged me to be their casino specialist at some point during the process.
Seeing how the process worked was quite an education – from some spectacular application documents to some that were more … rudimentary. Nonetheless, it was a valuable experience and as a result I was asked to help write the ultimately successful licence application for the GGV project in Leeds, for a “Large” licence (as well as their unsuccessful Southampton application, and the successful Jomast application in Middlesbrough).
One opportunity led to another and before I knew it I had a new role as Operations Director, and was tasked with taking the Leeds and Bath operations from theoretical constructs on paper to living breathing operating casinos. The Leeds project was still under the wing of GGV, a UK independent, while the Bath project passed to global player Century Casinos, as their initial foray into the UK to go along with their widespread portfolio of international casino operations.
A tale of two cities
There was a fairly uncomfortable period when it looked like Leeds and Bath were going to be scheduled to open more or less simultaneously. This would have been a bit of a logistical nightmare or at the very least would have led to some dilution of focus, but a combination of funding delays for Bath and the timing of the disposal of the Bath licence to Century brought valuable breathing space, and in the end the Leeds opening was in late January 2017, while Bath opened recently in May 2018.
Many of you reading this will have been involved in casino openings before, and I’d had considerable experience, being involved in 5 Grosvenor relocations, as well as two new openings, and more recently and relevantly having been responsible for opening the new (and very successful) independent Coral Island Casino in Blackpool.
While no two openings are the same, I’ve employed the same basic philosophy in all of them – preparation is great, but the ability to pivot and react to changing circumstances is critical. That’s easy to say, of course, although during the lead up to opening there’s not much choice, fit-outs never go according to plan and while our main contractor on both jobs, the excellent Phelan Construction were great to work with, curveballs fly in from left and right and the trick is to work with them and not be too fixated on one plan.
The early stages of a new casino project obviously start with determining what type of casino you want to be, and while the correct answer to the standard question “who is the target audience?” is always “everyone”, it’s still an essential question to ask to understand the local market and make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of what we’re trying to achieve.
There was also a new opportunity in the UK for these licences, in that we were allowed more than 20 slots (150 in Leeds, up to 80 in Bath) due to the new type of licence on offer. There’s not as much slots knowledge in the UK as you would see overseas, so we had to be mindful during the recruitment process, particularly in Leeds, of ensuring the team understood how to market and operate a significant slots estate.
Building a team
The recruitment process is obviously critical, and takes an inordinate amount of time, whether it’s the senior team (which I’d get involved in), or finding the large numbers of staff needed to run the operation. Lofty recruitment ideals often exist at the start of the process, but reality determines the quality of team members who make it into the final operation, and turnover in staff in the early days is always going to make life difficult.
From a senior team perspective, in Leeds we used the finest recruitment agency in the known universe GRS Recruitment (ok, I admit it, I’m a partner – www.grs-recruit.com)to recruit the senior team members, and we were exceptionally fortunate to secure Patrick Noakes as Venue Director (now MD of the casino) a good while before the opening. Patrick’s experience is absolutely key for a site as large, by UK standards, as Leeds and sitting across a desk from him for six months was a privilege and learning experience for me.
Similarly in Bath we were delighted to find Craig Hoptrough for GM (now Casino Director). Craig brings a wealth of top end experience to the project, and he has developed a tight team to get the operation rolling, and while it’s early days, trade is growing on a weekly basis. The size of the senior team in Bath fits the operation, and while there’s less to worry about in a smaller casino, many things don’t change regardless of size, and they’ve got their hands full.
Suppliers and contractors
You’ll not get far without your suppliers in a new casino environment, but luckily a lot of the big names are well used to opening new sites and can build in flexibility to their schedules to match the dynamic nature of the project.
There will always be a late panic when launching a new casino, but having trusted, reliable suppliers helps keep the impact of that to a minimum. Working with people like TCS, Novomatic and IGT in the UK does make life a lot easier. There are always pluses and minuses to working with any sort of “turnkey” solution with suppliers – the downside usually being it’s more expensive – but regardless, there are a lot of professional people out there and leaning on their experience is never a bad option.
Leading up to launch
Make no mistake, opening a casino without a large corporate infrastructure behind you is not a stress free experience. From my perspective, living away from home for months and dealing with dozens of suppliers, scores of contractors, recruiting the team and developing the critical marketing plan for the new operation can leave you in a bit of a spin. I guess it gets easier the more you do it, although if you’d put that to me three days before the Leeds launch I’d have politely disagreed. Or not so politely.
The launch day itself is always a subject for debate. What’s the purpose of having a huge gala event with the great and the good of the city invited along to quaff free champagne, when virtually none of them will have an impact on the eventual operation? Well, building local relationships is always important, and there’s plenty of PR to be generated by such an event. In some cases – Leeds included – we had a good enough handle on local casino players of interest to be able to invite them to the launch, and make them feel valued. Other than that, it’s definitely not as simple as “you have to have a huge launch because that’s how it’s done” – we opened Blackpool with no party and no marketing, and pound for pound that’s probably as successful a launch as there’s been in the UK for a while, so it’s at least a nuanced debate.
Nonetheless we partied hard for both Leeds and Bath – Leeds being particularly tricky, given we only got full access to the building effectively four days before launch – but it never ceases to amaze me how teams pull together to get everything delivered. It’s easy to think, as the person responsible for delivering the project, that you need to be involved in everything and aware of every detail, but the truth is when you’re surrounded by a team of professionals, at maximum motivation with the excitement of a new launch, they’re entirely capable of getting the project where it needs to be without constant direction.
There is always a flat spot a few months after launch, when reality bites. Staff turnover is still high enough to make everyday life difficult, the pressure of wanting to bring in and smooth out standard practices in HR and marketing strains working weeks to the limit, and of course everything gets more complicated when there are actual customers to deal with, and the myriad problems they generate.
There aren’t many more satisfying feelings in the casino business, though, than turning words on a page into a real life operation that makes money, and the teamwork and feeling of collective accomplishment that goes with that. It’s a hard road, but a great destination.