Aspers: The British Phenomenon

As I rode up the escalator inside the Aspers Casino in Westfield Stratford City in East London, I knew I was entering into what was once the dream of nearly every gaming company in the U.K., and what has now become the biggest success story of modern British gaming. Having spent months planning, hiring and training staff and worrying about every conceivable problem that might happen on opening day, the team at Aspers could not—and did not—envisage what did happen when they opened the doors midday on Dec. 1, 2011. Eleven thousand visitors came. Eleven thousand! This was unheard of in the U.K. The nearest casino in size to Aspers in London is the Victoria Casino with its 29 tables, and it only expects approximately 1,800 players per day. Aspers, opening initially with 41 gaming tables, attracted a staggering amount of attention. No one could have forecast this amazing result. So where did all this begin, and how did Aspers make it happen?

It was more than 12 years ago when the British gaming industry began to speculate about the possibility of a super casino in the East End of London. Rumors abounded that it would be an American company that would one day run it, as they had the money and experience running a super casino. With the passing of the Gaming Act of 2005, that speculation was to become a reality. But it wasn’t an American company that would do it. It was a partnership between the Aspinall family, headed by the son of one of Britain’s most illustrious gaming figures, and Crown Ltd., Australia, whose executive chairman is the son of one of Australia’s most influential men. Damian Aspinall, son of the late John Aspinall, zookeeper and casino owner, and Jamie Packer, son of the late Kerry Packer, the newspaper magnate, opened the doors of their latest Aspers Casino in Stratford, London on Dec. 1, 2011, and realized a gaming dream.

The main gaming floor at Aspers.

Aspers, so called after John Aspinall’s nickname, had already opened its first casino in Newcastle, in Northwest England in 2005. It was an amazing phenomenon, completely changing the face of gaming by embracing the new and more relaxed gaming regulations. This was quickly followed by two more regional casinos in Swansea and Northampton: the Northampton casino, a joint venture with Kerzner U.K. Limited. And finally, the crème de la crème, a super casino, the first casino granted a license for a “large” casino: Aspers, in Westfield Stratford City.

Westfield itself has been an amazing success in the U.K. It is a large shopping mall group, and its latest, Stratford, is considered to be the biggest in Europe, with 1.9 million square feet of space, including leisure facilities such as Aspers. But to have a casino in a shopping mall? Well, that was just unheard of. Historically, central London casinos have been situated in old Georgian houses or in hotels, with approximately 12–18 gaming tables. Plus, prior to the 2005 act, casinos had been members-only clubs. Many clubs, especially those in Mayfair, traded with an air of elitism, offering their distinguished clients big-money action. Although there have been plenty of other clubs that offer gambling opportunities for the more modest gamblers, they were, until 2007, still obliged to be members-only clubs. This discouraged many potential gamblers who did not perceive casinos as part of a “normal” lifestyle for the general public.

After winning the bid for the only large casino license in the U.K., Richard Smith, who at the time was the general manager of The Gate in Newcastle, was appointed the position of general manager at Aspers at Stratford. Smith has been with the Aspers group since 2008, after he left Gala Casinos to join what he called, “a forward-thinking company.” His clear thinking and eagerness to embrace new ideas has helped make Aspers the success that it is today.

Richard Smith told me how he and Chief Operating Officer Richard Noble drew up the initial design of the casino. “It was by a process of trial designs and consultation with Damien Aspinall and with Crown. Crown’s input was invaluable,” Smith said. “Due to their ownership of large casinos in Melbourne, Perth and Macau, Richard Noble and I were able to draw on Crown’s massive amount of experience.”

During this planning phase, Smith and Noble were joined by Mark Beatty, who took up the role of regional electronics manager. Having a large casino license, they were able to purchase five slots for every one gaming table to the maximum of 150 slots—so, as they were planning to open with 41 tables, they were eligible to have a full complement of slots. In order to comply with the 2005 Gaming Act, all slots had to have B1 content, so although Beatty was restricted in his choice, WMS, IGT and Novomatic were able to provide Aspers with a great selection.

So they had the premises, the design, the equipment (tables and gaming equipment supplied by TCSJOHNHUXLEY), and just one more thing was needed: staff. Where do you get that number of trained staff? A few years ago, the government brought in a new taxation scheme, increasing casinos’ tax to 50 percent across the entire range of gaming facilities, including poker rooms and slots, as well as the gaming tables. Coupled with the current financial climate, this resulted in a huge number of redundancies within the industry. But this was good news for Smith and Noble, because for the first time since the late 1970s, when the Gaming Board swept through London and implemented the closure of such gaming giants as Playboy, Ladbrokes, Corals and the Knightsbridge Sporting Club for contraventions of the Gaming Act, there was an excess of experienced staff in the job market. This meant that when the club opened, 75 percent of its staff members were already experienced. It had also been part of Aspers’ bid that it would hire staff from the local area; as the first casino in the East End of London, it was very well-placed to recruit new staff who lived in the nearby residential areas.

Smith also noticed, when he was at The Gate, that new customers were happier playing on mini punto banco (known as baccarat in the U.S.) rather than the heavily staffed, formal large tables. Obviously these one-dealer games are not only friendlier, but it was also another way to reduce the number of staff.

The thinning out of top-heavy management teams has also been another radical change for London casinos as a result of higher taxation. In many casinos, the demise of the floor manager has been very apparent, and it was also noticeable at Aspers. The inspectors, who oversee the gaming tables, were very self-sufficient; they all carried mobile communication systems enabling them to call directly to the camera room or for a top-up of the floats. However, to ensure a safe environment, there was an obvious presence of security people.

So having ticked all the boxes for premises, staff and equipment, Aspers Casino Westfield Stratford City opened its doors. After the amazing first-day head count, a steady stream of customers continued to arrive, totalling within the first 10 days, to a footfall of 64,000. The casino was so busy that it installed another eight gaming tables after the first weekend. Smith attributes the large opening to “good advertising and a great location in Westfield, Stratford.” Smith told me that they not only advertised in the local papers, but that Westfield shopping center had also been very obliging by highlighting the casino’s presence to the shoppers who had been visiting Westfield in droves. Plus, the East End is a prime location, as it hadn’t been one of the permitted areas for a casino under the old Gaming Act, and many of the local residents had previously traveled to the West End to gamble.

But could it last? As of this writing, three months later, what’s the current footfall? Smith told me, “It averages to about 4,000 per day.” Not bad. And the average spend per head? “Approximately £30 per head,” according to Smith. Though on my numerous visits, I often saw some higher rollers at the table—often much higher.

When I visited, the double-zero roulette tables were extremely busy, these are new to the U.K. since the 2005 Gaming Act and aided in popularity by Smith’s introduction of a 50 pence bet. Smith told me that he had first introduced the double zero, lower minimum bet combination at The Gate, and it was so popular that he decided to bring in two double-zero tables to Stratford. The customers not only like the price, but they also like to play on a game that is slightly different.

The customers also like playing on the 114 live game terminals. In fact, these terminals are doing so well that, as of this writing, plans were in place to increase their numbers by 24 in April for a total of 138—a massive total by U.K. standards. The live gaming tables, meanwhile, remain in full swing, and many of the customers I met reported that they still prefer to sit at a live game, as it has more atmosphere.

Smith reported that of the electronic games, Shuffle Master’s iTable Blackjack has been extremely popular, as is Interblock’s 12-seater G4 Organic Roulette™. “In fact the Interblock game has been so popular that we’ve ordered the G4 Organic Dice™,” he said.

Prior to the 2005 act, casinos in the U.K. were limited to just two slot machines per club, so I had to know how the 150 slots were doing, too, including the betting terminals for sports and races situated next to a large multi-screen terminal. “It’s too early to tell which slots are the favorites,” Smith told me, “but we have noticed that people prefer to play in the middle of the setup, so it’s more positioning that’s key. We have two progressives, but under U.K. law, the progressives on the slots can only go to £4,000, which is something we’d really like to see change.”

Looking around, it appeared that some of the punters seemed reluctant to play the slots. Smith agreed, “We are intending to start to help the customers to play the slots, as they can appear a bit daunting.”

But did Aspers miss a trick by not putting any slot machines in the Sky Bar? Smith explained, “It was part of the bid that we’d have somewhere that customers can chill out away from any gaming.” And what a place it is to chill out—beautifully decorated in a very modern design overlooking the 2012 Olympic Stadium and completely different from the other traditional British casino bars.

From 7 p.m. onward, the Big Wheel and dice game are in full swing, but if that’s still not enough to entertain players, Aspers also offers a poker room that is currently set up to accommodate 150 players and is expandable to 250. The “Bad Beat” progressive is currently creeping up to £100,000, and is becoming a major draw for players.

But who are these players? Without any formal membership, players just flow through the club, and Aspers is still perfecting its player tracking system—after all, open membership is still relatively new in the U.K. “That’s something that we’re still working on,” Smith said. “We have introduced loyalty cards so that customers can enjoy the benefits of free plays on the slots or shopping vouchers in Westfield, but only having been open three months, we still have a lot more to do in the marketing department. We are about to launch a big campaign to get customers to sign up for these cards, as by doing so, they have to fill in a detailed form, which will allow us to gain the information we need to be able to properly assess their needs and requirements.”

Even though Aspers offers everything that a gambler could want, it is very eager to highlight Gamble Aware on its plasma screens around the casino, and all the staff have been trained by Gamcare to notice if gambling is becoming too much of a problem for individual customers. It even offers a Quiet Room where customers can go and discuss any problems with a manager. Or, if the customer just wants a break from gambling, or if they just fancy a night out, there is an 80-seat restaurant plus Tanzibar, the watering hole in the center of the casino. On some nights of the week, there is live music in the Sky Bar. For those who are really stressed, there is always a back masseuse on hand.

After all this, what next? Another casino, of course. It was announced on April 10 that the Aspers bid for the new large casino license being offered in the Xscape Complex in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, was successful. Estimated to cost £10 million, it will be situated over two stories of the complex and it is hoped that it will open by the end of the year. You have to pity the new general manager—11,000 on opening day … Aspers Casino Westfield Stratford City has really raised the stakes!