‘New model' Casinos: Raising the stakes

16 November 2006
‘New model' Casinos: Raising the stakes

In light of new gaming legislation coming into full effect next year, "new model" casinos are making their first appearances. Emma Allen visited one in Manchester that sets the scene for a radical change

A Grade-II listed Victorian warehouse just off Deansgate in central Manchester might sound an unlikely location for what is being billed as the UK's first Las Vegas- style casino. But Manchester 235, a £13m development which opened last month, is aiming to offer punters much more than just the chance to try their luck at the tables.

Stretching across two floors, with a luxurious interior, the venue not only has extensive, state-of-the-art gaming facilities but two restaurants, private dining rooms, various bar and lounge areas plus a live music and comedy club that will feature shows seven nights a week.

The opening is a timely move for operator London Clubs International, which has four more "new model" casinos in the pipeline. Next September sees the 2005 Gambling Act come into full effect, and the relaxation of certain rules, like lifting the ban on advertising, is likely to benefit the casino industry hugely. Some changes have already been brought in, such as dropping the 24-hour rule, meaning new members can walk straight in and play rather than having to wait until the next day.

The challenge now is to bring in a younger, broader audience, away from the traditional, predominantly male gaming market, something that Andy Orr, director of Manchester 235, is well aware of. "At the moment, there's no reason for people to go to a casino if they don't gamble, but casinos have to move on," he says. "At whatever level you operate, you need more than a gaming floor nowadays."

The key appeal of Manchester 235, he thinks, is its all-in-one entertainment factor. "We want people to have a good night out, and because everything is under one roof, we make it easy. When you arrive, we even park your car for you," he says. "Gaming isn't the main focus and we expect a high proportion of our customers to not even go near the tables."

Target customers are likely to be "anyone between 25 and 60", but Orr particularly hopes to attract women to the venue, explaining: "There's still a perception that casinos are smoky, back-street places that you don't go to. So if we see couples or groups of women at the bar, we know we're doing something right."

Central to the open-to-all philosophy is hassle-free membership - customers simply have to show ID when they first register - and more importantly, a high-quality F&B offer.

Unlike many traditional casinos, where food is usually a poor second to gambling, the venue's two restaurants are an integral part of the operation. Each has a distinct menu, with Linen, the more upscale of the two, serving modern British food. Sitting on a mezzanine level overlooking the gaming tables and main bar, it's open to members for dinner only, and mains start at about £12. Downstairs, the more informal Numero serves pizza and Italian dishes for lunch and dinner, with a lighter menu available until 4am. Mains start at about £6.

Uniquely, Numero also has a street entrance, making it accessible to non-members, which Alex Kaden, catering director at London Clubs International (LCI), recognises as a valuable tool in Manchester's competitive dining scene. "I think we're the first in the UK to have this, and it means we can compete directly for passing trade with local restaurants," he explains. "It gives us much more flexibility. We're en route to the G-Mex, so hopefully we can capitalise on the conference crowd and do deals with nearby theatres, which we wouldn't have been able to do otherwise."

Leisure crowd

Both restaurants are open seven days a week, with Saturdays expected to be the busiest, but Kaden feels that the casino's live music venue, 235Live, will help to stimulate the midweek leisure crowd with its line-up of jazz and comedy nights. For corporate bookings, there are also two small private dining rooms, a "chef's table" annexe for eight, and an opulent-style lounge bar for up to 25.

With these outlets, F&B is not only a potential draw to customers who might not otherwise visit, but it's also an important revenue stream. Orr won't be drawn on precise figures but explains that he's looking for a profit. "Traditionally, F&B in casinos has always been an expenditure," Kaden says. "Now that's changed completely and F&B has become a way of driving our more traditional revenue streams. The restaurants stand up in their own right and are a source of income that doesn't normally exist."

Capacity-wise, the casino has an escalating membership target each year. "At the moment, we're budgeting on around 750
people a day visiting, and a large number of those will be eating or drinking. But we'll know where we are by next January, when we're not the new kid on the block," Kaden says.

More competitive

Looking ahead, it seems that with operators jockeying for position in the evolving casino sector and more openings - Rank Group opened G casino in Manchester in June - the industry will become more competitive.

But Orr thinks things are already pretty segmented, whether it's traditional casinos with a strong focus on gaming, going up to exclusive clubs like Fifty, LCI's joint venture with Robert Earl, in Mayfair, London, which has a £750 joining fee. "I don't think casino numbers will increase dramatically," he says. "What will differentiate in the future is level of service and value for money."

What is the new legislation?

The new Gambling Act 2005, which comes into full effect next September, will modernise the UK's existing gambling laws.

• The act creates three new casino categories - regional, large and small - and 17 licences are to be issued, made up of one super, or regional casino, plus eight large and eight small.

• Bingo and betting, as well as traditional casino games, will be introduced at the new regional and large casinos. Small casinos will be able to offer betting.

• Numbers of slot machines are being increased in existing casinos and in some cases, jackpots raised.

• One of the biggest changes next year will be the easing of tight restrictions on advertising and marketing. Details have yet to be confirmed.

• Under the old 1968 act, a couple of changes have already been made, the most important being last year's lifting of the 24-hour rule. This means new members can enter a casino straightaway, instead of having to wait 24 hours.

How is the casino industry changing?

"Many people's impressions of casinos are still based on James Bond films, or they're seen as dens of iniquity, but in reality they're mainstream leisure venues. Being able to advertise from next year will shine the light of reality on the industry."

Richard Jukes, British Casino Association

"The ending of the 24-hour rule has already pushed up our admissions. Attitudes are changing because of the internet too. People learn to play online so they feel more confident in casinos. Going back 10 years, nobody made money on F&B, but that's changing fast. It's still marginal, but we now see it as a profit centre rather than a loss."

Dan Waugh, director of investor relations, Rank

"There's been a shift in what people want. In the past, food would either be given away free or the restaurant would be outrageously aspirational. Modern casinos have become more mainstream, and we compete with the high street for our bar and restaurant trade. We've got hospitality teams in our casinos now, and F&B staff are recruited outside of the casino industry, which is a big leap."

Nick Potter, managing director, Gala casinos

Food on offer at Manchester 235

Executive chef at Manchester 235 is 38-year-old Arlindo Anjo, who worked under Gary Rhodes at the Greenhouse, and most recently as head chef at the Palace hotel in Manchester. For Linen, he's devised a modern British menu with classics like sirloin steak and fillet of venison alongside lighter dishes like grilled lemon sole.

"We have to please a wide variety of tastes but I wanted to do things with a bit of a twist," says Anjo.

"We also need to be ready to do special off-menu requests like lobster." Caviar, he adds, is likely to be a big seller.

But it's not all about the big players. "If somebody just wants a pizza from downstairs, we can do that too," says Anjo.

The menu

  • Soft-boiled smoked duck egg, Avruga caviar and smoked salmon soldiers, £5.25
  • Crispy duck leg salad, coriander, mint, pine nuts, and lime and ginger dressing, £6.50
  • Fillet of venison, chestnut mash, braised red cabbage, cranberry compote, gingerbread topping, £16.50
  • Szechwan roasted duck breast, soft noodles, choy sum, pickled ginger and crispy won tons, £15.75
  • Grilled swordfish supreme, sweet potato, spring onions, roast pepper salsa and sweet piri-piri, £14.95
  • Peach and lavender tarte tatin with honeycomb ice-cream, £5.95
  • Glazed lime crème brûlée with blackberry and bilberry, £5.95
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