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Everyone’s first choice for Casinos

Richard Noble, Chief Operating Officer at Aspers Group Limited, chats to Glyn Thomas

It’s always nice to start an interview with congratulations and in this case it’s for winning approval to operate the large Casino in Southampton. Everyone involved must be very pleased?

Thanks Glyn, we are absolutely delighted to be awarded the Southampton large casino licence. It’s a very significant win for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it’s the last remaining large licence available under the 2005 Act, and in a very competitive pitch it has been a real endorsement of Aspers’ model that we were lucky enough to be chosen by Southampton Council.

Secondly, with only three of the eight large licences awarded since 2005 actually being operational, it’s important to the industry that we show large licence casinos can be positive contributors to the local economy, can create jobs and local wealth and can help stimulate economic growth. It helps enormously that we successfully operate two of those three licences, in Stratford and Milton Keynes, so when we put our cards on the table, we can show with our track record that we do it.

The Royal Pier Waterfront development designs looks very impressive. Do you expect a similar type of patron to those at Westfield?

Yes, we do. We have a model that’s proven to work, which is high volume, low spend per head across all leisure customer demographics within beautifully appointed casinos, so we won’t be straying too far from that tried and tested formula.

There are regional differences that we plan for. The travel infrastructure in London, for example, allows for a far wider catchment area, and a much greater population density than, for example, Milton Keynes. Southampton is a very vibrant and forward looking city and we expect the presence of the Ports and Cruise Industry will have a role to play in our customer mix.

The plans that Southampton Council have for the Royal Pier Waterfront, are tremendously exciting, and we’re very pleased and honoured to be a part of it.

Image from Aspers Westfield Casino 

Can we expect to see at the Southampton Casino an Aspers style signature bar like, for example, the Sky Bar at Westfield?

You’ll definitely recognise the Aspers touch, but it won’t just be a re-tread. Part of our DNA is to strive for continual evolvement and innovation, so we’ll be taking lessons from our other properties and incorporating them into the Southampton design.

What is involved in your role of Chief Operating Officer?

Put simply, my role is to put it all together and make it all work. There isn’t a part of the business that I’m not involved in: From product design through marketing, to floor layouts and security briefings, my remit covers every part of the organisation but it all boils down to the same aim – how can we be everyone’s first choice for casinos, how can we be the best in everything we do.

Image from Aspers Westfield Casino 

What is Aspers’ approach to money laundering?

Zero tolerance. This is a very topical area at the moment, and we take it very, very seriously. We now only take Scottish Bank notes in our Newcastle property, and have limited the amounts that can be deposited. We have ID checks for cash transactions at the most stringent levels they have ever been and we have commissioned independent audit advice from Ernst and Young to ensure our KYC “Know Your Customer” policies are as tightly controlled as possible. On top of that, our risk management committee meets weekly to review our procedures and we invest a lot of time and money in staff training.

‘Simply the Best Casinos in the UK’ is a big statement given the high standard of UK Casino operations. Can you provide an insight into the facilities provided for VIP Guests?

It’s a big statement, but we can back it up. There are individual VIP properties like Les Ambassadeurs, The Ritz and Crown Aspinalls that stand out, of course, but I don’t believe that for the mass market, there are any that can hold a candle to Aspers’ offering. Aspers Stratford was the UK’s first large licence property and outperforms any other venue on any measure of value you care to pick. We offer the most variety of slots, the biggest poker room, the largest table offering; we even offer the best jackpots, with a winner every 18 hours, and on our main progressive, winning an average of £15,000 plus. No other mass-market competitor can point to those metrics and say they are as good.

Aspers’ website packs an impact, it’s very stylish. Clearly the brand is an important part of the operations marketing mix.

Thank you. Brand is vital for us, and our primary focus is how the brand positioning, the promise, relates to the actual customer experience. There’s no point having an all-singing, all-dancing website if you can’t back it up on the gaming floor. That just causes disappointment. I spend a lot of my time with the senior leadership team discussing how we bring the brand to life and deliver it to our customers every time. There is an Aspers way of doing things, and we strive to get that across in everything with which the customer interacts.

I’ve seen all the vacancies listed across all the Casinos on the Aspers.co.uk website. Is that a sign of expansion and although the new Casino is some way off, that trained experience staff will be required?

It’s a sign of expansion within the existing estate rather than us resourcing up ready for Southampton, which is not due to open until 2021. We are continuing to grow all of the time. All of our properties are 24 hour, and in the large licence premises, we’re expanding the gaming footprint within the demise, changing layouts, relocating tables, adding more valet operations. We’re hiring because we’ve got momentum.

When we do go into Southampton, our plan is to focus our recruitment on the local marketplace. We don’t want to just transport a team in, as you lose the local link. We didn’t do it at Stratford, and we didn’t do it in Milton Keynes. We like to create jobs for the local market, to train people and give them careers. In MK around 40% of the workforce at launch were was recruited from the long-term unemployed. That’s a massive boost for the local economy, for the Council’s aims, and for the individuals. It’s the part of what we do that makes me most proud.

The entertainment is an important factor with in retaining as well as gaining new patrons. What kinds of events and concerts does Aspers Casinos host?

We don’t really go in for concerts to be honest, as we don’t have concert venues. We run live entertainment in our bars and we run a full calendar of promotions and events throughout the year but the entertainment factor we concentrate on is the casino experience itself. That doesn’t automatically mean gambling; you can come for a meal, or a drink, or on one of our party packages and not wager a penny, but the physical and sensory experience of being in an Aspers casino is entertainment in itself. We’ve had a lot of people tell us it’s great for a first date, because there are never any awkward silences with so much to take in.

How is the Milton Keynes Casino performing with the especially with the recently opened Genting RW Birmingham Casino just up the road?

Resort World hasn’t impacted on us at all, and we didn’t expect it to. Our market is the MK population - the surrounding towns like Luton, Northampton, Bicester - whereas theirs will be Birmingham, Coventry and, over time, the visiting Arena crowd. It’s important they do well. They’re the only other group to get a large licence running to date, and we wish them well.

What percentage of the patrons to the Casino are local vs versus tourist and business people?

Most of our customers live or work in relative proximity to the venues. We get more tourists in Stratford than in Northampton, but then we get more of the leisure crowd in Newcastle when there’s a game at St James’ Park, so it’s very quite varied.

What Charities does the do Aspers support?

We support a myriad of local causes in each casino, including the Cynthia Spencer hospice in Northampton and Breast Cancer Awareness in Milton Keynes but our main Charity is the Aspinall Foundation. This is the registered charity headed by our Chairman Damian Aspinall, which is actively involved with a diverse range of conservation activities at Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks, and several well-established overseas projects. The Foundation’s main conservation activities include captive breeding, eco system management and rehabilitation of confiscated wild animals through their Back to the Wild projects.

The Foundation is something our employees actively support through internal fund-raising efforts, and we in turn use that to drive employee Reward and Recognition, with trips to the Parks, discounted accommodation offers, and even trips to the Gabon being offered as prizes.

Casino Life is introducing a restaurant review; would you be up for one of our journalists to visit - for example - Westfield?

Absolutely. We’re open seven days a week from 6pm and cater for all tastes.

What gaming systems and equipment installed over recent years in the Casino have made the biggest significant difference, and what slot machines have been the most successful - or are there several in both cases?

Aspers prides itself in offering the best Slots, Electronic Gaming and Live Table Gaming products to its customers and is constantly looking for new equipment and ways of delivering it to the players.

With the limited number of slots available under the existing regulations, Multi-Game video slots continue to dominate the market with Novomatic and IGT providing the majority of the machines sited within our casinos, although we have seen an increased demand for B2 slots (FOBTs) designed for the LBO (licensed betting offices) market. Over 90% of our current machines are server based which means we can deploy new games as soon as they’re released to market and then tailor the game mix on each machine based on the demand from our players. The big shift over the last couple of years since the stakes and prizes were changed is the increased popularity of ‘Progressive’ machines. In Stratford and Milton Keynes we offer three separate progressives in each site with up to 24 playing positions each, creating regular Jackpot wins daily!

Our focus on Electronic Gaming Terminals has been on improving the speed and consistency of the game as well as investing in new display screens and signage, giving the player a more dynamic and enjoyable experience. We also had a major upgrade on our Live Table Gaming offer whereby we invested in a large number of new roulette wheels and displays from Cammegh and chippers and shufflers from Scientific Games/Bally.

We’ve invested heavily over the last 12 months but don’t intend slowing down. We’ve got a number of existing projects coming up in the next few months so watch this space!

What aspects of your role do you find most satisfying?

This may be a cliché but it doesn’t feel like a job to me. It’s certainly not office hours, put it that way. My first career was military, and when that ended I knew I couldn’t be a 9 to 5 man sat at a desk so I went into the Bingo Industry. From there I found my way to Aspers, initially as the site General Manager, and from there up to my current role as Group COO.

What’s most satisfying is occasionally looking back, seeing how far we have come and how successful we have been, and then quickly turning around and seeing how much opportunity still lies ahead for us. To know we have so much potential, and to have the opportunity with this team to achieve it, gives me enormous satisfaction. It’s exciting.

How closely do you work with your marketing team on gaming promotions?

Aspers Marketing Director is Jon Spittle and we both sit on a four-man strategy team along with the Chairman and Finance Director that meets weekly, plus we sit opposite each other when we’re in the office, so our working relationship is pretty close!

Everything we do at Aspers is collectively agreed and executed. We’re paranoid about silos and fanatical about shared accountability. In terms of gaming promotions, Jon has reports at each of the sites, and their roles are to help their General Managers achieve their targets, be that visitation, revenues, occupancy, or restaurant covers. Promotions can provide short-term tactical bursts and develop into longer term pricing and positional strategies, but none of this is decided in isolation. Operations, marketing, finance, we all input and we all execute.

A couple of years back Westfield Casino was able to utilise more floor space so it could accommodate for Poker tables. How is Aspers Casinos Poker tournaments popularity continuing to expand or are you satisfied now with the steady level of regular participants?

We’re delighted with the poker operation at Stratford and feel it offers one of the best experiences in the country. Recently we’ve signed a licensing and tournament deal with 888.com that brings with it a new calendar of high profile tournaments and events, so far from being satisfied, we’re looking to build on our success and push on again.

What would you say have been amongst the primary influences that have gone into the layout and style of the Aspers Casinos and has that involved influence from overseas such as Crown?

There are three main areas for us. Our history with Aspinall’s and the standards demanded by our Chairman have greatly influenced style, décor and presentation. Crown obviously bring a wealth of knowledge of layout optimisation, how to utilise floor space efficiently and what works in product mix, and lastly, and most importantly, our own experiences and observations. We’re constantly evolving, and we’ve found that providing a flexible gaming space, so we can move product around and create specific zones, has proven very beneficial to our customer experience, so this is something we will be looking to continue evolving.

What elements on the gaming floor, in your opinion, present the biggest challenges & and opportunities?

Space is the biggest challenge for us. We have high footfall, high demand and we want to keep growing. Other than the physical constraints, the other big challenge we face is keeping up with the fast changing nature of technology, especially in slots and electronics. Globally, the UK slots market is a small player, so getting bespoke product that works for a UK audience that has perhaps grown up more with fruit machines and B2’s than the casino B1 product, is a challenge and, conversely, also an opportunity.

What would you say are some of the additional unique aspects about Aspers Casinos that set them apart from their rivals?

I’ll pick just two. The first is the number of female customers we attract. This is by design rather than accident, as we purposely set out to offer a relaxed and sociable environment that appeals to a female audience.

Our venues are light and airy; facilities such as the Skybar in Stratford, or Clary’s in Milton Keynes are designed with a female audience in mind, and we use partnerships with brands and media partners to ensure we are top of mind for the female leisure seeker.

The second area where we stand apart is our staff, and their incredible dedication to the company. I am very lucky to work with some amazing people across the Group and many of them have been with Aspers since day 1. In fact we recently celebrated our ten-year service awards up in Newcastle and it was great to see how many people have stayed with us and progressed up to very senior positions. However, it’s not length of service that makes the difference; across all of our teams what stands out is the mind-set for success that we have cultivated over the years. Demand more to achieve more, be innovative, have the courage to try new things, and don’t fear failure. Everyone who thrives in Aspers shares these values, from the veteran to the first day valet, and in many ways my role is to continue to find people with the Aspers attitude, and to continue giving them the platforms to deliver.