Ladies and gentlemen, please place your bets. Will the new Gambling Act a) protect the public from ruin b) make us a nation of chancers?
The legislation, which came into force on Saturday, creates an industry watchdog but also paves the way for dozens of new casinos.
The Yanks know which way the dice will fall. Harrah’s, owner of the world-famous Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, has flown in its top card, John Bruns, to oversee ambitious expansion plans.
When I meet him at the offices of London Clubs International, the UK casino chain Harrah’s bought in December last year for GBP 279m, he is straight off the plane. He looks exhausted, but the former downhill racer has already been for a jog around the park.
As ex-manager of the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland, he’s certainly seen a thing or two – from riding the lift with Elvis and Priscilla Presley to welcoming three presidents – Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George Bush Senior – to the hotel. He has the photographs to prove it.
„When you welcome such people to the hotel, you go through the preparations like it’s business as normal, but on that day if something happens, you just get so excited. You realise you’re about to meet a president of the United States,“ he gushes.
His favourite? „Reagan. His presence was remarkable because he was so genuine and really reached out and connected with you.“
Bruns may find such patriotism in short supply over here. And it won’t be the only difference. So far his knowledge of the UK extends to LCI sites in London (the Empire, Leicester Sqare), Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. He has yet to savour the delights of Blackpool and Glasgow.
But after 28 years in the hotel business and seven with Harrah’s, he’s game for a challenge. Though he won’t be shipping in either his famous photographs or his wife. Instead he will commute back and forth to the Strip.
So can Bruns persuade us to gamble more? The customer services expert is optimistic, but he is also blissfully unaware of the controversy surrounding supercasinos and has never heard of John Prescott or his cowboy boots.
LCI is Harrah’s first UK play. By adding other forms of entertainment – restaurants, bars and nightclubs – to LCI properties, Bruns hopes to entice the 97pc of Britons who have never been near a casino to have a flutter.
It’s the concept behind LCI‘s flagship London club, Fifty. Celebrities crowd into the ultra-modern black and magenta bar run by Salvatore („the barman’s barman“) and two upmarket restaurants. Downstairs is a nightclub. The dance floor is a Saturday Night Fever-style catwalk and the tables are reinforced and inset with video screens.
The overly ornate casino, where the Duke of Wellington once played, seems almost accidental. One member tells me he’s never seen it.
Now LCI is rolling out a new brand, Alea. A notch down from Fifty, it offers four-star catering from celebrity chefs and wine bars alongside the casinos and slot machines. Dress is smart casual but no one will be ejected for wearing jeans or baring flesh.
The first Alea opened in Nottingham on Saturday. Two more will follow in Glasgow and Leeds. The theory is that gamblers, a notoriously promiscuous breed, will tour the country hoping for a change of luck. But they’ll remain faithful to the local Alea brand through loyalty cards and promotions. Bruns calls it „cross-market play“. In the US, where Harrah’s has 40 casinos, it accounts for 30pc of the business.
Alea is drawn from Julius Caesar’s famous phrase „alea iacta est“ (the die is cast). Bruns waffles that this means the company is „casting“ new standards of service for the industry. A more obvious reference is the Caesarian invasion, but this time it’s a mild-mannered American. Does this mean Harrah’s has passed the point of no return?
Lady Luck has not always favoured LCI. At the turn of the millennium, the British casino operator tried to build the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas. The genie refused to grant LCH‘s wish, however, and Aladdin filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2001 amid what Bruns describes as „the perfect storm“ of 9/11 and Vegas-wide blues.
It was rescued by Robert Earl, founder of the Planet Hollywood restaurants chain, with whom LCI runs Fifty. Since then, LCI has wrestled with its finances, belying the old adage that the house always wins. Bruns says the company’s profitable but won’t be drawn on how much the US group is investing.
Costs are bound to be high. Harrah’s is putting its vast marketing resources behind the new casinos. It will also bid for the 16 licences (eight small, eight large) up for grabs following the Government’s de-regulation of the industry.
Bruns says: „We intend to compete for every licence where we think location serves a market need.“ That includes the supercasino. Gordon Brown may have shelved the idea, but Bruns is determined to push for it.
His goal is to double LCI revenues in two to three years, through organic growth, marketing and acquisitions, which the USD 10bn Harrah’s is actively seeking.
One area where it will not go is online. Las Vegas has fought off internet upstarts with help from zealous US prosecutors. In the UK, that may prove more difficult. The new laws make it safer for people to gamble over the web. They also enforce tighter regulation under a new Gambling Commission and allow local authorities to sanction operators and residents to object to licences.
Bruns says he isn’t worried about a backlash. Nonetheless, the launch of the first Alea was a quiet affair. A grand opening of the casino is planned for October, giving LCH time to assess local appetite.
So will Bruns win us over? A keen Blackjack player (his wife made him sign a contract when he joined Harrah’s not to play for a year), he’s prepared to take the risk. With LCI, it’s double or quits.