Kerrching! The prospect of supercasinos cropping up across the land is putting pound signs in the eyes of construction firms. We talk to key players to find out how good the odds are of winning that jackpot – and to discover the rules of the game …
The construction industry could be about to begin a winning streak. When Canada deregulated its gambling laws in 1997, gaming operators were falling over each other to build new casinos in a mad dash for cash. “The profits are staggering; they make $1m a night,” says Heather Stanley, the UK director of Canadian structural engineer Yolles, which built six large casinos in Toronto on the back of this boom. “We called it flash track, rather than fast track, as it happened so damned quickly,” she says. “We were designing it while it was being built. We had two teams working on these projects: the first ordered the steel and got the tender out, the second worked out the detail design.”
All the large casino operators are making noises about developing “supercasinos” in a number of UK locations. The Gambling Bill, currently making its tortuous progress through parliament, proposes to allow Las Vegas-style casinos for the first time in the UK. These would be more than 5000 m2 in area and would be allowed to have up to 1250 slot machines paying up to £1m
each (see “The gambling act at a glance”, above). They could be part of larger developments that would include hotels, restaurants and other leisure facilities. The government also hopes the supercasinos will kickstart regeneration in rundown areas. Furthermore, the relaxation of the rules applying to the location and access to casinos will mean more smaller ones too.
Obviously the construction industry will benefit from this new market. The key questions are: how many of these developments will be built; and what building type should the industry be gearing up for? Well, originally figures of up to 40 supercasinos were suggested, although fierce opposition from Daily Mail readers and the Church has meant that this was reduced to an initial, rather paltry, eight – under the proviso that further casinos could be built if their opponents’ fears were not realised.
Last year, casino operator the Gala Group formed a joint venture with American operator Harrah Entertainment to capitalise on Harrah’s experience running large American casinos. According to Paul Duffree, Gala’s group property director, a Canadian-style “flash-track” boom is extremely unlikely to happen here. “The difficulty is with all the local and central government permissions you need,” he says. These include planning, gaming and liquor licences at local authority level. Depending on a casino’s size, the decision could be taken by the regional authority or called in by the ODPM. “The regional casinos will be hit by all of these,” Duffree says.
Protracted planning delays could make incorporating casinos into large developments a non-starter. “The issue for the developer is how to include this in their developments. They can’t sign us up until we have concrete permission,” Duffree says. “Some developers understand the predicament of the operators but others have said they will take the casino out and put something else in.” He says one answer could be for operators to buy land and develop their own casinos, but adds this is highly risky because the regional casino sites would have to be large and permission could be denied.
Despite these problems, operators are queuing up to build supercasinos, and some are busy constructing them already. Gala Group has opened two casinos in Glasgow and Bradford in the past eight weeks and opens another in Leicester next week. American operator The Isle of Capri has taken a lease on a large casino that is under construction at Coventry Arena – a development outside the city that includes a football stadium, exhibition and conference space, hotels, restaurants and shops. The 9000 m2 casino is expecting 3000 visitors a day and will be the UK’s largest resort casino. It occupies the entire basement of the arena and the developer will hand over a large white box complete with services to The Isle of Capri for fitting out.
This is likely to be a model for the type of location and construction of the new generation of supercasinos. Casinos are very specialised, highly serviced buildings, so operators need to start from scratch. “When we walk on site there is a huge, empty shell; concrete floors, walls and a roof with gas and electricity,” explains Duffree.
Fitting out is divided into front-of-house and back-of-house areas. In the USA, only 50% of the floor area is actually used for front-of-house activity. Duffree says British casinos are more likely to have a 60:40 or even 70:30 split in favour of front of house because land is at a much higher premium in the UK.
The front-of-house area has a variety of functions, which all require a variety of sophisticated and flexible services and fittings. “Front of house is all about zoning and giving customers a different experience,” explains Duffree. “We call it the voyage of discovery.” Punters arrive in a dedicated “meet-and-greet area” before moving into the main casino. Gala employs what it calls a “soft landing zone”, which is casino-speak for a bar or restaurant. “This is because many of our UK customers have not gamed in a casino before. With this, they get a chance to relax and work out what they want to do,” explains Duffree. From here they can go to an “e-lounge” – an automated gaming area where customers can see live roulette tables on a screen and place bets. When the customers have finally plucked up the courage, they can visit the live gaming area. This area also has plasma screens displaying the action and a record of the past few games. In some casinos there is a “high-roller” area reserved for customers with plenty of cash to spend. Supercasinos will have several bars and restaurants too.
Highly sophisticated networks are needed to cope with all this electronic wizardry. This takes the form of City-dealing-style floor technology that runs beneath a raised access floor. “Everything is networked; every single slot and gaming board has to have its own power and communications linked back to a patch panel,” says Duffree. “What this gives you is the ability to change your layout overnight – all you do is plug in the machines where you want them and then network them using the patch panel. It gives full flexibility now and in the future.”
Further use of electronics comes in the form of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras, which take the concept of Big Brother to a new level. CCTV monitoring covers every square foot of the casino – including the toilets – to ensure no cheating goes on. A similar system to the floor technology is employed in the ceiling so the cameras can be moved should the casino be reconfigured.
Because hundreds of slot machines and people are throwing out heat and cigarette smoke, powerful air-conditioning is needed. “I think the regional casinos will probably need their own substation, particularly if there is a hotel above,” says Duffree. Air needs to be frequently changed to keep it cool and smoke-free, which is particularly important in these days of passive smoking legislation. Perhaps more importantly from an operator’s point of view, it also helps to keep the punters awake.
The most structurally complex part of the building’s shell is the security area. “Ideally, the operators would like everyone to game with credit cards but people prefer cash so they can see how much they are spending. Plus, it’s a different type of experience,” explains Yolles’ Heather Stanley. “Because of this there is not much difference, in terms of security, between a casino and a bank.” Money has to be moved from the tables and slot machines to a secure area where it is counted and then collected. “The secure area will have reinforced masonry walls – you have to consider what would happen if a lorry tried to ram the walls,” adds Stanley.
The fixtures and fittings are also likely to be of a very high quality. David Matthew is the interior design director of Carey Jones Architects, which is responsible for fitting out the Coventry Arena casino and is talking to other operators. “They are looking for something that has a special quality and is an individual response to its location,” he says. “I don’t think vulgarity is what you are going to get here.”
When the controversy of the Gambling Bill and the disputes over planning permission have died down, this could turn out to be the key issue for the operators of the new supercasinos. “Will people want to go and spend the weekend in a casino?” muses Stanley. “You go to Las Vegas to gamble but also because of the bright lights – it’s garish, it’s Vegas. I can’t see Blackpool having quite the same draw …”
The Gambling Act at a glance
- A new gaming commission will be established to police casinos and other gambling establishments
- People will no longer be required to be members of a casino for at least 24 hours before gambling
- Casinos will no longer have to be in "permitted areas"
- The largest casinos will be allowed to have up to 1250 slot machines with payouts of up to £1m
- The bill is also intended to tighten up unregulated gambling. For example, 6000 slot machines in unlicensed premises such as minicab offices and takeaways will go
- Internet and mobile phone gambling will be brought under the remit of the new legislation. Companies will be required to make age checks