ASPERS at The Gate has become one Newcastle’s biggest attractions since it opened in 2005 and regularly attracts 13,000 customers a week, many of them having been introduced to the world of gaming with the help of the venue’s open-door policy.
The venue has benefited from the rocketing popularity of gaming among a wider customer base, with the old image of smoke-filled gentlemen’s clubs now replaced by a friendly and less intimidating environment.
Certainly, walking through the casino to meet Aspers’ chief operating officer Richard Noble, I was struck by how busy the place was, especially considering that it was 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon.
Covering 45,000sq ft, Aspers is by far the largest casino in the North East, offering 27 traditional gaming tables, one interactive electronic roulette table and 87 electronic gaming terminals offering roulette, blackjack or punto banco, as well as 20 slot machines.
Away from the bright lights and excitement of the gaming tables, Noble, 40, tells me how much of his career has similarly been left to chance.
He spent his early years in Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, while his father John, who was in the Royal Anglian Regiment, was stationed in Germany.
After returning to the UK in 1975, his dad set up and ran a hotel in York with his wife, with the young Richard left to make a playground out of its many rooms and corridors.
He said: “The hotel included a Conservative club and I have vivid memories of bouncing on my Space Hopper around the pool tables. I guess it was during a time when people didn’t mind kids being around as much.”
It was while living at the hotel that Noble’s rise to the top of the casino industry may well have been stopped in its tracks early.
“I fell off the hotel roof one day and was only saved by one of the top floor balconies,” Noble said. “My injuries were serious enough for me to spend a night in hospital but it could have been so much worse if it wasn’t for that balcony, as it was a four-storey drop to the ground.”
Not long after dusting himself down, Noble moved to Saudi Arabia with his parents after his dad landed a job with an American oil company based there.
He was then sent back to the UK to attend a boarding school in Leicestershire, with the promise of a heavy incentive from his father.
He said: “I was being sent to Grace Dieu Manor School in Leicestershire and was told by my dad that I would be welcomed by a trunk filled with sweets.
“Well, I was completely sold on the idea and sure enough when I got to the school there was a box full of sweets waiting for me. I was so excited.
“I loved every bit of boarding school and looked forward to the longer holidays I was allowed in order to visit my parents in Saudi Arabia.
“I think being handed such independence at an early age gave me the confidence to stand on my own two feet.” After finishing school Noble decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Army.
Signing up to Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College in Woodhouse, Leicestershire, he studied A-levels in technical services, while developing his leadership skills.
However, after spending two years building up a future in the forces, he was told at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst that he would have to undergo a series of operations on his leg after failing a medical.
He says: “It was during my first few days at Sandhurst that I was asked to undergo a medical. The doctors told me to sit back on my heels and an old injury was identified.
“They discovered that it was an injury that I received when I was 13 that was the problem.
“I had picked up the injury while playing tag with my friends, during which I was pushed into a cow trough, which went through my kneecap and broke the bone.
“Although the scarring had healed over the years, a disease had gotten into the wound early on, which I was told would hamper me in active service.”
He spent the next three years undergoing a series of operations, while living at his parents’ home in Redcar, with the aim of eventually getting back into the Army.
He says: “I was 18 and my whole life had been focused towards being an Army officer, so I was hugely disappointed.
“It was during this time I got myself a part-time job at the local Nobles amusements while wandering around the seafront in Redcar one day.
“I was given the job of bingo caller at the Crown Bingo site in Redcar as I had lost my local accent at boarding school and my voice was quite clear.
“Little did I know that this would be the start of my career in gaming.
After a number of operations and medical assessments over the next three years, he was eventually told that he would never be able to re-join the Army.
It was then that he decided to approach his bosses at the North East-based Noble Organisation to see if there were any opportunities for promotion throughout its vast chain of UK sites.
His determination to seek a new career path in the wake of his earlier disappointment saw him take up nine managerial roles at eight different sites across the North East.
He would work for the company for 18 years, during which time he witnessed the evolution of the bingo market from small venues to converted cinemas and then on to huge purpose-built complexes.
However, the bright lights of the casino industry came calling after Noble received a call from Damian Aspinall, son of John Aspinall – the first person in the UK to secure a casino licence back in the 1960s.
Damian Aspinall had partnered with Australian-based casino operator James Packer, who was looking to expand his worldwide operations at the same time that the Government was developing its ill-fated plans for eight ‘super-casinos’ to be based in the UK.
Eager to launch the Aspers brand, the pair began work on Aspers at The Gate before the final decision was made over the super- casinos, and set about establishing the site as one of Newcastle’s prime entertainment venues.
Noble said: “Damian and James opened in Newcastle with a small management team which had experience of running a very exclusive casino in Mayfair, London.
“However, they wanted to build the business model around high volumes and low spend, which was at odds with their choice of staff.
“Damian told me what his vision was and it seemed to fit in perfectly with what I had been doing.
“The management style at Nobles was very similar to Aspers, in that both companies were eager to try new things and employ the kind of people could quickly act quickly on their ideas.”
Noble was sent off to one of Packer’s casinos in Australia in order to help him learn the ropes.
The experience would prove to be a little different to his time at Nobles in Redcar.
He said: “It was absolutely huge and took me eight hours just to walk around it.
“It took up two blocks, employed 8,000 people and had 350 gaming tables. I was absolutely blown away.
“I was able to learn about every aspect of the casino, from the gaming tables, the bars and the restaurant.
“It was a fantastic way of getting my head around all of the different elements of a successful casino.”
Returning to the UK with a spring in his step, Noble set about building on the Newcastle casino’s early successes by introducing a more relaxed door policy.
It would be the Gambling Act of 2005 that would provide the casino with its biggest springboard for growth as it allowed operators to scrap membership requirements.
Although the casino’s regular members and the wider public were apprehensive of the move at first, the introduction of a open-door policy at Aspers at The Gate has seen footfall jump from 7,000 visitors per week to 13,000, with the venue attracting around 5,000 visitors during big sporting weekends.
Noble said: “The industry thought we were absolutely crazy. We even had a visit from the Gambling Commission, which gave us a glowing reference.
“Sure enough, one by one rival operators have followed suite, after realising that an open-door policy is vital in attracting the high volumes that the industry needs if it is to move away from the image of exclusive gentleman’s clubs.
“In fact 50% of the people who walk through our doors don’t gamble, but are still keen to sample the atmosphere of our bars and restaurant.
“However, it is through high levels of customer service that we are able to attract them back to the casino as gamers.”
Other changes designed to make the casino more appealing to the general public are the introduction of learner tables as well as a change in management style.
Noble said: “It’s about changing the whole culture of casinos, and that means changing the roles that our employees have. We now call our inspectors coaches as they help to support our dealers.
“Our pit managers are now called customer service managers, as they are there not only to manage our employees, but to make sure our customers are having a great time.
“This has had a big impact on the floor and ensured that we present a friendly, relaxed environment, which in turn attracts more people to the casino.”
Aspers, which now runs casinos in Northampton and Swansea, has just reached the end of its current financial year and said turnover had gone from £20m to £24m, with footfall significantly up on the previous year.
Aspers at The Gate saw its sales grow from £12m to about £14m, during its last financial year, with footfall up 13%, while the Northampton site increased revenues by 29% to £5m and the Swansea site growing by 11% to £5m.
Although growth has slowed since the introduction of the open-door policy, the firm said it expected steady growth over the coming years, despite the current economic downturn, and expects to create jobs, including adding 30 staff to its 230-strong workforce in Newcastle.
The company plans to use its recent successes to invest in the nationwide roll-out of new casinos and said it was concentrating on securing a licence for a planned site in Newham, London, which it hopes to open in 2011.
Noble said: “The gaming industry has come a long way since I started at Aspers, with the emergence of online gaming a huge development.
“However, if this introduces people to gaming then they are more likely to visit a real casino.
“Aspers has really given the public a hugely-improved image of casinos and we hope to build on this over the coming years.”
What car do you drive?
Audi A4 convertible
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Freya’s, Aspers Newcastle.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Monty Python, Milton Jones, Michael McIntyre
What’s your favourite book?
Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer. Two men with an absolute passion to succeed in life
What’s your favourite film?
What was the last album you bought?
Jersey Boys soundtrack
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
Run Disneyland Resorts
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
Toon Toon, Black & White Army
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
“You can’t bank attendances” – when running a volume-based business, don’t sacrifice bottom line for the vanity of top-line success
Worst business advice?
“Treat them mean – employees are inherently lazy and therefore you need to keep a tight rein on them.”
What’s your poison?
Jack Daniels and Diet Coke
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The back pages of any I can get my hands on.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£51.30 as a bingo caller in Redcar.
How do you keep fit?
Sporadic bursts of bootcamp, fell walking (love the Lake District), hotel gyms and the Wii fit!
What’s your most irritating habit?
Jiggling! I can’t sit still for more than a few minutes.
Which historical or fictional character do you most admire?
Julius Caesar. He had a natural ability to lead and he inspired and united his subjects. And, of course, he was obsessed with world domination!
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Sir Richard Branson, Lord Alan Sugar, Bill Gates and Cheryl Cole
How would you like to be remembered?
As the driving force behind developing successful destination casinos in all major UK towns and cities.