Damian Aspinall: Betting on his animal magnetism

A day in the life: Damian Aspinall's inherited passion for animals has been his driving force
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Damian Aspinall is rudely awakened by a slap around the face from his three-year-old daughter. Though his partner, the television presenter and actress Donna Air, tells Freya that Daddy has been working hard and she should leave him alone, the little girl is persistent and manages to get them out of bed to start the day.

After a lively family breakfast, the entrepreneur and casino operator goes for a run before heading to work. This is a busy time and he needs to be focused. At the end of the month, as part of a shake-up of the gaming industry, the Casino Advisory Panel will make its recommendations to the Government on which local authorities should hold 17 new casinos and Mr Aspinall is bidding for three of those.

His credentials are impeccable. Gambling is part of his heritage, for he is the son of John Aspinall, the legendary gambler and conservationist, who was awarded the UK's first gambling licence in 1962.


It's a bright winter morning and Mr Aspinall arrives at his plush offices on Sloane Street in Chelsea. This is the headquarters of the Aspinall Group, a name synonymous with the Mayfair club founded by John Aspinall in the Sixties when it was frequented by an exclusive clientele, among them Lord Lucan and James Goldsmith. Mr Aspinall became director of the firm after his father's death in 2000 and along with James Packer, son of publishing tycoon Kerry Packer, he subsequently bought out all the shareholders and took control. The duo then set about forming their joint venture, Aspers, with the aim of transforming the image of gambling and bringing the casino to a wider audience.

"Aspers was my father's nickname so it was in honour of him," Mr Aspinall says. Despite being born into wealth, Mr Aspinall made his own considerable fortune, setting up a number of businesses and building up a considerable property empire. "I was never supported by my father," he says. "I didn't have a trust fund. He was very tough. He realised that life was pretty harsh and you had to be able to take tough knocks in life." Although this was difficult to take as a teenager, Mr Aspinall says if he had been handed his life on a plate, like some of his peers, he would never have done any work. "This made me who I am."


Much of the morning is spent on the phone with local councillors. Mr Aspinall is hoping to hit the jackpot with his bid with Cardiff for the country's single supercasino. This will host thousands of slot machines with unlimited jackpots and will bring a massive boost to the economy of the successful region. However, there is stiff competition and most MPs are backing Blackpool. The seaside resort is banking on a supercasino to help it reverse years of decline, but there is also pressure on the Government to award it to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, which would give the project a firm financial footing.

Mr Aspinall is angry at the Government's decision to cut the number of supercasinos from eight to one after protests from religious groups and the anti-gambling lobby, fearful the new venues would fuel gambling addiction with 24-hour licences and unlimited jackpots. "Under the current rules it could be 15-20 years before another licence is granted," he said. "A regional casino in Cardiff would bring around £65m to £70m to the regional economy. That is roughly equivalent to hosting a world cup."

However, he remains optimistic. Aspers is also bidding for licences for smaller casinos at Middlesbrough and Brierley Hill, in Dudley, and plans to bid for up to 12 more once the locations of the casinos have been decided by the Government.

"We have a company that delivers a quality product and a world class facility," he says. "You can put an Aspers into any town or city and they would be happy to have it."


It is time to drive to Battersea power station, where Mr Aspinall is to jump into a helicopter for a quick trip to Newcastle. This is where Aspers' flagship casino, which celebrated its first anniversary in October, is located. It is a huge 45,000 sq ft casino with the capacity for 1,250 people.

"The inspiration was just looking at the casino industry and seeing what a poor product it was and really thinking there's a great opportunity to do something different in the UK," Mr Aspinall says.

"The core ethos of provincial gaming is about creating gambling dens and therefore gamblers. What I want to create with Aspers is a leisure destination which includes gambling but is essentially a fun night out. It should be part of the fabric of the entertainment of the city."


Mr Aspinall checks on progress at Aspers at the Gate Newcastle, which includes restaurants, fashionable bars and even a beauty parlour. This new style of casino certainly seems to have struck a chord with the women of Newcastle. Mr Aspinall says that average attendance for women in US casinos is around 3 per cent, but some 38 per cent of the punters at Aspers are female. The casino has 60,000 members to date with an average of 10,000 visits per week. It is on target for 500,000 visits in the year with a £50-60m drop, the amount customers place. The average spend per head is £30, which is the industry norm. "We are setting a benchmark for the future of gambling," he says. "In five years' time, the gambling landscape will be very different."

Mr Aspinall takes his social responsibility towards gamblers seriously and has set up the Community Action for Responsible Gaming (CARG) programme, based on similar schemes in Australia and New Zealand. It is a voluntary not-for-profit group made up of community-based groups, police and religious groups, which carries out research on gambling and its effects on the community. It also monitors interventions with problem gamblers identified by Aspers. Mr Aspinall says it is not the casinos that create the problems but internet gambling where customers are not monitored.

"No one else is doing anything like this at all," Mr Aspinall says. Similar schemes will be implemented across all Aspers sites, including a new 50,000 sq ft casino in Swansea that will open later this year.


Back in London, Mr Aspinall calls his two older daughters by his first wife. Tansy, 17, and Clary, 14, are both at boarding school but Mr Aspinall makes sure he speaks to them every day.


At home, it is time to switch off from casinos. Mr Aspinall and his family get ready to head to Kent, where they spend every weekend at two wildlife parks he inherited from his father. Howletts, near Canterbury, is a 75-acre park with the biggest captive breeding group of gorillas in the world. It is also home to African elephants, tigers, wolves, wild dogs, small cats and rare monkeys. The second park is at Port Lympne, near Hythe. Mr Aspinall enjoyed an unconventional childhood and animals even wandered round the house. Perhaps his father's greatest legacy was this passion, which Mr Aspinall intends to pass on his own children. Little Freya already knows all the animal noises by heart.