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Indie of the Month: Running the Casino ‘People Said I Was Brave But I Was Terrified’

Published on: 24 Jan, 2023
Updated on: 27 Jan, 2023

By Hugh Coakley

How much do you know about the Casino Nightclub, the well known landmark in the centre of Guildford? There were some huge surprises for me when I interviewed the owner, Ian Forward.

He leased the venue from Michel Harper in 2017, when he was only 26. He said: “People at the time said I was brave to take it on but I was terrified. Once we got through the first few nights I felt a bit more relaxed.”

The Casino Nightclub in Guildford is the biggest nightclub in Surrey with a capacity of 1,500 clubbers.

It’s a major enterprise, a 1,500 capacity venue and the biggest nightclub in Surrey. He employs more than 40 staff and he can have up to 60 on the payroll on a busy night.

The venue was awarded the Best Bar None overall winner last year and the Best Late Night Venue accolade and that is in no small part down to the 31-year-old manager.

He is quietly spoken and modestly dressed, far from what you would imagine a leading light in the night-time economy to be.

But ordinary he is not.

A great night at the Casino Nightclub in Guildford. Dress code is simple; No hoodies, No sunglasses, No hats, No tracksuits.

In a matter-of-fact way, Ian told me how he started work in 2009 as an electrician and maintenance man for Michel Harper at the nightclub in Onslow Street.

As a trial, Harper told him to build a VIP booth in the club. “I needed the job. He gave me just four hours to complete it and I did it.”

Just two years later, he was in a management role at the club.

Forward said: “I watched and learnt how the nightclub operated. There were some switched on managers there and I learnt a hell of a lot from them.”

The ground floor bar at the Casino in Guildford. The club has two rooms where “you can expect to hear the very best of club classics, dance, R’n’B, hip hop, grime and house music that always gets the party going!” says the website.

He says there are four key things to get right for a successful club; price, temperature, the music and the atmosphere.

“You can feel if the atmosphere is right or wrong. It’s very simple things like changing the lighting from blue to red. Some like it dark, others like to be seen.

“There’s no better feeling than seeing the crowd screaming the words of a track, getting the wall of warmth and sound.”

Then came Covid. Reports at the time said 50 per cent of nightclub employees were made redundant as a result of the pandemic. But the Casino survived with all its staff.

“It was hard”, said Mr Forward, “but we didn’t make anyone redundant. I sold everything I had to keep it going.

“We also made some smart investments. We bought the internal fittings of nightclubs that were closing and me and the staff upcycled them and sold them on.

“When it got really tough, I went back on the tools and put my wages to pay staff and bills.”

The Casino employ a full-time paramedic. Forward said: “It’s not a licence condition but we do it to take the strain off the NHS. Some of our customers get too intoxicated and we can deal with it rather than putting them out in the street. We are called on by other venues when they have troubles and we are happy to help.

“99 per cent of those in trouble just need a cup of tea and somewhere to sit for a time.”

The medical room at the Casino nightclub in Guildford.

Other things such as all the door staff being first-aid trained, having a fully fitted-out medical room and the management team being mental health trained marks the Casino, with him as the owner, as an enlightened venue.

Mr Foward said the club worked with Guildford Borough Council, Oakleaf Enterprise and others to put on the SOS bus through December.

Jane Lyons, landlady at The Keep pub, who chairs Guildford Pubwatch, was full of praise for him. She said: “He is one of the most responsible operators I have known. His Best Bar None award in 2022 is well deserved.

“The town benefits from the medical facilities”, (he provides and the safe environment for his customers) “is vital to a Purple Flag safe town”.

But Forward is very modest over what he is doing at the club.

“I don’t think it’s remarkable,” he said. “We take it seriously, we try to prevent drugs and spiking and we take the time to deal with it properly. If there is someone crying their eyes out, we will talk to them and take care of them.”

What does the future hold for Ian Forward and Casino?

He said: “Everything I have earned, I have poured it all back into the business. If you don’t, you stagnate. At some point, I will make money but we are still a business in growth.

“I have a passion for this place and for the night economy, my phenomenal team, Guildford Borough Council licensing, Experience Guildford and so on. I have been here for 13 years and it grows on you.

“Maybe we will expand, do more nights, more festivals, maybe merge with the next-door venue. For the time being we are staying here and keeping everyone safe and happy.”

As I walked around the silent club in the daytime, he pointed out the stages and the bars, the mouldings in the ceiling, the lighting and sound systems, all of which he has built himself. Where do his talents end?

He politely declined when I asked to take a photo of him. “I don’t want customers just thinking I am the only one to speak to, I want all of the team to be involved.”

Ian Forward and the Casino were eye openers for this reporter. I think Guildford is lucky to have him and the club.

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Responses to Indie of the Month: Running the Casino ‘People Said I Was Brave But I Was Terrified’

  1. Peta Malthouse Reply

    January 24, 2023 at 9:55 pm

    Good for you Mr Forward! It is really good to see you making such a success of it.

  2. Alan Cooper Reply

    January 24, 2023 at 10:58 pm

    It is such a pity it looks so drab and abandoned from the outside, when obviously it is far better on the inside.

  3. Carolyn Neogi Reply

    January 25, 2023 at 10:37 pm

    How interesting and impressive.

    My clubbing days are a long way past and all I really knew about Casino was the decades-long battle between Michel Harper and GBC.

    It’s good to know that we have an award-winning, socially responsible enterprise on this somewhat battered site.

  4. Nick Wyschna Reply

    January 27, 2023 at 5:47 pm

    The town is lucky to have Ian Forward.

    I thank him for everything he does – and for being such a support to us newbies.

    Nick Wyschna is the director of the Guildford Fringe and the Fallen Angel Bar.

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