"WE ALL CAN'T WAIT TO HEAR THE SOUND OF CHIPS RINGING OUT AGAIN IN A NICE, BIG POKER ROOM, CAN WE?"
If there's a vivid memory of live poker, in this "world before" that so many miss, it's of the large room at the Palais des Congrès dedicated to holding the World Poker Tour in Paris, organized by the teams at Club Pierre Charron. To celebrate these beautiful memories just one year later, we went behind the scenes of this extraordinary organizational effort with those who put the event together, Ziad Farhoud and Pascal Rolin, today respectively Marketing and Technologies Director and Lead Director of Club Pierre Charron.
How did the idea of the WPT Paris, which took place just a year ago at the end of February 2020, come about?
In September 2019, we signed an agreement with the World Poker Tour for a three-year exclusive partnership in Paris for the entire WPT lineup, which therefore runs until 2024. We had the chance to work again with Adam Pliska and Hermance Blum, who we've known well for years, in Paris or Marrakesh. It was reassuring for the WPT team to meet with us all for this project (Pascal Rolin, Ziad Farhoud and Bruno Fitoussi in particular).
Club Pierre Charron was still being finished off. The original idea was to open the club in November-December 2019, break in for a few weeks, then host the WPT. But there were unforeseen events: the "yellow vests", then huge strikes. In the Champs-Élysées district, everything was blocked and the teams couldn't even get to work. So the schedule was shifted, because there are security meetings that can't be rescheduled to just any time; we were expecting a minimum of 600 players in the main event.
We then started thinking about a plan B.
And when did plan B become more than likely?
As well as the uncertainties around the club's opening date, we had to declare the tournaments to the gaming authorities 21 days before the start date of the tournaments. So we brought a new idea to the authorities: could we legally organize the tournament outside our walls?
The answer was immediate: there's nothing stopping that from happening.
Except that no one had ever done it and the challenge was huge. The rules had to be followed from start to finish, just like a "normal" club. It was January 20th, we had just one week left to decide. Gregory Benac, the club's founding president, asked us to set up a plan B, i.e. a tournament outside the walls and ideally in a place that would showcase the event at least as much as it would have been at the club.
How did the idea of the Palais des Congrès come about?
We all met on this famous January 20th at 10 pm to go through our address books: without special relationships, it was impossible to find the right place. The planets all aligned when we hit on the possibility of the Palais des Congrès: it was the school vacations and therefore a dead period for conventions, there was availability on the dates we'd announced for the WPT, and the event teams at Viparis, the owner of the Palais des Congrès, wanted to diversify. Poker still suffers from a very poor image among the general public, so it's invaluable to have partners like Viparis to change people's minds.
How did you organize this change of schedule after the Palais des Congrès had given the green light?
Once we had the approval of the venue and the gaming authorities, we had to start from scratch to create a real club that met all aspects of the legislation, even if it was going to be temporary. We had to buy almost all the security cameras in the Paris area, for example. We organized everything in two weeks and we had to set up the room in one day and two nights, as the room was rented just before. We hired a really fantastic general manager to organize the planning, which was done right down to the second: the arrival of the tables, the chips, the computer circuit and the cameras, the teams of workers... It was just crazy!
The club's team has over 15 years' experience in the sector, and it's thanks to this accumulated experience that everything was possible on the day. Without talking to each other, we knew what we had to do. In one look, we solved the problems, we found solutions. We'd already experienced these kinds of crazy situations, such as in Lloret De Mar for the Winamax Sismix, with more than 130 tables in the festival. We were used to these kinds of hellish situations. But for the WPT, all the employees had to be trained in new tools and methods and there was no chance for any breaking in! Their first day on the job was the day the WPT doors opened! We relied on the know-how and composure of a seasoned management team and tournament director (Thomas Gimie), who never panic. That said, considering the stakes and the investments, the stress was huge.
It was a real feat, but also a great publicity coup for the club! A poster campaign to launch the club would have cost us more in advertising costs than this off-site organization; what's more, this type of campaign isn't in our DNA: we prefer to invest in the player experience. We'd modeled this investment with three assumptions of profitability. We didn't do this on a whim at all. And in the end, we ended up better than the best-case scenario: 30% above, because it was an absolute hit. We exceeded all our expectations!
"THERE'S A LONG LOVE STORY BETWEEN PARIS AND THE WPT"
On the road to success, there were also a few swerves...
When you're working to a tight schedule, when you have to start from scratch, everything is complex. Regarding the video and audio security for example, no one has ever installed more than a hundred video surveillance cameras in two days! Fortunately, the gaming authorities were extremely responsive to our many questions about the rules and gave us lots of information. On the day, at the entrance of the Palais des Congrès, things were starting to get a little heated because the players had been waiting, sometimes for more than two hours, to be let into the tournament room – except that there were still a thousand problems to solve!
With a two-hour delay, we finally started to open the tables, one by one; first two tables at the beginning, then we added all the others in real time, as we went along. The players were so happy to sit down that in the end they forgave us for the little teething problems. It has to be said that the room was beautiful with all the WPT logos around the players. And we were proud to finally offer a very big tournament in Paris, at the same level as what we normally only see abroad. So once everything got going, we could finally breathe a little.
How do you explain the historic success of this tournament?
First of all, because there's a long love story between Paris and the WPT. Paris is one of the historic stops in the first seasons of the World Poker Tour history! Not to mention that thousands of French players were born watching the WPT shows on Canal+ with Patrick Bruel. We've made this our slogan: "Paris Loves WPT". There's a particular attachment in France to this festival. And at Club Pierre Charron itself this connection is very strong, as the club was founded by a player, Gregory Benac, who won the WPT National Paris in 2012. Symbolically, it was the big return of tournament poker to Paris. And being in a huge room like this made poker even more legitimate.
Despite the difficulties behind the scenes to put it all together, we were confident because the teams running the tournaments are among the best professionals in the business, both in the WPT and among our dealers and hospitality staff from Club Pierre Charron. The crazy thing is that it could have been a disaster with just a few days' difference: Viparis had to close the Agriculture Show before it ended, because of Covid-19! But the festival just made it, and we were able to finish all the tournaments. At the time, not many people were talking about Covid, except Bruno Fitoussi [laughs]!
We couldn't imagine that, two weeks later, we'd be locked down and would have several months of absolutely nothing happening in terms of poker tournaments.
How do you see the future and the reopening of Club Pierre Charron?
We're confident about the future of poker tournaments. We think the coming season will see a lot of tournaments, especially here. We put a lot of energy into developing a very comprehensive and substantial range. We've got lots of ideas and are waiting for the pandemic situation to improve. We all can't wait to hear the sound of chips ringing out again in a nice, big poker room, can we?