Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

October 20, 2011

Tropicana shuffle: Panic or business as usual?

Posted by daveschwartz

In the past few days, I've done a few media interviews, including one for KVVU Fox 5, on the Tropicana's current situation. I figured that I might as well write up my thoughts for the record.

I will do precisely that...after the jump.

First off, let's run down what was new at the Trop earlier this year:

* A spiffy new logo
* (Relatively) new senior management helmed by president Tom McCartney
* Las Vegas Mob Experience
* Brad Garrett Comedy Club
* Gladys Knight long-term headlining engagement in the renamed Gladys Knight Theater
* New fine-ish dining at Bacio and Biscayne
* A three-of-a-kind of Nikkiness: Nikki Beach (pool), Club Nikki (nightclub), Cafe Nikki (embellished coffee shop)
* A drastically refreshed room product
* Drastically refreshed public spaces, including the casino
* A drastically white blaze of paint that effectively un-gilded the two towers

(Before I begin, I've got two non-sequitur questions: 1. Is it ironic that a casino that is composed, in fact, of two towers is one of the few that doesn't have the WMS Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers slot machine? 2. Is Nikki a real person, or is she like the Jolly Green Giant of dayclubs? A quick scan of the Nikki Beach website did nothing to answer this question)

So the big question is, are the wheels coming off the Tropicana? Let's break it down...

1. Tom McCartney has resigned as president
2. The Las Vegas Mob Experience has declared bankruptcy and partially closed
3. Brad Garrett's moving across the street to the MGM Grand
4. Gladys Knight is taking her mic and her light elsewhere
5. The Tropicana severed its ties with the Nikki Kingdom, hiring some folks to run the nightlife in-house
6. Other than that, things are pretty much the same. There's no backtracking on the renovations, no ditching the new logo, and the paint is still almost blindingly white when the sun's particularly intense

Boiling it down to the essentials, we've got:

1. executive turnover
2. entertainment turnover

Which isn't that rare. I can't speak directly to the circumstances around Mr. McCartney's departure, I will say it's not unprecedented for casino presidents to leave abruptly. Obviously neither side is going to have a frank discussion about the real reason for the departure, so for now it's best to just let that one go, since anything anyone says is going to be speculation, which isn't that illuminating or respectful to those involved.

The second essential, entertainment turnover, I can speak to directly. We've seen tons of it on the Strip, and at successful casinos, too.

Exhibit one: the Venetian. I don't remember exactly when the Tao/Lavo/Phantom/Blue Man/Jersey Boys lineup jelled (three years ago? Certainly some pieces were in place much earlier), but I do remember that for years I thought the Venetian's major weakness was entertainment and nightlife. Remember C2K? Robert Goulet's headlining stint? Melinda, the First Lady of Magic?

For that matter, what about the Guggenheim Las Vegas? It was a massively-touted, supposedly game-changing museum that closed after a single exhibition. Share something in the comments section if you got to tour the art of motorcycles.

All of that after-dark instability, in the end, did nothing to really hurt the casino. Sure, it helps that Macau and Singapore have opened the floodgates, but the Venetian's basic fundamentals were always strong. Eventually they hit on the right nightlife and entertainment mix.

They're going to have the chance to do it all again soon, with both Blue Man and Jersey Boys moving out and, quite possibly, Tao nearing the end of the typical club lifecycle. I wouldn't be surprised to see a completely different entertainment mix at the Venetian two years from now, and maybe a renamed nightclub as well (though Tao's national presence might preclude that).

Exhibit two: Wynn Las Vegas. Avenue Q? Spamalot? Gone, and gone. How about La Bete? That lasted, how long? Five minutes? Yet Wynn's continued to lead the market in Las Vegas. The casino's also had a very public change in property presidents. Though there's a little bit of teeth-gnashing over the implications of this change (the much-dreaded putative Harrarization of Wynn), no one's speculating that this is the end for the casino. Again, it helps that Macau's throwing off so much cash flow, but despite a bit of executive transition and some notable misfires, Wynn remains, arguably, the strongest casino in the market.

So what about the Tropicana? Before it even opened, I asked what was going to be done differently at the Tropicana. Nikki Beach lasted one season in Reno, at the Grand Sierra Resort. It lasted one season in Atlantic City, at Resorts. In the past there'd clearly been a disconnect between Nikki Beach and the typical casino patron. How were they going to change the equation at the Tropicana to keep this from being the case?

As it turned out, not enough. But I'm seeing a common thread here: three big-splash openings, three one-and-out summers. That common thread isn't the Tropicana, it's Nikki Beach.

You've also got Brad Garrett moving, because he's disappointed at the audiences he's been pulling. I'm not a comedy critic, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Brad Garrett's more responsible for that than the Tropicana. Time will tell--if he pulls crowds every night at MGM Grand, we'll know he was right.

I'd put the Gladys Knight closure into the same category. Sure, it's not the best outcome, but it's the kind of misfire that's more common than not around the Strip.

That leaves the Las Vegas Mob Experience. And this is a failure that I think can fairly be laid at the feet of the Tropicana's management. Just reading about the attraction in the papers it became clear that it wasn't ever going to work out. I reviewed the experience for Vegas Seven shortly after walking through it in March. As you can see, I found certain shortcomings. For a more visceral reaction, check out my barely-a-day-removed blogmentary.

The attraction was, in its earliest concept, fatally flawed. It wanted to be two things: a Tony-and-Tina's-Wedding style interactive fun-fest and a "serious" museum exhibition. At the scale proposed, both were ridiculously expensive: hiring dozens of live actors can't be cheap. It's one thing to do that at Disneyland, where you're charging fairly high premiums for entry and are getting even better premiums from the concessions. It's another to do that at a standalone attraction. Initial talk about the "holographic" exhibits made it sound like Lt. Commander Data was heading down to the holodeck to run a mob simulation to blow off some steam before taking on Moriarty again. It was ridiculous for anyone to think that the people running the LVME would be capable of pulling something like that off, on so many levels. Yet they somehow convinced investors and Tropicana management that they knew what they were doing.

The only hologram I saw, of Mickey Cohen, was absolutely horrific. It looked like a crystalline fetus's head, grimacing in agony, worming its way out of the wall while starting directly in your eyes. So seriously disturbing that I don't think words can do it justice. Again, it's hard to believe that something like this made it past the "wouldn't it be cool if" stage, let alone went to installation.

The legal squabbles and other difficulties around the LVME have been amply covered elsewhere so I won't rehash them here, but suffice it to say that, unlike the other examples I cited above, partnering with the Las Vegas Mob Experience is cause for concern about the decision-making process at the Tropicana. But, and this isn't excusing them, they weren't alone; the Las Vegas Sun had a cross-promotional agreement with them as well. So that must have been a good sales pitch, because it made a lot of people look past the obvious weaknesses.

So, in a nutshell, I wouldn't say the the Tropicana 2.0 is fatally flawed. They've had a few duds, one borderline questionable deal (Nikki), and one that shouldn't have made it past a polite, pro forma thanks-for-sharing-that initial meeting (LVME). With the renovations, I think the casino's still positioned to performed well in the current Las Vegas market. We'll just have to see which direction management moves in. If it sticks with the same basic plan McCartney was executing, going after the mid/upper-mid market, with a few refinements, it should be fine. If it starts getting fancy and wants to out-Wynn Wynn or goes the other route and slashes expenses, however, it could be headed for troubled waters.


Read archived comments (12 so far)
October 20, 2011 5:20 PM Posted by Jeff in OKC

Your comments are brilliant and dead-on, Dr. Dave. The only addition I might suggest is that there was too much ME and not enough LV: IMO the Las Vegas Golden Era is 1955-85. The time between the first over-building on the strip (Riv, Dunes, etc.) and Boyd Gaming taking ownership of the Stardust, effectively ending Mob control of Las Vegas. Baby boomers are starved for information from this era and never get tired of learning about it. No matter how many times we read the same stories. We don't care about New York anything before WWII. we weren't there. Give us hoop skirts, Cadillacs and slot machines and we are hooked. I hope the downtown curators understand that. Post War Las Vegas is the most interesting place on Earth. No need to go beyond that.

October 21, 2011 1:58 AM Posted by briguyx

I think you're being too easy on the Tropicana. While I think it's hard to market any museum to Vegas tourists who are in the mood for entertainment and fun, the Trop's real problem is it's just not nice enough to compete for the upper mid-market. Well, it might be, but how would you know? The entrance still looks cheesy! At this point, the mid-market includes hotels like Mandalay Bay and Planet Hollywood that are already known for being nice.

As I've commented before, there's no reason for partying young adults to go to Nikki Beach when there's better known clubs at so many casinos. The Trop just isn't hip enough to pull in the hip crowds. They also didn't do a very good job of differentiating Nikki Beach from the nightclub.

As for Brad Garrett, word is he does well when he himself is performing, but the club didn't pull in people when it was lesser known comedians. No wonder. There's too many stars and big shows in Vegas for most people to want to see unknowns. That's something they can do in their own hometowns at local clubs. I actually thought Brad would do better at MGM, but it doesn't help that the club will be downstairs and not right off the casino.

I just really think the Trop made an impossible task for themselves and the recession didn't help, as it made newer casinos more affordable.

October 21, 2011 4:38 AM Posted by BigHoss

Interesting that most of this entertainment transience basically centers around the room that hosted one of Las Vegas's longest running and most successful shows, Folies Bergere. Was that a ColSux casualty?

October 21, 2011 5:45 AM Posted by Dr.Dave

BigHoss: That decision was made in January of 2009, so yes, it was Columbia Sussex/Tropicana Entertainment.

briguyx: I don't think it's necessarily an impossible task, just a difficult one. For the money they had to invest, it wouldn't have made sense to go after the low/middle tier. I think they had to shoot for what they're shooting for. There might have been some flaws in the execution, but I'll take that any day over SBE's strategy at Sahara (which was Columbia Sussex's at the Trop)--let it decay until you get enough money to drastically renovate and go high-end.

if they keep the rooms where they are, adjust the price points in their dining outlets down just a bit, and get some entertainment options that click, the Tropicana could be very well positioned.

October 21, 2011 11:47 AM Posted by Mike P.

I remember Melinda, the First Lady of Magic. Melinda was smoking hot.

The rest of the Venetian's early 2000's entertainment lineup, not so much.

October 21, 2011 1:19 PM Posted by Ted Newkirk

I can do you one better: We shot a feature on Art Of The Motorcycle for our then fledgeling (and way ahead of its time) All Vegas TV. It's up on YouTube at

I wrote about it recently and will summarize: Nikki made a big mistake trying to take on the other clubs at their own game of bringing in big name celebs. How about just keeping it a loungey day/night club where people go hang out for a relaxing vibe. I mean... if I remember correctly, they brought in Britney Spears this summer. Co'mon.

For whatever reason, it also appears that the new team is still taking it in that direction. I simply don't see how that is going to work out. The Trop isn't Wynn or Cosmo. They can bring in all of the MTV/TMZ era celebs they want, but I don't see the 20-somethings as their core customer.

They need to pull a "Plaza". Accept who they are and market to their core audience.

October 22, 2011 10:04 PM Posted by jinx

Great article Dr. Dave. I will say though that so early in their renewal, some of these changes look far worse then in comparison to Wynn or LVS.

As you pointed out the changes that matter are still there and it will help, but have room refreshes at the Strat or Riv. done much to raise their level?

In my opinion it's going to come down to whether they can draw and what they put in it's place, entertainment is the one spot I think we can look at and decide (the Nikki stuff, I think most thought was doomed to fail, but that's another discussion). While I thought Knight was a bad fit, if they wind up with something along the same lines vs the revolving door they had before (or offerings similar to Hooters) then I think we know whether they are just in a normal change period vs dire straits.

You hit on a point that I think matters, although you were using it for humor, the Two Towers or any LOR game at Trop. The slot floor was never updated. During my stay, I took friends over for dinner at the steakhouse and went to checkin they wanted to spend some time on the floor just playing some slots and were severely disappointed there weren't any new ones on the floor.

These aren't regular slot jockeys, and if they think the offerings stink, what about the customer that should be their core? Add in the fact, that the table pit is small and doesn't really offer anything besides the big 3 (craps, roulette, bj) and to me there are a number of indicators that the trop is severely missing on many levels.

On a side note, I do think Brad Garrett's club will be successful at MGM. That side of the strip could use a revolving showcase like that and MGM is a good fit. That is of course if they price it right, but combined with their restaurants and regular business, they should be able to provide a pretty steady stream to the club.

October 23, 2011 4:00 PM Posted by Dr.Dave

^ They've actually got a few new machines--there's a big community Wheel of Fortune game that's always full of players, and when I toured Bally Tech back in April I saw a lot of games that were about to be shipped to the Tropicana. But they don't have a very good selection.

For what it's worth, I think these were the games that Bally shipped over back in April:

I'm not sure exactly how many slots they have, but they claim to have "over 800." That's a pretty small floor. When you figure that about a third are going to be stepper games (the ones with reals) and another 5-10% video poker, you don't have too much room for the latest flashy titles.

October 24, 2011 12:14 AM Posted by Jeff in OKC

When we stayed there in August I recall the Trop had the latest games. I know they had Rockin Olives and a new Playboy machine that was up and down the Strip. They just didn't have a bunch of them. But they had 'em.

October 24, 2011 9:23 AM Posted by jinx

That is good that they've got them, my visit there was in March, so we were a bit disappointed, but it does sound like they worked to remedy that issue.

As you mentioned though it's a small floor so the balance is going to be a bit different then other strip properties.

November 1, 2011 3:51 PM Posted by David McKee

It was then-CEO Scott Butera who made the decision to lower the curtain for good on "Folies Bergere." He has subsequently gone on to Foxwood Casino Resort, where he is presumably making decisions of comparable sagacity.

December 5, 2011 9:37 PM Posted by Kathleen

Tom Mccartney really has no education and got to his standing on his ability to talk his way there. His track record speaks for itself. His business acumen is lacking and talk can only take you so far. in over his head as usual.