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.