Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

July 1, 2010

SIMPSON ON VEGAS #003: New Coat of Paint

Posted by Hunter

Jeff Simpson is back with his latest column. This time around, Jeff looks at a sometimes complicated choice for casino operators - whether to invest in a renovation project and if so, how much to spend.

There are many examples of this on The Strip - some, like MGM Grand, have been dramatic and raised the bar significantly. Others, not so much...

Anyway, keep reading after the jump for Jeff's latest.

Happy Fourth of July to all!

The biggest casino operators on the Strip face a lot of tough decisions when it comes to their investments in resort properties. One of the most difficult is whether they can revitalize an aging property -- and, if so, how to do it.

Since arriving in Las Vegas a little more than 11 years ago I've seen a number of attempts to remake or at least refresh casino properties. Some wholesale, some half-ass; some expensive, some on the cheap.

Let's grade a few of those changes: The good, the bad and the fugly.

Note: I'm not going to include much about a couple of recent trends that most resorts are cashing in on, bottle-service nightclubs and day-life pool clubs, although those "enhancements" (the quotation marks betray my age and general Andy Rooney-like generational disdain) can be quite expensive to build and lucrative if run right.

MGM Grand

MGM Resorts has been the operator most willing to invest in revitalizing its big inventory of Strip hotels, and some of its changes have been significant ones. I visited Las Vegas in 1994, less than a year after the MGM Grand, Luxor and Treasure Island opened, and the company that eventually grew into MGM Resorts has continually changed the Grand, mostly for the better. Eliminated were the giant lion entry, its amusement park, the ridiculous Oz theme; added were a major conference center, the Mansion, significant room and restaurant upgrades, the lion habitat and "Ka." Unfortunately, its horrible parking garage remains. One important change that was made was the decision to get in on the ground floor of the hotel-condo craze with the Signature towers, the most distant of which seems almost a time zone away from the casino. The hotel-condo market's deterioration and the unhappiness of the Signature buyers probably hasn't been enough of a negative to offset the money the sale of those units brought in. Overall, the MGM Grand's transformation has been a positive, financially and aesthetically. Remodeling Grade: B+

The Mirage

MGM Resorts may have dropped the "Mirage" from its corporate name but the company has not shortchanged the property in terms of reinvestment. The casino floor was enhanced with a couple of new high-limit areas, the restaurant inventory was refreshed, nightclubs were added and the volcano attraction was improved. "Love" replaced Siegfried and Roy. Unfortunate changes included replacing the white tiger display with a burger joint, removal of the sculpture from inside the front doors, the toning down of the island theme and the elimination of the iconic Mirage palm trees logo. Grade: B


Some of the biggest changes at Luxor were made before MGM Resorts bought Luxor and the rest of Mandalay Resort Group. The indoor river and ride were removed, and two ugly, boxy hotel towers were added to boost room capacity over 4,000 before MGM took over. Since then MGM has tried to tone down the Egypt theme (tough mission in a pyramid with a giant sphinx out front), and added nightclubs, restaurants and the city's worst show. No, not Carrot Top. Cheesy shows were stolen from the Trop (Titanic and Bodies) The property has never lived up to its early promise as a serious competitor to the Mirage and seems destined to remain a middle-of-the-pack fixture. Grade: D

Planet Hollywood

The former Aladdin needed a dramatic investment to improve the poorly designed, executed and run property, and the owners who bought it out of bankruptcy just didn't have the money to make enough changes to really transform it. Some of the design problems that remain include a parking garage positioned to benefit the shopping mall that surrounds the resort rather than the casino, a main vehicle entry off of a side street rather than the Strip and an elevated Strip-front that discourages walk-in (or even walk-by) traffic. Positive changes included a new name, eliminating the Arabic theme and the seemingly Taliban-inspired artwork and redesigning the casino interior to add energy. The exterior changes mainly consist of improved escalators and the addition of walls of LED screens on the Stripfront, including a new one facing Harmon as it exits CityCenter that looks big enough to hide a jumbo jet. Entertainment offerings have mainly been a string of failures, but the property is clearly better than it was when it opened in 2000. Now that Harrah's owns the property it should do better financially, but if the company's record with Rio and Paris are any indication, a long period of milking money without significant reinvestment has begun. Grade: C+

Caesars Palace

The grand dame of the Strip seems to be the one property that Harrah's doesn't mind reinvesting in. Of course, adding a few multi-hundred-million-dollar hotel towers improves room inventory, but they also exacerbate the property's crazy-quilt footprint. (Caesars and MGM Grand seem to be in a contest to see how far they can make people walk on the same property.) Caesars' former owner added the Colosseum and the entertainment venue may be the single best improvement made to a Strip property, both because of its design that perfectly fits the property's theme and because of a strong lineup of artists who have given visitors a non-Cirque reason to see a Vegas show. The restaurant lineup has been seriously improved and one of the city's biggest, if not freshest, nightclubs added. The pluses outweigh the minuses and show that an aging property can be kept relevant. Grade: B+

Of course many other properties have had significant makeovers, and others are supposed to.

Several top properties have added new hotel towers and refreshed restaurant and nightclub lineups, including Bellagio, Venetian and Mandalay Bay. Venetian deserves special mention for the way it has turned around its awful entertainment assets into what is (along with sister property Palazzo) the city's top entertainment spot. Mandalay made a big improvement when it added a big convention center.

In the middle- and bottom-tier groups Tropicana is in the middle of a makeover that is slated to cost about what MGM Grand spent to build and stage "Ka," $165 million. I see that as a small investment to keep a terribly worn property from fading into irrelevance while its bargain-hunting owners wait to unload it after property values rebound.

Flamingo made a partial attempt at a makeover, updating some rooms and improving entertainment offerings, but the property still feels like it's on the decline.

MGM invested a decent amount in Treasure Island's update and many changes were for the better (not including the removal of the cool skull-and-crossbones marquee and the sexing-up of the pirate show) but I think new owner Phil Ruffin will be content to milk revenue from the property if and when the economy rebounds, as he did with the New Frontier.

Monte Carlo has had a decent amount invested it it, but unfortunately some of that money went into destroying much of the property's19th-century European look with the hideous-looking Diablo's.

Among the remaining low-end properties, a couple of properties should be operated frugally and then imploded as soon as the economy allows. The Riviera and Trop are included in this category. The Sahara is supposedly slated for a big-money makeover, but I'll believe it when I see it. There's a big difference between turning an old 300-room hotel in a trendy Los Angeles neighborhood into a hip spot than remaking the Sahara. The Sahara should also be on the near-term implosion list.

Harrah's makes enough money operating the Imperial Palace, Harrah's and Bill's to justify their continuing operation as long as the company's dramatic plans for the east side of the Strip are on hold. It would be nice for Harrah's to mimic MGM Resorts and sink a little money into those stale properties.

Bally's, Circus Circus and the Las Vegas Hilton have long-term redevelopment value and should be operated until implosion and redevelopment pencil out. I think Wynn Resorts would be a logical buyer, imploder and redeveloper of the LVH (and maybe its neighboring Las Vegas Country Club), as the Hilton's site next to the Las Vegas Convention Center would allow Steve Wynn to surround the LVCC and benefit from its shows without having to build his own convention center, further antagonizing his buddy Sheldon, who hates both Wynn and the convention authority.

-- Jeff Simpson, July 2010


Read archived comments (18 so far)
July 1, 2010 7:55 PM Posted by detroit1051

Steve Wynn tried to buy the Las Vegas Country Club in 2004 but was rebuffed by the membership. That was before Wynn opened, and of course it was a different economic time. Steve supposedly wanted to continue to operate it as a golf course, freeing up the entire DI golf course land for huge development.

I agree with Jeff on MGM Grand. It was a disappointing property when it opened, but MGM has really improved it. The exterior green panels really got dull and faded looking in just a few years. MGM has improved their appearance, but it was a mistake to use that material in the first place. MGM's original pool area was where The Mansion is now. It was totally uninspired. Fortunately, MGM Grand had the property to build a decent pool complex even if it is a long hike to get there.

The parking structure is awful. The parking spaces are as narrow as Venetian's, and the walk underground to the hotel lobby is depressing.
Still, MGM has done a good job in making a huge property appeal to mid-market guests as well as high rollers.

July 1, 2010 10:46 PM Posted by mike_ch

I agree that the walk to self park is really neglected and could use some sprucing up, though I understand what they were trying to do there and they did probably as good as they could at the time.

The walk to MGM is an obvious example of place-setting to the Disney connoisseur. The marquee above the doorway in the stone parking garage is kind of dumb at first glance but the entrance looks sorta like a low rent movie theater, then you go through this awful minimall that could use improvement, but is designed to look like a behind-the-scenes set. Then at the end, you step off the escalator and are greeted with the lobby, with the registration desks framed with curtains like a giant movie screen and the huge TVs behind them.

It has this sort of "lights, camera, action" kind of thing going on. Just, it could be done better.

July 2, 2010 9:35 AM Posted by Phil

I have to agree on Luxor, I'd give them an F. Was there a few days ago and ate at the Pyramid Cafe which seems of the few things left from the original Luxor design. Elsewhre the grayish blue ceilings and similar carpet made me seem like I was in a world of blan. Of course I'm happy to see Carrot Tops face every time I turn my head. Maybe thats their new theme, a Carrot Top Hotel Casino brought to you by Luxor. Here was a hotel created like nothing else in the world and now its turned into another MGM resort. I understand the fascination of that place you can't keep forever, but their design team isn't helping. While not always, the bulk of the time, the original designer and blueprints before a place is constructed are the best ideas, the most innovation and take the concept and theme to the limit. Its those ideas that make Vegas great, lately, the best ideas are being replaced with fly by night trends.

I have to give Caesars a better grade simply because they're maintaining a theme. I wish they would use less styrofoam sculptures and more marble ones, but they haven't thrown a theme under a bus like everyone else.

Given the tough times, the only thing I'd wish tthe hotel operaters would do is simply keep up the maintenance of what they have now instead of doing half ass remodels. That means painting exteriors walls where pedistrians walk, some hotels its just so filthy. Polishing brass is another thing I used to see constantly back in the day, now they don't give a damn. Ever see those brass sculptures in the front of the Caesars Palace walkway across from O-Sheas. Do you think in the past ten years they can spare one worker to go out there and polish them, no that would be apparantly asking too much, instead they let them just rot, same with the landscaping and gardens. Again back in the day, it was not to uncommon to see a Caesars Palace gardening crew working on the exterior grounds virtually daily, no more. Hedges aren't being edged anymore, debris intertwined in every plant, dead plants...etc. Bottom line its the little things that count to me and right now they've all been put aside. Making a first impession with exterior maintanance means nothing right now. I have a home in Summerlin because I like how the grounds are maintained, it made a good first impression and I bought in. If a current Vegas hotel owner ran Summerlin it would be weeds and broken bottles everywhere, but I'd have a beautiful new bar in my house every 6 months. I remember an 80's movie about the ownership of Caesars Palace being dealt on a hand of Chemin de Fer, in it Omar Shariff after winning the hand and now running the hotel goes out of his way to tell an employee he will never except messy conditions in his hotel, although this is just a movie, I feel that kind of mindset is gone.

July 2, 2010 12:16 PM Posted by socalduck

Aladdin/PHO has always taken a lot of criticism for it's Strip access, but I honestly don't think it is any less convenient than Bellagio, Mirage, or Wynn. The parking issue and the horrible, subterranean porte cochere are far bigger, unresolved issues.

Phil makes a good point about maintenance, particulary with regards to the grounds outside of Caesars. I originally attributed some of the shabbiness to the continual construction activity, but now that construction has subsided, it is clearly a case of Harrah's not giving a crap. Too bad.

July 2, 2010 1:27 PM Posted by mike_ch

Sure, PHo self park access is annoying. But have you've tried Paris or NYNY or Mandalay, you know a walk is pretty much the norm.

Converting so much arcade space to convention halls has made NYNY possibly less annoying, people walking out of the garage hallway would encounter the original Coney Island arcade with the laser tag and bumper cars and wonder where the heck they were supposed to go.

July 3, 2010 2:31 PM Posted by steve_c

I have to agree with you on the Tropicana renovations. Having stayed in one of the new rooms, I could already see water stains from a previous occupant's glass on a few places on the furniture, and these rooms aren't even 6 months old yet. I could tell that a lot of the room was done on the extreme cheap, and while it looks good in photos, the details are really going to get worn down in a hurry. The carpet in our room was really lumpy and you could feel every dip and crack in the concrete below. Surely they could have put some quick set or something over the area where the old bed's were (you sink into the floor a little in the area around the bed).

If I were running the Trop and had the serious capital to throw into it when the economy rebounds, instead of selling or imploding it completely, I would add two new towers and new casino space and then carefully remove the existing towers. Develop the NE side of the property with a new tower, hotel amenities, casino space, etc, as well as on the southern edge of the property at the strip where the current parking garage, garden rooms and convention space are located. Make these towers as tall as FAA regulations will allow possible considering the distance to the airport, completely gut out the existing casino and create a seamless transition between the old and new spaces. Put in a strip porte cochere on LVB between the theater and the new tower and casino space, as well as one on Tropicana Ave where the North Garden room wing is now. Expand the casino out to the Trop/LVB intersection where the current porte cochere is with a big grand entrance right on the corner. Fix the parking problem with respectable parking garages on the eastern edge of the property with new convention facilities to the south where the existing Island tower and exhibit space is. Give the whole place a real timeless, yet modern blend of the tropics meet South Beach. If done in phases, you could potentially keep the Trop open during all of this. Build the new areas first, open 'em up- then redo the main existing casino..... Another pipe dream I guess, but it would be nice to see the Trop survive as Caesars Palace has, but without the jacked up property layout. Plan it right, and you could add a new tower or two when Vegas tourism and the economy permits.

July 3, 2010 10:56 PM Posted by Kenny

Didn't the MGM Grand add its name and logo on the top of the building in the mid 90's or something like that?

July 3, 2010 11:55 PM Posted by Joe

Speaking of "New Coat of Paint", It looks like the Bellagio is keeping up with its maintenance by repainting its roof a dark beige color in Google Earths recent satellite update. Its previous color can be seen behind the Spa Tower in the convention area.

July 4, 2010 1:56 AM Posted by Joe

sorry, heres the link:

July 4, 2010 5:40 AM Posted by detroit1051

This is one expenditure that probably couldn't be deferred even though visitors will never see it. Baking Vegas sun must shorten the lives of these flat roofs, and the last thing Bellagio needs is a leaking roof.
Great minds....Joe posted the photo here, and Kenny posted it in the June Open Discussion.

July 4, 2010 2:04 PM Posted by chuckmonster

The grading renovations is a little confusing to me as it doesn't provide a starting point from which to judge how the New Coat of Paint etc. has affected it.

For example, to some people, MGM's repositioning TI as a sexy time resort were a negative. They kinda got their act together and pulled big positives out of the hotel tower redo and re-introduction of some of the pirate schtick right at the time they sold it. The Ruffin re-arrangements - Gilleys, Social House, Fernando's - are by most accounts a negative. In theory, this one would get four scores: original, mgm1, mgm2, ruffin; B, C, B+, B-.

July 4, 2010 4:27 PM Posted by Jeff Simpson

Hey, Chuck.
The thought behind the column was to pick a few of the properties that made the biggest changes during the time I've been in the city (and a little before for MGM Grand and Luxor) and then grade them according to what I think of the overall change. You're right, of course, that many of these properties, like Treasure Island, have had several phases of transformations, including Luxor, Caesars and MGM Grand.
I thought the column could serve as a jumping off point for readers to comment on their own favorite and least favorite changes.
Hope everyone's having a great Fourth of July.

July 4, 2010 6:14 PM Posted by Hunter

For me, perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is if the Caesars' Colosseum is indeed the most impactful adjustment/enhancement to a hotel/casino.

July 4, 2010 7:54 PM Posted by Jeff in OKC

I sure hope the Riv, don't fall into the blast & build category. I think the Strip costs are such that we will never be able to build an Excalibur or Luxor in my lifetime, and I'm 52. I will admit I am a preservationist and I think the Riviera has nothing but upside, if updated/restored. Although I am not sure why, if emotion is removed. I do, however, think that it would be better if the El Rancho, Stardust, Westward Ho and Frontier sites were developed before anything else is blasted.
The best thing in Las Vegas for 2010, IMO, is Mr. Simpson blogging on TWHT. I just love it. Thank you, Hunter and Jeff for making this happen.

July 5, 2010 7:28 PM Posted by detroit1051

Jeff, I don't see the Riviera being updated. The original building is 55 years old, and expansions have been added piecemeal over the years. The Riv has had a fascinating history, but I think its time is up. This property map shows how chopped up the place is.

July 6, 2010 8:35 AM Posted by jinx

Not a full on makeover, but during this period, the Imperial Palace had a fairly significant makeover (pre-Harrahs) where the casino floor was remodeled, brightened, and recarpeted, along with room renovations. While not on par with many of the others, they also added the dealertainers. I thought the renovations were pretty solid C-B and if you include the dealertainers or what essentially was one of the first party pits, I might raise the grade a bit more.

Harrahs has of course done little to continue to the room renovations or refresh the ones that were, but I thought I'd just throw it in there. On my first two trips to Vegas the casino floor for IP was vastly different, not a lot of energy, I'd put it in a similar mode to Riviera now.

July 8, 2010 2:08 AM Posted by motoman

Phil & socalduck, you'll be pleased to know that back in November last year, just as Vegas was bouncing off the bottom, I noted a painting crew doing the interior of Wynn's Terrace Pointe cafe. To me, it didn't even look like the place needed it, yet there they were. And they were working in the middle of the night so that, like the crews constantly repairing the floor tile mosaics, no customer the next day would even know they had been there. Some joints, I'd expect to have paint fumes wafting over from a tarped-off section as equipment noise drowned out lunchtime conversation.

July 23, 2010 9:26 AM Posted by Jay

Let's not forget a D- for what MGM did to NewYork NewYork. The heavily themed outside with a completely de-themed inside. WTF, over.