Old-school at the eC

This week’s Green Felt Journal is about the El Cortez:

In many ways, the El Cortez is the anti-CityCenter. Built in 1941, it’s the oldest continuously operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Its most prominent feature—the “new” neon sign—was installed in 1946. It has only 364 guest rooms, and, for better or worse, it’s in the middle of a real urban neighborhood.

Yet there are some similarities to CityCenter. The El Cortez has a swanky nongaming hotel a few steps from the casino. The old Ogden House, massively renovated in 2009 and reopened as the Cabana Suites, might not have the Mandarin Oriental’s cache, but its art-deco-meets-mid-century modern stylings and contemporary fittings (plasma screens and iPod docks) are a fraction of the price. And, thanks to the renovation, natural light spills through the hallways.

via Old-school El Cortez wins by staying relevant | Vegas Seven.

I had a lot of fun researching this story, much of which was talking with Mike Nolan. As I referenced in the article, he’s been around for a while and really knows a lot about the business.

There were really two separate things I wanted to get across–that it’s still “old school” gambling at the eC, but that there’s a lot of new stuff, and that the casino’s connecting with the arts in a different way. The first is pretty obvious if you walk around the place. Hearing the plinking of coin-in slot machines really brought me back–you don’t miss it until you hear it again. The El Cortez is just a cool, unpretentious place.

The second point, about the arts, needs a little more explaining. This isn’t a contrived attempt at being hip or artsy, it’s just a response to what’s happening downtown. Opening the former Fremont Medical Center as Emergency Arts is a brilliant move, and really the logical way to bring the arts into the neighborhood. It’s the kind of thing that CityCenter could have done, but didn’t. Sure, there’s galleries there, but if they’d have converted some of their condos into artists’ lofts and recruited artists from all around the country to move in, they might have had something unique. They wouldn’t have made much money renting the spaces–I’d practically give them away–but you’d at least create an attraction, and maybe start drawing serious art patrons, a group that would probably be comfortable with the luxury, non-trad-Vegas approach at CityCenter. That’s what got me thinking about the “anti-CityCenter” idea.

The El Cortez has done this on a downtown budget, and I’m eager to see how it turns out.

One stat I didn’t get to include: the El Cortez’s casino has about 70% local patrons, 30% visitor. With that many repeat locals, you know that they’re doing something right as far as the gambling goes. I don’t think many locals would drive down there for 6/5 blackjack.

So if you haven’t seen the El Cortez for a while, give it a chance.

Author: Dave

Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gaming. Also Gaming and Hospitality editor for Vegas Seven magazine.

5 thoughts on “Old-school at the eC”

  1. Someone once joked that a face-lift for the El Cortez took place when they, for the first time in decades, actually washed out the ash trays. You can do that re-hab on a downtown budget for sure.

  2. It’s good to see this spotlight on how the El Cortez is keeping pace with the times. One of the most genuinely friendly waitresses in the USA works in their coffee shop. I noticed her about 14 months ago, when I had their prime-rib special. It’s easy to see they treat their employees well at the El Cortez.

    Yes. It’s too bad City Center didn’t offer some short term free-leases for artists. They easily could have. The other night I took a good look into some of the mid and upper Veer rooms and noticed lots of vacant ones just filled with boxes, mops and a haphazard arrangement of miscellaneous junk.

    As much as I love City Center (and I really like it a lot) it is failing to live up to its urbanic potential in a lot of ways.

    I’m reading a book called: ‘City: Rediscovering the Center’ (originally published in 1988 and again in 2009).

    It would benefit certain City Center honchos to read one chapter in particular: ‘The Social Life of the Street’.

    MGM built a great sim-city but now they REALLY have to figure out how to appropriately bring it to life, in ways they aren’t yet doing. They are most definitely lacking in ‘urban events. And their sidewalks and plaza spaces need to be filled with more social pizazz.

    If I ran the place I’d hold and publicize daily public events there. Any kind. Outdoor raffles, Japanese Sumo Wrestlers, Modeling Contests, Bikini Juggling, Top Twenty Best Flute Players, a Bungi Jumper, a Tight-Rope Walker, even a 20 table display of comical Three Card Monty guys. Whatever. I’d make people rush to get to City Center everyday to see what new event is taking place.

    They are having a serious occupancy and visitor problem there that isn’t simply due to the economy. They only held a one-day-Grand Opening party…when they should have been holding a 6 month party!

    62% occupancy and few locals having any desire to come out to see the place?!! That’s absurd and almost a joke. Where’s their creativity and party spirit?

    It’s time City Center hires (the great producer) Jerry Weintraub to figure out how to bring the place alive. I’m not kidding. If anyone could fix their problem, he could.

    Weintraub could get his good friends Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon out to hold an ‘Ocean’s Eleven Re-Union Weekend’.

    Maybe some ‘Flying Elvis-es’. Whatever. It needs some unusual events taking place, In Old Las Vegas tradition. ‘Robert Dinero Day’. Robin Williams doing a free outdoor appearance on the sidewalks and walking thru Crystals. Whatever.

    Someone needs to pump a big dose of life into City Center. My gosh. Even new grocery stores and shopping centers understand the relevance of ‘live appearances’, celebrations, balloons and even garage bands. What’s up with City Center…basically doing nothing to entice people to come out and see the place and spend some fun time there?

    They have to offer something more than just rooms and slot machines to get people there and to live up to their chosen name of “City Center”. Where are all the great urban events?

    They can’t expect to be a “City Center” unless they truly spend some thought and some serious dough on creating a real “city feel” by providing city-like events. They set the bar high with their chosen name. With a few more lack-luster months and losses, they might have to change their name to “Dulls-Ville”.


  3. I have never been to El Cortez, but I will now since hearing about the old-school feel it has.I was one of the ones who was bummed when the canopy went up on fremont street. Watch the movie Diamonds Are Forever to see how great Fremont was.

  4. Hopefully they will continue to develop the arts district downtown. That area downtown sure has come along way since I worked as a salesman at American Printing (located at 1512 Fremont Street) from 1995 to 1998. With art galleries, bars, restaurants, etc. things have definitely improved downtown in the last 10 years or so.

    As West Vegas mentions above the occupancy rate (63%) at Aria is surprisingly low for the first 3 months of 2010. At least the room rates ($194) were pretty high but MGM Mirage still needs to promote and market the property better.

  5. It’s amazing the transformation of El Cortez. The new entry from LV Blvd. really opens it up. I can’t believe how the cleaned it out and actually raised the low ceilings. And you can occasionally still see Jackie Gaughan sitting down at a poker table in the afternoon. Talk about a living legend!

    I thought WLV has some great suggestions to liven up CC, but I’m afraid the MGM folks are too stuffy and set in their ways to even think about trying that. Their view of CC is a high-class trendy place that will be ruined by some smart promotion like WLV suggests. There is big trouble in CC and while the panic hasn’t leaked out yet, you can be sure that behind the scenes there is a lot of hand wringing going on.

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