Old-school El Cortez wins by staying relevant

Times have been tough in downtown Las Vegas. In 2009, gaming revenues fell below their 1988 levels. There are five fewer casinos in the city’s core than there were then, and the area—which has traditionally relied on budget-oriented, drive-in customers and locals—has not yet rebounded from the proliferation of California Indian and Las Vegas neighborhood casinos.

The recession, of course, has exacerbated downtown’s problems. With some Strip hotels offering room rates in the $20s midweek, it’s hard for them to compete on value—their traditional strength.

But the El Cortez, which has mid-week rates higher than those at the Stratosphere or Excalibur, is doing better than many of its neighbors and recently enjoyed 12 straight days of 100 percent occupancy, with no signs of slowing down at age 69.

El Cortez General Manager Mike Nolan, who’s worked in Las Vegas since 1974, knows there’s more to running a good casino than lowering room rates or restaurant prices: He’s spent much of his career learning directly from casino maven Jackie Gaughan.

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.

Just as CityCenter has invested in public art, the El Cortez is finding a new identity with the arts. You won’t find massive installations like Nancy Rubins’ Big Edge, but the hotel is sprinkled with art—like Jerry Misko’s Gaughan, Baby, Gaughan that adorns the Cabana Suites lobby.

The arts connection goes beyond decoration. The El Cortez, Nolan admits, “doesn’t have a shark tank or a volcano” to attract customers interested in more than generous casino odds. But it does have plenty of free parking—1,200 spaces—and is cheek by jowl with the budding Fremont East entertainment district.

So Nolan offered parking for visitors to the Arts District’s popular First Friday event. Art lovers can park at the El Cortez and hop a shuttle to Colorado Boulevard and Main Street. It’s a way, Nolan says, of bringing foot traffic to the neighborhood, even if it doesn’t lead to an immediate jump in the slot drop.

As landlords of the Emergency Arts building across 6th Street (formerly the Fremont Medical Building), the El Cortez is getting involved with the local arts scene in an even bigger way.

“Emergency Arts is bringing 21 small businesses into the neighborhood that otherwise would not be there,” El Cortez Executive Manager Alexandra Epstein says. “We hope this will improve people’s confidence in the area and inspire other businesses to open up on Fremont East and downtown. We hold strong to Jackie Gaughan’s motto that what’s good for downtown is good for us.

It’s no accident that Epstein looks to Gaughan, 89, for inspiration: His legacy is another draw at the El Cortez.

“We have real history here,” Nolan says. “We still have what Jackie Gaughan started—some of the best slot promotions, good food and great service.”

With 3/2 blackjack, full-pay video poker, coin-in slots to retain serious gamblers and an artistic flourish to attract a younger crowd, the El Cortez is hoping to lead a downtown renaissance that brings Gaughan’s approach to a new generation.