Treasure Island finds niche with diversity under Ruffin

Treasure Island sits next to The Mirage, the casino that changed the Strip when it opened in 1989, and across the street from the Venetian/Palazzo and Wynn/Encore megaplexes, representing billions of dollars in casino capital. It’s not part of a national powerhouse such as Harrah’s Entertainment, and it doesn’t have an outpost in Macau. Owner Phil Ruffin is the only beneficiary of last year’s great deconsolidation trend that was supposed to see fire sales dismember the Strip’s big owners. Instead, MGM Mirage sold Ruffin Treasure Island, which today is an island unto itself on the Strip.

The Kansas billionaire bought a unique challenge: making a go of a Strip casino without a large convention center to lure profitable midweek business travelers or a national loyalty program feeder. It’s been more than a year since Ruffin closed on the casino, and what he’s done since then says a great deal about what works in Las Vegas today.

Some elements from the old days remain: The Strip-front battle between sirens and pirates is as saucy as ever, Canter’s Deli is still serving a slice of Fairfax Avenue across from the Christian Audinger nightclub, and Mystère remains a Cirque mainstay. The guest rooms, which got a makeover in 2008, won’t need major refreshing for a few years.

But there have been notable changes. Gilley’s, a favorite from Ruffin’s days as owner of the New Frontier, recently opened with its mechanical bull, Titan, ready to take on all challengers. Gilley’s is perfectly placed within the hotel. With a patio open to the Strip, it’s a prime spot for watching the street or the Sirens of TI show. It makes better use of its location than any of its neighbors, and it makes the most of the Sirens show as a gateway for the resort.

There’s something comfortably anarchic about Treasure Island. Walking the casino floor, you might notice the antique Mills cowboy slot machines (nonfunctioning, regrettably) in front of Gilley’s; the Sirens of TI bike, custom-built by Metropolitan Choppers; or the many pieces of jade and ivory antiquities—on display from Ruffin’s personal collection.

By any reckoning, these artifacts don’t belong together, but that might be the point. This is Vegas. People don’t come here looking for harmony: They want something they don’t see at home. That might mean getting a little Ed Hardy mixed in with your Ming Dynasty jade. It’s not for the fastidious, but Vegas wasn’t exactly built for the fastidious.

“We try to speak directly to our different market segments,” is how Ruffin puts it; the Asian antiquities appeal to his baccarat customers, and the cowboy slots (you might remember them from the New Frontier) are a perfect match for Gilley’s.

You might not think that a casino that just spent $10 million on a cowboy bar would have much appeal to the baccarat crowd, which is used to getting comped Fairway Villas at Wynn. But Ruffin isn’t just running Treasure Island like a down-market Mirage, he’s reaching out to a range of guests who have money to spend.

The Oleksandra Spa, a $2.5 million update of TI’s old spa, is a case in point. It’s a health-focused spa that carries services such as the $75 Everlasting Color Gel manicure, which you won’t find anywhere else in town. Its European style comes at a price—the spa isn’t cutting corners, and a 15-minute Russian Banya massage will run you $82.

Ruffin sees a Strip resort where quality and value can coexist. And he’s not bashful about using his best asset—his location—to his advantage.

“We take smaller pieces of business than some other properties,” he says. “We also provide an easy room alternative to guests attending shows at the Sands Expo because it is within walking distance.”

Russian Banya massage, bull riding, baccarat, bargain rooms for conventioneers—it’s all in one place at Treasure Island, where many clashing elements oddly come together as part of a unified vision, one benefit of one guy calling the shots. Phil Ruffin is proving that you don’t have to be big to survive; you just have to know your market.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

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