Transforming the Tropicana

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus believed that change is the only constant. “You cannot step into the same river twice,” he is reputed to have said. A known gambler, he probably would have found Las Vegas to his liking.

That’s because the only thing that doesn’t change around this town is change. There are few other places where anyone would even consider spending $150 million to “relaunch” a resort that cost $1.4 billion to build a mere seven years after its opening. But when that happened at the Aladdin/Planet Hollywood in 2007, few were surprised.

A similar change is taking place at the Tropicana, and not a moment too soon. One of the oldest resorts remaining on the Strip (it opened in 1957), the Tropicana, after an increasingly parsimonious corporate stewardship over the past few years, is enjoying a renaissance under the leadership of Alex Yemenidjian, chairman and CEO of Tropicana Las Vegas, and new president Tom McCartney.

The current economy dictates nothing too ambitious—certainly nothing like the 10,000-room mega-expansion previous owners Columbia Sussex mooted back in 2006. With a recent Tropicana financial filing admitting there is an “imbalance” in room inventory, it’s not a question of trying to add capacity, it’s about competing with bargain rates at younger properties.

With casinos in a dogfight for every possible dollar, they can’t afford much disorder while they make themselves over, even if they’re doing more than just changing out a few light bulbs. Yet they can’t afford to creep along at a snail’s pace, either.

“It’s a challenge,” Yemenidjian says, “to create as little disruption as possible, while moving as fast as possible.”

So don’t expect a big “presto!” revealing for the new Trop. Instead, there will be a gradual transformation, as carpet is replaced, rooms reconditioned and restaurants reintroduced.

At this moment, then, you can visit a casino not just in the middle of a renovation, but a transformation. Tropicana vice president of marketing Cynthia Mun insists that’s the only appropriate word for such a large-scale improvement, with everything changing from the marquee out front to the duvet covers.

“We’re doing more than just renovating,” she says. “When we’re done, this will be a completely new property.”

The Tiffany glass over the gaming pits is staying, but that’s about it. Aesthetically, it’s a win for visual diversity: While most Strip casinos are tended toward dark hues and sleek chic, the Trop is going for light, bright and white. The result is a casino that, even though it’s soaked up more than a half-century of cigarette smoke, really does look fresh.

The catch, for now, is that the casino is a work in progress. Some areas, like the strip around the table-game pits, have been transformed; others have not. So you can hop from brilliantly white Thassos tile and vibrant red-and-yellow carpet to the dark, dingy carpet for a while longer, at least. It makes for an interesting contrast.

Even the pool is changing. The four-acre expanse at the heart of the resort has been one of the Trop’s best features for years; it’s hard to tamper with Vegas, sun and water. But to compete against the slew of European-style pools, ultra-lounges and day clubs, the Tropicana’s management needs to up the ante, so it has recently announced a partnership with Nikki Beach, an international “lifestyle” company that operates “beach clubs” from Koh Samui, Thailand, to Toronto.

Previous attempts at bringing Nikki Beach to casino properties, such as Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort and Resorts Atlantic City, have not been successful, so it is hoped that, with a robust South Beach theme and a genuine slice of pool paradise, this time there will be a true synergy in the bonding. Nikki Beach won’t open until next year, so until then the pool as you’ve known it will have its swan song this summer.

In the end, $165 million is going to buy a whole new Tropicana that will be better able to compete in an era of downsized room rates at five-star properties. For now, it’s a case study in change, in a town that’s defined by it.