El Cortez gets creative with design competition

Most casino executives view renovating hotel rooms as a necessary but disagreeable process. Room remodels are doubly expensive—they pull rooms out of the rental pool and incur labor and materials costs. It’s easy to see why few property owners look forward to them.

The El Cortez, however, has found a way to use the renovation process to put the spotlight on itself and four Nevada design teams via its Design-a-Suite Downtown competition, showing again how it’s carving its own niche on Sixth and Fremont streets.

On July 29, the competition’s judging panel, which includes design notables such as Todd-Avery Lenahan, Brian Thornton, Kurstin Schmitz, Cary Vogel and Ann Fleming, narrowed the field of 18 submissions down to four finalists, with an additional four semifinalists selected should one of the finalists drop out.

Each of the finalists is preparing to build out a 650-square-foot suite with a budget of $20,000. Once all four are finished early next year, the public will get a chance to stay in them, and their input will help the judges pick a winner, whose design will be used for the six remaining suites.

While the goal of the competition is to spruce up the El Cortez’s suite product, the hotel is also lending a helping hand to two community organizations. Keep Memory Alive, the downtown-based charity that supports the research and treatment of neurocognitive disorders, was the beneficiary of $2,700 in entrance fees that the El Cortez donated, and all of the furniture taken from the suites will be donated to Opportunity Village.

The finalists include:

• Patrick Gardner, of Worth Group Architects, whose “Rec Room” concept features a charmingly retro design, with saturated red accents and a custom linoleum inlay.

• Tina Enard, of Urban Design Studio, whose “Big Sleep” features a bright, airy look and contemporary lines, with a striking wall-size photo of a desert landscape.

• Patrick Peel and Michael Thieme, of MP3, whose “El Contempo Suite” is a study in gold (ceilings and floors) and subdued cool tones.

• Charles Mais and Nidia Settembre, of Free Lance Design, whose “Hint Suite” offers a modern and clean take on classic Vegas style.

There’s a great deal of variety in the projects, a result of the competition’s freewheeling approach. No structural changes—tearing down walls, installing new plumbing—were permitted, but besides that, the teams were free to take any approach with furniture, wall coverings, lighting and accessories.

With relatively few limitations, the contest let designers get creative in presenting new ideas for some old rooms.

“We started from scratch,” Peel says, “though we kept in mind some of the retro elements downstairs. We didn’t want to mirror what was going on in the rest of the property; we wanted to push it forward.”

The contest has had a few pleasant surprises. Since all submissions were anonymous, the judges had no idea whose work they were looking at. Alexandra Epstein, the El Cortez’s executive manager, was pleased to learn that one of the finalist designs came from Thieme, who is a tenant at Emergency Arts, the rehabbed former medical center that’s become a true bright spot on East Fremont Street.

That happy coincidence symbolizes the efforts that the El Cortez is making to reach out to both downtown and the design community.

“The idea came out of the discussions about our 70th anniversary, about how we have to be adaptable and forward-thinking,” Epstein says. “We also want to be good neighbors. And with so many great resources right around the corner, we thought we should try to get more people involved.”

Looking at the El Cortez’s history, showcasing new designers makes perfect sense. When the hotel-casino opened in 1941, the conventional wisdom was that it was too far from the train station (on the site of today’s Plaza). But while supposed stalwarts of downtown such as the Northern Club, Boulder Club and Exchange Club were closed or renamed, the El Cortez kept on going, until it became not only a survivor but a historic landmark.

The key to staying in the game has been listening to customers and trying new ideas. With the design competition, the El Cortez has taken both to the next level.

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