Renovating the Grand

If you’ve been to the MGM Grand in the past few months—or even checked its website—you probably noticed that they’re renovating the place. And that might not seem like such a big deal—casinos evolve all the time—but in this case, owner MGM Resorts International and contractor Thor Construction are making history.

That’s not only because of the scale of the project—at 4,212 rooms and suites getting overhauled, it’s the biggest single hotel renovation in history—but also because Thor’s role highlights the growing effort of casino operators to reach out to minority-owned businesses.

The current project is the culmination of a decade-long relationship between MGM and the African-American-owned, Minnesota-based construction firm. Thor came to MGM’s attention in the early 2000s, when then-CEO Terry Lanni was defining MGM’s diversity initiative. The company won the contract to remodel the company’s executive offices in 2002, and, as a co-contractor, transformed MGM Grand’s 29th- and 30th-floor suites into the ultra-luxury Skylofts in 2004. The company has since worked on several MGM jobs, including multiple projects at CityCenter and the recently completed guest-room renovation at Bellagio.

This isn’t an easy job, but it’s one that Thor is pulling off with as little disruption as possible to the 24-or-so stories that are still open to guests. Thor times its work on the $54 million construction contract with the hotel’s guests in mind. Most of the heavy—and noisy—work is done on day shift, from 9 to 5, when most midweek guests are out of their rooms. On swing and grave shifts, crews stock furniture and do lighter work such as painting. Work stops over the weekend, when occupancy is at its peak.

The work is coordinated from Thor’s onsite office, a hastily renovated set of adjoining rooms on the 13th floor from which project manager Resmi Panicker keeps an eye on all of the accounting, job flow and scheduling. Project superintendent Rick Bunch spends more time in the field, handling issues that come up during construction and ensuring that the different vendors and subcontractors work well together.

At its peak, the project had about 500 locally subcontracted laborers working under the direction of Thor’s 25-person field staff. The workforce is now down to about 300. Before it’s over, workers will have laid 308,000 yards of carpet, applied 440,000 linear yards of wall coverings and covered everything that isn’t carpeted or wallpapered with 35,000 gallons of paint.

The project started on the 12th floor in October, with crews working their way down to the first floor; then, they jumped up to the 28th floor, and are currently on their way down to the 13th floor. The 24th floor started welcoming guests last Friday, and the 20th floor just went offline. The project is about 60 percent finished.

All told, it takes six weeks for a floor of guestrooms to go from old to new. First, the rooms and hallways are stripped of their fixtures, furnishings, carpeting and wall coverings. Then Thor’s crew oversees the process of remaking the rooms. For typical guestrooms, it’s relatively straightforward—new paint, wallpaper, carpet and bathroom fixtures, with the stone in the bathroom being reground and polished. Then, as the furniture is moved in, the rooms get one final check, followed by the bedding and linens, followed by the guests.

The 14 Terrace Suites—these are high-rise suites that feature outdoor patios and are the hotel’s most exclusive non-Skylofts, non-Mansion accommodations—have had a complete remodel, with new staircases, walls and finishes, which essentially means brand-new suites.

But the technical details are only part of the story. MGM’s early-2000s diversity initiative gave Thor an opportunity to work with the company, but in the decade since, Thor has developed an approach to construction that takes into account the fact that their client is a hotel.

“We’re not just building rooms here,” says Matt Moore, Thor’s vice president of strategy, an Army Reserve vet who formerly worked as a project manager for MGM. “We’re really working in hospitality—we treat the guests like they’re our clients, too.”

The project will be completed by the end of August, just as the hotel is ready to welcome guests for the fall convention season. By that point, it’s likely that Thor will be involved in another Strip project for MGM Resorts. Although MGM remains mum about its plans, it has allotted more money for capital expenditures in 2013, and another major renovation project is almost certainly in the cards.

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