Burton Cohen: The Man You Wanted Running Your Hotel

Remembering a pioneer who helped bring Las Vegas resorts into the modern era

Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

Since the passing of longtime resort executive Burton Cohen at age 90 earlier this month, we’ve had ample time to put his remarkable career into context. Cohen moved to Las Vegas in 1966 to supervise the reconstruction of the Frontier hotel, which he co-owned and managed until its purchase by Howard Hughes the following year. He subsequently helmed resorts such as the Desert Inn (on three separate occasions), Circus Circus, the Flamingo, the Thunderbird and the Dunes.

Bringing operational know-how and leadership at a critical time, when the industry was growing in unexpected ways, Cohen earned his 1995 induction into the Gaming Hall of Fame. He semi-retired that year, but remained deeply engaged with the industry. In 2010, he was named to the board of directors of MGM Resorts International, a post he held until his death. He also remained involved with several local philanthropies, including service as the chairman of the board of trustees of Sunrise Hospital.

Cohen grew up in the hotel business in Florida, and his 16 years of practicing law made him a perfect chief executive, able to read contracts and grasp their subtleties but also aware of operational realities on the front lines. In a 2009 interview with Claytee White, the director of UNLV’s Oral History Research Center, Cohen sketched out his life in Las Vegas, starting with the changes under way when he arrived in Las Vegas. The mob was on its way out, and big money was on its way in.

“I got here at a time of transition,” he said. “My exposure to that element was fairly well limited because Howard Hughes was buying hotels. Kirk Kerkorian had formed a public company. You were able to now have stock and tell Wall Street to start printing the presses and be able to finance. So the old-timers were leaving. And in all honesty, they really didn’t know what was going on because time had passed them by.”

Getting the Frontier open was no cakewalk. “The best comparison I think you can use,” Cohen recalled, “is the landing at Normandy during World War II. There were so many facets that had to be handled. Don’t forget you’re opening a hotel/casino structure from zero. And everything had to be bought, uniformed and placed, from toothpicks on up and on down. I had what was called an item book, which was about three or four [big] books. And we would have weekly meetings, and then it got to be daily meetings. And various items were signed out to various department heads. And each one had to report back as to their process, their purchase orders. And we had a purchase-order book that we would crosscheck. Today all of that is done by computer. [In] those days, it was done by hand.”

Cohen was particularly fond of the Desert Inn. “I loved the touch of class,” he said of the resort, pointing out that it was the city’s first four-star hotel with a five-star restaurant.

Above all, Cohen was driven by the desire to run a better hotel. He wasn’t after long-term security or self-aggrandizement, but simply making sure the employees stayed happy, the guests enjoyed themselves and his owners got a good return on their investment. “I never wanted to be the richest guy in the cemetery,” he said. “I was not ever driven by the buck. I never had a contract with any hotel. My job was yesterday’s performance.”

A big part of that performance was an abiding concern for his employees, one that lingered long after he’d moved out of the president’s office, and one that reveals the real return on investment that Cohen left as his legacy in Las Vegas.

“I still get calls—‘Hello, Mr. Cohen.’ I’ll say, ‘How are you doing?’ They’ll say, ‘I’m doing just great. Just wanted to see how you are,’ and so on and so on. That you can’t take to the bank. But I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.”

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