You own two prime Fremont Street hotel-casinos. Why did you pick Downtown as the place to plant your flag?
Let’s be realistic here: I’m not a guy who had enough money to get onto the Strip. I wanted to move to Las Vegas and I wanted to get into the biggest industry, and I liked what I saw Downtown when I first started paying attention in ’05, ’06. All the stars aligned when I met the owner of the Golden Gate. He was looking for a partner, and we were able to strike a deal [in 2008]. I really like the Golden Gate, because it was the original address, One Fremont Street. That’s something that can’t be replicated.
I was going to spend a couple of years here just to see whether I liked this business. I came to the conclusion that I did, and we started looking into acquisitions. At that point I was ready to do a project with a much more major renovation, and I thought Fitzgeralds was the perfect opportunity. It allowed me to do our first re-branding and renovate a property from the 34th story all the way down to the casino.
And out onto the street, with the DLV Events Center. What inspired you to get into the outdoor events business?
To a certain degree, it was due to the fact that you don’t make any more land in a city. I saw that the county courthouse had been abandoned for quite awhile, and I just started dreaming about what that property could potentially become. We purchased the courthouse at public auction, demolished it and turned it into a multiuse facility. We’ve only been in this business for five months, but we’ve had concerts, food festivals, ethnic festivals, and I anticipate having a whole lot more. I plan to have a lot more diversified events to bring people to Downtown Las Vegas, and obviously to bring people to the Golden Gate and The D.
Do you think that’s the new way forward for Vegas: more events, less gambling? Are you ready to roll with those changes?
Looking at 2014, Downtown gaming revenue was up a couple percent. We have a great opportunity to grow gaming Downtown, as well as a number of non-gaming revenue streams. I’m pretty bullish about Downtown.
The Riviera is a great place; it certainly will always hold a spot in Vegas history. But the Riviera is a non-competitive property, and sometimes renovations can’t make you competitive. The LVCVA has done a wonderful job making Las Vegas a national and international destination. Their work has impacted everyone who lives in Las Vegas. When you can set records for conventions and for the number of visitors going through McCarran … the LVCVA’s fingerprints are on all these things. Going forward, this a great development for Las Vegas.
Would you say the prevailing attitude about Downtown is one of competition or of cooperation? Property owners seem more inclined to pull in the same direction around here.
Downtown is more cooperative than other areas within metropolitan Las Vegas. It stems from the fact that we are actually legal partners in a business called Fremont Street Experience. We collectively own our SlotZilla zipline; we collectively provide nightly entertainment; we collectively manage and operate the Viva Vision screen. We are legal partners in these businesses, which forces you to create more cooperative relationships than maybe you would in a different area in Vegas, [where] you might have four independent hotel-casino guys within a mile of one another who maybe don’t talk that much. We have to talk; we’ve got multiple board meetings every month.
Also, we realize that one of the strengths about Downtown and Fremont Street is that you can walk from casino to casino. It’s something that’s enjoyable, it’s cool. All the statistics say that anybody who visits Downtown visits 3.5 casinos. From our perspective, the goal is, “Let’s get people down here; let’s have people check things out.”
Some consider Fremont Street a little rough.
Considering the amount of Metro coverage that’s on location, Fremont Street is still one of the safest places in Las Vegas. There’s an awful lot of security; there’s an awful lot of surveillance. But when people are on vacation, or whether they’re in town for work, they just simply don’t like to see these bums out there. This city has done an exceptional job allowing people to let their worries go, whether it’s for entertainment or a combination of business plus entertainment. Nobody likes to see guys with their hands out. This is something that impacts not just Fremont Street, but the Strip as well. I think everybody’s working to clean things up.
You’re known for hanging out in the casino, buying drinks for customers. That’s old-school Vegas right there. How important is it for you to be that accessible?
A lot of customers just see me down at the end of [The D’s]Longbar at night, and I like that, because I like the opportunity to be able to shake hands with people. I like to hear what they have to say, what their recommendations are and their complaints. I’m not a guy who goes home at the end of a normal office workday; I like to be out and about. It’s a great thing for me, because it doesn’t really feel like a job.