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The Movable Buffet: Tropicana spruces its image

Perhaps the most inglorious moment in the descent of the once-storied Tropicana happened in April 2008, just before the property slipped into bankruptcy. The local press (and then the national press) found out about a flier in an employee lounge offering a bounty for every bedbug captured and turned in alive to management. In practice, the capture of living bedbugs turned out to be a difficult matter for housekeeping. But the tacit admission to the public was a final humiliation for a hotel which opened under the auspices of the mob in 1957, as one of the most exquisite properties in Vegas, christened by publicists the Tiffany of the Strip. In the supersized Strip of 2010, the Trop (originally designed by M. Tony Sherman of Miami, remains a boutique hotel.

According to David G. Schwartz, Director for UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, the Tropicana’s maintenance and staffing needs were all but ignored by various owners in recent years. And Las Vegas Advisor editor Anthony Curtis is even more candid: “The Tropicana went from super mighty to, for the last five years, really bottom of the heap.” So, when former gaming executive and MGM studio head Alex Yemenidjian acquired the Tropicana in July, he was inheriting what he generously describes as 34 acres “and a property that had good bones but was suffering from neglect.”

“The two things he has going for him,” says Schwartz, “are a great pool and the location.” Yemenidjian could have just refreshed the rooms and kept costs bellow operations to eek out a profit until the economy tipped its hand. But instead Yemenidjian chose to embark at once on a $168 million renovation. The first fruit: the refurbished 600 rooms of the Paradise Tower, recently opened to tourists.

Yemenidjian more than oversaw, he personally involved himself design for the interiors of the rooms and for the over all South Beach theme.

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A tall, thin, elegant man Yemenidjian dresses expensively and impeccably. His office is full of light. His view of design is strongly influenced by the new Vegas that puts bowling alleys and stripper poles in hotel rooms. For example, some rooms come with a hottub that can be entered by walking across the bartop. There is only one city on earth where that is a perfect design idea for your hotel suite.

“People come to Las Vegas because they want to see things that would be out of place at home. One of the triumphs of the great Las Vegas properties started by the Mirage is that they are both accessible and aspirational,” Yemenidjian says. “Mediocrity is our enemy. In Las Vegas we create a world of fantasy.”

Yemenidjian ideas could also be practial: “I don’t like drapes. I don’t like people walking into a dark room with the drapes closed.” And, so every room in the renovation has white shutters that take in the tremendous view granted by the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana. Yemenidjian notes that one advantage of renovation during a recession is that he estimates costs at about 30% less than they would have been a few years ago.

Another tower of rooms will be finished by the end of the year. The convention space is being redone as well. But the biggest buzz for Tropicana arrives next year with a marketing coup that makes use of Tropicana’s already outstanding pool. Yemenidjian has negotiated to bring to Vegas a Nikki Beach, a sexy South Beach brand.

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By the end of the year the Tropicana is expected to announce plans for a production show in the casino’s storied theatre, and there is also a mob exhibit to open as an attraction (another good historical match).

Yemenidjian is also realistic about the customers he hopes to capture with his new rooms. He speaks of the new Tropicana as “best in class.” And, while he is reluctant to name specific competitors, he is clear who he is not fighting for as customers: “Our property, when it is done, will be attractive to a wide segment of the public. But we will not be attractive to the extremes. If you are a Circus Circus customer we are not the property for you. And, if you are at the other extreme, if you are an elite or a snob we are not a property for you. If you take those two extremes out there is a vast clientele in the middle.”

Curtis thinks Yemenidjian gambled right by building now"When the building boom happened the Tropicana got left behind. Now, it looks like the Trop might be next out the gate to do something really big. They are positioning themselves to be there for a recovery.”

Schwartz of UNLV offers a cautionary note: “His future in Las Vegas depends on a lot things, travel, consumer confidence and unemployment--frankly a lot of them are beyond his control.” But Schwartz quickly adds “But he is one guy with a plan and the courage of his convictions. There is a history in Las Vegas that says you can’t discount that.”

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