Little casinos often have very big hearts

Jan 22, 2002 6:40 AM

By David Stratton

While driving to the airport last weekend, I stopped at Terrible’s Hotel and Casino, which occupies the site of the old Continental Hotel at Paradise and Flamingo. Just for a moment I felt a twinge of nostalgia in the pit of my stomach.

While Terrible’s has blossomed into a great locals casino, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Continental, even though it never had a volcano, dancing fountains or a mock Civil War waged in its parking lot.

Nevertheless, a lot of people liked the Continental, including myself. We liked the people there. We liked the modest casino. We liked the noisy coffee shop with its inefficient wait staff. We liked Cookie Jar and the other hokey lounge acts. We liked the huge parking lot where you could park your car and walk to the casino ”” without a valet line, without a four-level garage, and without gasping for oxygen when you got in.

But most of all we liked the atmosphere, which had the ambiance of Old Las Vegas. The people who worked there identified with their customers. The regulars felt welcome. We knew the names of the change girls, the cocktail waitresses, the dealers, the pit bosses and the ticket writers in the upstairs sports book. In fact, many regulars came to call the Continental “the little casino with the big heart.”

So what caused this popular little casino to lapse into cardiac arrest?

Obviously, the Continental couldn’t compete with the modern mega-resorts. And, yes, it was outdated, out of touch and didn’t market itself properly. It would be easy to cite all those reasons for its demise, but it would be wrong. The Continental folded because it lost its identity. It forgot who it was and what made it great.

Here’s what happened. A few years back, the Continental was purchased by an outfit called Crown Ventures Inc. Now these new owners were not casino people. They were corporate types with BMW’s, Brooks Brothers suits and a determination to move and shake in the Las Vegas casino market. They entered this arena armed with marketing plans and databases and customer modeling profiles and all the other Business School tricks of the trade.

The problem is that these clean-shaven, blow-dryed business suits were out of touch with Las Vegas. They didn’t understand what drew people into the casino, especially one that catered to a locals crowd. And they tried to apply their cookie-cutter corporate strategies to the little casino with a big heart, much to the Continental’s detriment.

The first thing they did was come up with a theme. Now there’s an original thought ”” a theme! Why do the would-be winners in their plush Hughes Center corporate offices feel they have to follow the rest of the pin-striped sheep when it comes to marketing? I suppose it’s because that’s what they’re conditioned to do. They follow the current trend, and the current trend is to have a theme.

Anyway, the corporate bean counters decided to turn the hotel into a Back to the Fifties trap. Now, that’s original. Another retro 1950s excursion! This has been so overdone you could probably go to Wal Mart and get everything you need to be back in the Fifties.

So they converted the greasy spoon coffee shop into a greasy “Happy Days” diner, they painted the walls, fixed the holes in the ceiling, and put pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on the walls. Plus they stocked the gift shop with all sorts of 1950s memorabilia ”” miniature juke boxes, Route 66 signs, Coke trays, and hundreds of other reproductions.

They also decided to “upgrade” the casino with all the new, high-tech slot machines, video poker and keno games.

In the process, they took out all the old machines, the ones that attracted the steady stream of customers who played here for years.

I can recall watching these customers, waiting patiently to get a seat on a row of the old IGT Fortune video poker machines ”” the ones without any bonuses, without any credits (the coins dumped on every win), without any sound effects, and without the enormous price tags that accompany new machines.

They replaced all the popular old machines with new machines that none of the regulars recognized. After all, these new contraptions were “multi-game” devices, and you had to choose what kind of game, what kind of poker, what kind of keno, you wanted to play. Plus, you had to touch the screen with your fingertip. What kind of gambling was this? This is what their grand kids did on their Nintendo games.

Of course, the new machines had great graphics and sound effects. In fact, some of them sounded like a philharmonic orchestra tuning up. But the problem is people didn’t take to them. And quite frankly, many people said you couldn’t win on them.

Where did all of this innovation and upgrading leave the Continental? In Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Most of the regulars could have lived with the Fifties theme. We didn’t mind the diner’s blue-plate specials, Buddy Holly hamburgers or blue-suede milk shakes. Plus the Oldies but Goodies that constantly played over the PA system was kind of nice.

But many customers say the downfall of the new owners and ultimately the casino itself was replacing all their favorite machines. Is it possible the corporate whiz kids failed to realize that people came to the Continental to gamble?

Everything else was secondary ”” the music, wall posters, food specials and giveaways. And when you tamper with people’s gambling devices, you’re going to lose them. And unfortunately we end up losing a rarity ”” a little casino with a big heart.