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El Cortez overhaul

Jun 29, 2004 6:44 AM

The winds of change are blowing through the El Cortez, leaving in their wake a fresh fragrance and a can-do attitude that is promising to transform the old grey mare of Fremont Street into a spirited thoroughbred.

The handler in charge of the El Cortez, Mike Nolan, the general manager and chief operating officer, has had his feet in the stirrups only since the latter part of March but the hotel is already responding to his whip hand.

The changes are evident from the tower to the casino floor to the parking garage to a barrage of new promotions. The idea behind all the changes is to "freshen it up and have the people feel secure being here," says Nolan, who came to the El Cortez after a running the near-by Plaza and Gold Spike since the early 1980s.

The El Cortez tower now has 11 suites with Jacuzzis with three more scheduled to be completed soon, while all the standard rooms are getting new wallpaper, carpeting and furniture, Nolan said.

The sports book is being moved so it can be enlarged and offer more seating. The El Cortez also started offering pari-mutuel betting on June 10 and Nolan says the casino’s handle has increased 30 percent since its inception. Sports fans will be able to watch all the major fights on television at three bars as a result of a new contract with HBO.

Outside the hotel the El Cortez is offering 1,000 free parking spaces, which are overseen by security guards who have also been posted at the doors to increase the comfort level of the patrons. The parking garage has been scrubbed and the booth at the entrance of the garage has been removed. The fence running around the hotel’s perimeter of the property is now wrought iron.

Nolan brought in a new chef to spice up the hotel’s steak house (Roberta’s) and there are plans to open a third restaurant by Thanksgiving. He has also added a piano player to one of the casino’s bars, which will also get new furniture.

Casino customers are also enjoying an array of gambling promotions with winners walking away with either $500 in cash, a huge plasma television or, if they live in Nevada, a slot machine. Nolan says that last month gamblers also won jewelry, this month they can win Hawaiian shirts and next month there will be a players choice promotion in which gift cards good for everything from food to gasoline will be given away.

Out of all of the alterations either implemented or envisioned, none has been more far reaching than the changes in which the way the casino floor has been rearranged. Basically, there was too much compartmentalization of the casino floor, Nolan said. His approach has been to open up the floor by tearing down walls, reducing the number of slots from 1,500 to 1,200 and improving the flow of foot traffic throughout the casino by adding or expanding steps and making more of the casino visible from different vantage points.

He said another goal is that through all the changes, he wants to maintain the feel of "vintage Vegas" in the El Cortez. Toward that end, he deliberately kept 400 of the classic slot machines while bringing in 800 of the modern ticket-in, ticket-out variety.

Nolan, 48, works 12 hours a day and is quick to credit Kenny Epstein, El Cortez’s director, and Michael Gaughan, son of legendary casino owner Jackie Gaughan, as being major assets in the repositioning of the hotel.

Nolan is lavish in his praise of the senior Gaughan, who lives on the 18th floor of the El Cortez and last week saw his son complete a deal to sell his Coast Resorts to the Boyd Group. "There is no owner like Mr. (Jackie) Gaughan because what owner can you (see) walking the floor where both the employees and the customers can talk to him," Nolan said.

He also said he recently put out a letter to all El Cortez employees telling them that despite rumors, the El Cortez is not for sale. The Barrick Company, which bought Gaughan’s other downtown properties (Plaza, Las Vegas Club, Gold Spike and Western Hotel) does have the first option on the property, Nolan said.

Phil Flaherty, Barrick’s chief operating officer, said he is 99.9 percent sure his company will exercise their option on the El Cortez, but not as long as Jackie Gaughan wants to remain a resident at the hotel.

At the Plaza, John Buyachek, the senior vice president for marketing for Barrick Gaming, said "what’s not to like" about the improvements Nolan is making at the El Cortez. He said he thinks "the El Cortez is a great neighbor" and the improvements Nolan is making will be good for all the downtown properties.

Similarly, Chris Nichols, the Plaza’s casino manager, said he hopes the improvements at the El Cortez "have a huge effect on the downtown area.’’