A $180 million South Beach transformation is bringing the Tropicana Las Vegas a fresh look in time for summer, and giving one of the oldest hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip hope that it can improve results and compete with younger neighbors in a cutthroat market.
New entrances open to a 50,000 square-foot refurnished, re-carpeted casino floor with many new slot machines, blackjack tables and other popular games. Nearly 1,400 rooms in two towers have been redesigned and renovated, three new restaurants have opened and 60,000 square feet of meeting and convention space has been redone. Nikki Beach, a day-and-night club modeled after similar nightspots in Miami, Saint-Tropez, France and Marrakech, Morocco, attracted celebrities including Halle Berry, Andre Agassi and Reggie Bush for its grand opening bash this week.
The Tropicana first opened in 1957, but today's owners want visitors to know it's not their parents' casino.
"If you saw the before and after pictures, it's very dramatic," said Alex Yemenidjian, Tropicana's chief executive who has led it since 2009, when lenders took over ownership of the property under a bankruptcy plan.
"The objective was to create an emotionally engaging environment that is bright, that is fresh, that is colorful and makes customers feel good — feel as if they're in a resort — and feel a sense of understated elegance," Yemenidjian told The Associated Press.
The overhaul at the Tropicana makes it draw an immediate contrast with the Sahara hotel-casino, which closed this month after 59 years as its owners, SBE Entertainment, decided it was no longer economically viable to keep the place open. Without major renovations in its last years, the Sahara went from an entertainment destination that staged acts including Johnny Carson and Sonny and Cher to a joint that touted $1 blackjack around the clock and a 6-pound burrito eating challenge.
In Las Vegas history, old casinos had been typically razed to make way for the next big resort. But Yemenidjian said that no longer works financially, as Sin City has reached a point where it's struggling to fill the rooms it has at a decent nightly rate.
Several stalled projects — including the multibillion-dollar Fontainebleau Las Vegas that was picked up for about $150 million by investor Carl Icahn in a bankruptcy sale and the $4.8 billion Echelon owned by Boyd Gaming Corp. — have not publicly revealed when, or if, construction might resume.
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, the Strip's newest casino that opened in December, said it made much more revenue from its restaurants and nightlife than hotel rooms and gambling in its first full quarter of operations this year.
The Tropicana lost $9.1 million during the first quarter this year, compared with a loss of $9.9 million during the first quarter of 2010. During the quarter, rooms cost an average $61 per night at the hotel, well below the citywide average of nearly $106 per night.
"As the perception campaign takes hold, and more people realize how beautiful the property is, I think our rates are going to continue to rise," Yemenidjian said.
But the market will likely continue to cope with difficulty in the near future, he said.
"I think that this perfect storm that we've all experienced here — of bad economic conditions and a supply and demand imbalance — both of those need to get worked out," Yemenidjian said. "And neither of those appear to be something that can get worked out in the short term."
Yemenidjian said the Tropicana plans to open a new spa by the end of summer and refurbish its front desk by the end of this year, finishing the property's first phase of renovations.
He said property officials will then start designing plans for a second phase of renovations, including reopening nearly 300 rooms on property that are currently closed. Yemenidjian said the full, specific plans haven't been determined yet.
"We've always managed to come up with something to do," he said.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia .