|By Bill Ordine, The Philadelphia Inquirer|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 28, 2004 - NEW OWNERS AIM FOR A 'VINTAGE VEGAS' FEEL AT GOLDEN NUGGET: Three decades ago, the Golden Nugget casino and resort in downtown Las Vegas was the launching pad for the spectacularly successful career of casino mogul Steve Wynn, builder of the Mirage, the Bellagio, and now a $2 billion-plus resort that's rising on the site of the former Desert Inn on the Vegas Strip.
Today, two new young owners of the Golden Nugget -- a fixture on Fremont Street since it opened in 1946 -- are hoping that the classy casino-hotel is just as lucky for them. And the rest of downtown Vegas, which has struggled in contrast to the far more glitzy resorts on the Strip, is rooting for the two casino newbies to lead Fremont Street to a comeback.
Tim Poster and Tom Breitling, both 35, purchased the resort and another casino in Laughlin, Nev., from MGM Mirage for $215 million in January. Their experiences running the Golden Nugget in Vegas are being chronicled in a new reality TV show Monday nights on Fox. The first episode of "The Casino" saw Poster sweating through a grilling by gambling regulators, the two owners celebrating taking control of the casino, and the antics of some hotel guests who were following the suggestion of the city's new mantra of "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."
While portions of the show feel staged, the weekly exposure could provide the publicity Poster and Breitling -- who made fortunes in the online travel services business -- might need to persuade visitors to break from the high-profile Strip competition and try their place. Although the Nugget has been a AAA four-diamond hotel for years and offers good value (a recent review of room rates for July showed some midweek nights as low as $59, and weekend nights at $109), high-end travelers often overlook it because of its downtown location.
"The Golden Nugget is one of the best brands in gaming," Breitling said. "It stands for class and elegance and service, but also for true Las Vegas action." The casino's new owners are pushing an image, in Breitling's words, of "vintage Vegas, but modern-day." They have a good head start with a property that was well-maintained.
When Wynn took over the Nugget in the early 1970s, he increased the casino-hotel's profitability enormously, built a new hotel tower, and made other major improvements. After the Nugget passed from Wynn to MGM Mirage, that corporation plowed more than $30 million into the resort a couple of years ago.
The hotel's standard rooms are updated in hues of gold and beige, bathrooms are fresh and polished and the common areas gleam with marble. The swimming pool area, while small, is still the best downtown and, in keeping with the rest of the resort, has a sophisticated, adult feel.
Still, the Nugget is surrounded by decidedly lower-end casinos that attract visitors who want budget-priced rooms and cheap eats. Fremont Street got a boost recently when a West Virginia gaming company purchased the legendary Binion's Horseshoe casino, which had been shuttered, and gambling giant Harrah's took over the operations.
In May the Fremont Street Experience, an overhead canopy of lights that stretches for blocks along the pedestrian mall, debuted a major upgrade called "Vegas Vision" with high-resolution images and a concert-quality sound system that is being billed as the "biggest big screen on the planet."
Breitling said that if there is to be a renaissance on Fremont Street, it has to conjure images of other similar areas where lights, sound and the swirl of foot traffic create a palpable excitement, such as Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Times Square in Manhattan.
For their part, the two new owners have their own game plan for their corner of Las Vegas.
"We want to make it cool and hip again to come downtown," Breitling said.
Some of the recent changes at the Nugget have been on the gambling floor. A 20-table poker room was added in April to capitalize on the runaway popularity of Texas Hold 'Em. During the World Series of Poker in April and May at the Horseshoe just across Fremont Street, the Nugget's poker room was a frequent haunt of celebrity poker professionals.
Craps games were made more enticing by allowing players to place higher wagers on certain bets that offer true odds. These are bets on which the house has no built-in advantage, and knowledgeable players recognize the opportunity as good gambling value.
The Golden Nugget has several gourmet restaurants, the most interesting being ZAX, a room that has the textures of a clubby steakhouse, warm woods and plush seating, but with uptempo design touches.
The menu has a similar bent -- familiar starting points that take a stylized turn, such as porterhouse steak in chipotle marinade or salmon basted with honey and whole grain mustard sauce and prepared with bourbon. A jazz vocalist performs most nights.
In the casino's relatively intimate showroom (400 seats) several acts rotate: Impressionist Gordie Brown; a dance troupe; and a 12-member R&B, soul and rock band. Headliners are planned occasionally.
"We want to make it fashionable to enjoy the Rat Pack life," Breitling said, invoking the nostalgic image of Las Vegas in the 1960s.
Despite the owners' youth, Breitling said they do not covet the 21-to-30 crowd targeted by some other Vegas casinos, notably the Hard Rock and the Palms.
"They're going after the nightclub crowd," Breitling said. "We're going after what we call the lounge crowd and the gambling crowd." Shortly after purchasing the Golden Nugget, the two new owners had dinner with Wynn, who was responsible for making the hotel-casino property a stellar resort.
"He told us to not be afraid to think a little differently and take risks," Breitling said. "The key," Wynn said, "was to always provide new and interesting experiences for your customers."
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