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Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino Reopens as Biloxi's Big Player:
Heavy Renovations Yields a New Name - IP

By TOM WILEMON, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss., The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Dec. 17, 2005 - BILOXI -- The Asian-themed look of the Imperial Palace has been replaced by the swanky style of the IP.

So much has changed at the towering property on Biloxi's Back Bay, which reopens Thursday, that it is marketing itself under a new and abbreviated name.

"We're using IP to represent us in the future," said General Manager Jon Lucas.

The no-frills rooms have been upgraded into resort lodging. The cafeteria-style buffet has become a food performance venue. The antique collector cars have been hauled away to make room for bars and a Brazilian cuisine restaurant. And the drab elevator lobbies from the parking garage have been transformed into inviting foyers.

Some of the most significant changes have occurred in the casino. It now has a high-stakes table games area with its own bar and buffet, all coinless slot machines, a non-smoking third floor and a poker room with 16 tables.

Although two other Biloxi casinos, the Isle of Capri and the Palace, are also scheduled to reopen this month, they have not undergone renovations as extensive and will operate smaller, temporary casinos. The IP will be the big player in town until the reopening of Beau Rivage, which is scheduled for Aug. 29, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The Friedmutter Group, which specializes in casino designs, is responsible for giving the IP a curvy, contemporary look with warm colors of chocolate, ruby, tangerine and mango. Roy Anderson Corp. is doing the reconstruction and renovation.

With the changes, the IP is positioning itself to be the new market leader and maintain customer loyalty. High rollers will have their own "elite" card service complete with a lounge offering food and beverages.

"We're going to go after a different level of customer," Lucas said. "They expect a different level of service."

The Ralph Engelstad and Betty Engelstad Family Trust, which owns the IP, had committed to invest millions to upgrade the property when Lucas was hired a couple of weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. Although the IP weathered the storm better than other Coast casinos, the down time after the storm allowed the renovations to occur at a faster pace. Lucas did not disclose the total amount spent by the privately held company on the renovations, but the family trust has lots of capital at its disposal.

Thursday's reopening in Biloxi occurs the same day the company is scheduled to finalize the sale of the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas for $360 million.

When gamblers return to Biloxi for the first casino reopening, they will see familiar faces at the IP. The resort has a core group of veteran employees as well as hundreds of new hires. Total employment is 1,500, about 250 more than before Katrina.

Lucas said one of his priorities has been to instill a new culture so employees will be happy with their jobs and give customers friendly service that is genuine.

The restaurant on the top of the hotel, the 32nd floor, is now known as "thirty-two." The renovations there include raising the floor to window level and putting the interior tables on podiums so every diner can enjoy the views.

The buffet is now a food-performance venue, where diners can watch Asian dishes cooked in a wok or see pizzas come fresh out of the oven. There are seven stations.

"The focal walls in the back area of the buffet are comprised of glass mosaic," said Stacey West, a designer with Friedmutter Group. "We have designed them in a thematic way per each dining experience."

The colors for the hotel rooms were selected to simultaneously soothe and refresh guests, she said.

"The primary color for the guest rooms is sage with a light cherry or maple case wood," West said. "The drapery is a light metallic gold. It is very subtle."

The bathrooms have all new fixtures and flooring.

"But it's the towels that are fabulous," West said. "They are so plush and soft. They are white and very, very dense. Very, very soft and heavy."

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Copyright (c) 2005, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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