|By Benjamin Spillman, Las Vegas
Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 22, 2008 - Aside from some room upgrades on the 15th floor, a trip to the Plaza downtown is like a trip to Las Vegas of the past -- cheap rooms, cheap booze and shiny, 1970s vintage fixtures everywhere.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
For better or for worse, the Plaza still looks largely the same as it did when it was owned by former downtown gambling kingpin Jackie Gaughan.
And the room rates don't appear to have changed much, either.
The Plaza's 1,037 rooms make it one of the biggest hotels downtown. It is also one of the cheapest.
That could be why it still sells out some weekends despite a look that's evocative of the Ford administration.
"For the price you pay, it is a good hotel," said Egil Sola, 44, of Kristiansand, Norway.
Sola, who works on an oil exploration vessel, said he spends several months a year in Las Vegas and is well-versed on the downtown hotel offerings.
On his current stint in Las Vegas, Sola said he managed to get a room at the Plaza for 25 days for $991, an average of less than $40 per day.
"That is the best deal you can get downtown," he said.
But behind the brass and mirrors, there are hints Tamares Las Vegas Properties, owners of the Plaza, would like to put the hotel's dowdy image to rest.
The company just emerged from a lawsuit in which they sought to stop another firm, Elad Group, from using the Plaza name on a proposed $6 billion resort on the Strip.
Tamares lost the lawsuit and now company officials will decide whether to keep the Plaza name and risk being overshadowed or undertake the cost of re-branding.
Either way, in interviews and court records they hint that some level of renovation is in the cards.
The clearest indication of the new direction comes in the form of four recently renovated rooms on the 15th floor of the main hotel tower.
The rooms are prototypes for renovations that could eventually change the property's look and feel.
The prototypes are the product of Jonathan Jossel, the Las Vegas representative of Tamares, which is based in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, and has larger offices in New York, London and Tel Aviv, Israel.
His task was to coordinate several prototype rooms for visiting Tamares officials to evaluate. Their favorite design will be the basis for broader room renovations, Jossel said.
The renovations are mostly cosmetic, but the new rooms are a dramatic contrast from the existing offerings.
One major upgrade is the bathrooms in the prototype rooms.
Bathrooms in the Plaza's rooms are along the exterior wall, jutting out from the side of the building. The design limitation makes it difficult to increase the size of the bathrooms at a reasonable cost.
To compensate, Jossel directed workers to take down an interior wall that separated the bathroom sink and mirror from the main room.
They also installed a new wood-and-frosted-glass door to separate the bath and toilet area.
The result in that prototype is a room with a larger feel and a cleaner, more modern feel for the bath areas.
In another prototype, the wall stayed, but workers installed a thick wooden sliding door as an entry to the bath area.
The renovated rooms have a similar feel to Treasure Island on the Strip, but they are smaller and have more cramped bathrooms.
He said the most basic renovated rooms generate rates about $10 higher per night than the old rooms. The most elaborately renovated rooms fetch as much as $25 per night more.
Still, Jossel said Tamares would eventually like to elevate the Plaza to just a notch below the Golden Nugget.
That would not only generate higher room rates but also help the Plaza take advantage of spacious convention facilities.
"We have the biggest convention space downtown," he said. "We want to hold events here and get [attendees] to stay here."
Depending on what Tamares officials decide to do, renovations could cost between $8,000 and $12,000 per room, which would add up to about $8.3 million to $12.4 million for the entire hotel, plus the cost of refurbishing hallways and common spaces.
More elaborate renovations, such as drastically rehabilitating the dome in front of the property that used to house Center Stage restaurant, a formerly popular restaurant that was featured in the movie "Casino," would boost the price.
Room renovations also wouldn't affect the casino, which has had some cosmetic upgrades in recent years but still isn't on par with the Golden Nugget or midtier Strip casinos.
Tamares farms out operation of the casino to another company, which would need to participate in any renovation.
There's also the matter of financing.
With Strip projects like the $4.8 billion Echelon stuck in neutral and major operators such as Las Vegas Sands Corp. coping with drastic declines in stock price, bankers aren't showing interest in financing major casino renovations.
That would suggest that if Tamares does anything at the Plaza it would likely be something simple, like the room renovations. Jossel said he isn't a decision-maker when it comes to company strategy and higher-level officials haven't yet showed their cards.
Still, once a guest gets past the dated facade, through the weathered hallways and common spaces, the views from the renovated rooms are among the best downtown. From there it's possible to see the potential of the Plaza.
"There are 18 million people under there every year," Jossel said while overlooking the Fremont Street Experience canopy from one of the refurbished rooms. "The question is how do you get them over here."
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