Without further ado, we present S&G's much-hyped interview with Tropicana Las Vegas CEO Alex Yemenidjian, a trim, nattily attired man of impeccable manners and refreshing directness, as you will see. I led off with questions from the readership ...
Nelson asks, “What’s your game plan for motivating the staff into offering quality service to your guests?”
First of all, we have a lot of staff that’s already very motivated. When I took over here, it was a very pleasant surprise to see that there is this reservoir of good will. Many of the employees have been here a long time. They love this place, it’s home for them, they are proud of it and they are happy to be part of the future of it, and they’re very excited because these changes that we are proposing is something that they have been waiting for for a very long time.
In addition to that reservoir of good will, we’re going to be implementing a new training program, a new guest-service-quality program to make sure we elevate the service to a whole new level. So I think the combination of those is going to do the trick.
The last time I walked the property, it was very lightly staffed. I saw two maids to a hotel floor, even on a floor with 44 rooms. Rockymet asks, “Will they staff a full size cleaning crew [and] will they spruce up what is/was one of the best pools in Vegas?”
The answer to the first question is, yes, we’re actually increasing our staff in many areas. We’re reducing in certain areas and increasing in others, as the particular area dictates – particularly in the area of guest-room attendants. One of our objectives is for our new rooms that we are designing to look perfect at all times. It’s a whole new image, it’s a whole new brand that we’re putting forward, so we want to make sure that service matches the new brand.
As far as the pool is concerned, [the question is] very timely. I just finished final touches of the design this morning. We will be getting permits by December 1 so that we can open the new pool area by April 1, which is the beginning of the next summer season. We recognize that the pool area is renowned and we want to make sure that we do it justice, so we’re going to be spending a little more money than we originally thought. [smiles] But it’s going to be wonderful.
Jeff in Oklahoma City wants to know if Onex Corp. “is keeping the property warm for MGM until [MGM’s] debt structure gets better” and if this your way back to MGM Mirage?
I can speak for Onex when I tell you that they are not in the business of keeping things warm for anybody.
Your proposed executive team for the Illinois casino you were seeking included Karen Sock and Joe Billhimer, a couple of heavy hitters in the business. Are they or any other well-known executives going to be joining you at the Trop?
At the moment we have an excellent team here. I am very proud of my team. I actually have a team that I wouldn’t trade for any other team in Las Vegas at the moment. As our company expands – and Onex and my intention is to expand by either acquiring new ones or building new hotels – hopefully we will have more openings and more opportunities to have people like Karen and Joe join the team.
Does that mean Trop President Ron Thacker is staying on?
Ron hasn’t been here. Ron decided to retire. He had actually come out of retirement to take this job as a favor to Tropicana Entertainment.
How serious are the deferred-maintenance issues you’ve had to address?
Well, we were spending a significant amount of money on the deferred maintenance that was left to us, courtesy of the previous owners. We addressing all issues, including roof, elevator, escalator – all items of deferred maintenance that have been ignored for a very long period of time, and we are spending whatever it takes to make sure that the property comes up to a top-notch level.
You’ve said that one of the priorities was redesigning the buffet, but what about the food itself? I’ve eaten there and it was one of the worst buffets in Las Vegas.
I agree with you. Lucky for us, you ate there with the previous chef. We have just hired a new chef. He is in the process of changing the quality of the food. He hasn’t gotten to the buffet yet; he is very busy right now in the new restaurant we just opened, an Italian restaurant called Bacio. Pretty soon he’s going to move from there to significantly improving the quality of food at the buffet.
The last I read, Dirk Arthur was on an interim contract, into the autumn. What’s his status going forward?
I think he had a six-month contract. I’m not quite sure when it expires. We’re really quite happy with Dirk Arthur. But we don’t have any particular plans one way or the other. We’re just happy to have him.
How are you able to incorporate Let’s Make a Deal without significant interruption? What kind of infrastructure is involved with having a TV show where Bodies and Titanic used to be?
That’s the pavilion space. It’s 55,000 square feet. It was really sort of custom-made for this kind of a production. We really don’t have much disruption. We have a really large property – 34 acres and we have plenty of space for the additional traffic that is being created.
We welcome the traffic. A little bit of commotion is fun in a casino. It’s actually funny because [contestants] come in these great costumes, walk in and out. We have some major events planned in the pavilion but it turns out that the taping of the first 50 shows will be complete by the time we need to [switch].
You’ve outlined a very ambitious, multi-phase program of changes. How are you going to execute all of that on $175 million, considering how expensive construction and renovation have become in Las Vegas?
Two things. One is, because of the current economic conditions, we are getting at least 30% discounts on all material and all labor. So we only pay $70 million for something that costs $100 million. If we were building this two years ago, it would have been a very different story.
The second aspect to that is that, as you undoubtedly know, a lot of construction projects here in Las Vegas are done with little regard for budget and sometimes people end up overspending. We can’t afford to do that, so we have to make sure that every dollar that we spend counts as $5.
So we are being very cautious and very smart and very careful about making sure that every dollar that we spend, we have an opportunity to impress the customer. And the combination of that and the fact that we’re getting unbelievable bids for the work means that if we announce a $150 [million]-$175 million project, it’s really equivalent to spending $300 million-plus.