How to rebuild a classic casino on a shoestring budget? The Riviera attempts to blend upscale touches, grind-joint virtues and international savvy
Talk a few minutes with Riviera hotel-casino CEO Andy Choy and you’ll hear the word “authentic” — frequently. It’s the 36-year-old casino boss’s mantra. Built in 1955, the Riviera can’t go head-to-head with recent megaresorts such as The Cosmopolitan and Encore. Age forbids it — nor can Riviera owner Barry Sternlicht afford it. But that doesn’t alter Choy’s mission: “to turn the tables on” the Riv’s reputation as a dormitory with poor food and worse customer service, restoring the luster of those years when Frank Sinatra hung his hat there and Liberace attacked the ivories.
He makes a careful distinction, though, between “authenticity” and “nostalgia.” Choy arrived at the Riviera in April 2011 and, early in his tenure, attempted marketing it around nostalgic, old-school entertainers such as Connie Stevens and David Brenner. Conclusion: “It sounds like a better niche than it really is,” he says. “It didn’t have the success we were looking for.”
Like a homeowner with a fixer-upper, Choy has to restore the Riviera’s champagne glory on a beer budget. While $20 to $30 million sounds like a lot, it’s pocket change by Strip standards. Sternlicht is selling the Riviera’s sister property in Black Hawk, Colo., and the proceeds will bankroll the Vegas makeover. As the Riviera’s Mr. Fix-It describes his chewing-gum-and-shoelace allowance, “We’re trying to be very judicious with our capital and MacGyver these things.”
Can’t rearrange your slot machines, which are anchored atop a thick, concrete pad? Convert retail space into a new-slot showcase. Need an extra revenue source? Add a huge, quarterly bingo tourney. Check-in desk too far from parking? Move it!
The CEO, whose experience extends from grind joints like Arizona Charlie’s to exotic casinos like Four Seasons Macao, defines authenticity as “what Wrigley Field is for baseball fans, what Graceland is for Elvis fans, (but) there’s not a real analogy for Vegas gambling enthusiasts. If I asked 10 people, I’m not sure if anyone can definitely say, ‘Oh, that place has got the best gaming product. That’s where you want to go for the action.’ Fifteen or 20 years ago, people would say Binion’s Horseshoe. But that hasn’t been the case in some time.”
Regular Riviera player Jeff Leatherock, an Oklahoma City businessman who visits four times yearly, summarizes the Riv’s appeal as “the purest retro Strip property.” He says Choy’s on the right path but “give it a couple of years to make its market. Stop changing every six months.”
Two worlds, one casino
“(The Riviera) still has that slightly worn, classic-Vegas vibe,” says Washington, D.C., book dealer Howard Park, who stays there once a year — but usually not unless his room is comped or heavily discounted. Mainly a video-poker player, Park rates the Riv’s odds “a little better than the Strip but not the value that downtown is.”
“I’ve never seen a decent lounge act there,” Park adds and, when he’s hungry, he still won’t eat at the Riviera but goes next door, to the Peppermill.
The Riv is way up on the north Strip, an area shunned by high rollers. The nearest other casino is the garish, decrepit Circus Circus and its ultra-low-rent sibling, Slots A Fun. Choy’s place is literally in the looming shadow of hulking, unfinished Fontainebleau. New “F-bleau” owner Carl Icahn won’t complete the $4 billion-plus bust and is expected to flip the site whenever land prices improve. Another folie de grandeur, Echelon, sits idle to Choy’s south. Boyd Gaming is believed to be years away from resuming work and, meanwhile, is “developing plans to enhance the appearance” of the skeleton.
In such a hostile environment, reinventing the Riviera is a long-shot wager and Sternlicht’s best hope of improving those odds is to tax Choy’s creativity and not the Riv’s bank account. This cost-conscious method is much in vogue with downtown casinos. The El Cortez successfully turned a dodgy motel into the modish Cabaña Suites. The Plaza’s $35 million redo is still a work in progress. An expansion of the venerable Golden Gate was done for a quick $12 million. By contrast, a proposed conversion of the defunct Sahara into SLS Las Vegas is budgeted at $415 million.
“If they can just survive as long as they have with the Fontainebleau and Echelon white elephants alongside, they’re doing fantastic,” says Park, who would like to see the Riviera evolve into someplace “that’s not trying to be The Cosmopolitan, but a little more up-to-date.”
Last of an era
The proposed path to authenticity at the Riviera is threefold: Offer the best gamble, improve its amenities and emphasize atmosphere. The heavily mirrored and marbled Riviera is — now that the Sahara has been stripped bare — the last Rat Pack-era casino on the Strip.
“(The) rich history that we have is an advantage that we need to do a better job of exploiting,” Choy admits. “Barbra Streisand got her start here,” opening for Liberace in 1963. “Other properties will pay a huge royalty to use the Sinatra name,” he says, in an offhand reference to Encore, “whereas we’ve got a room here that he used to stay in all the time, that we don’t market.”
Photos from the Riv’s celebrity-rich past, which used to be clustered around the upstairs showrooms, are now omnipresent. Choy also counts the living history that is the Riviera workforce as an edge, citing player relationships with valets and cocktail servers that go back 20 or 30 years. “It’s hard to get that in this day and age, no matter where you are.”
Choy’s trump card is player-friendly odds. “(We want) to attract people who value gambling over a luxurious environment. Sometimes you want to go to a bar where there’s peanut shells on the floor,” he says. “There’s a market for the dive bar.”
Of the Riv’s much-touted 1,000X odds on craps, Choy says he believes his is the only casino with a house edge of but 0.0009% and, he adds, “I might be missing a zero. It’s the best rule in town, by far.” There’s also a single-zero roulette table and that Holy Grail of gamblers, single-deck 3:2 blackjack. In the era of house-friendly 6:5 blackjack — despised by serious players — a single-deck 3:2 game could get you canonized. The Riviera started with one, which some dismissed as a marketing gimmick, but has since added two more.
In pursuit of atmosphere and action alike, Choy’s dimmed the casino floor, at patron request. Previous ownership had tried thinning out its slot machines. Choy and Sternlicht beefed up the inventory, from 850 to 970, and packed them tighter. Choy’s Macanese tenure taught him the importance of baccarat — and Pacific Rim players. So he added a crepuscular Asian table-games pit. “(The former regime) literally had one game with a sign that said, ‘Open upon request,’” he says.
The new, Asian orientation is reflected in the upgrading of Banana Leaf, which was more or less a food court when the late William Westerman owned the Riviera. Choy wanted something closer to something in Las Vegas’ Chinatown. Enter new menu offerings, lighting, décor and wallpaper. During Chinese New Year, it hosted a private party for “a couple of hundred guests” and, by February, business had tripled.
Dining was targeted for improvement at every stratum, with Queen Victoria’s British Pub one of the few holdovers from the ancien régime. Long since banished from the premises are the military-issue vats that supplied Riv diners with “eggs” and “potatoes” made from powder. (Timeshare pitchmen were also exiled.)
Those who haven’t been to the Riv may remember a “gauntlet of hawkers” peddling dreck along the corridor between the convention center and the casino. They’ve been expelled. “It was just detrimental to the guest experience,” Choy says, “even though they were pretty lucrative.”
Instead, guests now enjoy a superior ground-floor view of the pool, which is literally central to Choy’s strategy for reorienting the Riviera’s “center of gravity” 1,500 feet back from the Strip. On nights when a pool party is in session, there’s suddenly a dynamic interrelationship between the outdoor pool and indoor promenade, where there used to be a deadly tunnel of schlock shops. Poolside, a bar deck will extend around the north and east sides, hopefully enlivening the sedate courtyard. Along its south side, six old bungalows are being converted to cabanas.
Choy moved hotel check-in from just off the gaming floor to the Paradise Road entrance after noticing that the least-used portion of the Riv was, paradoxically, the one next to where customers park. That’s also where he added the Strip’s only bingo room. Instead of daily games, the casino recently launched a quarterly tournament with payouts as large as $200,000.
But perhaps the most important change Choy has to make comes not in the form of new décor or games, but improved customer expectations. Last May, the revamped R Steak & Seafood inaugurated monthly “tasting dinners” … wine, liquor, beer. When a Riviera customer saw a placard advertising the premiere dinner, she exclaimed, “A wine-tasting event at the Riviera? Imagine that!”
Somewhere, Andy Choy was smiling.