Downtown Las Vegas Grand Creates Refreshing Addition to Area Mix

Editor’s Note: In the first part of his two-part review, CEM contributor David Paster explored how the new Downtown Las Vegas Grand property fits into the New Urbanism movement. In this part, Paster critiques the hotel-casino’s early days of operations.

Downtown Las Vegas Grand’s “Grand Opening” lived up to its billing Nov. 12, when Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman held court, along with her husband, former Mayor Oscar Goodman, flanked by now de rigueur Las Vegas showgirls.

With a high school marching band and 11-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani tossing pizzas like others juggle bowling pins in the background, both Goodmans and key personnel from CIM Group, Fifth Street Gaming and Jeffrey Fine’s LEV Restaurant Group, including Downtown Grand Las Vegas CEO Seth Schorr, gave succinct speeches expressing sentiments of gratitude and welcoming. After the speeches, dignitaries gathered for an official ribbon cutting ceremony at exactly 11/12/13 14:15 p.m. Much promise was in the air, but, as is the case for any property, delivering on the promise can be challenging.

The industrial-chic Downtown Grand, built on the shell of the old Lady Luck Hotel and Casino, offers 600 slot machines, 28 table games, 634 hotel rooms, two full-scale restaurants (a diner bistro and Chinese restaurant), three bars (including the innovatively themed Art and Mob bars and the main casino bar, Furnace), one deli with integrated sports book and one Hawaiian ice/daiquiri stand. (This count of F&B outlets does not include existing LEV Group establishments open on Third Street, nor the quick-serve facilities of the not-yet-opened Picnic, an urban rooftop retreat, or Commissary offerings. In total, there will be 17 food and beverage accommodations when the property comes to full fruition this spring.)

At the time of this writing, the Downtown Grand had been open approximately one month. There are certainly some easily observable by a novice and some internal consternations recognizable by more industry-seasoned eyes that are being addressed. Information was gathered via multiple observational site visits immediately after the soft opening and via regular visitation over an approximate 30-day span, dropping in incognito during different shifts and applying various “stress tests.” To maximize understanding of the property, research also included a two-night, on-property stay and meals in various food and beverage outlets.

Casino and Players Club
The casino floor itself is boutique-sized at 25,000 square feet. As a friend critiqued, the mix of design elements (e.g., exposed ceilings and duct work, globe-of-death style steel-encased crystal chandeliers, brownish-greenish carpet, occasional chemical vanilla ice cream white vertical drop-down visual spatial plane disrupters) under the guise of industrial chic resonated as a “a series of non sequiturs.”

When pressed for further explanation, this long-time industry insider noted that the high stakes area had no specific amenities for assumed high rollers, such as a snack area, private cage, hot towel service or any real sense of separation of supposedly exclusive space for discretion purposes. Plus, the highest denomination on the slot machines is $1. The other off-the-main floor niche and distinct space aptly named Asian-themed 888 baccarat only offered midi-baccarat that probably could have been included in the general pit area instead of being separated from the rest of the table game activity by a moat of slots.

Another friend, taking into consideration the purposely raw design style of industrial chic, noted that there seemed to be little to no natural movement flow for patrons or employees. The areas that formed the casino floor proper are disjointed in some areas and congested in others, resulting in a feeling of disorientation further marred by too many sight lines partially or fully obstructed, making the area feel nearly claustrophobic as opposed to intimate and cozy, which was probably the desired architectural effect. An example of this limitation is the center bar, The Furnace. The square bar area is bisected by a large brick-and-glass drink wall so that individuals on one side of the bar cannot see who is sitting across from them, a complete reversal to the design concept of a center bar as a place to see and be seen, as originated by the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and emulated by properties such as Sunset Station and the Palms.

The players club known as MyPoints is simultaneously generic with its evident design and implementation and usage confounding. The merits of the slot club are as oblique as what would have been found in a casino loyalty operation of the early 1990s. For example, free play (but no cash back) is earned in real time and instantly downloadable, plus there are secondary bonus contests, but there is no formalized system for calibrating meal or gift shop comps. Instead, a cadre of hosts is relied upon to provide discretionary comps.

Even the slot club motto of “make your move” appears incongruent with, rather than enhancing, the message of the supposed benefits of being a club member. Lastly, compared to other downtown high reinvestment loyalty clubs, 1,000 points = $1 for free slot play, dining, hotel and retail at a rate of three points for every $1 coin-in on reel and video reel machines and $2 for video poker machines, the reinvestment offer appears to be not much of an enticement to bring in players. At this early stage, there seemed to be little memorable branding. As a casino, The Grand appears to be still figuring out in what space it should best operate or to whom it should cater.

The Hotel…Not THE Hotel
On a first trip to Las Vegas, many years ago, I stayed at the predecessor property, the Lady Luck. The room was so miserably worn that another room was requested, and a new, slightly better room was provided.

The good news is that the Downtown Grand is not the Lady Luck of old, and its 634 current guest rooms have the advantage of only being in service for a short period. The bad news is that wear and tear is already showing (i.e., there were two small stains on the light-colored-with-swirl-patterned carpet in the room). It was disappointing to witness that the ashtray by the elevator bank on the 16th floor appeared to have the same cigarette butts on arrival as it did upon departure or that carpets in the elevators themselves seemed to be neglected. These little environmental details are what can make or break the perception of a property in terms of general cleanliness and upkeep.

The hotel rooms are functional and utilitarian. Rooms are nice, but by no means luxurious. The bathroom, with only a shower penned in by a half sheet of glass (i.e., no door), will have difficulty competing with product offered by the Golden Nugget or even the El Cortez’ Cabana rooms. The Timex bedside alarm clock is practical and sensible, but definitely not sexy. The fear for this property is that it is going to have a difficult time preserving any sense of price integrity when midweek rooms were renting for as low as $39 per night, and occupancy was often under 50 percent. The initial lodging price points and occupancy predictions were significantly higher. Perhaps once the property is fully up to speed, the value proposition will change in The Grand’s favor. Until then, there is simply too much higher quality room stock in the market at comparable rates for individuals to settle for mere Timex-like practical functionality.

The sole retail outlet is a gift shop selling various sundries and logo wear, but no magazines or newspapers. The hotel also houses a tiny workout room located in the underutilized and under-adorned second floor transitional space between the two towers, which inexplicably is painted in a muted green and simply seems like an institutional refuge as opposed to the entryway to the Picnic area and the second tower.

There is also the dreaded resort fee of $11 per evening, but with this incursion on the traveler’s wallet, there is actually a bit of a value proposition. A Grand Experience Pass does include buy-one, get-one for the Mob Bar, Art Bar and Ninth Island Hawaiian Shave Ice and Daiquiris, as well as a few straight incentives and discounts, such as free beef jerky with a minimum $20 purchase at the Beef Jerky Store or 15 percent off Pizza Rock and free beef jerky and $5 off with a $25 purchase at the Stewart + Ogden diner bistro. Interestingly, under the heading “engage,” there is a discount offer for a non-property-owned Cycle Pub experience that is applicable to groups of six to 14 people. With an expected value of about $5, the table game match play for $10, if used, essentially halves the first night’s fee. Finally, the one non-stipulated freebie is a well drink at the Furnace bar.

Food and Beverage
With Schorr’s personal and professional Asian cultural connections, it is not surprising that an authentic Chinese restaurant called Red Mansion is the de facto focal point to the food and beverage offerings. While the restaurant did not seem exceptionally busy, the customers who did partake appeared to have enjoyed their meals.

The “traditional and adventurous American cuisine” dining option, otherwise known as a casino coffee shop, does its best to fulfill one of the New Urbanism goals of having a backstory. The website of The Grand describes the Stewart + Ogden like this: “A restaurant experience 160 years in the making, Stewart + Ogden diner bistro features cuisine ranging from the traditional to the groundbreaking. Taking inspiration from the discussions between food fanatics (Archibald Stewart and Peter Skene Ogden) in the 1850s, S+O represents two very different takes on what makes good food.”

The simple truth is the food was certainly good enough in terms of quality and presentation, the price points are a little high for the immediate competitive market and, beyond the based-on-a-true story narrative, the restaurant serves as a practical place to have a meal as exotic as a bagel and lox or $13 chicken pot pie. A little odd for a casino coffee shop, the place is not open 24 hours, and instead, like most restaurants in the real world, actually has distinct breakfast, lunch and dinner hours.

The Spread is a higher-end sports book deli. While a cute play on words, the facility itself has a menu that offers some items that appear too labor intensive to provide in a timely manner, should there be a crush of orders during a big game or when it is the only open eating option and a large group comes in seeking nourishment. Most sandwiches and salads (including a pretty innovative, but possibly too fancy-schmancy breakfast sandwich menu) clock in around $8 or $9. Again, while not expensive in the world outsize of Las Vegas casinos, the price is a bit dear considering this Las Vegas is the town of the $6.99 steak dinner and $5 burger, chips and beer combos. One potential consequence could be that food and beverage sticker shock is going to give a reason for individuals trying out the property not to stay and/or make incremental visits.

Employee Spirit as the Differentiating Variable
One exceptionally bright spot for the Downtown Grand is its personnel. The employees operating the casino were found to be engaging, competent and empowered to make decisions to improve guest experiences.

Without fail, every request was honored and every question, no matter how esoteric, was attempted to be fully answered. Of course, there is an imbalance of FTEs (e.g., the cage may have only one employee manning the window during a relatively high customer volume period and if he or she is busy with a more complex transaction, the customer line and associated grumbling of dissatisfaction quickly grows), as is most often the case when a property is working out the staffing kinks.

The recalibration of necessary labor will happen over the first few months, as it most often does for a new property. On the other hand, certain departments immediately stood out for their respective professionalism and job enthusiasm. Those include a top-notch valet operation, a viable host contingent, and universally pleasant and effective front desk and gift shop clerks.

Even with noted shortcomings and near-term challenges, the Downtown Grand has many elements that were genuinely satisfactory, and the positive employee spirit alone makes at least a trial visit to The Grand worthwhile.