Rick Charles, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Aquarius Casino Resort
Rick Charles, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Aquarius Casino Resort
You came to the Aquarius Casino Resort from the Sandia Resort & Casino in New Mexico. What did you take away from your experiences there that are helping you in your current role with Aquarius?
When I first joined Sandia, we were a very successful, locals-based casino operation. During my tenure there, we transformed that operation from a locals casino to a regional destination resort by building a hotel, several restaurants, meeting space a golf course and other amenities. In my position as chief operating officer, not only did I have the responsibility to keep the current operation running, but I was also heavily involved in the development of the new resort amenities.
What that translates into for Aquarius is that weâ€™re a regional destination resort as well and itâ€™s going through quite a transition as we speak. We just celebrated our one year anniversary of Aquarius in November. In the first phase of Aquarius we took the property and remodeled and rethemed the casino with state-of-the-art slot machines, new carpet, new uniforms, etc. The next phase, which weâ€™re getting into now is the remodeling of our guest rooms. With my experiences in gaming, hospitality, development and construction, it was a nice fit for me to join the Aquarius team.
So you would say you have experience with turning a property from a locals casino into destination resortâ€¦
Yes, and the other experience we had with Sandia is that even though we were known locally, the brand did not have good regional recognition. Thatâ€™s one of the challenges we have with Aquarius. It was previously the Flamingo Laughlin, which had very good brand recognition, but now we want to take it to that next level and finish what weâ€™re trying to develop in the Aquarius brand.
How well has that branding process gone thus far?
I think we still have some ways to go in developing the brand. Itâ€™s only a year old. But weâ€™ve made a lot of efforts alreadyâ€”many before I joined the company. A lot of people still know us as the old Flamingo property, but word is starting to get out there and itâ€™s starting to be known by the Aquarius brand.
Youâ€™re spending $20 million on renovating the propertyâ€™s rooms, what does that project entail?
We are the largest casino-hotel in Laughlin with a little over 1,900 deluxe rooms and suites. The process over the next six monthsâ€”which will begin in Februaryâ€”is to completely renovate all of the rooms in the facility. That means weâ€™ll be adding new carpets and wall covering to all the rooms; custom drapes; the bathrooms will all be redone with cherry wood vanities and granite countertops; weâ€™ll have designer sinks and accessories; the amenities will also be upgradedâ€”from the bed linens to the soaps and shampoos we provide. When we get done, weâ€™ll really have the most outstanding product in the Laughlin area, and weâ€™ll stack up right along with some of the Las Vegas-style casinos. As our market is regional, we have to compete on a regional basis.
How important has overhauling this property been to the Laughlin market as a whole?
I think the market needs an adrenaline shot. Visitation to the market has been decreasing every year. There are some new owners hereâ€”of which weâ€™re among themâ€”that are starting to put money back into these facilities. Some of the product here has been let go of for awhile, and I think itâ€™s very important that we give the facelifts to bring life back to Laughlinâ€”to bring the visitation back up. I really feel the Aquarius is a trend-setter and a leader in that regard in the market. Weâ€™re looking to help grow the market ourselves through this room renovation, the rebranding, all weâ€™ve done inside the casino, and even some of the things weâ€™re doing with employee training and re-training to be the friendliest and most hospitable employees in the area.
Another thing weâ€™ve done is taken our upscale Aqua Bella restaurant which is geared toward Italian cuisine and hired a new executive chef, while making the menu very price value driven that meets the flavor for all ranges in the market. Itâ€™s a beautiful restaurant with great views of the Colorado River. Outback Steakhouse also joined our property about a year ago. Weâ€™re the only Outback in about an 80-mile radius. It gives our guests another choiceâ€”a well-known brand. In February, weâ€™ll also be opening one of the largest Starbucks in the area. We want to keep the Aquarius brand out there and number one, and when weâ€™re associating with other brands, we only want to associate with the best in their fields.
The property has a number of other fresh amenities as wellâ€¦
We have the outdoor amphitheater which is 3,300 seats and sits right along the Colorado River. Itâ€™s a perfect place to enjoy an outdoor concert. We also have our indoor pavilion, where we have 2,200 seats for live shows as well in a climate controlled environment. We also have our Splash Cabaretâ€”a versatile venue offering both indoor and outdoor space. Our outdoor space is called H2Oâ€¦you can actually sit outdoors and enjoy the band play from the indoor Splash Cabaret. We have our buffet operation, our coffee shop and a number of fast food venues. We also have 35,000 square feet of meeting and convention space. Weâ€™re able to do some group business and local catering business and events.
Describe the Laughlin customer. Has he or she changed at all versus several years ago?
Laughlin really has two distinct markets. We have our snowbird market which, starting about Labor Day and running through roughly mid-May, we have people from the north that want to come down and enjoy the great weather. Then in the summer, we have a much younger crowd that comes down to not only enjoy the facility, but also all the amenities that are associated with the river like jet skiing, boating, etc. So we have those two distinct markets. Have those markets changed? I donâ€™t think so in terms of the demographics of the market, but what I think has changed is that with the snowbird marketâ€”which is typically older in ageâ€”the 50-year-old of today is not the same as the 50-year-old of yesterday. The 50-year-old today wants to be out and be active and enjoy more things. The Baby Boomer group also has more cash flow than their mothers and fathers, as well as more free time on their hands.
The original renovation of the Flamingo into Aquarius ran $40 million, while the new room renovations are running another $20 million. By comparison to other projects nationwide, thatâ€™s not a ton of money to spend. Yet the Aquarius has seen rave reviews and has a feel of a brand new property. Is that a testament to spending capital smartly?
Itâ€™s a $60 million investment on top of a product that was just recently purchased, so itâ€™s really a sign that our owners believe in Laughlin as a growing market. Itâ€™s a heck of an investment to make. (That said), we do think we got the bang for our buck so to speak. One of the things we hear constantly from our guests is what a difference the place is nowâ€”how itâ€™s night and day from the old property. There were a lot of good people involved in the thought process of this transformationâ€”in the design process, the thought process, even down to the selection of the slot machines. That came from people from our parent corporation (American Casino Entertainment Properties) that put that mix together, and itâ€™s just been a home run.
With ACEP coming in, one of the primary focuses they brought to the table was customer, customer, customer. Thatâ€™s what we need to be focusing on. And our staff, with this new feel and new life we brought into the property, theyâ€™re starting to feel that life themselves. Theyâ€™re starting to feel proud that, â€œI work at the Aquariusâ€¦I work at the biggest and friendliest casino in Laughlin.â€� The staff has really stepped up and itâ€™s been a huge reason weâ€™ve been so successful.
In terms of your leadership, are you hands-on in your management approach?
You can never be out there on the floor enough with the employees and customers. Unfortunately, due to the administrative functions that go on, often youâ€™re forced at times to be in the office. But the part I enjoy the most is being out there with customers. We have dinners with our guests monthly. I like finding out what they have to say, what they like and where they see room for improvement. I am a very hands on type of manager. I like to get involved, but I donâ€™t get so involved that I step on my key peoplesâ€™ toes. I let them do their job, but I make sure they keep me informed.
What is your ultimate goal for the Aquarius property?
Weâ€™re kind of land-locked for doing much more expansion, but we do have a lot interior spaceâ€”some that is very underutilized. Weâ€™re brainstorming about some things now, including bringing in another fine dining restaurant; looking at maybe a nightclub situation; we also see a spa in our future. Of course, weâ€™re always going to be reinvesting in the casino floor to keep our product as fresh as possible. And weâ€™ll be looking to affiliate (the property) with other well-recognized brands like what we have with Outback and Starbucks. I think weâ€™ll have more venues, more things to do and more opportunities than just gaming.