Several weeks ago, I stayed at the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas. It had been awhile and in some ways a lot had changed; but in other very positive ways, nothing had changed.

The El Cortez is one of the original iconic properties in Las Vegas, dating back to the 1940s.  It has always been a “gambling joint,” a little rough around the edges (some might have used the word “shabby”).  But after a significant remodel in the last few years, the Cortez now stands as a shining tribute to the best of “Old Vegas.”  Stay in one of their Vintage Rooms and you’ll know what I mean.  You’ll probably have dreams of Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel, Benny Binion and Jackie Gaughan.

Most casinos in downtown Las Vegas and on the Las Vegas Strip now have a customer base that is overwhelmingly made up of Las Vegas tourists.  The El Cortez continues to have a customer base that is overwhelmingly local.  That is particularly impressive given that Las Vegas locals usually must endure traffic snarls to get there and pass by dozens of more conveniently located locals’ casinos run by savvy companies like Boyd Gaming and Station Casinos.

So how has the El Cortez thrived in Las Vegas in a challenged location (it is three blocks away from the core of downtown Las Vegas and all the “Fremont Street Experience” attractions and hotel casinos) in an economic environment that has seen numerous casinos come and go, others be repurposed or rebranded, and still others be swallowed up by giant corporations?

As I think about it, here is why I think the El Cortez has not only survived, but thrived. Apply this learning to your own casino hotel operation, especially if you care more about the “gambling” than the “amenities.”

  • Core philosophy and management continuity: The El Cortez has been steadfast in its core guiding principle of honoring and providing value to the casino player. It certifies that its slot machine payback percentage is 42 percent looser than Las Vegas Strip casinos and 33 percent looser than Clark County (locals) casinos. It continues to have nearly 200 “coin” slot machines, because, well, there are still many slot players that still like them.  And this core philosophy has been steadfast over the many decades from Jackie Gaughan to Michael Gaughan to current owner, Kenny Epstein. Kenny loves to bet the horses, don’t you think that helps him “get” the zings and stings that gamblers experience?
  • Signature promotions: The El Cortez has for decades had many casino promotions that it “owns.”  Giveaways of jackets, chocolates and ice cream bars.  Large cash drawings with lots of winners.  “Swipe and Win” promotions with a “gambling” element attached to them (sure, you probably will only win $10, but you might win $1,000).  “Gambling Gourmet” food service to slot players, while they are playing.  ATM fee rebates for upper-tier players.  Signature payday and tax day promotions.  Are there too many promotions?  Possibly, but the El Cortez wisely would rather have too many than too few.  You think players like that?
  • No gouging at other cash registers: El Cortez management understands that its core customers are primarily “players” and it doesn’t try to “squeeze” these players for maximum profit at all of its other cash registers. El Cortez has a spa, but its prices are a fraction of the price of the spas on The Strip or at the larger locals properties. Resort fees are miniscule, valet parking is free, food pricing is more than reasonable and room prices for those remodeled rooms are eye-popping low compared to all other competitors.
  • Knowing who you are:  You won’t see “rebranding” or “players club re-engineering” or “six to five” blackjack or expansive high-limit rooms or high falutin’ gourmet restaurants at the El Cortez. That’s because without extensive (and expensive) market research, the El Cortez knows who its players are and what they want.  They know this because Owner Kenny Epstein, COO Mike Nolan, Slot Director Rick Ronca and other El Cortez executives who have been there for decades, spend the majority of their time on the casino floor, know thousands of their best casino players by name, and don’t try to make something simple into something complex. 

Find out what your customers want then give it to them.  As they say in Australia, “good on ya’” El Cortez.  Never waver.