Overseeing an evolution

In Las Vegas there's a notion that change for the sake of change isn't just good, it's how to keep a joint alive.

Apparently, nobody told Mike Nolan and his customers at the El Cortez.

Nolan, general manager of the downtown casino, started working for former El Cortez owner Jackie Gaughan in 1978.

He was among a small crew of executives and business partners who helped Gaughan expand and shrink his empire of Las Vegas casinos.

Barbary Coast, Gold Spike, Plaza, Las Vegas Club and Western Hotel are among the casinos that have come and gone from the Gaughan portfolio.

There were also crucial constants. Gaughan's casinos always made personal customer service the top priority and the El Cortez was always the center of the empire.

Now Gaughan is retired, the El Cortez is the only joint left in the empire and Nolan is in charge of day-to-day operations.

Nolan, along with longtime Gaughan business partner Kenny Epstein, remains committed to Gaughan's gospel of low prices and personal service.

But he also led the El Cortez into the post-Gaughan era with about $20 million in renovations in recent years and a complete overhaul of the Ogden House.

The Ogden was once an El Cortez overflow property with about 100 rooms.

It is now set to reopen as the Cabana Suites, a 64-room complement to the main hotel. The Cabana Suites feature larger rooms and modern accoutrements such as a gym, business center and rooms built to accommodate guests' consumer electronics.

Question: When was the last time you recall a recession of this degree?

Answer: In the 1970s with the gas and so on. But we've always been, insulated isn't the right word, it has never been that bad. You knew it was for the short run, you always assumed it was going to come right back. That is the fear this time, not knowing how long it is going to continue to go down but once it gets down how long is it going to stay at that level.

Question: How is the El Cortez holding up?

Answer: Luckily, we are in a position where we have locals and we have tourists. We are still full on the weekends. Last month, when things were bad we had two solid weeks we were sold out. It has a lot to do with what we offer. People really like that when they come here the employees know them. When they come here they call them by name instead of just being lost in a large place.

Question: What makes the El Cortez gambling any better than other casinos?

Answer: Our blackjack is single or double deck and it pays 3-2. Everybody has gone to the shoes, so that is an advantage for the customer and they search that out.

Question: Have you ever done or considered doing 6-5, the lower payout that's become commonplace in Las Vegas?

Answer: No. 3-2, that is what it has been and we don't want to increase the percentage against the customer.

Question: Can you still keep up with the promotions, service and job retention during a recession?

Answer: It is tough as the numbers go down in Las Vegas. If you are not feeding as many people, you don't need as many people to feed them. And you hope that rebounds quickly. If your occupancy is down you don't need as many people to clean the rooms. That is always very disheartening for us. This is a group of people that has been together a long time.

Question: The El Cortez is the longest continuously operating casino in Las Vegas. You have a lot of older customers. What are you doing to get new ones?

Answer: We are getting a lot of family members. There is one family, they are in three different states. I knew the fellow and his brothers and his parents. They've grown older but their kids are all coming now. Every time one of their grandkids, nieces or nephews turns 21, they bring them here.

Two, being in the entertainment district you do have a draw for younger people. Those people come down and they are coming down a little later in the evening and we are getting activity from them.

The Cabana Suites is something that they are going to feel comfortable in, with the business center, with the fitness center, with the iPods in every room, the large flat-screen TVs, walk-in showers. It is just a modern, fun place to be. That helps that demographic feel more comfortable here.

Question: When was the last time you remember the El Cortez going through as many renovations as it is today?

Answer: Jackie (Gaughan) built the tower, expanded the casino and put in the valet in 1981.

That had to be a time, but here it is so (widespread), doing so many different things throughout the casino, redoing all the rooms, getting ready to open the Cabana Suites and the gaming floor.

Question: Is it different now that Jackie Gaughan has sold his interest in the company?

Answer: This has been ongoing for some time. Jackie is still with us every day for lunch and dinner. It is just at a certain age it is time to put things in order. The people that are doing this are the same people who have been with Jackie for some time. Kenny Epstein has been Jackie's partner since 1975, he has known him since he was 16. He was at the Cortez through those years until they started building the Barbary Coast.

Question: What about the transition? Were there ever concerns about who would take over?

Answer: No, absolutely no plans to sell. The owners that bought Mr. Gaughan's stock were all owners before buying Mr. Gaughan's stock. So, in that sense there wasn't new ownership coming in. We continued the same plans that were already going on. The only downfall would be the idea of the market itself. We have great employees and we have got great guests. Our job is to make sure they have the best experience they can and try to retain our employees.

Question: How did you first meet and start working for Jackie Gaughan?

Answer: I started with Jackie in February of 1978. I first got to know him when I became an Eagle Scout. (Later), I was working on the Strip and when I turned 21 I went to work for Jackie. I was a motel manager. First job with Jackie, he hired me and put me in the cage for about two weeks then I became the slot manager for one of his casinos downtown, Club Bingo. After we sold the Club Bingo, I came back to the El Cortez. I was here for a few months and (former Nevada Gov.) Kenny Guinn, who was the head of Nevada Savings at the time, gave us an opportunity at the Gold Spike (in the mid-1970s). So Jackie and I met (Guinn) and got the keys and opened that and ran it for about 20 years. While we were doing that we wound up back with the Nevada, until we re-sold it. Then the Plaza in 1988, then the Vegas Club and finally back to the Cortez in 2004.

Question: Where is your favorite place in Las Vegas, other than El Cortez?

Answer: I don't play, so I would have to say as far as going for restaurants it might be Wynn Las Vegas. I like what they do there. I like the way the Wynn employees seem very informed. It doesn't matter who you talk to. They will either answer a question or get somebody who will. And I think that is important. That is what we strive to do, also.

Question: Are personal connections with customers still possible in tough times, especially when increased costs are pressuring businesses to raise prices?

Answer: Our customers are smart. They realize what is going on. If they go out to eat every night, they know the price is going up because of the cost of food, not that people are going to make more money by increasing the price. If they go to the grocery store they know it is more expensive. So, I think they realize that. They know the cost of fuel, the cost of their power bill. Everybody has to pay that, every business.

Question: Can you describe the core customers of the El Cortez?

Answer: We've always been really strong in the Midwest through the fall and winter, and of course Texas and other Southern states in the summer. California always and then our locals. It has probably been more of the customers who have been more familiar with Las Vegas. People who have been to all the places that has been our customer. They've been here enough, they know where value is.

We go over (customer comment cards) every Tuesday in our staff meeting. I read every one of them. (Epstein) reads them to the entire staff. We call the people back, thank them for their comments and if they have suggestions we delve into them a little bit. ... It is interesting to see what they say.

Question: What are examples of customer suggestions that were actually implemented?

Answer: They thought more modern, brighter (restrooms) would be better. So that is what we have done. They request certain machines. It was to hard to play roulette; there were only two tables, they were constantly waiting, now we have four. If they tell us about a light bulb that is out, we should have seen it before they did. But we make sure it is fixed before the next guy sees it.

Question: Is Las Vegas better or worse today with greater corporate influence than it was decades ago when individuals, including some criminals, controlled many casinos?

Answer: Times are different everywhere, not just in Las Vegas. It was a lot of fun to grow up here and I still think there is so much in Las Vegas. I liked it as far as the individualism instead of the corporate structure. That I thought was better. But with (corporate money), comes upgrades. It was fun at that time, both growing up and working in the early part of Las Vegas. But it is fun now, too.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.


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