Nevadan at Work: Riviera boss sees niche in helping gamblers feel at home

The Riviera, once one of the gems of Las Vegas, had fallen on tough times.

The casino, which opened in 1955, had been through three bankruptcy filings, most recently emerging from bankruptcy last year. Because it was on the north end of the Strip, its location was also considered a bit of a disadvantage, especially with the closure of the Sahara in May and a migration of visitors to newer and more luxurious casinos.

Although some saw only problems, others saw an opportunity to bring back the days of when the gambler was king in Las Vegas. It’s the era that Andy Choy hopes to recreate at the Riviera.

"I think back about it and not since Jack Binion lost control of the Horseshoe has there been a place known for its casino product," Choy said.

Choy should know. He’s been coming to Las Vegas on family vacations since he was a child living in Alhambra, Calif. Choy, who is now 36, was named CEO of the Riviera in April.

Since assuming the top spot, Choy has spearheaded several changes and promises more.

The bingo room was reopened in August, making the Riviera the only Strip casino to offer the game. New slot machines were added to the casino floor. The old sports book was closed, and a new Lucky’s was opened.

The Riviera’s sports book also features an outdoor walk-up betting — a first for Las Vegas Boulevard.

Other changes at the Riviera include the R Steak & Seafood restaurant, elimination of most of the "hawkers’ bazaar," upgrades to the pool area, and moving the hotel entrance to Riviera Boulevard and Paradise Road.

Question: What attracted you to the Riviera?

Answer: The main thing that attracted me here was the potential of the property. It’s the last of the original Strip casinos and it has a rich history to it. It seemed to me like the rest of the town was going in a different direction. Everyone else seems to be going with the nightclubs, the fine dinning celebrity chefs, and really getting away from the gaming experience.

Question: Is it just expanding a property’s offerings?

Answer: That may be the case. But the question I keep asking myself is, what’s the best casino in town? There are plenty of great properties, but it’s really hard to say definitively who is marketing themselves as a casino. I think back about it and since Jack Binion lost control of the Horseshoe, there hasn’t been a place known for its casino product. There is an opportunity here. The Riviera to gamblers can be what Wrigley Field is to baseball fans.

Question: How do you create Wrigley Field on the Strip?

Answer: You align the organization to provide a great gaming experience. So what we are going for, say with our dealers and our cocktail waitresses and everybody else on the frontline is someone who understands the gambler and wants to give the best service.

Question: Describe your gaming product and how it has changed since April.

Answer: We’ve increased the number of slots on the casino floor. When we took over, it was about 850, we are up to about 970 and continue to increase that. We’ve also changed the density of the slot floor. It was so sparse when we got here. We said this isn’t giving our players the intimate feeling we want them to have when they come to our casino. We basically covered them up and kept the area closed until we had enough business to open. So we took the machines and put them into a more compact space to give the casino a better feeling.

Question: Are there still closed off spaces in the casino?

Answer: Certain areas we have taken over. For example, a lot of the retail space that was in here, we got rid of because we felt it was detrimental to the customer experience and have put slot machines in those areas. We’ve reconfigured the entire casino. The old sports book is still vacated.

Question: What other changes have been made to the casino?

Answer: We also went out and bought more than 100 new games in the first couple of months we were here to give the casino a new feeling. On the table game side, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds since taking over. One of the first things we did was actually lowering the odds in favor of the player. So on roulette, we now have single-zero roulette, on craps instead of dealing two times odds or three, four or five, we have a full 10 times odds on craps. On blackjack we are dealing a 3-to-2 single deck blackjack.

Question: Why replace your existing sports book?

Answer: As for the sports book, we separated ourselves from our previous operators and went out and found a sports book operator that was focused on the same thing we were. They want to give great odds, the best parlay cards, most prop bets. There are always sacrifices when you do this. But what we sacrificed is some of the glitz that some of the other sports book operators are focused on. Not to say one is better than the other, just to say what is more appropriate for the direction we are going for.

Question: What is that direction?

Answer: We were never going to be the newest, never going to be the shiniest, so we have to cater to type of customer that values something different. It’s a customer that values a gaming experience.

Question: Have you benefited from the sports betting window on the Strip, or is it mostly a novelty?

Answer: For the most part, it’s still a novelty. But Las Vegas was built on novelties. It was one of these things that we thought would be fun for the customer and fun for the town to hang its hat on. During the (Las Vegas) marathon, we had people stop by and place sports bets. Where else can you run in a marathon and without missing a beat, place a sports bet.

Question: Are you changing nongaming amenities?

Answer: I would say we’ve just started. In the new economic situation, the reality is you got to drive the car while your trying to change the wheels. The perfect example of the opposite of that is the New Frontier site. They had a business that was cash flow positive and in the peak of the cycle, rather than lineup the project financing and get ready while operating a building, they decided to implode the building and start over, even before they had the financing lined up for it. We can’t do that.

Question: Aren’t you in a difficult position because Strip business has shifted south?

Answer: That’s right. The first part of that is we have 2,075 rooms and we’re running pretty decent occupancy numbers (in the 80 percent range.) So the first goal is we have to stop being a dormitory for the other properties. If we can’t make the amenities appealing enough for the people who for whatever reason have decided to stay here, then we’ll have no shot at attracting people. So the first thing we have to do is make sure people who are staying in our rooms don’t leave. Which is why the focus has been on the interior. We have done very little on the exterior of the building.

Question: What do you want to accomplish this year?

Answer: In 2011, it was a rebuilding year for the property as we came out of bankruptcy. So in 2012, the focus will be on a few key areas to elevate the customer experience. The first thing will be an upgrade to the pool area. It’s an iconic pool from the 1950s that needs a little tender loving care. It’s never going to be on par with the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel. We are not trying to compete with these other ultralounge pools, but what we do need — I keep using the word relevant. We need something relevant for our customer.

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at csieroty@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893.

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