The common wisdom in Las Vegas seems to be that the only way to make an older hotel competitive in today's market is to blow it up and start over. Witness the demise of The Stardust, The Sands, The Desert Inn, The Dunes, and The Frontier. To be fair, the people who own these buildings are often justified in creating something new because in the end there is only so much you can do to an existing building - only so many times you can slap a fresh coat of paint on it and hope that it will make a difference.
But a tour of the historic El Cortez in Downtown Las Vegas proves that you don't have to bring in a wrecking crew to turn a has-been hotel into one worthy of notice. The El is back and she is in many ways better than she ever has been before.
The fabled history of the El Cortez dates all the way back to 1941 when it was built by JK Houssels with 59 rooms and a small casino. Houssels sold it in 1946 to none other than Bugsy Siegel. It went through a series of owners landing eventually with one of the most famous names in the casino industry, Jackie Gaughan. Although he no longer owned the place, he lived in the penthouse atop the hotel tower until his death in March of 2014. Gaughan could regularly be seen in the casino or the restaurants, chatting amiably with customers who are on a first name basis with him.
While the hotel was never a "first rate" property, it had been a solid performer in the Downtown arena until the neighborhood around it declined. The crowded, somewhat dingy, and smoky casino mainly lured an older, locals audience and the rooms were little more than basic accommodations.
It's amazing what throwing a few million dollars at a building and its surroundings can accomplish.
First there is the neighborhood. The couple of blocks between the relative safety of The Fremont Street Experience and the El Cortez was not a safe one, especially at night. But the city dumped tons of money at the blocks between Las Vegas Boulevard and 8th Street, turning the depressing row of pawn shops with unsavory characters hanging around outside into a hip nightclub row. The sidewalks have been widened, landscaping has been added, classic signs from the Neon Museum are being installed, and several fun and funky bars have opened up along the stretch including Insert Coin(s), Vanguard Lounge, and The Commonwealth to name a few.
The El got in on the action by turning a parking lot stretching from Las Vegas Boulevard to their front door into a pedestrian plaza. That delivers people to the porte cochere, done with flagstone and ironwork details that give the place a much more swank first impression.
Inside the entire casino and most of the public areas also got a redo. They removed nearly half of the slot machines they had and reorganized the floor to improve sightlines and personal space. Upscale carpeting, wall treatments, gaming tables and chairs, and woodwork combine to turn faded into fashionable. The front desk, lobby bars, lounges... it's all gotten a facelift and it's almost impossible to believe that it's the same place.
The renovations carried over to the guest rooms where new furnishings, flat panel televisions, high-speed Internet service, and additional niceties like mini-fridges in some rooms turn boring boxes into well equipped accommodations. To be sure, no one will ever confuse this place for Bellagio - rooms are small, bathrooms very small, and the décor won't get them a feature in any interior design magazines - but the before and after difference is night and day. These rooms are as good as any other in the Downtown area.
But that's in the main building. There may be some design magazines snapping photos of the Cabana Suites across the street.
They took the former Ogden House, a 102 room hotel that could best be described as a dump, and gutted it from top to bottom. The only thing they left were the exterior walls and the floors. From that they created 64 larger rooms and mini-suites all with a stunning retro-design scheme that is both appealing and comfortable.
Done in black, white, and eye-popping greens, the Cabana Suites building is something you would expect to see on The Strip, not Downtown. All of the furnishings are custom made in sort of a mod-60s, mid-century vibe and heavy use of marble, vinyl, and Swarovski crystal chandeliers turn this former hovel into a showplace. The lobby features a concierge (and new media specialists - they Tweet!), a fireplace, television, and Internet stations. A small gym is adjacent and available to all guests of the Cabana Suites and the main hotel. Rooms are a bit dark but otherwise fully modern with comfortable beds, mini-fridges, irons and boards, safes, and smallish but quite nice bathrooms.
Back over in the main building there is a casino there are several restaurants including a fine steakhouse, a very popular coffee shop, and some fast food type outlets. There is no pool or other recreation option so that's a bit of a bummer for those used to the lavishly landscaped recreation centers on The Strip.
The service at the El Cortez is another big draw. Many of the employees have been with the property for years. They consider the hotel home and the people who visit their family and you will sense the difference between this and the brusque professionalism of The Strip immediately.
Soak all that in and then throw in the affordability factor. You can get one of their "Vintage" rooms - the very small but perfectly fine rooms that date back to 1941 - for as low as $25 during the week. Come on! The larger and newer tower rooms go for as low as $40 and usually in the $80 range on the weekends. The funky Cabana Suites start at $55 during the week. For those kind of rates you are lucky to get a pillow and a blanket.
Note that while the Cabana Suites are in a different building, they are booked and operated as an extension of El Cortez so you can just request them while calling or visiting the website.
If I haven't stressed it enough, it needs to be said again: the new El Cortez is not comparable in any way shape or form to the multi-billion palaces on The Strip. But it isn't trying to be. Instead it offers solid accommodations in a friendly package for rates that will allow you to spend your money on more important things. Like gambling.