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New Attitude

Eastside Cannery opens on Boulder Highway

New Attitude

For more than a decade, the skyline along the Boulder Highway stood unchanged. A few smaller casinos opened, and the major casinos underwent expansion and renovation projects, but nothing new has been added to the inventory of casino space and hotel rooms in the area known as the Boulder Strip since Sunset Station opened in 1997. The last property built on Boulder Highway itself was Boulder Station in 1994.

That changed last month when the Eastside Cannery opened to thousands of guests who waited for hours to get a glimpse of the new casino. The $250 million resort is at the site of the former Nevada Palace, which was operated by Cannery Casino Resorts. With the new project, company co-owners and co-founders Bill Paulos and Bill Wortman are hoping they can replicate the success they have enjoyed with the Rampart casino at the Resort at Summerlin and the Cannery in North Las Vegas.

The property is built with an industrial theme similar to the company’s North Las Vegas casino. However, Eastside Cannery is more modern, drawing on art and pop culture items from the early 1960s, as opposed to its sister property, which is designed to resemble a late ’40s or early ’50s canning factory.

Like the North Las Vegas property, Paulos and Wortman both say they wanted the Eastside to be a place that the locals would call comfortable.

“We want to make people feel at home, like this is their place,” Paulos says. “We want people to feel like we built this for them, because we did.”

The timing of the opening isn’t perfect. The economy is not what it was when the project was announced. Company officials, however, are not concerned.

“We’ve done most of our projects in hard times and opened them in just kind of the tail end, and we have grown very well,” Paulos explains. “You never know when the bottom is and you never know when the top is.”

Additionally, the company is happy with the numbers it has been posting at its other Las Vegas properties. It has not had to lay off any workers, and even found a way to keep the 300 workers displaced when Nevada Palace shut its doors earlier this year, by moving them to other casinos.

Sal Semola, vice president and general manager of the Eastside Cannery, admits there are challenges to operating right now, but notes that “at the end of the day, there’s always room for good product and good experience and that’s what we strive to provide.”

Ultimately charged with the task of delivering the experience Semola promises are the 1,100 team members who will bring the property to life. The company received close to 25,000 applications for the 800 positions it needed to fill, allowing the company to choose the best candidates to be part of the new team.

“The most important thing is hiring the right people,” Semola explains. “We all buy our slot machines from the same manufacturers, we buy our food from a lot of the same vendors and so forth, but the people are truly the point of differentiation that sets you apart from everybody else.”

Opening a new casino can be a time-consuming challenge. It takes a lot of work and dedication to guide a project through years of design and construction before bringing it to life. But, it is something Paulos, Wortman and Semola are all familiar with.

For Semola, Eastside Cannery is the fourth casino opening with which he has been involved, about which he jokes he is a glutton for punishment.

“Really, it is a lot of fun to take a project from nothing and put it together,” he says. “And it’s not just the physical plan, but the human resource element, bringing on folks and watching them grow and develop. It really is something that does require a lot of work, but yet is very rewarding at the same time.”

Even with a proven track record of delivering new properties, Wortman says he still deals with thoughts like whether anyone will show up.

“It’s just the nature of the business,” he says. “We’ve opened several of these, and certainly my partner has opened many more than I have, and at the end of the day, you always think about what happens if you open and not one person shows up.

“Those are the kinds of crazy thoughts you have.”

A New View For Food

Eastside Cannery will have a few other things that set it apart from the other casinos on Boulder Highway and in Las Vegas. While the gaming options are similar to what you will find in the area, there will be some different dining options, as well as a top-floor lounge offering amazing views of the valley.

Perhaps the most talked-about innovation is the new approach of adding tableside service to the ubiquitous casino buffet. Sweet Lucy’s will feature a number of dishes from a menu that is created daily. Food will vary from American comfort foods to Tex-Mex, Italian, Asian, barbecue, seafood and more. And with the addition of a server, the only time people will have to get up is to take advantage of the 20-foot, self-service dessert bar.

The other big news is the 16th floor lounge and restaurant, ONE SIX.

“Something unique on the east side of town will be the restaurant club we have on the 16th floor that will oversee the Las Vegas Strip,” says Wortman. “It will face west and actually have a spectacular view of the entire valley.”

Eastside Cannery will also bring Casa Cocina to the Boulder Highway. The popular Mexican restaurant from the North Las Vegas property was a natural fit, Semola explains, because it is well known and it has been so successful at the other property, earning a Best of Las Vegas nomination from the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“We felt we needed a Mexican restaurant in this location, and what was better than Casa Cocina?” says Semola. “It’s a great brand, people like it and they know what it is.”

Other restaurants include the fine-dining option of Carve, which is similar to Waverly’s at the North Las Vegas property. The 112-seat restaurant centers around the prime rib carving station, the signature dish. Also available are steaks, chicken and seafood.

The Eastside Deli offers a quick bite to eat, though Semola notes that it is much more than just a simple deli. “It’s a 60-seat outlet and the (cooking) line is pretty substantial; there is more than just turkey sandwiches and chicken salad,” he says.

The deli is located just behind the race and sports book, and across from a floor bar. The idea is to create a location where people can come and hang out, watch games or races and have something to eat and drink. Because it is located across from the poker room, the deli will see additional activity. “There’s a lot of synergy in this area,” Semola says.

The Other Draws

In addition to the restaurants, Eastside Cannery has all the other trappings of a locals casino as well. The property features 307 hotel rooms, which like ONE SIX, are designed to take advantage of the views from the east side of town, whether they overlook the Strip or the mountains in any direction.

“All of the hotel rooms have a terrific view of the valley,” Wortman says. “They all have great views of the Strip or the mountains. It’s really, I think, a totally new paradigm on that side of town.”

The property also features 65,000 square feet of casino space, room for 2,100 slot machines and a 26-table pit. While the floor will feature many familiar machines, it will also be the first Las Vegas home for IGT’s new bar-top machines, upright cabinets and slant-top cabinets. Eastside is also the first property to feature Aristocrat’s Viridian cabinet and Gen7 platform.

There is also a state-of-the-art race and sports book, located immediately inside the south entrance, directly across from the 10-table poker room.

Nightlife at Eastside Cannery isn’t just limited to the top floor. In addition to the Pin-Ups center bar, the property features the 200-seat Marilyn’s (as in Monroe) Lounge. The venue works for concerts and smaller performances, and can also be used for showing televised sporting events like football games and boxing.

“It’s not necessarily a showroom, but it’s more than just a lounge,” Semola says.

For larger events, the 20,000-square-foot ballroom comes into play. The facility can be used as a 1,400-seat headliner venue or a 2,000-seat boxing/wrestling/MMA arena. The space also is available for meetings and conventions, with a 17,000-square-foot main ballroom that can be divided into five rooms, as well as two additional meeting rooms and two boardrooms immediately outside the main room.

The Difference-Makers

For Cannery Casino Resorts, the most important assets are the team members who bring a property to life.

“I tell everybody that the bricks and mortar are fine, but nothing comes to life, none of these places come to life without those 1,100 people who are in it creating personality and creating the life of the building,” Paulos says.

The importance of the team members is what prompted the company to keep on the employees of Nevada Palace during the transition period. It was a decision that cost money, but that wasn’t a big concern for company officials.

Instead, they were focused on how they could keep people employed between the time Nevada Palace closed and the day Eastside Cannery opened. It involved moving people into positions at Rampart and Cannery during the interim. Some have decided to stay at their new properties, but a majority are returning to the Boulder Highway.

“We knew we were going to need employees at our new property and we thought it was the right thing to do to make room elsewhere for those who had worked with us and had been loyal to us all that period of time,” Wortman explains.

Many of the workers at Nevada Palace had been there for the better part of 20 years, and while Cannery Casino Resorts has only existed since 1996, Wortman’s association with Nevada Palace dates back to the 1980s. In those two decades, the workers took on as much importance as family, and when it was announced that a new property would be built, Paulos says there was no question of what the company was going to do.

“There was no way that if we’re going to have a new property and we have two properties already, that we wouldn’t assimilate these folks into our properties so they could continue to make a living, and so that they can come back to the all new and improved ?Nevada Palace,'” he says. “They’re part of our family, and you’ve got to take care of your family.

“We’re very fortunate in the fact that we’re not a public company and can make a lot of our own decisions. If some of those decisions happen to cost us money, but are for the benefit of the folks who work with us, then more likely than not, we’re going to take that route.”

There are added benefits to the decision. It creates a more stable corporate culture, and it allows the existing team members to inculcate the new hires in the family. It also sends a message to the community about how Cannery Casino Resorts treats its team members, and creates comfort for old guests of Nevada Palace, who will be able to come back and see their favorite dealers in a new environment.

“We didn’t do it for that purpose,” Wortman notes. “We did it because it was absolutely the right thing to do.”

Time for Change

A short time after construction started on Eastside Cannery, an announcement was made that Crown Ltd. was acquiring Cannery Casino Resorts. The Australian gaming company headed by James Packer is working on regulatory issues before it can complete the purchase, which is expected to happen between the end of this year and the coming summer. Crown needs licensing to operate in both Nevada and Pennsylvania, where CCR is also building a casino, and there is little doubt that the transaction will clear. It’s just a matter of time.

For Paulos and Wortman, the deal was about more than making money by selling a successful company. It was another way to benefit Cannery Casino Resorts’ 3,000 employees.

“When we had people looking at our company, one of the criteria Bill and I had was we wanted to make sure that the company that took over provided a like atmosphere for our employees and provided a greater opportunity for our employees,” says Paulos, who worked for Crown as COO/deputy chairman in 1994. “Crown is making its entry into this market. They don’t have an overabundance of U.S. management, and they have every intention of expanding, so it gives our employees upward mobility.”

Paulos and Wortman expect to stay with the company in an advisory role for a while after the transaction is completed. Once they leave, both say the thing they will miss the most are not the properties they built, but the people they’ve worked with.

“I think whenever you have this kind of situation, you form an emotional attachment to the company, but more importantly, you form an emotional attachment to the people you work with,” says Wortman.

“I’m very proud that we’ve been able to create a business that was able to support the lives of 3,000 or 4,000 people and to have them be our associates and, for the most part, our friends,” Paulos says. “That’s huge for us.”

Greg Jones was associate editor of Global Gaming Business magazine and managing editor of Casino Connection Nevada until September 2009.

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