When the Cannery opened in North Las Vegas several years ago, many in the Las Vegas locals community were confounded by its location. Situated in an industrial section of North Las Vegas, there were few residences nearby and fewer of the profitable customers that made other locals casinos successful. But a funny thing happened. With a quirky theme and innovative marketing, the Cannery became a hit. And several expansions later, the Cannery is one of the most successful locals casinos in Las Vegas. Bill Wortman, who along with partner Bill Paulos has achieved an enviable reputation in the gaming industry, spending many years at Caesars Palace, talks to Global Gaming Business Publisher Roger Gros about how the company has become one of the hottest smaller companies in the gaming industry. To hear the full version of the interview, go to www.ggbmagazine.com, click the GGB Podcast button and go to the archives.
GGB: Explain how the company got started.
Wortman: We started Millennium Gaming, which was the predecessor to Cannery Casinos, in 1996. Bill (Paulos) had recently left as president of Primadonna Resorts, I had my own company and I was operating small casinos in the state of Nevada. Bill and I had been friends for about 30 years at that time, so we decided that it would be a very good mix for he and I to team up and build a gaming company.
Our first project was the Greektown Casino in Detroit, and from there we went on to do the Cannery Casinos here, the Rampart Casino here and some other things outside of Nevada.
The Detroit experience must have been very challenging. That was when the casinos were first legalized in Detroit, and the Greektown area is considered a historic area; so you had to build the casino on the back of a block of historic storefronts. That must have been very difficult to put that into place.
The entire process in Detroit was a difficult process. The state had determined that there would be three licenses in the city of Detroit, and those would be bid-for licenses. We competed against 11 other applicants for those licenses including Mirage Resorts, Mandalay Bay, MGM, Donald Trump, Isle of Capri… companies that were very large names in the gaming industry. Mandalay, MGM and ourselves were the three selected. We were proud of that victory.
Were people surprised when you… partnered with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians… were picked as one of the three license winners?
I don’t think they were. The tribe is a very well- known enterprise in the state which had operated several casinos in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and when we were in the process of the selection, there were other notable local individuals within the Detroit area that were part of the group. The tribe bought them out before the opening of the casino, but I don’t think it was a big upset.
Cannery is kind of an unusual brand. What do you feel the brand conveys?
It’s a retro, kind of ’50s feel. When we talked about it, because of the area in which the Cannery sits, it’s an industrial area, so we couldn’t build a facility like the Rampart Casino (which the company manages in Summerlin) in the northwest area of town. So we looked at several themes that we thought would work well in the North Las Vegas marketplace and within that industrial area. We thought about an old brewery, but that would have forced us to build an actual micro-brewery-you can’t call it Joe’s Brewery and not have a brewery. So, we ultimately settled on the Cannery when our vice president of marketing, Tom Willer, came in and said, ‘Hey, what about the Cannery?’
We actually came to that collectively as were specifically looking at old Coca-Cola art work, which we liked. So we ultimately decided that we would do a cannery. In doing that, we came across the art that was used on vegetable crates at the time, and that art worked out perfectly.
The other facility you run in Las Vegas, the Rampart Casino, is very unlike the Cannery. When you took it over-the Resort at Summerlin it was called at the time-it was not drawing the local people. What did you see when you first got in there?
We saw pretty much a disaster. It had design flaws in terms of catering to the local community. It had marketing flaws in the philosophical view that then-current owners had implemented. The Resort at Summerlin had 541 rooms and suites, and they decided they would build a facility on the scale that they built the Scottsdale facility. When we looked at it, we saw a substantial number of houses at that area, so we thought that if you properly marketed to the local community-which the original owners did not do-and fixed the design flaws and used the hotel as the ancillary market for the casino, that we would have a much better opportunity to succeed. When we started at the Rampart, they were on the basis of machine utilization, they were probably the least-utilized casino in the local market place. Now they’re number one. So it’s gone from last to first.
You’ve operated Nevada Palace on the Boulder Highway for a long time, but you’ve recently broken ground at the site for the Cannery Eastside. Could you explain how that property will be different or similar to the North Las Vegas property?
Eastside Cannery is going to be an upgrade to the current Cannery. It will be a different paradigm because it will compete with different properties, being those on the Boulder Highway.
That facility will have 307 rooms. It’s going to be a high-rise facility. The rooms will have magnificent views of the Strip. We’re going to put a restaurant/lounge on top of that high-rise that will offer a fantastic view of the Strip. We believe that it’s going to be a complete paradigm change.