Shrewd, smaller Vegas resorts show that innovating, renovating can do wonders

When I look at the hand-painted psychedelia of the piano; the ornate, custom-made pool table; and shoe fetish art in the lobby of the Royal House, I feel a little hopeful, which hasn’t been a very common emotion these past few years.

The Royal, on Convention Center Drive, is a creative blend of commerce, art and design — and an attempt to create a niche product that the megaresorts can’t offer because they’re too busy putting thousands of heads in beds or in front of slot machines.

In fact, while the era of megaresort construction is finished for now, we’re in the middle of a renovation boom. This includes the megaresorts, such as the Bellagio, which just finished a $70 million renovation of rooms, along with Wynn Las Vegas, the Stratosphere and the MGM Grand, which began a $160 million renovation in October.

As Jeremy Aguero, principal of Applied Analysis, wrote to me in an email, “Consider the adage that the typical Las Vegas casino-hotel has to be ‘remodeled’ about every seven years.” Our hotel rooms take a beating, especially on weekends.

Aguero continued: “With 150,000-plus rooms, that would mean we are essentially redeveloping 20,000-plus rooms (and accompanying amenities) each year.” As he notes, 20,000 hotel rooms is more than many cities have in their entire inventory.

We’re seeing a rush of renovations now, and will continue to because major operators delayed work during the crisis years of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Hunter Hillegas of RateVegas points to the work downtown and at the Plaza, El Cortez and Golden Gate — all poised to offer a cleaner, value-driven experience for customers who want to escape the crowds, expense and pretensions of the Strip.

On the Strip, meanwhile, the Tropicana suddenly seems like a new property, with an enlivened image that feels more vital.

That brings me back to the Royal. As Edward Glaeser notes in “Triumph of the City,” at the turn of the 20th century, Detroit was an entrepreneurial city with lots of small firms innovating in the nascent automobile industry. Then it became larded with consolidated behemoths. Sound familiar? Hopefully the crisis of the past few years will yield more small, nimble players capable of taking Vegas in new directions and helping us get our juice back.

Adam Mizzi, owner of the business at the Royal (though not the land), came from the Cosmopolitan, so he clearly has some expertise in creating a property that feels different from the warehouses o’ fun on the Strip. The idea is to create a boutique hotel, something like the Ace in Palm Springs (my comparison, not his) but with a Vegas feel, though maybe classic-Vegas feel is the proper phrase.

Right from the super-cool font on its sign, the Barrymore, which is the Royal’s restaurant (co-owned and operated by Block 16), takes you to another time and place while somehow feeling cool and current. Many of the dishes feel like they’re out of the “Mad Men” era, with a contemporary twist (see: lobster deviled eggs). The marble bar on the other side of the lobby is starting to focus on fancy mixology but also has tap beer for live music nights.

Mizzi has started slowly and organically, which has meant locals, but he plans to begin transforming the Royal into a buzzy place for tourists. He begins selling rooms this month and plans to start refurbishing them within a year. A Hollywood boutique selling vintage wares will soon grace the lobby. Exterior work, including a paint job and a new sign, is also coming.

The property’s great resource is unused land, which runs right up to the Strip. Expect an announcement soon about an indie music festival in the parking lot. After that, there are bigger plans for that parking lot (Mizzi was tight-lipped about specifics).

Can it work? Mizzi insists he’s pragmatic and efficient. He compares the project to “Moneyball,” the book and film about a poor baseball club beating the rich teams.

Still, he has an uphill battle against the national marketing muscle of the Strip players. As he says, however, “If we were trying to copy someone else’s model, I think we would fail.”

That’s wisdom we could all absorb.

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