New vintage carpet in place, revamped El Cortez positioned for a Vegas rebound

When the El Cortez changed the carpet on its gaming floor January as part of ongoing renovations, officials sensed customers would be interested in having pieces of the matting pattern as memorabilia and made it for sale in the gift shop.

In a testament to the pull the casino has with the vintage Las Vegas crowd, the strips almost immediately sold out, officials said. They sold 100 strips of rose-heavy floral pattern from the excess rolls in storage — so, not the grungy, stained carpet that was in place for 12 years — for $19 apiece.

“We were wondering what the big deal was with the carpet,” general manager Adam Wiesberg joked. “I sold 100 pieces, but we could have sold thousands.”

The worn carpet was equally popular. After workers placed the torn-out carpet in waste bins on the property, employees had to chase off dumpster-divers who wanted a piece of Las Vegas history, Wiesberg said.

“There’s a cult following for that carpet,” Wiesberg said. “I don’t know, maybe some people thought that was the original carpet from 80 years ago.”

Workers are putting on the finishing touches of a two-year, $25 million renovation at the property, which Wiesberg said will retain its old-school Las Vegas feel but also have upgrades to appeal to its many millennial visitors.

That starts with the new carpet.

The carpet boasts leafy green waves over a gold and red leopard print design. The pattern is a nod to a Havana, Cuba, look from the 1950s, Wiesberg said, which is a time and place in history synonymous with gangsters and well-dressed socialites sipping on rum cocktails.

Before the pandemic, the property’s 47 “vintage” rooms, holdovers from when it opened in 1941, were spruced up. Earlier this month, complete overhauls of the last few rooms in the El Cortez’s 200-room hotel tower were completed.

Other renovations include nearly 42,000 square feet of new carpet on its casino floor and the addition of a new high-limit table games pit.

“The customer base we have, you have all these loyal people who have been coming here forever,” Wiesberg said. “But now you have this millennial following and the millennial really wants one particular thing — an authentic experience. They don’t like phony.”

In one of the revamped tower’s premium suites — which go for about $1,000 per night — guests will find a “Spanish Colonial Revival” feel with modern touches and bathroom fixtures, along with a balcony view of the Strip.

From its restaurant named after former owner Bugsy Siegel to an assortment of more than 100 coin slot machines, there’s also no mistaking the property’s overall vintage Las Vegas theme.

That’s exactly how owner Kenny Epstein — a business partner of founder Jackie Gaughan — insisted it remained. Epstein in the late 2000s bought the El Cortez from Gaughan, and has poured millions into the property in multiple renovations.

“Looking at the El Cortez, it’s a really good sign that its owners are willing to spend the money to help make our tourist corridor a place where people want to come and see changes,” said Carolyn Wheeler of the Downtown Vegas Alliance, a nonprofit business trade organization. “It’s kind of what the Strip does in a way — you reinvent yourself every couple of years so people have more reasons to come down. There are some great investments happening downtown.”

That’s especially important as the region gradually rebounds from the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

As a group, downtown casinos saw a drop of 28% in overall gaming win in December when compared with the same month in 2019. By contrast, however, Strip casinos reported a 51% decline during the same months.

But Gov. Steve Sisolak has eased restrictions — casinos floors went from 25% capacity to 35% — and the virus positivity rate has been declining since mid-January, meaning visitors will soon be returning in larger numbers. And when they do, the El Cortez will be ready, Wiesberg said.

“I could not be more optimistic,” Wiesberg said. “I’m optimistic anyway, but to me, when (Allegiant Stadium) went up, we were poised for the greatest time this city has ever seen. Resorts World was going up, the Golden Knights were there, then everything just came to a halt. Gaming is expanding all over the world, but there will never be a place like Vegas.”

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