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Gaming Guru

Arnold M. Knightly
 

Going Hollywood

19 February 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The Aladdin will soon fade into the long line of old Strip property names that live on in name only.

The formerly bankrupt and frequently maligned casino, which is now being remodeled, is expected to be officially rebranded the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in April, said Robert Earl, co-chairman of Aladdin owner OpBiz.

"We've been slowly constructing, planning, understanding a very difficult space," Earl said. "By the end of the third quarter, we'll be finished."

OpBiz is a partnership between Earl, private equity investor Bay Harbour and Starwood Hotel and Resorts Worldwide. Earl and Bay Harbour Management have a joint venture with an 85 percent interest in the property while Starwood holds the remaining 15 percent.

Earl is founder of the themed-restaurant company Planet Hollywood International.

"We've spent considerably more than we thought we would on the project," said Earl, who added that $1 billion is being invested into all aspects of upgrading and redefining the Strip property.

The original purchase price for the property was $496 million in 2004. Earl said the company recently secured additional financing from Credit Suisse First Boston.

"We didn't want to close, and the cash flow was such that we wanted to protect it," Earl said. "That's why it's taken so long."

One of the many problems the new owners recognized before property's sale had even closed was its presence on Las Vegas Boulevard South; the front of the property was uninviting and confusing for tourists.

The large desert-stonelike features topped by an Arabian-style dome are being pulled down to be replaced by a "Times Squarelike" front with large light-emitting diode screens and bright colors to make the property more inviting.

"By the middle of this year, you'll never know the Aladdin existed," said Earl, adding that the dome that sat above the Aladdin sign was removed Thursday.

"That 700-foot run all along the front will all glow and change colors and show images," Earl said of the new plaza. "It will be a fantastic billboard."

A new front entrance on the Strip property's northern end has already opened while construction on the front continues. Retail tenants and restaurants are being added along Las Vegas Boulevard.

Clothing store Urban Outfitters opened in a three-story retail space in December. The Trader Vic's restaurant is scheduled to open in June. A Hawaiian Tropic outlet is also scheduled.

Earl said additional tenants, restaurants, lounges and nightclubs will be announced in the next couple of months.

"All of those people are at various stages of permitting and getting done," Earl said. "The plan is that every month that you come here, each time you revisit you'll see more of the project open, culminating in it all being finished by October."

Earl, who is 50 percent owner of the London casino Fifty but is new to the Las Vegas casino business, said he looked to other properties along the Strip to decide where the property should try competing.

"I think it was more about where Planet Hollywood would like to sit in the marketplace," Earl said. "The competition in this town is incredible. The quality of some of the operations is fantastic and we set the competitive set we aspire to be in."

He said he hopes the property will be on par with MGM Grand, The Mirage and Mandalay Bay.

Earl said the company decided to do the outdoor construction first because closing the two pools was the least disruptive for customers. A lot of the renovations that have already taken place -- the casino, new lobby -- have been done with minimal disruption to customers. A new sports book and poker room will also open in the near future.

Outside of the hotel-casino, the mall is being renovated and rebranded. The Arabian-themed Shops in Desert Passage is being renamed Miracle Mile.

Movie memorabilia won't be in the casino, but each of the hotel rooms with have a theme with artwork and artifacts from a particular film. A model of the planned redesign of the hotel rooms is outfitted with movie memorabilia for the movie "Pulp Fiction." It has a large movie photo of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta's black suit from the film adorning the walls.

Each room will also have a flat-screen television and a custom-made, glass-top table that will hold Hollywood mementos.

The remodeling of all the rooms is scheduled to begin in April with the first 600 rooms expected to be ready in six months.

Additionally, a new $30 million, 30,000-square-foot theater is nearing completion. The new 1,568-seat theater, in a space once used to house unused or unusable slot machines, will be home to the new "Stomp Out Loud" production scheduled to open in late March.

"We hope everyone that everyone is going to be very pleasantly surprised when the quality of the renovations," Earl said. "We think people expect to come in and see memorabilia everywhere and will say, 'Wow, its a really cool modern environment.'"

Construction is also finally under way on the 50-story residential towers on the property's south side on the corner of Harmon Avenue and Audrey Lane. Ground-breaking for the Planet Hollywood Towers, a partnership with Westgate Resorts, took place in January 2006, and Earl said construction on the project is "steaming ahead."