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Rio Replaces Cocktail Waitresses

20 February 2003

by Rod Smith and Jeff Simpson

LAS VEGAS – The Rio is getting another face-lift, but this time it's not from a construction project to transform the building.

Instead, the Rio plans to replace all 80 of its casino cocktail waitresses with "bevertainers" who will sing and dance across the casino floor while serving drinks to casino customers.

The once-renowned Rio cocktail waitresses, who will be replaced with a new generation of servers, imported largely from out of town, were notified of the planned changes Tuesday night.

"This is a completely new way of looking at casino beverage service," said Tom Jenkin, senior vice president and general manager of the Rio.

Bill Thompson, Las Vegas professor and casino gambling expert, however, suggested Wednesday there might be more behind the Rio's plans than meets the eye.

The Rio "wants to attract business to the Voodoo lounge on their rooftop and to their casino. They're going for a new, upscale crowd to meet the competition from the Palms across the street," Thompson said.

When it opened 13 years ago, the Rio caused a stir by featuring cocktail waitresses dressed in bikinilike outfits with string backs.

"They got more exposure than any other cocktail waitresses in town," Thompson said. "And the same ladies in the same outfits probably aren't doing the job they did 13 years ago."

Further, he said, probably no major property on the Strip would replace cocktail waitresses with entertainers because "gamblers want to gamble."

Although the Rio waitresses are not unionized, Culinary Workers Local 226 Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor did express some doubts about the Rio's actions Wednesday.

"What occurred at the Rio is the exact reason people need to organize into a union. This couldn't happen with union representation," and it makes the Culinary all "the more determined to organize the nonunion workers in this town," he said.

The cocktail waitresses who were interviewed Wednesday, all of whom asked not to be named, also expressed some concerns about what the changes will mean for their livelihoods.

One cocktail waitress in her early 30s said she was confident in her ability to find another job.

"But it won't be this good," she quickly added. "Some of the older women are frantic, because it's not easy to change hotels when you're not 22 anymore."

Jenkin said the waitresses will be able to try out to be bevertainers, or to seek other positions at Harrah's Las Vegas or the Rio.

"Now through May 18, we will work to place all of the (cocktail waitresses) in other positions," Jenkin said.

A waitress taking drink orders from slot players near the Rio's seafood buffet Wednesday said she wasn't surprised by the announced change, and is ready to try a career change.

"They're bringing in an outside company to audition the new people, and I don't sing or dance," the waitress said. "Now I can use my education and do something better."

Indeed, most of the waitresses said they were confident they would find new positions within Harrah's, although many agreed they may have trouble maintaining their income levels.

Thompson estimated the average income for the Rio waitresses was $75,000 to $90,000, counting wages, benefits and "probably $50,000 in tips."

One of the waitresses, serving drinks to dollar slot players near the main table game pit, said Rio cocktail servers make as much money as any waitresses in Las Vegas.

Serving drinks at the Rio is one of the best waitressing gigs in town, one cocktail waitress in her late 20s said.

"I have a degree, but this pays too much," she said. "This could be the kick I needed."

At UNLV, Thompson noted that the Rio will need to be careful in replacing its cocktail waitresses.

"Remember the Hilton. When they replaced all the dealers 10 years ago, they got hit with a lawsuit. They fired them all, replaced older men with younger, female dealers and had to settle the suit, probably for something like $100,000 a worker," he said.

The Rio has signed a multiyear contract with Dick Foster Productions, producer of the Rio's popular "Masquerade Show in the Sky," to audition professional entertainers and execute singing and dancing routines periodically throughout the casino. They will also be trained to provide beverage service.

Foster Productions plans a nationwide talent hunt for the so-called "bevertainers."

Auditions will be held in late February in Las Vegas, Reno and Los Angeles, and subsequent auditions are also planned in Orlando, Fla. and Nashville, Tenn.

"Bevertainer" moves will be choreographed to music, created especially for the routines, in a manner similar to that of a major Las Vegas production show.

There will be eight to 10 spots throughout the casino for performances that will take place every 10 to 15 minutes, Jenkin said.

When not entertaining, the performers "will execute the high level of beverage service for which the Rio is known," he said.

In a city renowned for its on-stage show girls, the Rio is planning to take its newest entertainment acts right into the casino pit.

Jenkin said the "bevertainment" will be "done in a very professional, tasteful way," adding he was confident it would not prove disruptive to casino customers.

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