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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

General manager for downtown Las Vegas properties emphasizes customer service

14 July 2014

LAS VEGAS -- To Michael Pergolini, there isn’t much difference between serving as the executive chef in a stylish Southern California restaurant or operating a venerable downtown Las Vegas hotel-casino.

Both jobs revolve center on how you treat customers.

“It all starts by being in the people business and the customer service industry,” said Pergolini, 47, general manager of PlayLV Gaming Corp, which manages the Plaza Hotel and Casino and the Las Vegas Club. “It’s just getting back to basics of doing things right and to take care of people the right way.”

Pergolini is a trained executive chef, having spent 10 years overseeing the kitchens at several upscale restaurants, including Il Fornaio in Irvine, Calif., and Mario’s Via Abruzzi in Rochester, N.Y.

“I still cook almost every day for my kids,” he said.

Pergolini, a Philadelphia native, first came to Las Vegas in 1986 but moved around the restaurant industry. He returned to the East Coast and oversaw the restaurant operations at the Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut before returning to Las Vegas for good in 1999.

Pergolini spent 12 years in director and vice president positions in four Strip casino food and beverage departments. He spent two years as Red Rock Resort food and beverage director.

During his time on the Strip, he became acquainted with PlayLV CEO Tony Santo, who lured Pergolini downtown.

He joined the company in 2011 after a $35 million renovation of the Plaza was well underway.

The 1,000-room hotel-casino — on Main Street across from the Fremont Street Experience’s west entrance — was closed for 10 months while it was remodeled. The property reopened with redesigned rooms, a new gaming area, more nongaming amenities and additional restaurants.

Oscar’s Beef, Booze & Broads — named for former mob attorney and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman — is the Plaza’s signature restaurant.

“It’s been a great relationship with the former mayor,” Pergolini said.

The idea of coming downtown and overseeing all aspects of a hotel-casino interested Pergolini, especially having involvement in the gaming side of business.

The chance to work with Santo, whom he met when they both worked at Strip hotel-casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp. predecessor Harrah’s Entertainment, prompted Pergolini to change locations.

Question: What was your knowledge of downtown before you joined PlayLV?

Answer: I hadn’t been downtown in a while when Tony called and asked to talk with me about the opportunity. My reaction was the same as we get from some of our guests who might not have been to the Plaza for a while. “Wow, I haven’t been downtown in years. Wow, I didn’t know you remodeled and I didn’t realize the remodeling was so nice.” That’s the immediate reaction that comes out of people’s mouths.

Question: What differences have you found between the Strip and downtown?

Answer: (What) we find downtown are value-driven customers. They are looking for a great time and with whatever dollars they have to spend, they want to say they had a great time doing it. They are not necessarily looking for the cheapest thing, but they want to feel good about what they spend. We also see a lot of locals. ... It’s easy for locals and out-of-town guests to get in and out of the property.

Question: What did you bring from the restaurant to the casino business?

Answer: As a chef, it was my personality to meet the customers in order to better take of them. I just expanded that principle of taking care of people whether you’re in the dining room or the kitchen, or on the casino floor or any department in the property.

Question: Has the Plaza benefited from the development along East Fremont Street?

Answer: Geographically, it’s a few blocks away, but it’s bringing different customers together. Our customers are gaming and lodging customers and they don’t have so much of a focus on gaming. At the end of the day, everything happening downtown is good for all of us downtown.

Question: Where does the Plaza fit into downtown’s makeup?

Answer: When we undertook the remodeling in 2010, we were really the first downtown casino to do anything. It was after our remodel that the Downtown Grand was announced and Derek Stevens took over Fitzgeralds and turned it into the D Las Vegas. We all complement each other. We’re all competitors but we all support each other. We realize that anything that is good for any one of us is good for all of downtown.

Question: Are there any plans for the Las Vegas Club?

Answer: The Las Vegas Club is undergoing a few considerations as to what may be the future of property and what it may look like. Nothing is set that I can talk about any further.

Question: What have you learned about the hotel-casino business’s gaming side?

Answer: Whether you’re operating downtown, or on Las Vegas Boulevard, we all need more gamblers. The statistics show that those coming to Las Vegas are gambling less or substantially less than they did in the past. They spend money in other areas. We’re in the gaming business and that ultimately is where we need to drive our revenues.

Question: What have you learned about the Plaza customer?

Answer: When you look at the demographics of our loyal customers, they almost always match the demographics of the typical customers who come to Las Vegas based on the (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) statistics. We’re right in that sweet spot and we provide a great experience in a friendly environment at a great price.