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Howard Stutz

Influx of Orange, Here Comes Hooters

2 February 2006

LAS VEGAS -- With the scheduled opening tonight of the first Hooters Hotel -- a $130 million transformation of the former Hotel San Remo -- the inevitable comparison will be made with other restaurant-dominated companies making the transition into gaming.

Last year, Houston-based Landry's Restaurants bought the Golden Nugget and Planet Hollywood expects to recast the Aladdin in its own image sometime this summer.

However, Ed Droste, one of the original founders of the Hooters restaurant chain, doesn't think it's a fair analogy. He said he believes Hooters, which has 410 restaurants in 47 states and 16 countries, all staffed with the recognizable Hooters Girls, is known more for its personality than other restaurants.

"We're really our own culture, and I think that's going to set us apart from the other purely restaurant connected casino concepts that are emerging," Droste said. "We have a very loyal following; millions go through our stores in a monthly basis. I just don't think they (other restaurant operators) have the culture and the following that we have because of our sports involvement and the Hooters Girls."

Droste's prediction will be put to the test this week when the thoroughly remodeled hotel-casino on East Tropicana Avenue begins its new life as the privately held restaurant chain's first gaming property.

Like the company's ventures into NASCAR, a regionalized professional golf tour and a stint as the owners of an Arena Football League team, Droste said the Hooters Hotel is another way to capitalize on a recognizable brand.

In the same manner that the original Hooters, which opened in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983, thumbed its nose at trendy restaurant chains, Droste said the entry into gaming is meant to offer an alternative to the Strip's largest hotel-casino resorts.

"I think history is going to repeat itself," Droste said. "We brought a little of the beach-into-the-casual dining concept and now we're doing the same thing amongst all the marble with our wood floors. We have 25,000 rooms within a couple of blocks of us, so we're right there nestled amongst the big guys."

Other than the outside walls -- which have been painted to reflect the Hooters color scheme -- and a couple of casino chandeliers, nothing remains from the building's 17-year-run as the Hotel San Remo.

The 30,000-square-foot casino now resembles a giant Hooters restaurant, with a bar right at the main lobby entrance and an all-encompassing beach-themed, Florida-casual decor with tin ceilings, orange highlights and cedar wood throughout the property. The casino will open with 700 slot machines and 32 table games.

Even the hotel's 696 hotel rooms have been remodeled with a Hooters look and accents, including orange lamps and high-top cocktail tables with bar stools.

Out of the 1,100 employees -- double the number at the former Hotel San Remo -- the staffing will include 250 orange shorts-and-white tank-top-clad Hooters Girls. The Girls will work as servers inside the property's signature restaurant, as casino and poolside cocktail servers, bartenders and even as dealers in a specially themed gaming pit area.

"Ultimately, we think this property will have a fun, festive and casual atmosphere that will appeal to our core audience," said Richard Langlois, Hooters' senior vice president of marketing who spent 10 years at Caesars Palace. "We think this will be the place to be for NASCAR, the rodeo, Super Bowl and any special events."

National branding consultant and author Rob Frankel believes Hooters and Las Vegas are a good match.

"It's a great idea with great potential if they don't screw it up," said Frankel, who is based in Los Angeles. "I've seen some marriages that were seemingly made in heaven fail. Hooters is all about having a good time and great looking women, and both fit nicely with gambling. There's good brand compatibility there; it's not as if Hooters is running a day care center."

Langlois said the property is targeting Middle America; most of the hotel rooms will be available in the $100 a night price range. He said the casino will resemble a 24-hour party while the property is dotted with icons that playfully mimic Hooters' somewhat-sexually-suggestive personality. For example, Nippers Pool Bar is a knock-off of a similarly named lounge in the Bahamas.

"I think our audience's familiarity with Hooters will play a big part in our success," Langlois said.

Hooters will offer entertainment with live music at Porch Dogs, a Caribbean-themed indoor-outdoor club, and at 13, a martini bar. Throughout the casino, a loud sound system will blare rock 'n' roll and country music.

Also in the casino, a replica of the Hooters Ford Thunderbird, driven by 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki, will be displayed.

In addition to a large Hooters restaurant, the first in the restaurant chain to offer a full bar and slot machines, the property will have several other low-cost eateries, including The Dam Restaurant, a 24-hour coffee shop and buffet.

Hooters will also mark the debut of Dan Marino's Fine Foods and Spirits, a seafood and steakhouse which is part-owned by the former Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback. Marino's has five locations in Florida; Hooters will be its first establishment outside that state.

Droste said the company began looking for a Las Vegas casino site about 10 years ago.

"Over the last three or four years I drove every inch of Vegas and we walked into every casino," Droste said. "We even had some deals that went into agreements, but for one reason or another, it wasn't right. But this one was absolutely perfect."

He added that expansion opportunities for the Hooters site are still available; low-rise bungalows could be demolished for another hotel tower and the property controls another three acres to the east.

"If we're as successful as we think we will be, we might do some expansion down the road," Droste said.

For the immediate future, however, Hooters isn't looking at taking the casino brand around the country into riverboat gambling jurisdictions, as Landry's has said it would like to do with the Golden Nugget.

"It's not inconceivable but our main thought is to keep the eye on the ball here," Droste said.