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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz
 

Nevadan At Work: Executive Hoping Improvements Will Have Stratosphere Riding High

24 October 2005

In his 25-year casino career, Bobby Ray Harris has hauled luggage, devised marketing plans, managed hotels and launched customer incentive programs. He even worked as a casino-floor change person, long before ticket in-ticket out technology made the job obsolete.

But Harris may be best known for frightening the daylights out of adventure seekers.

As senior vice president and general manager of the Stratosphere, he's responsible for bringing thrill rides to the top of the hotel-casino's 1,149-foot tower.

With more than 17 million visitors since its opening in 1996, the Stratosphere tower drives traffic to the property. The two newest attractions, Insanity and X Scream, take riders off the edge of the building, high above the north end of the Strip. Also on the tower are the High Roller roller coaster and the free-falling Big Shot.

The rides are priced up to $8 a person, not including the cost to take an elevator 112 stories to the thrill-ride level.

"They have a tremendous financial impact on the property," Harris said.

Harris, who has been with the Stratosphere since 1995 when it was still under development, reports to Richard Brown, president of Carl Icahn's Nevada gaming properties, which include the Stratosphere and two Arizona Charlie's hotel-casinos.

Harris, who was originally the head of marketing at the Stratosphere, took over the property's hotel operations in 1996 and added the tower to his duties in 1999.

Harris now oversees casino and hotel operations, food and beverage, security, surveillance, housekeeping and facilities. Harris also directs marketing and construction.

Harris, an Arkansas native, spent 15 years in Lake Tahoe before moving to Las Vegas to join the team that opened the MGM Grand in 1993. For about 18 months before that, he worked at the MGM-owned Desert Inn.

The Stratosphere had its troubles soon after opening, ending up in bankruptcy before Icahn bought it. One problem was location -- the property sits on Las Vegas Boulevard in between downtown and the Strip -- sort of a no-man's land for casino operators. One thousand of the property's 2,444 rooms were never completed by the original owners and were finally opened in 2001.

Harris remembers it all. He said having a varied gaming career helps him hatch new ideas to bring new customers into the Stratosphere.

"I know everyone's job," Harris said. "When I was a bellman, I saw things and had ideas but they never went anywhere. That's why I ask everyone around here what they think. They make me look good. I just surround myself with the best people possible and let them do their job."

The Stratosphere employs 2,300 workers, and Harris said some 600 have been with the property since it opened.

"Many of those who report to me have been here for several years and we've been through bankruptcy, so we understand how to operate and make decisions quickly," Harris said.

Question: Who are the Stratosphere's customers?

Answer: We're a value-oriented market for hotel rooms but we target a lot of markets. We believe that value doesn't mean cheap. We tell our marketing people we like to fish where the big fish are located, and that's Southern California.

On a Saturday night, you'll find a pretty diverse crowd. The customer who is dining at the Top of World restaurant looks dramatically different from the customer who is going up to the top of the tower to ride the rides or see the views.

Question: The tower draws guests to the Stratosphere, but how do you keep them on property?

Answer: What we like to tell people is that what happens in Las Vegas, you can see from the tower. It's a great place to bring people, a great place to see what's going on in this amazing city.

The tower will get them here, but we believe the comfortable feeling and the service they get at the Stratosphere brings them back. We're able to exceed guest expectations here more so than any other place I've worked, possibly because the initial expectations are low.

We're constantly looking at expanding our amenities. We've added a poker room and we're working on adding a nightclub and other restaurants.

Question: How has the Stratosphere changed in the 10 years?

Answer: I think the previous ownership totally underestimated our location. They thought the property was something more than it really was. They also made a critical mistake of not finishing the property. Once those 1,000 (unfinished) rooms were completed, we understood who we were and what our market segment was. We acted accordingly.

Question: Is the Stratosphere's location a challenge?

Answer: It continues to be an issue for us, but it's getting better because things are coming this way. I don't believe the Stratosphere would have had some of its early issues if it had been near the Flamingo. I think location has always been a problem, but it's going to get better as time goes on.

Question: Are the attractions crucial to the success of the Stratosphere?

Answer: It's amazing how important the rides are to the overall attendance to the tower. Even if a guest doesn't want to ride the rides, he wants to be able to see people doing it. The last two rides are much more interactive with the guests. They can stand there, see the riders and feel the experience of the rides. When the rides aren't working, tower visitation drops off substantially.

Question: Will the rides on top of the Stratosphere Tower change?

Answer: For now, I don't see us being able to put any more on the roof. We are looking at the possibility of updating our existing rides.

The Big Shot remains the most popular ride, but the roller coaster might be the most logical to change out. We're exploring possibilities for other things. We've added two rides in the last two years and you constantly have to reinvent yourself.

Question: Have there been rides presented to you that were too intense for the Stratosphere?

Answer: Everybody is interested in selling us a ride, but some are just too extreme. One would have shot a person off the top of the tower and back again, kind of like the old MGM slingshot. I asked a group from Utah to give me some unique concepts for rides that would work on top of the tower. (The group members) came up with the two I thought would work best.

These rides test the limits of the riders.

Question: What's next for the Stratosphere?

Answer: We own quite a bit of land and we're looking at a lot of different ideas of what to do with the property. It's very exciting because we own land on both sides of the Strip so that gives us a lot of different options.

We also have more than 100,000 square feet of undeveloped space inside the property that we're looking at using. We think that brands work very well and we're looking at some brand operators. It's a lot of space that was never developed.