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Jennifer Robison
 

Last Hurrah for Westward Ho

18 November 2005

LAS VEGAS -- "Caesars Palace just won't cut it for Lynn Travassaros.

"No fancy shopping malls, Wolfgang Puck restaurants or Celine Dion concerts here -- Travassaros prefers the dim, low-ceiling confines of the 40-year-old Westward Ho, with its 99-cent margaritas, $6.95 buffet and Elvis Presley impersonator.

Travassaros, her husband, Spiro, and her mother, Marie Lyons, have traveled from Huntington Beach, Calif., to stay at the Western-themed property three times a year for the past 25 years, stopping in while en route to ski vacations at Lake Tahoe. As members of the hotel's preferred-customer club, they earned several free room nights each time they visited.

Sitting at a slot machine inside the Westward Ho three hours before the hotel's permanent closure Thursday at 5 p.m., Travassaros mused about where the family will stay now that the property is shuttered.

"We could go to Caesars Palace or Mandalay Bay, but they're just not the same thing," Travassaros said. "They're impersonal. The Westward Ho was just a fun place to go."

The end of the Westward Ho means Travassaros probably will come to Las Vegas less often -- maybe once a year, she said.

Travassaros wasn't the only wistful Westward Ho patron bidding adieu to the hotel Thursday.

In the hours before it closed, the hotel bustled with tourists. The seats at every table game were occupied, the deli had standing-room only and available slot machines were as hard to find as a $6 steak at Wynn Las Vegas.

But one look outside told a different story: All the doors of the 700-room motel behind the casino were open. Most of the rooms were bare. Workers walked from room to room filling cleaning carts with linens. The marquees were blank. Customers streamed out of the casino clutching promotional signs as memorabilia.

Executives of Westward Ho Properties, which owns the hotel, announced in September that the resort's 12-acre parcel was under contract to a Fortune 500 company. Officials declined to name the company, but speculation abounds that the Westward Ho -- once the world's largest motel -- will fall to a high-rise condominium project.

The sale is scheduled to close by the end of the year.

The Westward Ho, wedged between Circus Circus and the Stardust, isn't the only budget hotel-casino to close on or around the Strip this fall. The 166-room Bourbon Street just east of the Barbary Coast closed last month to make way for an unnamed Harrah's Entertainment development. And the trend will continue into 2006, as MGM Mirage closes the 200-room Boardwalk on Jan. 9 in preparation for the company's $5 billion CityCenter project.

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV, said the loss of affordable hotel rooms raises questions about the market segments Las Vegas can cater to in the future.

"I don't think the sky is falling, but as more affordable properties go offline and more premium properties come online, we have to think about what is going to happen with the value-oriented traveler," Schwartz said. "Will they still be attracted to Las Vegas? Will they go to an Indian casino or maybe to Laughlin, Jean or Mesquite?"

Fewer budget properties on the Strip also could translate into better business for casinos in the urban core of Las Vegas, Schwartz said.

"If someone wants a room for $40 or $60 a night downtown, it could be a case of a silver lining for everybody. You would have the more affluent consumer on the Strip and draw more people downtown, too," said Schwartz, who recollects stopping in at the Westward Ho for a 75-cent Heineken on a visit to Las Vegas about six years ago, before he moved to the city in 2001.

"It was pretty cool," he said of the property.

Fletcher Milan liked it, too.

The Cleveland resident visited the Westward Ho with his wife, Donna, twice a year for the past nine years. When Donna Milan called in early October to book the couple's fall trip, the reservation agent told her the property was closing.

"We were upset. This is one of the friendliest properties in town," said Fletcher Milan, who was sitting at a bank of slot machines inside the casino's back entrance just before closing time. "They go out of their way to help you. We'll miss it."

The Milans aren't sure they will come back to Las Vegas now that the Westward Ho is gone. They like the property's north Strip neighborhood, but Fletcher Milan said rumors of redevelopment at the Stardust and the Riviera have him concerned about the Strip's "aim toward the high-roller crowd."

"The more expensive properties can't accommodate us," he said.

Donna Milan -- who won $300 at the Westward Ho Thursday after playing $2 on the penny slots -- isn't sure posh rooms are the best business strategy.

"If you spend all your money on your room, you have no money for gambling," she said, noting that the couple typically spent $50 a night on a room at the Westward Ho.

Jim Dacher, a Rockford, Ill., resident who was milling about a small champagne fountain in the property's final hours, also came out to see the hotel one last time. Dacher and his wife, Norma, started staying at the hotel when it opened 40 years ago.

Jim Dacher said he hated to see the Westward Ho close.

"It was a working-man's casino. They seemed to appreciate our business, and we always had a good time," he said.

The end of the Westward Ho era heralds the end of an era for Dacher, too: He won't be coming back to Las Vegas.

"I'm 80 years old," he said. "This is our last hurrah."