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September 22, 2014

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Riviera CEO Andy Choy plays the odds on a classic casino

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Christopher DeVargas

Riviera’s CEO Andy Choy

Ask Andy Choy what he studied in college and he smiles slightly. “I was actually a probability major,” he says after a one-beat pause. “I was a statistics major. So, I actually study the odds and understand it beyond the periphery.”

That quality, understanding odds beyond the periphery, is vital to the success of Choy and the hotel he operates, the Riviera. Choy spent his undergrad years at UC Berkeley, then leapt across the San Francisco Bay to Stanford for business school. He understands the numbers. He knows his hotel’s demographics. He knows how a single-zero roulette wheel can appeal to gamblers accustomed to playing a zero and double-zero wheel, while still tilting the odds ever so slightly to the house.

But beyond the tables, Choy and his team have needed to sort out something much more nuanced than the numbers. They’ve been homing in on just what identity gives the classic hotel-casino its highest probability of success. And “classic” is the way to go for a property that opened in April 1955, with an entertainment legacy that spans Liberace to Crazy Girls. For Choy, reaching that conclusion was as easy as knowing to hold a 20 to the dealer’s 6.

“We want to be the best casino on the Strip,” says Choy, who took over as chief executive officer of the Riv in October 2010 as the hotel emerged from bankruptcy in a deal negotiated by a group of private investors. “You have Las Vegas Sands, MGM, Caesars Entertainment … All have said, publicly, that they are moving away from gambling.”

But not the Riviera.

“For us, and I’m not saying it’s right or wrong or good or bad, but from a purely objective standpoint, I see it as an opportunity,” he says, looking over a stack of documents reflecting tourism trends supplied by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “If everyone else is going to shy away from the gambling, where are the gamblers going to go? There is a vacuum there for folks who are focused on gambling.”

Choy acutely realizes the Riviera’s place in the redevelopment of the northern end of the Strip. To his immediate north sits a dormant Sahara, awaiting a $300 million renovation by SBE Entertainment in an effort to reopen the property as the SLS Las Vegas in 2014. That will be a contemporary resort, certainly; the old Sahara brand and Moroccan theme have been discarded.

Gone, too, is much of the pedestrian activity leading up to the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

“We absolutely would love more foot traffic,” Choy says during a conversation in his office at the Riviera. “We would absolutely benefit from the Fontainebleau opening, from Echelon opening, from the Sahara re-opening. Anything to draw a critical mass down here would be great for us. But that is not happening in the next 12 months, and there is a question of it happening in the next 24 months.”

The Riv, in the interim, must keep the doors open. “We’ve got to remain viable, and I believe we can remain viable, while we wait for the north end to kind of redevelop,” Choy says. “What [SBE] is doing up there is great for us, and also for Vegas. I absolutely applaud what they are doing. I’m also glad they are doing something different than what we are doing, and we can play off each other so the north end of the Strip has a little more vibrancy.”

To bolster his point, Choy moves his index finger to an LVCVA report that shows 13 percent of visitors to Las Vegas said they come to the city specifically to gamble. It seems a meager number on which to invest millions of dollars in casino renovation, but Choy looks at the follow-up question: “Did you actually gamble while in Las Vegas?”

The answer lights up his face. “Eighty-three percent said they gambled during their trip.”

Bingo! And that is one game the Riv owns, at least on the Strip. Last fall, the hotel built a spacious, comfortable, 6,000-square-foot bingo room—the only bingo room on the Strip—in what was a nondescript convention space. Daily sessions are at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. To promote that amenity, Choy himself has donned a bingo-ball costume and walked up and down the Strip, a throwback promotion that most of today’s resort moguls would likely disdain.

And just this week, the hotel announced a partnership with Buffalo Studios, which is the operator of Bingo Blitz, the top bingo game on Facebook. It is being trumpeted as the first bingo partnership between an online social-media game and a hotel-casino. In this arrangement, Bingo Blitz is featuring an online Riviera Las Vegas bingo room, where players are allowed to enter the sweepstakes free each day for a chance to win a trip to Vegas to compete in a $200,000 Bingo Blitz tournament at the Riv in July.

Offering bingo and enticing table odds is at the center of the Riv’s renaissance. The Riv is the only Strip casino to offer 3:2, single-deck blackjack, in which the house pays $3 for a $2 bet on any blackjack (the vast majority of Vegas casinos pay 6:5, or $6 for a $5 bet). It also offers 1,000-times odds on craps tables, giving players a chance to back bets on the pass line with a wager of up to 1,000 times more, a great advantage to adept craps players.

Also, the hotel has built a new sports book, operated by Lucky's, closer to the hotel-casino’s entrance facing the Strip. The ingress-egress function of the hotel—what you and I might call “entrance and exit”—seems to fly against common sense. The main porte-cochère faces Paradise Road, not Las Vegas Boulevard.

“Even I need to catch myself from calling it the rear entrance,” Choy says. “But it’s not the front or back, it’s just a different arrival. Initially, it was hard for people to get their heads around—especially the investors and our board. They were saying, ‘What? You’re not going to have the front entrance off the Strip?’”

As always, Choy reviews the probability of where potential customers actually drive into the hotel. “Twenty or 30 years ago, this property was mainly a fly-in property, meaning people would fly in and take cabs here, which is why there was not an emphasis on a big, grandiose arrival in the porte-cochère,” he says. “But now, with visitors from LA driving in as opposed to flying in, the drive-in market is becoming hugely important, and those visitors were not parking their cars on the Strip and walking in. They were driving around the property and parking at the Paradise entrance.”

The Riv’s registration desk has been moved to that entrance, too, conveniently facing the new bingo room.

In all, Riviera investors are pouring between $35 and $50 million in renovations to the classic casino. The smaller, standard rooms have been spruced up, and the larger suites are due for an upgrade. The Starlite Theatre, up the escalators in the hotel’s entertainment center, has been renovated as well. The acts in that theater, and across the hotel’s schedule, touch on nearly every entertainment medium.

The Icons of Comedy Series is staged at the Starlite (one of its recurring headliners, Amy Schumer, says she was drawn to the hotel by listening to old Totie Fields comedy albums), as is Illusions, starring magician Jan Rouven. Andrew Dice Clay has found a suitable stage at the Riv, and the Riviera Comedy Club is one of the longest-standing comedy venues in the city. Crazy Girls, the venerable adult revue, turns 25 this year, and An Evening at La Cage, starring Jimmy Emerson, has returned to the hotel after a brief run Downtown at the Plaza.

And in a maneuver that suits the Riv’s old-Vegas vibe, Choy secured a residency by Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens by playing a hunch.

“I had seen them play in town; I’ve been a fan for a long time, so I literally went on Google, found his number and called him up,” Choy says, chuckling. “He picked up the phone, and we started the conversation that way.”

Thus, the only-at-the-Riv production, Confessions of a Rock Star, was born. The show is a celebration of DiNizio’s Forrest Gump-like connection to rock ’n’ roll history (The Smithereens have long paid homage to Buddy Holly and The Beatles), and its ticket price is a not-so-staggering $29.95 (absent fees).

That sort of production and price point fits Choy’s ideal.

“What we offer is rangy, and I feel it needs to be first-rate entertainment that gives good value for your money,” he says. “We want a very cheap ticket price and great production value. Now, there is a heck of a lot of stuff going on around town that is a low price to the consumer, but the production value really isn’t there. We’ve looked at that and have been pitched that and have looked at it long and hard, and we could go out there with a $5 show and at least break even with it.”

But Choy, who was spotted checking out the competition at the Dancing With the Stars VIP night at the Tropicana, couldn’t bear putting on a $5 or no-admission show.

“The entertainment has to be entertaining, and everyone has to leave the show happy,” he says. “The key thing I am looking for is for people to leave with a positive lasting impression of the Riviera.”

Choy stops to consider his role as the company’s spokesman, and not just the guy who sorts out the most effective way to reach the bottom line.

“I really believe the face of the property should be the front-line employees, while I just work with the investors,” he says. “But I like being in public, too. It’s a lot more fun than sitting in here, looking at spreadsheets.”

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