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September 1, 2014

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Westgate Las Vegas owner David Siegel: ‘I like the odds here — we know what we can do out here’

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Christopher DeVargas

David Siegel, founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, talks with media before being hoisted more than 200 feet to remove the LVH letters off his newly purchased property Tuesday, July 1, 2014, in Las Vegas.

LVH to Westgate

Yesco sets up large cranes in preparation to remove the LVH letters off the main sign of Westgate's newly purchased property, formerly the Las Vegas Hotel, Tuesday July 1, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Timeshare titan David Siegel plans to return the former Las Vegas Hotel to the glory days of Liberace and Elvis Presley when it was the International before becoming the Las Vegas Hilton and then LVH. He’s prepared to spend more than double the $180 million he’s reported to have purchased the newly named Westgate Las Vegas for last month on transformation and improvements.

I talked with David privately at his 29th-floor suite and at a small media gathering July 1 hours after he took over the property. David employs more than 10,000 people at his 28 luxury resorts and timeshare properties in nine states stretching from Nevada to Florida. He has more than 400,000 Westgate timeshare owners and sells more than 60,000 vacation packages every year.

Call Westgate Las Vegas a hybrid. David makes it clear that his new resort hotel will not be a total timeshare and instead a regular resort property. He’s already budgeting $200 million to $300 million a year in sales.

“I’ve never had primarily a hotel that we converted part of it to a timeshare. It will be hybrid,” David told me. “It’s important that people know that it’s a hotel and timeshare coexisting under the same roof, not a timeshare by itself. I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, God, it’s a timeshare, we can’t book a room there.’ This is going to remain a luxury hotel with a timeshare component.”

Although Shimmer Cabaret will close and be transformed into a new performing area, everything else will be upgraded and expanded from the main showroom where Elvis played to the restaurants, sportsbook and spa.

Is there something special for you about buying a former Hilton?

It’s kind of like we swapped, isn’t it? My former building at Planet Hollywood is now their Hilton, and their former building is now my Westgate. I came here first when it was the International, before Hilton. I’ve had a long history with this property. I first came here back in 1970.

And you said to yourself one day I’ll own this?

I said to myself, “Gosh, I wish I could afford to stay here!” You know the movie “Forrest Gump”? That’s probably my life story. I’ve been everywhere, and it seems like something has happened everywhere I’ve been. The first time I came to Las Vegas was in 1955, and I came by bus. I was only here for one day, and I stayed downtown for most of the time because that was where all the action was.

I hitchhiked from downtown out into the desert, and they had a two-lane asphalt road out here, no lights, all the casinos looked like big houses. You walked up the sidewalk, they had a hedge on each side, you walked up the steps, and it had a big deck around the house. You open the screen door and walk in; the casino was about the size of this room.

In the corner, they would have a little stage where they would perform. They probably had half a dozen slot machines to keep the women busy so that they wouldn’t bother their husbands at the tables. That was my first introduction to Las Vegas.

I spent the night sleeping on the bench at the bus station before my bus left the next morning. This hotel has some very good bones. It has been neglected, it needs a lot of work, but we plan to bring it back to its glory. We’re going to make it better than it was originally if we can.

You purchased it for $180 million …

Well, somewhere … a lot of money. I don’t want to say what we paid. It’s dwarfed by what we’re going to spend to fix it up.

You’re going to spend more than what you paid for it to fix it up?

Twice what we paid for it, and that work has already started. We’re going to have a great nightclub. We have 80,000 feet on three levels. We’ve already had one major nightclub-operating group take a serious look at it, and they said it’s a perfect nightclub.

What’s the age demographic you’re going to go after in this property?

Ages 30 to 60. We’re not going after the kids. We had that at the Planet Hollywood beach tower, and they came in hauling their coolers and their six packs, cases of beer. At the beginning, we’ll take whoever comes here, but we’re going to concentrate on a little older crowd.

Those kids don’t buy timeshares, either. We’re not going after the ultra high rollers; instead, middle America ages 30 to 60. We’re very good at taking somebody from the Midwest and his family and making them feel like they’re kings for a week.

We’re going to bring our award-winning Edge Steakhouse, and we’re going to have a good Mexican restaurant here. Vince Neil will stay with his tequila lounge, but we’ll expand it into a restaurant. We’re going to have a good Italian restaurant. We’re going to have a great coffee shop called Sid’s named after my dad. My parents came our here twice a month; for 50 years, and they never ate anywhere but the coffee shop. They didn’t go out for gourmet food.

I feel like my folks are looking down at me right now. I wish they were alive; they’d be so proud. I asked my dad after he retired one time, “Dad, how do you want to spend the rest of your life?” He said that he’d love to be a greeter at one of the casinos. That’s how he was, he loved people, he loved to talk to them.

I’ve had a long history with Las Vegas. Never did I dream I would end up owning a property like this.

It’s a gamble. You’re not a casino gambler, but this is a big gamble.

We’ve been out here in Las Vegas with our properties about 10 years now, and I haven’t put a quarter in a slot machine. I don’t think this is a gamble. Everything in life is a gamble. It’s a very good calculated business risk. I like the odds here — we know what we can do out here. We did probably three quarters of a million dollars in sales between the two projects that we had.

I have the same sales team that was here when we were doing $100 million a year. This is like the Wild West now. We can talk to anybody we want to, we can go anywhere we want to, make any offers we want to. We expect probably $200 million to $300 million a year in sales.

We have 62 acres so we could possibly have somebody come in and build another shopping center. We’re going to create some retail opportunities even if it’s small.

We’re going to bring in some great restaurants. Again, every great restaurant in the world and every great chef in the world is here in Las Vegas somewhere. But our steakhouse, I’ll put it up against any steakhouse in Las Vegas. It’s rated very high.

It’s all going to be about our customer service; we’re going to treat everybody special, not just check them in. I’m working on a program where you push your iPhone, and your car will be waiting for you when you get to valet. No more of this waiting out there for your car. We’re going to have quick check-in at the front desk.

I’m going to cross-train all the people in the backroom so that when we have a line, they’re going to come out and help people, not stay in the backroom and work on paper. We’ll use iPads to check them in and pre-check them in. That’s all part of customer service. Those are the things that people complain about. Slow valet, unfriendly people, slow check-in. We can fix those immediately.

Even the name LVH. I think people still thought it meant Las Vegas Hilton. We have 500,000 happy owners all over the country. They’ll be coming out here, they’ll be telling their friends and referring people to us. We fix up the convention center, and we’re going to get more groups here.

Just a little thing like a shuttle to the convention center, people are going to appreciate that. They’re going to see that we’re trying hard. Every day is going to be a new beginning.

PH Towers Westgate Grand Opening

2009 Miss America Katie Stam at the Planet Hollywood PH Towers Westgate grand opening on Jan. 29, 2010. Launch slideshow »

David and Jackie Siegel

Your wife Jackie became a star in “The Palace of Versailles” documentary. Now she’s getting her own reality-TV series?

My wife has always wanted to break into acting, and this was her moment to shine. I don’t prefer the cameras much, but they follow her around everywhere. She loves it. They may be following me to a few properties, but they will not be following me all of the time. That’s all her.

Are you going to have a president of the hotel?

I’m the president for now. I don’t know; we’ll see. I’ve had it for less than 24 hours, so I don’t have all the answers. Titles and all don’t mean anything. Good question; I haven’t even though about it. We still have the Navegante Group technically running the hotel and casino. They take orders from me. They’ve been good to work with so far. That’s not a major focus of mine right now.

My focus is repositioning the property and doing the things that I can do instantly. The management here was just babysitting it, but they didn’t even go out of their way to try to make it a better property because they got paid regardless. Simple things. I changed the location of the gift shop and it’s only been open a few days, and they’ve already doubled their daily sales.

So by 90 days, we’ll start to see the changes?

Sooner. Right now we’ve got to do things like change all of the names of the logos on the property and the sign. You come back here in 90 days, you’re going to see some changes, definitely. We’re going to redo the spa and gym and double the size of it. They had a spa and a cafe, a pool cafe. Nobody ever used it, so it was closed all the time. We’re going to incorporate all that into the spa. We’re going to have new massage rooms. We’re going to improve the entire spa.

We’ve got good occupancy rates, but the room rates have been low. We’re going to give people a lot of perceived value, complimentary massages and show tickets. They’ll feel like they’re getting a free room. I don’t want to bastardize my room rate. I just want to give guests more value, maybe a 2-for-1 in the restaurants.

Do you timeshare the upstairs penthouse villa that Elvis Presley always had?

No. I don’t have the plans yet for the villas. It will probably become a tourist attraction. The other two suites, we have three suites up there on the 30th floor, all of them average about 15,000 square feet. They all have their own private swimming pool, incredible views, they’re all decked out like a palace.

They have their own private elevator; the works. There’s not an inch of this property we won’t touch. We’re going to make it even better than it was before.

How long is that process going to take?

You’ll see big changes in the first year, but it’s an ongoing process. We’re going to put in a great casino bar. We’re going to fix the showroom. We’re going to redo the convention facility. We have 200,000 square feet of convention space. Our theme is every guest of this hotel will be treated like a high roller. We’re going to do things to make our guests’ stay enjoyable.

Next week, we’ll have trams that will take people from our lobby to the convention center because it’s a long walk. We have 5 acres of meeting space ourselves, so they have to walk through 5 acres before they can even get to the main convention center. We’re going to make things very convenient.

Every room in this hotel will be renovated. We’re going to start with the worst ones and make them the best ones. We’ve already gutted a couple of rooms and started the work the moment we closed the purchase 24 hours ago. We started sales. I addressed the sales staff, and I saw the first tour going. We’re anxious to really make an impact and get this moving in the right direction.

PH Towers Westgate Opening: Holly Madison

Holly Madison in the 60th floor condo suite at Planet Hollywood's PH Towers Westgate's open house grand opening on Jan. 29, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Planet Hollywood Towers by Westgate

A look at the new Planet Hollywood Towers by Westgate. Launch slideshow »

How many rooms become timeshares, and how many rooms stay hotel rooms?

One hundred of the rooms will be converted to timeshare. As we sell them, we’ll convert them. A very small portion of this property will be timeshare. Every 52 sales we make takes one room out of service, so as we make sales maybe the first year, we might take 100 rooms out of service. We have 3,000.

So the timeshare isn’t going to make a dent for many, many years, but even after if this whole property in 30 years was sold out, we would still have 1,000 hotel rooms still available to rent. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that this is a timeshare resort. This is a hotel-casino meeting place with a timeshare component, and it’s owned by the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world: Westgate Resorts.

We’re going to keep every employee that we can. There might be a couple positions that might be consolidated or we have a lap over. There were about six people who looked at this property while we were looking at it; some of the former hotel owners in Las Vegas and other people from other areas. I met with most of them because they either wanted to partner with me, or they wanted to see what I was planning to do. All of them said that their plan would have been to shut down the property.

That the easiest way to completely redo this is to shut it down and put 2,000 people out of work. I don’t feel that way. I don’t want to put 2,000 families out of work. It’s going to be more difficult; we’re going to have to work around an ongoing operation. We’re going to have to shut down certain floors or certain parts of the building.

It’s going to cost more doing it that way instead of bringing in a big crew and just knocking it all out, but we’re going to save those 2,000 jobs. I hope those employees will appreciate what we’re doing to save those jobs, and I’m sure they will.

We’re going to have the best sportsbook in Las Vegas, the best screens, the best technology and the best seating. We’re going to redo all the seating in the showroom. I’m talking with the manager of top entertainers to see what we can do. We’re not leaving anything the way it is. But we will honor all the bookings already from LVH. We’re going to give guests such good service that they’re going to want to stay here.

Our plans for Shimmer Cabaret for now are to eliminate that showroom and make that an open performance area. We’re going to keep the stage and build a lobby bar around the stage. We’re going to have entertainment all day and all night.

We have the 80,000-square-foot old Star Trek exhibit space for a nightclub. There are also plans for a dayclub here. We have some exciting plans, which I will reveal later.

Does Westgate run the casino?

We’re not licensed to run a casino, so we have Navegante. They’re running the casino, and we haven’t finalized our plans. They are a very well-respected gaming company. We are going to buy millions of dollars in the latest state-of-the-art slot machines.

I want everything the best. That’s my nature, that’s what we pride ourselves on, being the best. We’re the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world. I don’t have a board of directors. I like to say that every morning when I shave, I have a board of directors meeting. We can turn on a dime.

We survived the recession, and we’re stronger as a result. We’re a 44-year-old company, and 2012 was the best year in our history. In 2013, we beat it by 50 percent, and so far this year we’re up 30 percent over that, so we’re rocking. That’s why we can afford to buy this property.

How is the timeshare business in Las Vegas?

It’s great. People love timesharing. The demand has never been better. Ever since 9/11, we saw a big change. Before 9/11, people went on vacation, and they stayed in economy hotels. They said, “We’ll stay home this year and maybe won’t take a vacation.”

After 9/11, it was like we don’t know what the future holds, we don’t know how long we’re going to be around, so let’s go first class. People want to vacation the timeshare way. They want the space, privacy, big Jacuzzis, all the luxury and amenities that you can get through timeshare that you can’t get in a hotel.

We have great rooms here — three-bedroom units and some six-bedroom units, too. Not the Palace of Versailles but really great product we’ll improve. We’re tied in with the largest cruise provider in the world, and people can trade their week for a cruise. There’s lots of flexibility.

I have the other 27 resorts to look after, but this right now is my baby, and I want to bring it to maturity. I’ll be staying here.

Do you look at this as a fun project or work after all these years?

This is a fun project. I mean it’s a lot of work, I don’t need to be working right now, but I don’t have any hobbies, either. This is almost like a hobby to me. I like to take a property that’s been neglected and turn it into something really beautiful. I like to take people who work for me and make their lives better; that’s what motivates me. It sounds very cliche, but what gets me up in the morning is the success stories of my employees.

I like improving things. I like things to be better. I see things a lot of people don’t see. You’ll definitely see the changes. This will become an icon like it was when it was first built. When it was built in 1969, it was the largest hotel in the world.

No worries that you’re off the Strip?

I love the location. I actually like it better than being on the Strip. I got here from the airport in 9 minutes the other night. I’ve been stuck at the traffic light on Flamingo for more than 9 minutes. It’s so easy to get here. The newer area is starting to move more toward the north on the Strip. I feel like we’re in a perfect position.

So this could become the flagship of Westgate?

Well, it would still have to go a long way. Our flagship property in Orlando is 3,500 villas. We’re building 1,500 more. It’s right next to Disney World. It would have along way to go, but this definitely is going to be the iconic property.

We don’t have another property anywhere that’s like this one that has the impact or exposure or look like this. We’re going to bring it back to its glory days and then some.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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