Las Vegas Sun

June 29, 2017

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CEO wants to bring downtown out of the ’70s

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Christopher DeVargas

Jim Simms, who recently became CEO of Downtown Grand, has plans to generate awareness about the resort’s offerings.

Jim Simms remembers the moment, about 16 years ago, when he was a newly hired casino marketing official at Paris Las Vegas. He was walking along Le Boulevard at the then-new hotel, just past Napoleon’s bar, when he heard knocking at the window. A group of hotel execs sat inside, enjoying cocktails and cigars. One of the execs waved him inside.

“They invited me into the group,” Simms recalled. “I was thrilled.”

Simms received another wave-in, more metaphorically, this spring. He was hired as the CEO of Downtown Grand, replacing Seth Schorr, who now is chairman of Fifth Street Gaming, the company that owns Downtown Grand. Simms came from Miami Valley Gaming in Ohio and previously was president and general manager of Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack in West Virginia.

He recently joined me at Downtown Grand’s Art Bar to talk about his task of improving hotel business, in and outside Las Vegas.

You’ve lived at the hotel for a month or so. What have you learned?

We have a beautiful property. But on the outside, we’re a bit of a calamity of contradictions in terms of our signage, so there are some branding things to fix. The fact that we are two minutes away from Fremont is a long two minutes.

That’s two minutes away from a lot of business, isn’t it?

There are 15 million people on Fremont Street annually, and we need to get our fair share of that business. When you look at the Third Street corridor leading from Fremont to here, there’s really no strong visual attraction to pull you down here. We’re going to change that. I’m not giving away the playbook, but we have some dynamic things to generate awareness to come into this property.

You don’t need a major renovation of the hotel because it just opened in October 2013, right?

Yes, correct, but there will be some infrastructure changes and adjustments to make things better. What we’re guilty of is not standing on the mountaintop and screaming what a great product we have. When people check into the hotel, see it and go to our restaurants, whether it’s Triple George or Pizza Rock, it’s a great price value they are getting. We’ve got to let people know about that.

You have a great pool here, Picnic, and it’s somewhat unknown.

We’ve got one of the best pools down here, yes, but nobody knows about it because we haven’t marketed it yet. We have the casino-top pool with cabanas and food, and it’s probably up there with the Golden Nugget. When people compare our price point versus the Golden Nugget, they’ll say, “Man, why would I not stay here?”

It’s a challenge to drive gambling downtown these days, isn’t it?

Yes, and our gaming product is great, but we’re not getting the volume we want. People come to Fremont Street and eat and drink, experience the property and game a little bit. But I wouldn’t say that most of the Fremont customers are gaming customers. We want to be a gambling joint on our gaming floor. I’ll come right out and say that with no inhibitions at all.

How do you plan to attract customers?

We have to find an optimal mix of gamblers, gamblers in rooms, tourist foot traffic off Fremont Street, locals and out-of-market customers. We have the ability to offer meeting space, run events and banquets. We just haven’t had a clear unification of what that plan is yet, and that’s what we’re working on right now. But we have all the pieces.

Downtown properties still are at a lower price than resorts on the Strip. Why?

The thing that amazes me about downtown is, we’ve all heard about downtown being the cool place to go, but the pricing structure is still stuck in the 1970s. Everybody still discounts as if we’re offering an inferior product. We’re not. There are great services, and we can have consistent price points that are in line with those services. We’ve had instances where we have offered $13 for a drink at Picnic at the same time we’ve had $29 room rates. That is an inconsistent strategy that confuses the customer. And if you want to build loyalty, that is the type of thing that needs to be addressed.

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