Erik Kabik / ErikKabik.com
Friday, May 20, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Say this for Robert Irvine: When he hangs out at the Trop, he really hangs out at the Trop. The star chef who hosts Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible” made the ultimate delivery order Monday afternoon.
The man with the Stretch Armstrong-sequel physique and Spider-Man navigational skills rappelled down 22 floors on the west side of the Tropicana’s main tower. His downward trek was tracked by a spotlight, drawing the requisite “wow!” responses from the crowd below.
This was the fashion in which Irvine’s new restaurant at the hotel was announced, Cirque du Cuisine-style. Coming in 2017 is a restaurant bearing Irvine’s name somewhere inside Tropicana.
My bet is that it will overtake the bar at the entrance of the hotel’s sports book in something of a pub theme. But that is not verified, and the rollout of information will continue over the next several months.
It’ll be interesting to see how Irvine will make the next big announcement. Maybe drop him from a helicopter? He’s certainly conditioned to handle such acrobatic responsibilities. In fact, Irvine could be spotted Monday morning working out along the side of the famous Strip resort.
“I had practice runs today, but people started taking pictures,” said the 50-year-old Irvine, whose scaling on a grand scale was a surprise. “I was wearing a big hoodie, but they took photos anyway. It could have been anybody doing it.”
Far more interesting than what was unfolding along the side of the building is what is planned for inside and also the outdoor parcel at Tropicana Avenue and the Strip.
Penn National Gaming now owns and operates the Tropicana and has been busy shoring up the more menial details while mapping out a strategy to reshape and enliven the property.
“Right now, our plan is to re-energize what’s currently here. We’re taking the restaurants, improving the menus, working on the kitchen equipment in the back of the house, stuff that just needs to be replaced,” Penn Gaming President of Las Vegas Operations Bob Sheldon said after Monday’s announcement.
“We need to improve the infrastructure of the slot floor, creating new pathways and putting new way-finding signage in the casino, energizing the floor a little bit differently, complementary to our style of casino design.”
That means the South Beach-Miami motif developed six years ago will at least be de-emphasized. Sheldon also said the hotel’s Rotary Club and Marquee Rewards program has been expanded to include the Tropicana.
Before April, that system was not linked to Penn National hotels across the country. There is a more concerted effort to market Penn National as the owner of the Trop and also its new sister property, M Resort farther south on Las Vegas Boulevard.
“We’re doing a lot of things that are not sexy but are needed,” Sheldon said. “New wiring for the whole casino floor so we could get our new (Marquee Rewards) system in place. We have spent a lot of money on things like that.”
More prominent, and even sexier, is the plans for the acreage facing the Strip. This is fairly wide-open territory, and as Sheldon and I talked, we watched visitors walking along the pedestrian bridges connecting the resorts at Trop and L.V. Boulevard (MGM Grand to New York-New York and Excalibur to New York-New York, especially).
“Look at the people walking past us now — right there,” he said gesturing toward Excalibur. “They should be inside our building. We are missing millions of people a year by not drawing them to this property.”
In an idea first broached by the hotel’s then-CEO Alex Yemenidjian and ownership company Onex Corp. of Toronto, a retail-and-entertainment project was planned and announced that would overtake that space and lure people to the hotel. That general strategy is still in place, as Penn National Gaming officials chart a long-term vision for the hotel’s expansion.
“Our second phase, which is about a $175 million-to-$200 million buildout, is to expand the facility, and we’re in the process of developing that vision now,” Sheldon said. “The previous owners had talked of a mall out into this area where we are standing, and this is very valuable real estate. This is what needs to connect the property to the millions of people who walk around here.”
Sheldon said the process would take place over at least the next two years. “We are creating the vision, then we’ll actually design it and construct it.”
Inside, Sheldon took my questions about what might be planned for Tropicana Theater, where “Raiding the Rock Vault” continues to shake the building in a room that needs further activity after the hasty departure of magician Jan Rouven as he faces child-pornography charges.
“We think ‘Raiding the Rock Vault’ is a great show, but it’s under-visited,” Sheldon said, pointing out two realities of “Rock Vault” in its three-year run at Westgate Las Vegas (formerly LVH) and the Trop. “Hopefully, we can improve on that. We have an open slot right now, and we’re working on some options.”
One of those is likely a magic-themed production connected to a national TV show. Without a doubt, the Penn National team is generating momentum on the corner of Trop and the Strip.
Irvine is an outstanding spokesman, engaging and smart with national appeal. He worked with Penn Gaming officials when he was a chef in Atlantic City and Penn was running ops at Trump Taj Mahal and Caesars Palace.
He even visited the former ownership team at the Trop four years ago. “We sat around a table and talked, but nothing happened because the Trop was going through a lot of changes at the time,” Irvine said.
“But the money that (Penn National) is putting in, the ideas they have, is going to change the dynamic of the property. It has beautiful rooms, and it does have great bones but needs a great food-and-beverage offering.”
The British-born Irvine looked out at the Strip, the corner of “Main and Main” as someone once termed that corner. “It’s beautiful here, and I am very optimistic,” he said.
“I say this all the time on the show: You will have success if you’ve got leadership, you’ve got vision, you give people the tools to do their jobs, hold them accountable and let them do it.”
Tropicana Las Vegas sits on the south-east corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, an intersection which has the most adjacent hotel rooms in the world, also making it one of the most busy. The hotel has 1,658 rooms, three restaurants, a 62,011-square foot casino and a spa.