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July 5, 2022

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Phil Ruffin: Captain of the ship on the Strip

Treasure Island’s Phil Ruffin is out to capture new plunder: That of budget-minded tourists with blue-collar tastes


Leila Navidi

Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin walks outside during a tour of the property Wednesday. Ruffin has invested $15 million in making the hotel appeal to a blue-collar audience, including adding a Gilley’s saloon and a pizza joint across from the Mystere Theatre.

Ruffin's T.I.: One Year Later (4-1-2010)

Almost exactly one year after Kansas billionaire Phil Ruffin bought Treasure Island, he takes us on a tour of the changes he's made to the property, including new restaurants and a new spa. Ruffin says business is slower than he had hoped, but that T.I. "will survive" because of a lack of debt and the $92-million room remodeling that MGM undertook before he bought the property.

Phil Ruffin's First Year

Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin checks out the saddle bar stools inside Gilley's, a country-and-western bar he plans to open in later this month. Launch slideshow »

Treasure Island

Just steps away from the pirate ship where sexy sirens make a splash nightly, Phil Ruffin is harboring a country-western haven.

Gilley’s saloon, a brand popularized in the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy,” was the featured attraction at Ruffin’s previous resort, the New Frontier, until that building was imploded in November 2007. But as owner of Treasure Island, Ruffin is spending about $10 million to return Gilley’s to the Strip — mechanical bull and all.

Ruffin doesn’t look his 75 years as he weaves briskly between construction workers to point out favorite details of the restaurant and bar — bar stools made of saddles, the street-level seating and the dance floor — although he wishes that could have been larger.

Ruffin points to an unlit neon sign on a wood-paneled wall and chuckles. “ ‘World Famous Bikini Bull Riding.’ Yeah, we’re going to have that, too.”

Bikinis might fit with Treasure Island’s high seas theme. Country-western doesn’t — but “it doesn’t have to,” Ruffin says bluntly.

What it does have to do is comply with the billionaire’s plan to turn his resort into an everyman hotel. The barbecue and beer joint replaced the pricey Francesco’s Italian restaurant and posh Mist nightclub.

Ruffin marketed his first Strip casino, the New Frontier, as everyman’s for nine years before selling it to Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel owner, the Elad Group, for a record $1.24 billion in May 2007. Elad closed the New Frontier two months later and imploded the building in November 2007 but has yet to do anything with the land.

In March 2009, Ruffin returned to the Strip by purchasing Treasure Island from cash-strapped MGM Mirage for $775 million. The Kansas entrepreneur paid $750 million in cash upfront and only has what he called a “small loan” left on the property. Most of his Strip competitors are debt-ridden and struggling to survive the recession.

The Las Vegas landscape has continued to change over the past 12 months since Ruffin bought Treasure Island. The Las Vegas Valley has added more than 8,000 hotel rooms, and Ruffin says the additional rooms have been tougher on business than he expected. The average room rate at Treasure Island is down about $20 from last year, he says.

“Steve (Wynn) built Encore and CityCenter came on board. I assume Cosmopolitan will soon come on stream and the blue monster over here — Fontainebleau — will soon come on stream,” Ruffin said. “We don’t need more rooms right now because we’re already having a problem with room rates. But we’ll survive because we don’t have much debt.”

Like other casino operators, Ruffin says that although there are still plenty of people walking the Strip, they just aren’t spending as much as they used to.

His answer has been to bring in amenities that mirror current visitor spending habits, and he has spent about $15 million toward that change.

Just off the casino floor, Ruffin replaced the store that sold Rolexes with a jewelry shop selling cubic zirconia baubles. In the gift shop next door that sells magazines and small bottles of shampoo, signs offer “all diamond jewelry 50 percent off.”

“We’re trying to get rid of all the leftovers,” Ruffin explains.

Across from Mystere Theatre, Ruffin replaced another of Treasure Island’s jewelry stores with a by-the-slice pizza restaurant called Francesco’s. The restaurant doesn’t have any tables or booths, just bar stools and counters.

“It’s quick and it’s cheap and that’s what people are looking for these days,” Ruffin says. “You should see this place after ‘Mystere’ gets out. You can’t even get near it.”

He axed the popular Social House restaurant, which he said wasn’t performing up to his standards, and brought in his own Asian-fusion concept, Khotan. Guarded behind glass cases, pieces of Ruffin’s extensive collection of intricately carved jade and ivory antiquities are displayed throughout the restaurant. Among the ancient art is a Chinese carved mammoth tusk; similar carvings currently go for more than $100,000 apiece online. Ruffin has five.

As for Treasure Island’s spa, Ruffin left that to his 28-year-old wife who was Miss Ukraine 2001, Oleksandra Nikolayenko-Ruffin. She had the bright blue walls and carpets torn out and replaced with beige marble to rival some of the high-end spas in town. She brought in her own line of beauty products and Eastern European treatments, such as a Russian banya, a sauna where attendants gently beat the sweat off clients with branches of oak leaves.

In total, Ruffin spent about $3 million to give his wife the spa of her dreams.

“It was her vision,” Ruffin says. “We spent way too much money on it, but it’s very pretty.”

Click to enlarge photo

The New Frontier opened on Oct. 30, 1942, and continuously operated until it closed its doors on July 16, 2007, at 12 a.m. This photo was taken in the last few hours the hotel and casino were open.

One part of the property Ruffin hasn’t touched is Treasure Island’s hotel rooms, and he isn’t planning on spending much money on them anytime soon. He says he doesn’t need to because MGM Mirage finished a $92 million room renovation six months before selling the resort. Ruffin said the new rooms put Treasure Island in a better position than some of its Strip neighbors that can’t afford to update their rooms.

The rooms aren’t the only part of Treasure Island staying the same. Ruffin re-signed Cirque du Soleil’s “Mystere” for five years because “you cannot have a Las Vegas-style casino without a really good show.” But he has found other ways to stretch his buck when it came to the theater. On nights when “Mystere” is off, Ruffin has other performers there — LeAnn Rimes, Sinbad and Bill Cosby, for example.

He said there’s been no major staff cuts since he took over last year, although he capped vacation days and eliminated 401(k) contributions to control labor costs. Other owners on the Strip did the same.

It seems unlikely that any of them can name as many of their rank-and-file employees as Ruffin can, though. He’s a full-time Las Vegan and much of his office is based on the first floor of Treasure Island, so he interacts with his employees more than the typical Strip resort owner.

Sprawled across a table in his office are Chinese newspapers to keep up with what his competitors are doing in what has become the gambling industry’s biggest market, Asia.

But at Treasure Island, Ruffin is more interested in getting people from middle America to spend more money at his resort.

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