Monday, March 9, 2015 | 1:26 a.m.
The unique partnership that Westgate Las Vegas President David Siegel has forged with Elvis Presley’s Graceland trustees will be the basis of a new look and feel for his casino hotel, the former LVH, which earlier was the Hilton and before that in 1969 opened as the International.
Construction is already moving ahead at a breakneck pace, and David and his COO Mark Waltrip are confident that they’ll be able to unveil the look by April 23 when the Elvis exhibit and first Elvis Presley show are opened by Priscilla Presley.
David told me: “This property was built in 1969 by Kirk Kerkorian. It was the first of very many casinos in town. Mandalay Bay, the Mirage all kind of patterned their designs after it. What was special about it as the International then was a unique heartbeat with the casinos in the middle of all the restaurants. We’re doing a lot of the same things.
“Now that I own the hotel, there’s a lot of work to be done here. I refused to tear it down. The other five people who were looking at the same time we were, they were all going to knock it down, lay off the employees and then reopen it two or three years later.
“It would have been a crime to bring it down. It’s going to cost us a lot more money and effort to keep it open, keep all these people employed, but it’s well worth it. We still have one 82-year-old cocktail waitress from Day 1!
“Some people have been here 45 years. We have chefs in one of our restaurants who served Elvis. Elvis liked to eat with the employees in the employee cafeteria, and they loved him and he loved them. This was his home. He stayed up on the top in one of the sky villas. Elvis is as much a part of this building as the walls are. He is still the heartbeat of the property.
“Surprisingly after we took it over, we found out this has got the greatest bones of any property in Las Vegas. It would have been a crime to have knocked it down like some of these people planned to do. I love this location: We have 5 acres of great meeting space right here in this hotel. Every inch of this place is going to be touched for our new look.
“This meeting space that we have will also be rebuilt in the next six months. All the walls and carpeting, it will look like a French palace when we’re finished, and everybody is going to want to have their meetings here because it’s going to be so beautiful.
“We’re also punching up every square inch of this entire property, 62 acres, the largest single site casino property in Las Vegas. We have plans for every bit of it. We have a new 5-acre pool deck, we’re redoing all of that. We’re bringing in grass and palm trees, brand new cabanas and new floors.
“We’re going to have the largest exercise room in Las Vegas with yoga and the latest state-of-the-art exercise machines. We’ll have a brand new health spa, as well. We’re bringing in a dozen new award-winning restaurants to this property. Some we’ve already brought here, some are from other areas of the country.
“Every single room is going to be renovated into a masterpiece. Our sky villas are breathless — absolutely magnificent. It’s like walking into a little French palace. Each one is 15,000 square feet with their own private swimming pool, so you can imagine how big they are. I think one of them has four bedrooms, so there’s a lot of big open living areas. To the casino, we just added the lobby bar as you walk in.
“We’re redoing the entire sports book, which is the largest sports book anywhere in the world. We’re redoing skyboxes and the latest LED screens; you’ll feel like you’re on the field with the players. Everything we’re doing is going to be the best state of the art. We already have the fastest Wi-Fi anywhere in Las Vegas for business people. We are streaming movies on our TVs. Everything we’re doing is going to be first class.
“This will be I hope the best hotel in Las Vegas, but we’re not appealing to the high rollers. Those people have that over at the Wynn, Bellagio and Venetian. We’re not appealing to the locals, the kids that come from L.A. on the weekends and carry their six packs and coolers behind them.
“We’re appealing to 80 percent of the market that Las Vegas doesn’t normally appeal to; that’s middle America. We’re appealing to the Wal-Mart customer, we’re appealing to the people who want to take a break and feel important, even if it’s for one week or one day out of the year.
“Every person who stays in this hotel will be treated like a high roller; everyone is going to feel like a VIP when they stay here. We’re going to be known as the friendliest hotel. We’re not going to intimidate anybody. We’re excited. We’re working hard, and we’re getting a lot done.”
Then I talked specifically about the main showroom theater changes with Westgate’s COO Mark Waltrip:
“We would absolutely love to bring the entire look and feel back as it was in Elvis’ days, but we’re challenged with the advancement of technology in lighting. So what we’ve chosen to do is bring the same finishes, colors and style back into place. What that means is new drapery. We’re bringing the gold back. We’re upgrading all the carpet. We’re carpeting all the walkways and hallways. We’re building a new theater lobby, a grand new theater entrance, more respectful of the quality of the show.
“As you know, the current theater entrance is off to the side and a little crammed. So we’re centering out the casino with a big Elvis Presley theater marquee dead center, so the minute you walk in the front door you’ll see it all the way in the back. Then you’ll go into a nice lobby to where all the retail merchandising is and then into the showroom.
“We’re also adding colors and banners into the theater, and the exciting thing from the original theater, it had those big half-circle booths, so we’re bringing 10 of those back in across the front of the sound control near the back of the lower orchestra.”
You’re going to have the look and the feel of when Elvis played there for his record-breaking appearances?
Exactly! We want to bring the essence of Elvis back into the room so people can not only experience the show, but also experience the setting where he sang.
And how many Elvis shows will appear in there?
Right now Graceland Productions has four shows identified. We start with the first “Elvis Experience” production, which is the most successful show that’s ever been done since Elvis’ death. It’s been playing to sellout crowds for the last four years in the summer theater in Toronto. They just did a sellout performance in Paris in January; there were 15,000 people who attended that. It’s a wonderful re-creation of his original International hotel show here with 31 orchestra players and singer-dancers onstage. It’s a big deal
Following that is a variety of shows that the Graceland folks are currently crafting. Some that tell the story of Elvis, some that put Elvis into video on the stage. It’s all going to be very exciting. So Elvis Presley Entertainment and Graceland will be controlling all of the entertainment venue as well as the theater and then be in the marketing partnership with us.
So you have the theater and then there’s the Elvis museum. In the old “Star Trek” space?
Yes, the exhibit is the old “Star Trek” space. So between the lobby and that old “Star Trek” space, we’re going to enter from the side off that north tower hallway. There’s retail on one side of the hallway, we’re revamping that and then across on the other side of the hallway we’re building that out as matching retail.
We’ll drive you through a really nice, upscale retail corridor at the end of which you’ll have the Graceland Exhibit. You’ll enter into a 3,000- or 4,000-square-foot retail experience. From there you’ll go into a small 150-seat theater that will give you a video experience of Elvis. Then it’s an interactive experience with an additional 20,000 square feet.
The whole footprint is about 30,000 square feet, and it will be a wedding chapel, interactive museum and mixture of retail, video, static and interactive displays. It will be very similar in nature to the London exhibit — totally first class.
When do the acts start in the showroom?
April 23. Same as the museum opening. That day is very historic because I believe it’s the 45th anniversary of when Elvis first played in Las Vegas. As you know, Priscilla Presley will be here for the gala celebrations.
Is the transformation already underway?
The museum has been under construction for 30 days now. We will turn it over to Graceland on March 15 to allow their finishes and displays. All of the theater materials have been ordered, the booths are in construction, so we expect the theater to be done somewhere by April 15, about a week or so before the show.
A little tight, but that’s us. We do everything fast. Since we bought this place, we went a million miles an hour and we have not slowed down one iota, so it’s very exciting.
The outdoor pool complex is under construction. It’s going to be done in less than 40 days. It will be one of the largest fitness centers in town. All glass overlooking the pool. It’s all new space — the pool deck is going to be fantastic with all new cabanas and private decks. That will open up right about March 15 to March 20. We’re on fire with about 62 projects going on right now from rooms to suites to new restaurants.
So I’m guessing that your timeshare component is doing well?
The great thing about that is when you’re touring someone through a timeshare project and you take them into beautiful properties, that’s nice, but when they see the construction, it actually gets the buyers more excited because they see the investment and get to watch it happen and say, “I can’t wait to come back and experience what’s been done.”
With the theater, Elvis exhibit, pool deck and gym and spa, what’s left for you to do?
We’re redoing the whole casino that will all be renovated by April 20. We’ve already opened the new front bar at the casino entrance. That’s where Kirk Kerkorian originally put it. When we lifted up the carpet, the original floor drains and original bar were there. Someone made the decision to hide everything, including the cafe. We redecorated and put it back where it was.
Kirk is a genius, and we’ve managed to not only preserve Elvis’ legacy, but I think preserve Kirk’s legacy as the father of the Las Vegas mega-resort because he had a lot of great ideas and over the years, you know how these rich guys are, they buy a project, and they say, “Well, I’ve got to put my signature on it and one by one they kill it by moving things in the corners and hiding things.”
We brought Kirk’s vision back of having all the energy in the center of the hotel. The restaurants, shows, bars, casino and a gathering place with energy.
If Graceland Entertainment is doing the theater with Elvis attractions, is there room for other headliners?
We can do other shows, and we’re entertaining several other shows. So it will be exciting announcements. We have the Suzanne Somers cabaret show you’ve already talked about. We’ll be announcing that in two weeks for our smaller theater. We’re also in negotiations with some big-name folks to work opposite Graceland, something that will work in concert with them.
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Visitors will be treated to an ever-rotating series of costumes and exhibits in Westgate from the Graceland mansion Elvis called home. They will include the actual tablecloth that Elvis signed when his deal was renegotiated for the changeover from the International to the Hilton.
David summed up: “Once upon a time, I didn’t have enough money to be able to afford to stay here. Now the hotel is mine. I feel like it was my destiny to do all this and bring it back to its glory days.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years 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 Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.