The Interview: Alex Epstein, executive manager of downtown’s El Cortez

Alex Epstein works with her father, resort owner Kenny Epstein, every day. This family business is buzzing just fine, thank you.

Alexandra Epstein, El Cortez executive manager, sits inside “Hint Suite,” one of the suites that was redesigned for the Design a Suite Downtown competition at the El Cortez on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011.

When looking for new life in a city’s downtown, a 70-year-old establishment like the El Cortez is probably the last place you’d turn. But its 26-year-old executive manager, Alex Epstein, was the breath of fresh air downtown Las Vegas long needed.

Before Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh decided to move his company’s office downtown and before the Plaza announced its $35 million renovation, Epstein, with her family’s blessing, was investing in downtown Las Vegas. She’s become one of downtown’s biggest advocates, first with her vision of turning the rundown Ogden House Motel across the street into the El Cortez’s stylish Cabana Suites, and later reopening a shuttered medical facility as Emergency Arts for local artists to showcase their work. Last year, Epstein launched the Design-A-Suite competition at the El Cortez, a contest that challenged four Nevada-licensed design teams to create a hotel suite at the property on a $20,000 budget—no small feat. And those are just a few of the ideas up her sleeve.

Epstein sat down with VEGAS INC to talk about getting into the family business, marketing a 70-year-old resort and casino and her own role in downtown revitalization.

Your family has a long history with the El Cortez. Your father, Kenny Epstein, has been a partner in the hotel since 1975 and purchased Jackie Gaughan’s shares in 2008. Was getting into the family business something you’d always wanted to do?

Not in a million years. I did it during summers between going back and forth to school, but I worked in auditing and different areas that weren’t as exciting. My dad and I are very similar and we tend to disagree a lot—and always did. I didn’t think that he’d be someone I’d be working with all day, every day. However, when I was moving back to Las Vegas, they needed someone to help out with the Cabana Suites project, and it was a time in my life when I was figuring things out. My dad offered it to me and said, ‘We need someone young, someone motivated. At the end of the project leave, do whatever you want to do.’ I came in, did it and I was terrified. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but then a month or two into it, it was the first time I felt completely happy and really excited to be doing a project. I fell in love with the El Cortez, the employees and downtown and never looked back.

You bring a young perspective to the El Cortez. What’s it like working as an executive in an industry of seasoned veterans?

I’m in a unique position where I’m working with family, so my opinion is heard and I do have a voice. It’s challenging from time to time when you have an opinion, and there are people who’ve been working here longer than you’ve been alive. There are certain set ways that they do things and see things. But the El Cortez is unique because I think that everyone here loves it so much. They want to see it do well in the future.

Who are your mentors?

Beyond my dad, [El Cortez General Manager] Mike Nolan is a complete mentor. In the very beginning, when I was getting to know my way around, I would accompany him on tours of the property, and just the excitement he has for the property and the neighborhood is really inspiring. He’s here first thing in the morning and the very end of the night. He knows about every single thing that’s going on here. His kindness and the way he knows every employee is something I respect very much.

What are some of the benefits of working for a family-owned casino versus a property run by a corporation?

From an employee standpoint, there are few levels of management in the hierarchy. An employee can come right up to the executive office and speak to the COO, CEO, CFO. There’s also a lot of promotion from within. People have been here for decades, but have been able to move up through the ranks. It’s also easy to get things done as a family-operated property. Anything we’d like to try is possible. From a customer standpoint, you pretty much know everyone. We recognize you when you’re coming in. We see you on the casino floor and say hi. There’s a warmth you can’t re-create with a corporate casino.

The El Cortez is now in its 70th year of operation, something no other casino in Las Vegas can say. Why has the casino survived for so long?

Anything that lasts 70 years has to be adaptable to change. It has weathered a lot of storms since 1941. I think the changes that have been made are somewhat conservative, but within reason of what’s going on in the surrounding area. The El Cortez has only changed hands a couple of times, and Jackie Gaughan has been here since 1963. His guidance has been the most significant thing that has looked over the El Cortez. His offering of value to customers has not changed over the years. Jackie’s mentality and the people that he brought on have tended to the El Cortez over the years. Also, I think being an active participant in the changes that are going on downtown have helped it survive as well.

Give us a snapshot of the El Cortez customer.

If you would’ve asked me that five years ago, I would’ve said our average customer was 55 or older, retired or on their way to being retired. Sixty percent of our customers were local, and if they weren’t local, they were coming from the Midwest or Southern California. And that was pretty much it. In the past three years, especially since opening the Cabana Suites, that has changed. We don’t have a typical customer anymore. It changes every day of the week, and the time of the day. Our customer base is expanding, which is great. We are even getting international customers because our visibility has increased. More people who used to stay on the Strip want to check out downtown.

Has it been difficult to blend what the younger customer wants with what the older customer has come to expect?

It’s definitely a line that we toe a lot. I think that we’re fortunate because everything that we’ve done has appealed to both groups. We thought that the Cabana Suites would be a definite departure and that no one who likes the traditional El Cortez would ever stay in the suites. But we were surprised in that most of our customers loved the Cabana Suites. I think what is expected and what is reality changes all of the time.

Do you think that history plays a role in what attracts people to the property?

Absolutely. Something my dad always says is, “You need to know to shtick and go with it.” We don’t have an amusement park or a movie theater or 12 different restaurants. We have our history, which is very rich and colorful. We have our employees, who are kind and warm. We have our neighborhood and we have a great value. That’s what we have.

You’ve been a big advocate for downtown Las Vegas. Why invest there? Has it always been close to your heart?

My mom grew up down here, so it’s always been close to my heart in that sense, but I never really knew I could be a part of it until the Cabana Suites project. I didn’t think that a 23-year-old could have any impact in any city. The fact that I was in a position to be a part of change was humbling and exciting. From the opening of the suites, it hasn’t stopped. Anybody can be a part of the change downtown. It’s an awesome thing. In most cities, the downtown has already been created decades ago. There aren’t many cities whose core can still be shaped, particularly by people 40 and younger, like downtown Las Vegas. It’s inspiring.

It seems like there’s a sense of camaraderie downtown that the Strip doesn’t have.

Absolutely. The mentality down here is: What is good for downtown is going to be good for us. With the Plaza opening, we’re thrilled about it. It’s another reason for people to focus on the good downtown. We couldn’t be happier for them.

What are your thoughts on the big Zappos move to downtown Las Vegas?

We’re excited. We work with Tony Hsieh and all the people from Zappos regularly and hang out with them. We’re working on developing a project with them in the future. I think that for downtown, it’s huge. I don’t think it can be overstated how good it’s going to be for the area. It’s going to bring in more employees, it’s going to bring in a more nine-to-five lifestyle, more people who want to live downtown. It’s going to boost the spirit of what it is to be downtown.

Anything particular you’d like to see come into the downtown Las Vegas?

There’s so much. Resnicks was really exciting because now I have a little bodega to go to. I’d like to see a bigger grocery store because that symbolizes life down here and a day-to-day lifestyle. I’d like to see more retail, more food options that open earlier and are open later. There are two different projects in other cities that I’d love to see downtown—Eataly in New York City by Mario Batali is one. It’s basically this big warehouse devoted to Italian food and culture. Another one is Space 15 Twenty. It is a space in Los Angeles that is this giant retail space that is joined by a courtyard and restaurants. They have all these different pop-up shops. I think a more urban retail experience could be cool down here. I’m always traveling to different cities and taking notes on what would work down here.

What’s next for the El Cortez? How do you see it evolving and where do you hope it will go?

I’d love to see the El Cortez continue to grow in its relationship with building the community. I think that the El Cortez is going to continue to step up in what we have to offer, but I don’t see us ever getting away from the value experience that we have. In terms of a good gamble, a good room and some good food, that’s what we are—and we’re never going to step away from that.