$50M upgrades, light show typify Tropicana's turnaround from struggle to success

$50M upgrades, light show typify Tropicana’s turnaround from struggle to success

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Eight years ago, Atlantic City’s Tropicana casino was hanging by a thread.

Its former owner cut staff to the bone and let the sprawling complex deteriorate so badly that New Jersey gambling regulators stripped it of its casino license.

But now, the Tropicana has rebounded to become one of Atlantic City’s more profitable casinos. Current owner Carl Icahn has invested $130 million in it since taking over in 2010, including a far-reaching $50 million renovation due to be completed by Memorial Day weekend.

Its most striking feature will be an outdoor light show on the facade that will be visible for miles. Older areas of the casino floor have been redone, as has the Tropicana’s north tower of 434 hotel rooms, and an open-to-the-public fitness centre is part of the plan, as well.

It’s a far cry from 2007, when former owner Columbia Sussex Corp. was run out of town by New Jersey regulators who determined the Kentucky-based company was incapable of running the type of first-class casino resort required by state law.

“When you think back to that period of time, this place was a diamond in the rough,” said Tropicana President Tony Rodio, who ran a different Atlantic City casino at the time. “It had all the things that everybody says you need to have to succeed in the new Atlantic City, including plenty of non-gaming amenities. It was just a matter of polishing the diamond up.”

That involved pumping new money into the building, and new hope into the staff.

“The first thing we needed to do was turn around the morale and the attitude of the employee base,” Rodio said. “We told them things were going to get better, and then we delivered on that.”

In early 2008, right after losing its license, the Tropicana experienced a 61 per cent decrease in its gross operating profits, to $11.8 million. When Icahn took it over, the casino’s second-quarter operating profits were $9.8 million.

The Tropicana adopted a high-roller strategy, welcoming the biggest of gambling’s so-called “whales,” or ultra-high-limit players, letting them bet far more than the casino had previously permitted. While it sometimes exposed the house to large losses, like the Pennsylvania man who won $5.8 million in 2011 at the blackjack table, and a craps player who beat the house for an additional $5.3 million two months later, it also has helped the casino’s bottom line over time.

In 2014, the Tropicana’s operating profit rose to $59.8 million, making it the third-most profitable casino in the city. The $297 million it won from gamblers last year was up nearly 30 per cent from the previous year, and ranked Tropicana fourth among Atlantic City’s eight casinos in terms of revenue.

Joe Wall, a longtime Tropicana customer, said it has always been his favourite place to gamble.

“The dealers here are really friendly. And they have nickel games, which fits in nicely with our budget,” he said. Asked how often he patronizes the casino, Wall thought for a moment, smiled and said, “Probably too often.”

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