Faces of Gaming: Andrew Economon — Making downtown Las Vegas cool again

October 28, 2023 2:45 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
October 28, 2023 2:45 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino’s General Manager Andrew Economon is on a campaign to make downtown Las Vegas cool again. Positioned as “Welcome Back to the Downtown Deal,” the Downtown Grand offers “a series of deals across the property that haven’t been seen in Las Vegas for many years.”

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Along with an extensive career in the hospitality industry that spans more than 30 years, Economon combines a throwback strategy with a similarly old-school philosophy that focuses on generating fun through guest value, employee satisfaction, top-line revenue, and bottom-line profit.

The strategy seems to be paying off. Downtown Grand has been awarded the “2021 TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice” award, along with its “2022 Best Slots,” “2023 Best Players Club for My Points Downtown Grand,” and “2023 Las Vegas Best Table-Games Tournament” awards.

Growing up Greek

Economon credits his Greek heritage for his love of the hospitality industry.

Economon is a first-generation American of Greek heritage. “I grew up with immigrant Greek parents in Sacramento, California, and grandparents who lived with us for 23 years. I spoke Greek before I spoke English, because that’s what was spoken at home.”

The nature of the Greek culture helped prepare Economon for a future in hospitality.

“My career didn’t start out in the gaming world, but specifically in traditional hotels on the food-and-beverage side. Food is a big part of the Greek culture. It’s talked about all the time. I remember my grandparents sitting there eating breakfast, talking about what’s going to be for lunch and dinner. I think that’s part of what pushed me into the culinary side of things.”

Economon was working as a cook while attending school for industrial woodworking and cabinet making when his father offered some advice that also shaped his future.

“My father said, ‘When the economy has a downturn, people go out less often, so restaurants don’t necessarily do as well. But in furniture and cabinet making, everything stops.’ He said, ‘People will always eat and drink, so why don’t you consider looking at it professionally?’

“I found out about the Culinary Institute of America in New York and applied. It was a long process, but I got my first degree there, which is 100% food-and-beverage-centric.”

After graduating from the Culinary Institute, Economon returned home to California in executive-chef roles. Then he expanded into the hotel industry and earned a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, Hilton College.

Greek adventures

After working in the traditional hotel industry in various place in the U.S., an opportunity came up to go to Greece.

“I was working in Santa Monica when I was approached by an attorney doing some due diligence for a project in Greece that was in receivership from the bank. They needed someone to go over and run the operation on behalf of the bank. It was a 250-room resort on the beach in north-central Greece.

“I have dual citizenship, so that wasn’t an issue. But I just kind of jumped in feet first. That first experience was mind-blowing. I wasn’t told everything about the operation. Cash flow was zero. We were literally taking in receipts in the morning and using that money to buy food for the restaurant that night.

“It was an interesting experience. But man, I was nervous. It wasn’t easy. I also found out that in Greece, as is true in other countries, the general manager is personally liable for what goes on in the operation. I had to be registered with the Greek National Tourist Board. If nothing else makes you nervous, that does. I was responsible.”

While in Greece, Economon moved beyond operations into hotel development with Sol Melia, one of the largest hotel companies in the world. He worked in Cyprus and Turkey as well as Greece.

Into the gaming world

Economon joined the Las Vegas casino industry at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino as director of food and beverage. He also worked for MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, and Hard Rock Hotels and Casinos, plus two major entertainment, lounge, and restaurant operations.

As corporate vice president of food and beverage at the Isle of Capri Casinos, Economon oversaw F&B operations and added new food and beverage concepts for 14 casinos.

As general manager of the Downtown Grand, Economon began looking for ways to market his new property. “It took me four or five months to figure out who we are,” he said. “At that time, we were neutral more than anything. We really didn’t have an image. I had to figure out what we were doing that’s better and different than everybody else.”

Economon’s strategy was to develop “Welcome Back to the Downtown Deal,” a series of offerings aimed at bringing back the nostalgia and value that downtown Vegas traditionally offered.

“Downtown Deals” Include:

  • No resort fees for local hotel guests.
  • Free parking for hotel guests and casino and restaurant customers.
  • $5 crap tables with 10x odds.
  • $1 blackjack with $1progressive jackpots
  • $5 roulette using $1 chips.
  • $2 Nathans Famous hot dogs and draft Pabst Blue Ribbon.
  • $3.50 Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Evan Williams bourbon.
  • A $20 three -course lunch special at the Triple George Grill.

“We were a value proposition in the market without promoting it. The downtown market compared to the Strip is a value—period, end of story, right?

“As we started looking at this, I realized we were doing good in a lot of different ways. So I started asking, where can we add more things to it? Can we really push out this value proposition? That’s where the “Welcome Back to the Downtown Deal” came from. The response has been even better than we expected, because people started paying attention to it.”

The Pissed-off Factor and Casino Deals

“We started with the two things that piss people off the most right now, paid parking and resort fees. Without question, that’s what you hear about over and over again. So guess what? If you’re a hotel guest or a gaming or dining customer, you don’t pay for parking. If you’re a local and you stay in our hotel, you don’t have a resort fee.

“Consequently, if you look at our feeder markets, number four is Las Vegas. A lot of residents stay here. They’re not paying for parking and they’re not paying resort fees, so it makes sense.”

“And as that extends into gaming, it starts to look even more attractive. We have $5 craps with ten times odds. We have $5-minimum roulette with dollar chips. We see the Strip moving to $2 chips. They’re forcing up the betting increment, so players don’t have a choice.

“We have dollar blackjack and dollar progressive blackjack. That is one of our biggest successes. Only one other casino, OYO, has dollar blackjack and they have one table. When I got here, we had one table; now we have four and each has a dollar progressive.

“Last week, a player who player $1 hit an $18,000 progressive. Three weeks before that, we had a $30,000 progressive payout. But more important, people are having fun. If you walk over to Circa, they have $25 minimums. It’s a different experience.”

Quantifiable payoffs

“By focusing on the guest experience, guess what? Things change, right? If you keep focusing incrementally over and over again, it’s amazing what happens over time. Now we’re starting to reap those benefits. We’re seeing more people coming through the door and increased guest-satisfaction scores. People are having fun; we can tell by our drop. Volumes have improved.

“I look at the data and we continue to grow market share in rate and occupancy in the downtown Vegas hotel market. We’ve got to be taking it from someone; the pie didn’t get any bigger. We see those quantifiable things and say, well, we must be doing something right.

“It’s working on two levels. On the surface level, people are talking about our property and what we’re doing. And two, it’s quantifiable. I can look at the numbers and see where we’ve grown our business. And when you aggregate everything, we’re not doing just one thing. It’s a whole bunch of things.”

Economon is especially gratified by one of them: the public mini-blackjack tournaments every Thursday at three o’clock. These tournaments haven’t taken place in Las Vegas for at least a decade.

“Where else can you go to buy into a blackjack tournament for $25? The minimum that you’ll win if you hit the top spot is $250. That’s because it’s self-funded. We’ve had the top payout as high as $825 based on the buy-ins.

“So now people are coming in who’ve never played in a blackjack tournament, because most are invite only to casino guests. This is open to the public and people come in and have an absolute blast. Why? Because you can’t do it anywhere else.

“We’re not trying to retire off of it. I’m just trying to get people in here and have fun. They might spend some money while they’re here.”

Throwback food and beverage

Economon has also instituted a number of food-and beverage-deals that are throwbacks to the vintage days of Las Vegas.

“We have the George Special at the Triple George Grill. It’s a $20 lunch deal with three courses. Knock yourself out! It’s probably the best deal in all of Las Vegas for lunch.

“We have a hot dog cart with a $2 Nathan’s hot dog and a Pabst Blue Ribbon draft beer. I have to tell you, there are a lot of fans of a hot dog and a beer for two bucks. Now that’s a throwback.

“We also have a secret menu item that’s not listed anywhere. You just have to ask for it. The Joe Special and is a shot and a beer for $3.50. You get a shot of Evan Williams bourbon and a Pabst Blue Ribbon draft for $3.50.

“It’s not some crap bourbon poured from a gun; it’s Evan Williams poured out of a bottle right in front of you. I brought that from Philadelphia, where they’re called Philly Specials all over town — $3.50 for a shot and a beer.

“We’re certainly not gouging people, which is what seems to be going on more and more in Vegas. A friend told me he went to Caesars two weeks ago and bought two beers. The tab came to $39. For two Heinekens! I mean just try and wrap your head around that. This is not in a nightclub This is a casino bar. How do you justify that?”

Iconic property — and innovating into the future

The Downtown Grand is an iconic hotel-casino that first opened in 1964 as Honest John’s and was rebranded Lady Luck in 1968. The property was purchased in 2007 by the CIM Group for $100 million. CIM invested another $100 million in renovations and reopened as the Downtown Grand in 2013.

As general manager, Economon continues to evolve the Downtown Grand with innovative product.

“A local guy is going to open a pizzeria with punk rock music in our building called Fat Cat Craft, craft brews and cocktails and music. It’s a complete turnaround from what’s been going on this side of Fremont Street.

“On the Citrus Grand Pool Deck, we completely revamped our programming. We have different live events on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Our pool deck is up on the third floor. It has a tremendous view over downtown and we’ve really done a lot with it. We have a complete renovation planned, spending well over a million dollars to get new furniture, new cabanas, and a new look and feel up there.” Economon can’t say it enough: “We’ve been enjoying that success, bringing people into the building who probably weren’t here before and have a good time.”

I asked Andrew what contributed to his thinking around the throwback strategy.

“It took me over 30 years to kind of figure out the model and it’s really simple: Focus on top-line revenue, bottom-line profit, and guest and employee satisfaction. That’s it. Anything else may be a good idea and you may want to do it. But if it doesn’t touch at least one of those areas, you don’t do it.

“And as you start to pare away all the other things, you just focus on the ones that move the needle. It’s amazing. The needle moves, guest satisfaction improves, employee satisfaction improves, revenues improve, profits improve. I mean, it’s all about just keeping everyone focused on that.

“The hard work and heavy lifting have been done by everyone else. I just keep everybody focused.”

Andrew Economon took a love for the hospitality industry from his Greek heritage and turned it into a philosophy with a focus on simple old-school principles. You might say he developed a niche for nostalgia. He’s doing his part to help make downtown Las Vegas cool, fun, and affordable again.

Entries in the Faces of Gaming series:

Tom Osiecki is a casino consultant who writes an occasional column for CDC Gaming Reports called Faces of Gaming, about interesting and engaging people in the gaming industry.

Tom Osiecki is a marketing and management consultant for Raving Consulting and can be reached for consulting engagements at 775-329-7864.

If you know of a fascinating personality in the gaming industry you would like to see profiled, please send Tom Osiecki an email at tosiecki@cdcgaming.com