Faces of Gaming: Kenny Epstein — A Niche from Nostalgia

July 31, 2022 10:20 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
July 31, 2022 10:20 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Faces of Gaming is an occasional column from consultant Tom Osiecki about interesting and engaging people in the gaming industry.

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Last year the El Cortez and Kenny Epstein both turned 80.

One of the few remaining family-operated resorts in Las Vegas, the iconic El Cortez Hotel and Casino has been continuously polished and renewed. Owner and CEO Kenny Epstein stands ready to launch the resort into the future fueled by an old-school Vegas vibe.

As the longest continuously running hotel and casino in Las Vegas, the El Cortez Hotel and Casino has undergone several renovations, but retains the same façade it had in 1952 when the “new” neon signage was installed.

Born into Gaming

Kenny Epstein was born into gaming.

“My father started out as a bookmaker for horses in Chicago and he later expanded into sports. As a young boy, I was introduced to the racetracks around Chicago: Arlington Park, Washington Park, and Sportsman’s Park. I spent many a Saturday at the racetrack with my dad,” said Epstein.

A Friend and Mentor

In 1963, Kenny Epstein’s friend and mentor Jackie Gaughan purchased the El Cortez and later sold the property to Epstein in 2008. Gaughan’s renowned customer-first style continued to influence Kenny Epstein until Gaughan’s death at 93 in 2014.

“I’ll tell you a great story about Jackie,” Epstein said. “We opened a sports book and we had pretty good action. One day, this lady shows up in a wheelchair. She’s got dyed-red hair and she’s 80 years old. Jackie says to me, ‘Oh, I gotta go.’ It’s Saturday and we’ve got all this action, because it’s the football playoffs in December. Jackie tells me, ‘I promised I’d take Ethel Christmas shopping.’ That’s Jackie. You never met anyone like him. He just was a special person,” said Epstein.

Triple Threat

“My dad introduced me to Jackie Gaughan when I was 15 on a family trip to Lake Tahoe. Jackie owned the Tahoe Biltmore. My father says to me, ‘You know that guy we met today, Jackie Gaughan, he’s a triple threat. He’s a go-getter, he’s smart, and he’s on the square,’ he said.

“There was nobody like Jackie and there will never be another one like Jackie. If we can just emulate him in some small way, we’re way ahead of the game,” Epstein said.

With influences like his father and Jackie Gaughan, Epstein can be seen walking the casino floor with his guests, a constant force of old-style, in-person, hands-on visibility.

A New Game

A $25 million renovation of the El Cortez was recently completed, coinciding with a shift in guest demographics since the pandemic.

“You know, it’s coming down to the younger generation. Our customer base used to be senior citizens and, usually, 70% locals. It’s changing. Now it’s 50% locals and 50% tourists and younger people. It used to be our average age was like middle fifties. Now, the average age is in the higher thirties,” Epstein said.

Epstein credits the historic, authentic nature of the resort for the influx of younger people and, in part, for an early adaptation to social-media influencers.

“What we’ve been doing to attract younger people is these bloggers. We have a lot of bloggers that photograph and video their gaming here. And they have a lot of viewers. It’s just like advertising. It’s another way to get the word out,” he said.

“It’s just a combination of many things. It’s a homespun place. People come here for years because it’s original,” Epstein said.

Not Phony

“It’s the originality of the Cortez. We’re not pretending to be Paris. We’re not pretending to be something we’re not. These Millennials like us, because we’re original and I guess they don’t like phony. They want originality. Our historic value helps us with the younger people,” said Mike Nolan, COO and general manager who sat in on the interview.

Generations of Gaming

“Our guests’ parents played here; their grandparents played here. To a lot of these families, this is a big to-do for them. Anyone in their family turns twenty-one, the whole family comes here to celebrate,” Nolan said,

Ownership and Customer Service

When asked how customer tastes and demands have changed over his lengthy career in gaming, Epstein is definitive that today’s gaming customer has a higher expectation of service.

“Well, we have value with El Cortez and customers are number one. I’m sure all places want to take care of their customers. But this is our place and believe me, we want to take care of our customers. There is a difference between employees and ownership. We own this place. We care about the customers; we care about the place. This is our home,” Epstein explained.

Vintage Persona

“Can we compete with Wynn? Or Bellagio? Or these big hotels like the new Resorts World? They have four thousand rooms with twenty restaurants. We have one restaurant. We’re a throwback from another time. We’re like gambling used to be. We’ve kept that persona and people like it and want to come down here to see how Las Vegas used to be,” Epstein said.

Siegel’s 1941

“When we announced that we were going to open a restaurant called Siegel’s 1941, we got a call from a lady, Millicent Rosen. She’s the daughter of Bugsy Siegel and she lived here in Las Vegas. We invited her to the opening of Siegel’s 1941.

“I sent my daughters to meet her at the time. And she said, ‘I have a lot of memorabilia from my father, my mother, and when I was growing up. Would you like to use it for the restaurant?’ So we paid her by the year to lease her property. We have the photos in the restaurant right now. That’s another thing that brings people in,” he said.

“And guess what? When she passed in 2017, the family wanted me to be a pall bearer. Can you believe that?”  Epstein said.

Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

“People talk about Las Vegas in the ‘50s and ‘60s and how great it was, how that was the heyday of Las Vegas. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

“Las Vegas is so much better now than it’s ever been. We have an NFL team, the Raiders. We have an NHL team, the Golden Knights. We have the best restaurants in the world. We have the best hotels in the world. All this helps make Las Vegas better.

“The more people that come here, the more they come downtown. They see us, because the town is bigger and better. I can’t say that we did this all ourselves. It’s Las Vegas. Las Vegas made us famous. It’s the entertainment capital of the world,” Epstein said.

A Niche from Nostalgia

The El Cortez carved a niche from nostalgia and has become a cult property that now draws Millennials. As Kenny Epstein said, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

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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