[The Strip Sense]

The Anti-Wynn

Phil Ruffin reveals big plans for that neglected niche: the mid-market

Phil Ruffin, shown in a 2003 Las Vegas Sun file photo.
Photo: Marsh Starks

I was a bit confused when I showed up at the Treasure Island on Monday for lunch with its new owner, Phil Ruffin, and his assistant told me on the house phone to meet the Kansas billionaire at Francesco’s Pizzeria. I asked her to repeat that a few times, certain I had misheard her.

You see, until a few minutes before, Francesco’s was not a pizza joint. It was a serious, high-end Italian restaurant that was named by Steve Wynn himself as a tribute to Frank Sinatra. Had they created a spinoff? “Oh, we closed that up a little while ago and opened up this place,” said Ruffin, 72, squeezing into a booth after apologizing for no apparent reason for wearing a suit today. “This place does triple the business.”

The new Francesco’s has been moved from “Upscale Dining” to “Casual Dining” on the Treasure Island website. It offers serviceable paninis and pizzas, nothing too fancy or expensive. Out went the heavy china and stuffy service, in came a lunch shift.

“People don’t want high-end these days, certainly not from this place,” Ruffin said. “We’re getting all kinds of business from the Venetian, the Wynn, the Mirage, from people who don’t want to pay $15 for orange juice.”

And therein, Phil Ruffin has found his niche in the Las Vegas universe. Let MGM Mirage, Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, Harrah’s and even Boyd Gaming scramble after the ever-diminishing top end with their fancy suites, expensive restaurants and condo sales. Ruffin flirted with all that for years as he pondered what to do with the New Frontier site, bought in the late 1990s and always slated for some form of redevelopment. By the middle of this decade, Ruffin was facing a decision on whether or not to move forward with a plan to build a Swiss-themed luxury resort, the multibillion-dollar Montreux. Images were even circulated to the press.

Just before he had to pull the trigger, he realized the thing made no financial sense for one important reason: “I’m not Steve Wynn.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with Steve Wynn, of course. Ruffin and Wynn are close friends. But Ruffin has no aspirations to be Wynn. It’s not that Ruffin’s not a visionary in his own right—he is credited with inventing self-service gas pumps in the 1960s for his chain of Midwestern filling stations—but part of being a great businessman is knowing your limitations.

“I could never build anything as nice as Steve to command Steve’s room rates,” he said. “I couldn’t make the math work.”

Instead, he sold the property for a record $35 million an acre in mid-2007 at the height of the real-estate craze to some Vegas-aspirant rubes from Israel who imagine they can spend $1.3 billion on the land alone, put $5 billion into an elaborate, gargantuan version of New York’s famed Plaza Hotel and somehow turn a profit. More power to ’em, Ruffin said, but he was happy to take the cash and go. (The Frontier was razed last year to make way for a whole lotta nothing.)

That did, however, leave Ruffin out of the Vegas game he enjoyed and missed. He didn’t waste any time, though; in 2008 he married a Ukrainian beauty queen 45 years his junior. But when MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren came to him late last year to buy something out of their inventory to ease the company’s cash crunch, Ruffin agreed to pay $775 million for the Treasure Island, a property that had recently undergone a room renovation and seemed to Hoover up money like a well-run pirate ship. Later, he ended up paying $755 million instead when MGM agreed to a $20 million discount if he’d pay the whole thing in cash instead of financing a portion of it.

As a single-property owner, Ruffin has thrown himself into the details of a resort that has for its entire existence been something of an afterthought. Wynn built it in 1993 to compete with the mid-market themed resorts Excalibur and Luxor, but admitted to me in 2005 that it was the bastard child of his creations. MGM Mirage spent money on the place, to be sure, but it was just one piece of a large inventory to be positioned against other members of the corporate family.

Consider what Ruffin’s done so far. First, he re-signed Cirque du Soleil’s wonderful Mystère to a five-year contract extension, meaning the show will have at least an 18-year run through 2016. In the process, he also insisted to the Cirque suits that he must be allowed to book that theater on the show’s two dark nights, Thursdays and Fridays. So far, he told me Monday, he’s signed LeAnn Rimes for a month of two-a-week dates this fall and he’s inked a Bill Cosby appearance or two, too.

As mentioned earlier, he downscaled Francesco’s. But he’s also planning to double the size of his poker room by eliminating a gift shop he said was only making a paltry $30,000 a year. The watch shop will soon be history, too; “watches are dead, nobody buys watches anymore,” he explained. Plus, he’s about to redesign the lagoon area where the Sirens of TI perform, carving out a much larger standing area on the interior from the sidewalk so that the experience of watching the free show is less marred by being suffocated by humanity. All are sensible moves.

But here’s what qualifies in Ruffinville as a major stamp: He’s about to plunge $15 million to build a Gilley’s-branded bar, restaurant and café that will jut off the southern tip of the resort.

Yes, Gilley’s, as in the Urban Cowboy bar with the mechanical bulls. Ruffin had one at the New Frontier and continued to pay the licensing fees year after year “because I figured someday I might want to use it again.” The renderings I saw Monday show a bank of outdoor tables for dining and people-watching. Back in February, Ruffin told me that it was one of the things that the Strip was missing, more places like Mon Ami Gabi at Paris where people could just watch the freak parade go by. Ta-da.

There are other significant plans that I can’t write about yet, but this ought to be enough to show just how refreshing a man like Ruffin is for the Strip and how right he is for this particular resort. It’s not that I’d ever spend an evening at Gilley’s; it’s not really my thing. But after years of seeing MGM Mirage try to redress the Treasure Island as the hipster-aspiring “TI,” of them bringing in fancy digs like Christian Audigier’s nightclub and Social House, of them ripping out the faux-plank-wood and slides at the pool because they were too childish and thematic, here’s an owner who is unashamed of what he owns and knows that there’s a market being neglected.

“We’ll let the rest of them duke it out for the top end,” said Ruffin, who admitted he may be looking for a second large Vegas resort to buy but wouldn’t say which ones he fancies. “If we stick to the mid-market, we’ll never have a problem.”


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