Wednesday, March 4, 2015

How 'Detroit' is Las Vegas casino The D?

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2015 at 4:50 PM

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO.
  • Courtesy photo.

When we started seeing billboards around town a few years ago advertising a Las Vegas casino and hotel called The D ("Detroit feel, Vegas appeal"), we immediately pictured some sort of answer to the Strip's Paris or New York-New York — a psychedelic simulacrum of the Motor City. We filed it under things to pursue later, with vague ideas of a weird Vegas vacation in our future.

Unfortunately, we couldn't convince Euclid Media Group to send us out for a story, so we instead decided to enlist some friends of Metro Times currently located in Vegas to help investigate. Rick Lax is a metro Detroit ex-pat who moved to Vegas to pursue his love of magic (he used to read MT while practicing magic tricks at Royal Oak's Caribou Coffee, and recently developed a reality TV show for SyFy called Wizard Wars). Nicole Rupersburg, who has blogged about food for Eat It Detroit and contributed to MT, moved to Vegas last year. 

First, a geography lesson: The D is not on the famous Las Vegas Strip, home of themed casino hotels like the Venetian, New York-New York, et al. It's on Fremont Street — also known as "Old Vegas," or downtown — located off of the Strip, which has seen a decline since the late '80s. Like Detroit, Vegas was hit particularly hard by the subprime mortgage crisis, but both cities have seen revitalization efforts since the market crash.

In fact, 2012 was dubbed "The Year of Downtown" in Vegas, which was also the year The D's rebranding was completed. The casino was previously known as Fitzgerald's, an Irish-themed casino, before brothers and metro Detroit natives Derek and Greg Stevens took over in 2011.

Lax stopped by The D on 6:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday to scope out the scene. He reports by phone that business looked good. "The casino was pretty full, people were gambling, people were drinking. Derek must be doing something right," he says. "There are a lot of casinos downtown and I really do think that The D is one of the nicest. It's the fanciest. They tried to make it look like a swank Strip hotel as opposed to a downtown Fremont hotel, and I think they mostly succeeded."

But how Detroit was it? Lax says the Motor City references were subtle. "I’m not an architecture expert but the core of the casino does not read Detroit to me," he says. "It doesn't feel like you're in Detroit." 

click to enlarge The gift shop sold Made in Detroit hats alongside hats emblazoned with the D's logo. - VIA RICK LAX.
  • Via Rick Lax.
  • The gift shop sold Made in Detroit hats alongside hats emblazoned with the D's logo.

Lax decided to quiz employees to ask them what they thought the D stood for. He began by asking an employee working behind the counter at the gift shop — which sells Made in Detroit hats alongside hats emblazoned with The D's logo — if the D stood for Detroit.  "He said, 'No, it stands for downtown, but a lot of people think that it stands for Detroit,'" Lax says. "He said people ask why they don’t use the English D and they said they can't for legal reasons. He went on to say that Derek does love Detroit though, and he’s from Detroit."

Lax then asked a cocktail server what the D stood for. "She said, 'I’m not sure. I think it has multiple meanings,'" he says. "The first one she listed was Detroit, and then she said downtown, and Derek."

Next, Lax asked a blackjack dealer, who responded with Detroit. Finally, Lax asked a security guard. "He said, 'Derek, that’s the guy who owns this place, but also it stands for Detroit and downtown, since Derek didn't really specify.'"

Lax says despite The D's hometown marketing campaign, he didn't notice anything particularly Detroit or Midwestern about the casino's clientele. He notes that is a phenomenon in Vegas, though, citing the success of the Asian-themed MGM and Wynn casinos in attracting Asian travelers. "It’s always kind of weird that these casinos — like if you’re French and you come to Las Vegas that you would choose to stay at The Paris — that boggles my mind," he says. 

Lax also noticed a billboard promoting a contest to win Derek's Dodge Challenger — a nod, perhaps, to Detroit's automotive theme. 

He also photographed a weird walkway that lead to nothing, which seemed strangely Detroit to us.

click to enlarge This billboard announcing a contest to win Stevens' Dodge Challenger strikes us a nod perhaps to Detroit's automotive history. - VIA RICK LAX.
  • Via Rick Lax.
  • This billboard announcing a contest to win Stevens' Dodge Challenger strikes us a nod perhaps to Detroit's automotive history.

Lax's assessment is that The D's branding might be a bit muddled. "I don't know, it seems like — and there’s nothing wrong with it from a business point of view — but it seems like trying to have your cake and eat it too," he says. "You can advertise in Detroit and take advantage of that. But also if you're walking down the street and someone has bad thoughts about Detroit, they won’t avoid it because there’s nothing explicitly saying that it’s Detroit-themed in the main part of the casino.

"If you're from Detroit you'll understand," he says. "But if you're not, you're none the wiser and you won't be turned off by it."

A fellow writer, Lax admits he actually once interviewed Derek for story for a Las Vegas weekly. He says when he asked Derek where in Detroit he was from, he responded with Grosse Pointe. "He directly said, 'But say that I'm from Detroit,'" Lax recounts. After quibbling with his editor about the semantics of Detroit versus its suburbs, Lax says he eventually settled on the umbrella term "metro Detroit area" to describe Derek's origin.

Meanwhile, Rupersburg wrote by email to tell us that she actually once stayed at The D. "Well, I can tell you I did spend the night at The D Casino, and it's … not great," she wrote. She points out that at the time a year ago, rooms were actually cheaper than the resort fee, booking at $10 per night, while the resort fee was $20.

As for its inherent "Detroit-ness," Rupersburg can't help but grade in terms her food-blogging sensibilities. "There is an Andiamo Steakhouse and it is fantastic," she says. "There is 'The D Grill,' which is your standard hotel quick-stop eatery, standard issue in all hotel-casinos. There is an American Coney Island and it is … American Coney Island. I've been there when drunk because such things happen. It functions in much the same capacity as its Detroit counterpart."

Rupersburg notes that she noticed that they play Detroit sports on the TVs at the casino's "Long Bar," which is the longest bar in Nevada. She also points out that from what she can tell Derek is super nice and very well-liked and respected in the Las Vegas community. 

click to enlarge Something about this walkway that leads to nothing reminds us of Detroit. - VIA RICK LAX.
  • Via Rick Lax.
  • Something about this walkway that leads to nothing reminds us of Detroit.

Finally, we decided to interview Derek himself, getting connected with a quick call to the casino. Unlike Lax's account, Derek is forthcoming about his metro Detroit origins — he graduated from Grosse Pointe South, lived in Ann Arbor while in undergrad, and lived in Detroit's Riverfront Apartments while attending Wayne State. He says he currently resides in Birmingham, and splits his time between there and Las Vegas. "My girlfriend has a joke," he says from phone. "When people ask if we live in Vegas or Detroit, she just says we live on Delta."

Derek tells us The D is his second casino venture, the first being The Golden Gate Hotel and Casino. As for the name? "As we were going through the thought process of what we were going to call it, it became very apparent to me that we had to completely rebrand the property I was buying," he says. Fitzgerald's, he says, was not actually owned by the property, so he would've had to lease it through a parent company. But most importantly, he says, the renovations were so extensive that a rebranding was necessary. "We were going to completely renovate all 34 stories of the property — every motel room, every suite," he says. "We added a whole additional floor of suites. In doing that, I knew we had to do a rebranding." That's when the Stevens came up with "The D." 

Derek cites the Vegas revitalization initiative of "The Year of Downtown" as one of the reasons. "That was one of the elements from the Vegas perspective," he says. "On a secondary basis, a lot of people who know me, a lot of my friends, they just call me 'D.' My first casino, people would say, 'I'm going to go down to D's place,'" he says.

But Derek says paying homage to Detroit was also a factor. "I'm die-hard Detroit lover," he says. "From my perspective, we're kind of entering a point where Detroit's going to see this rejuvenation and I thought, 'Well, I'm from the D, so why don't why say it's all part of that. It's a tip of the cap to mine and my brother's original hometown."

Derek admits the nod is subtle. "I never portrayed this as a Detroit-themed hotel in any manner," he says. But he did try to bring certain elements from Michigan with him. He says when he was a student at Wayne State, he was fond of American Coney Island. "I always thought that was an iconic, institutional restaurant for the city of Detroit," he says. So he reached out to American's Grace and Chris Keros to open a location in his casino. 

He says he also personally asked Andiamo's Joe Vicari to develop a concept that would incorporate both a steakhouse and an Italian restaurant. "I really only had space for one restaurant," he says. "I said it's got to be at a different level, and it's got to compete with the best of Las Vegas."

As for the Michigan sports at the Long Bar, Derek says he's a sports fan. "If you're a Detroit fan and you want to see a Tigers game or a Red Wings game, there's a very good chance it's not going to be on television (in Vegas)," he says of his habit of making sure all of the Detroit teams and even the Spartans or the Wolverines are on at least one of the TVs at the Long Bar. "If you're a fan, you know you can always watch a game at our place. So that's a little bit of a Detroit connection," he says.

click to enlarge VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
  • Via Wikimedia Commons.

As for the clientele, Derek believes that downtown in general seems to draw crowds primarily from California, but also a significant amount from the Midwest. He also notes that part of the advertising in Detroit is because Detroit has a large market for conventions that take place in Vegas, such as automotive aftermarket and pizza conventions. "That's why there are so many direct flights between Detroit and Vegas," he says. "My whole thought was not everybody's going to stay with us, but when you're in Detroit, even if you're staying on the Strip, you might stop in and check it out. I think we're seeing an awful lot of that." 

Stevens says that while downtown has declined in the '80s and the early '90s, it has seen a resurgence in recent years, and has even been outperforming the Strip by a healthy margin. That's thanks to the recent construction of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, but also due to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh moving the company's headquarters downtown and injecting $350 million into various real estate projects as well. "You could say Tony Hsieh is to Las Vegas as Dan Gilbert's is downtown Detroit," Stevens says. 

Stevens points out another draw for The D and other downtown casinos — they're fully enclosed in "Viva Vision," the largest video screen in the world. "It's an open-air, open alcohol, 24-hour walking mall," Stevens says. "So you can bop from one casino to 13 casinos all under this Viva Vision screen."

Wait, a walkable community? Now that's not very Detroit at all.

Learn more about The D at its official website.

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