By David Berman | June 7, 2023
The landscape of Las Vegas is in constant flux. New options for entertainment, sports, food and gambling are always popping up and competing for the attention of the almost 40 million annual visitors to the flourishing city.
But a constant of the city, nestled in downtown Las Vegas on Fremont Street, is the El Cortez Hotel & Casino. The property, built in 1941, is the last remaining hotel and casino from the original Las Vegas.
CEO and Chairman Kenny Epstein has been a steward of the El Cortez, ensuring that the property maintains its unique ambiance while keeping it thriving and set up for a bright future.
Epstein has an almost 60-year career in hospitality, starting his career at Caesars Palace on the day it opened in 1966. He formed a relationship with Jackie Gaughan, a casino owner and operator who was a key figure in Las Vegas for decades. In 1975, Gaughan sold 5% of the El Cortez Hotel & Casino to Epstein, who has been with the property ever since. The pair became inseparable business partners and friends until Gaughan’s death in 2014.
Epstein, who purchased the property from Gaughan in 2009, said his early days in hospitality at Caesars Palace, as well as his relationship with Gaughan, taught him the importance of customer care, a lesson that he still carries with him today at the El Cortez.
“We learned that customers are the most important thing,” he said. “If you don’t have them, you don’t have anything. It’s just like a doctor. He might be the best physician in the world, (but) if he doesn’t have any patients, he’s not doing much.”
Adam Wiesberg has been the general manager of the El Cortez for around four years, staying on top of the day-to-day work that goes into keeping a property in its ninth decade of operation successful.
“I’m super fortunate to have chosen it as my property because it has a credibility and authenticity to a lot of different demographics,” Wiesberg said. “My main goal is to constantly improve the El Cortez’ image, reputation and, of course, the operation. It has always been a great historic property, but with all the improvements in Las Vegas, and all the things that are happening in the gaming industry, we have to adapt our operation to keep that authenticity and the history while also being a very comfortable modern property.”
The El Cortez has ties to infamous mobsters during the height of the mob’s involvement in Las Vegas. Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum owned the property for a short time from 1945-46. The property’s on-site restaurant is called Siegel’s 1941 and contains memorabilia from the mobster’s life.
With a rich history, the property has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2013, the first hotel and casino to be named to the list.
Las Vegas has changed “way for the better,” during Epstein’s life, he said, but has lost all of its original casino properties except one: the El Cortez. The property has maintained its original appearance and signage, but the “guts of the place,” as Epstein puts it, have been modernized with new sewer lines, electricity, air conditioning, plumbing and more.
The original 47 rooms from the hotel’s earliest days all remain, although with significant renovations. The consistent updates needed to keep an old property up to code is one of the greatest challenges of operating the El Cortez, Epstein said.
Wiesberg said that the property would not have remained in its authentic, original state if not for Epstein. He feels that anybody else who owned the property would have completely transformed and modernized the El Cortez like many other hotels and casinos in Vegas have been. The fact that the El Cortez hasn’t been completely changed actually gives it an advantage in the market, Wiesberg said.
“The value of the historic nature of the property is so great now that it makes sense to make that the primary focus,” he said. “That’s what we have, and no one else has (it). There’s other companies that certainly have some of that, but it’s like a living museum for us.”
Epstein said designers are currently working on how to add additional bars into the property. Whenever any changes are announced, whether it’s new TVs in the guest rooms or renovated public bathrooms, Wiesberg said mainstay guests are always worried the vibe of the place will be changed.
With any updates that come to the El Cortez, Epstein said it’s crucial to maintain the original charm and feeling of an over 80-year-old casino.
“We’re just gonna make this place better,” he said. That’s all I can say, but we still want to keep the same feeling of a place that was built in 1941. It’s sort of hard to do, because these designers wanted to make flashy, beautiful amenities that just don’t fit. It’s sort of hard to do something new to make it look old.”
Most of the property’s revenue comes from revenue, Wiesberg said, as it doesn’t have other entertainment options like many new casino hotels in the city.
“The casino is the heart and soul of any hotel/casino (property) because it’s like the heartbeat of the property,” he said. “If the casino is exciting, and the casino is well-run, the rest sort of falls in place, especially at the El Cortez, where most of our floorspace is gaming and most of our revenue is gaming. We don’t have movie theaters and things like that.”
Wiesberg said he can’t see himself pivoting elsewhere in the industry, as he’s fallen in love with preserving a piece of Las Vegas’ history on a daily basis.
“It’s not a normal job,” he said. “I get a lot of the satisfaction that you get from any great job, but it’s way beyond that. It’s part of the culture of the city and part of the culture of America, and so it’s an absolute honor to be a part of it.”
Being one of the last threads that ties Las Vegas to its origins means a lot to Epstein. He said he had close relationships with many of the “giants” of Vegas, including Gaughan, the Fertitta family, Steve Wynn and others; these connections serve as Epstein’s north star to this day.
“Fortunately, I knew every one of them on a personal basis,” he said. “When you see these icons, you learn from them and you can’t help but do the right thing. Just follow their lead. That’s all you have to do.”