ATLANTIC CITY - Joann Lardizzone, a cocktail server at Tropicana Casino and Resort, spotted a man on the casino floor who was wearing glasses and a cranberry-colored shirt. She blurted out in excitement, "Are you our new president?"
Tony Rodio smiled, shook Lardizzone's hand and introduced himself as, yes, the new boss of the Boardwalk casino.
"Welcome to the family," Lardizzone warmly replied.
The veteran gaming executive - a self-described "South Jersey guy" - has returned to Atlantic City after a 21/2-year stint running an Indiana casino. At Tropicana, his task is to revitalize a casino hotel that has seen better days. Tropicana's owner, billionaire investor Carl Icahn, wants results. Tropicana's last chief executive officer, Mark Giannantonio, was fired in May.
"He's got a great resume for Atlantic City and this casino," Icahn said of Rodio. "I'm looking forward to seeing this casino flourish with him at the helm."
Lardizzone, 60, of Linwood, has spent nearly 27 years at Tropicana. During that time, she has seen a lot of CEOs come and go, but Rodio's arrival has generated a buzz nonetheless among employees.
"We're looking forward to it," Lardizzone said.
Rodio, 52, has been on the job only a few days, but he has already been through a whirlwind, including overseeing executive meetings and acquainting himself with the property.
He describes himself as an aggressive, high-energy executive who is not afraid to experiment with new ideas. He said it is premature for him to begin laying out long-term plans for Tropicana's revival. First, a master plan must be completed in coming months to guide the casino's redevelopment.
However, Tropicana gave a sneak peek of things to come by announcing Monday that it is creating a new "party pit" on the casino floor that will feature sexy female blackjack and roulette dealers clad in revealing costumes.
Tropicana spokeswoman Diane Spiers described the new employees as "dealer-tainers," meaning they will entertain customers as well as deal the cards.
The new party pit will have six blackjack and two roulette tables in the middle of the casino floor next to the Rumba Lounge nightclub. It will make its debut over the Fourth of July weekend.
Tropicana is the latest Atlantic City casino to offer a sexier image in the fight for young, well-heeled male customers. Resorts Casino Hotel, in keeping with its new Roaring '20s theme, has decked out its cocktail servers in skimpy costumes reminiscent of the outfits worn by the Prohibition-era flapper girls.
Resorts is facing discrimination lawsuits filed by dozens of middle-aged former cocktail servers who claim they were fired to make way for younger, sexier women who would look good in the revealing costumes. Resorts has denied the allegations.
Spiers said no one was fired to make room for Tropicana's "dealer-tainers," which are brand-new positions.
In addition to sexing up its image, Tropicana plans to incorporate the Old Havana theme of its shopping and entertainment complex, known as The Quarter, into the casino floor. Some new Quarter-like shops, restaurants and nightclubs will be considered for dead spots in the sprawling casino, Rodio said.
"The Quarter is outstanding. I think it is one of the most impressive things in the city," he said. "I think we need to take the theming in The Quarter and carry it over into the casino and the rest of the facility."
The Quarter, a $285 million expansion completed in late 2004, began Atlantic City's turn toward more nongaming attractions to complement the casino action. The shopping mall-size project features 200,000 square feet of space and not one slot machine or gaming table.
"Atlantic City will have to reinvent itself by offering more attractions and amenities," Rodio said, comparing Atlantic City's hoped-for revival to Las Vegas' rise in the late 1980s. "It has to offer more than just slot machines to drive daytrippers from New York."
For all of its aspirations to become more of a Las Vegas-style tourist resort, packed with extravagant nongaming amenities, Atlantic City remains, for the time being, a gambling-centric town mired in a four-year revenue slump. Capitalizing on the public's thirst for big-stakes gambling, Tropicana recently began courting high-end table games players as the centerpiece of its casino strategy.
Until February, Tropicana had posted five straight months of revenue increases from its table games operations while the rest of the Atlantic City market shrank. Then its luck ran out in spectacular fashion in April, when a high-rolling blackjack player won $5.8 million. The same gambler, Don Johnson, of Bensalem, Pa., also won more than $4 million playing blackjack at Caesars and another $5 million at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa over an incredible six-month streak starting last December.
Rodio disclosed Monday that another gambler, whose name was not released, won $5.3 million last Wednesday night while playing craps, blackjack and mini-baccarat.
Speculation mounted that Johnson's big win at Tropicana cost Giannantonio his job. Rodio disputed that, saying that Icahn simply wanted to change leadership to give the casino "a new set of eyes." Despite the switch in leadership, Tropicana will not change its high-stakes table games play.
"Mr. Icahn is committed to that," Rodio said. "We are willing to take aggressive table limits."
Icahn headed a group of lenders that bought Tropicana last year for $200 million after the casino's troubled former owner, Columbia Sussex Corp., was stripped of its New Jersey gaming license in December 2007 and the property was put up for sale. The recession and Columbia's lengthy, although ultimately unsuccessful, lawsuit to regain its license slowed down the search for a new buyer before Icahn emerged to scoop up the casino in a bankruptcy sale.
Rodio got the Tropicana casino job after he originally sought to become the new CEO of the Icahn-controlled parent company Tropicana Entertainment Inc. Daniel Ninivaggi was instead named as Tropicana Entertainment's interim president and CEO, but Rodio's appointment at the Tropicana casino allowed him to return to Atlantic City, where he has spent virtually all of his 31-year gaming career.
"I've been in New Jersey all of my life, except for two and a half years," he said. "I'm a South Jersey guy."
Rodio, who grew up in Hammonton, started humbly in the casino industry, earning $4 per hour as an accounting clerk at Harrah's Resort. He transitioned into the management ranks, holding a succession of executive positions at Harrah's, Showboat Casino Hotel, Trump Marina Hotel Casino, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort and Resorts Casino Hotel.
He was president of both the Hilton and Resorts while those casinos were still owned by the private real estate investment firm Colony Capital LLC. Resorts was sold last December and the Hilton is on the market after defaulting on its mortgage. Colony switched management teams for Resorts and the Hilton in late 2008, leading to Rodio's departure to Lawrenceburg, Ind., to take charge of a riverboat casino.
Rodio oversaw the $336 million transformation and rebranding of the former Argosy riverboat casino into the glitzy Hollywood Casino. The Hollywood Casino is owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., a company that once had casino aspirations in Atlantic City before the market tanked in the recession. Rodio had hoped to be part of Penn's casino development as a way to eventually return to Atlantic City, but his plans were dashed when the company killed the projects.
Although he said he enjoyed working at Penn, Rodio saw the CEO opening at Tropicana Entertainment as an opportunity to move up in the industry. He didn't get the Tropicana Entertainment corporate job, but landed in Atlantic City anyway as the new boss of the Tropicana casino.
His old house in Hammonton, about 30 miles outside Atlantic City, awaits.
"I never sold my home," he said.
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