Tilman Fertitta is a Houston billionaire who owns two corporate jets, two helicopters, a 164-foot yacht and a Bentley luxury automobile dealership.
Still, he says, “I’m a plain, normal guy.” Fertitta added the former Trump Marina Hotel Casino to his Landry’s Inc. business empire last year, buying it for $38 million and spending an extra $150 million to transform it into the Golden Nugget Atlantic City.
Q: You bought a money-losing casino in a slumping market. Despite the risks, why do you think the Golden Nugget brand is a good fit for this casino and this market?
A: First off, I think the Golden Nugget brand is just a strong brand. People know the name, the Golden Nugget. What I loved was this box here. I kind of looked at this box and said this is like somebody’s handed me a mat to paint a piece of art on. It would be like somebody building the structure and saying, “Now, come finish it.” And that is what we were able to do here.
This is a brand new property. Somebody can come here today who had never been to Atlantic City and we could tell them this property opened up today, because we touched every square inch of it. It’s a special property. It feels good and it’s easy to get around.
We just think we are going to able to get a little piece of the pie in this market. It’s still a $3.2 billion gaming market. We feel like we are good for the market. We feel like we brought attention to the market by having a Golden Nugget here. I think it makes the Marina District even stronger. Now you have three major properties with major names right here together.
Q: Originally, your company looked into buying the former Atlantic City Hilton, another undersized and unprofitable casino. Why did you choose the Trump Marina over the Hilton, now known as the Atlantic Club?
A: I decided it would be better to be in the Marina District. I thought the customer base was a little different over here. I couldn’t make the (Hilton’s) box right. It just didn’t have the size and the magnitude or the ceiling heights to ever make it special.
Even the outside of this building (Golden Nugget) was still a perfect square. I knew I could look at it and make it look new, which it does. I didn’t think I could do that with the Atlantic City Hilton. So it was really a no-brainer.
Q: We hear so much about your vision in guiding your construction projects. What inspires you, and where do you get your ideas?
A: What inspires me is, I am one of the fortunate ones. A lot of us have vision and creativity. Financially, I’m able to make my visions come true, so that inspires me. I love to create. I love to develop.
Q: Do you have any background in design or architecture that allows you to put your vision into motion?
A: No, but I think we are born with talents. I’ve always said this to everybody, that all of us are special in our own ways. Look at the people who can play a musical instrument by ear. Look at the guy who can paint perfectly and cut that line in, or the guy who can take that car engine apart and can put it back together. When I watch a carpenter build a table real quick, if I tried to build something, you would break your neck as soon as you sat in it.
But God blessed me with two talents, and one is to know how to financially engineer and do things. And he blessed me with the creativity to look at something and have the vision of what it is going to look like and then be able to bring the pieces in.
As soon as I looked at this building the first time, I said, “You know, I’m going to put a cafe right on the lobby floor because I want that energy. I’m going to do the party pit here, I’m going to do Rush (lounge) here. Right when you walk in the casino, I’m going to have Lillie’s (restaurant) and I’m going to have Grotto (restaurant) to have that energy of the restaurants right when you walk in.” That’s what I do. I know how to financially engineer things, and I know how to be creative with a development project.
Q: Much has been made lately about transforming Atlantic City into a more diverse tourism destination that features more than just gambling. What are your impressions of the city now? What do you think needs to be improved?
A: One of the things I wanted to create here was a resort. That’s why I put that big brand new spa right there on the floor right above the lobby. That is why we put the money into the pool area that we did.
I think the message we need to sell here is that we are a resort destination. We’re on the water. We have something that other people don’t have. We have a beach and these beautiful hotels and we have good convention space and we have these resort hotels now. I think that is how we need to sell the city.
Q: What do you think of Atlantic City’s new $20 million marketing and publicity campaign? The campaign has been launched to draw tourists from throughout the Northeast, but makes no mention of casino gambling, even though it was funded by the casino industry through its marketing coalition, the Atlantic City Alliance.
A: What I’ve seen of the program, it is more of a lifestyle marketing campaign. If it comes off the way I think it is going to come off, I think it is going to be very good for Atlantic City. What you want to show here is the lifestyle of coming here and being at these resort hotels.
Q: You also own Golden Nugget casinos in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev. Are there any cues that you can take from those casinos and those cities to enhance the operations of the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City?
A: We all use our ideas and experience, but one of the things Las Vegas has been great at doing is going out and buying different types of events at different times of the year. It’s like having the national rodeo finals in the second week of December, when it is a very slow time in Vegas. So for one week, we have this big boom. And Vegas has been very good at having a speedway event or a golf tournament, filling in the worst time for conventions and transient business with a special event. I think that is something we can work on here.
Q: You spent $150 million out of your own pocket to transform Trump Marina into the Golden Nugget. Do you believe the upgrades are enough to make Golden Nugget competitive with the stronger casinos in town, particularly Borgata and Harrah’s, which are next door to Golden Nugget in the Marina District?
A: I think all you have to do is walk into this property and then walk into the others and I think you will see this property here is as competitive — from a room product, from an outlet product, from our retail to our restaurants to our casino floor — with anybody’s. I don’t think anybody has any areas that are any nicer than ours. From our poker room to our retail to our high limits. I think that even though we spent $150 million, I think it feels like a $250 million renovation.
Q: Do you think the brand new $2.4 billion Revel casino will help or hurt Golden Nugget and the other Atlantic City casinos? It certainly adds a powerful new competitor to the market.
A: Competition has never really scared me. Once again, I feel like we will always get a piece of the pie. I think that Revel is good for Atlantic City. I think it will bring people to town, and I think it just brings more attention to Atlantic City. It’s not like it’s 4,000 rooms. I think it is going to max out at around 1,500 rooms. I think it is good for all of us here. I think it could be bad for some of the weaker sisters in town, but I think the strong will survive.
Q: What is next for Golden Nugget? There has been talk of a major expansion that could include a 500-room hotel tower.
A: What is next? I don’t know. You know, we are so happy with the way this project turned out. We got it done very quickly, in 11 months. We have all kinds of different ideas. We still want to build a big nightclub. When we reach a certain point, we will build another tower.
I will be able to focus now on the marina some and come up with some ideas for it. We just want to see how things go and get things moving all in the right direction. It’s so great to get all of the construction over with so people can come in and really get a good feel for this project.
Q: Next door to Golden Nugget is a long-vacant, 14-acre tract of waterfront land that would give Golden Nugget a platform for even more expansion. Have you spoken to the land’s owner, MGM, about possibly buying it?
A: We might have had a preliminary talk about a year ago. But if things continue to go well here, we would be interested in even doing our own boardwalk over here, with restaurants and amusements.
We are just taking steps. The first step, phase one, was to get what was here remodeled and be competitive. I think we are going to be very competitive. I think as long as things go well, we will always look at expanding.
Q: When you bought Trump Marina, you also inherited a lease with the state of New Jersey to operate the Farley State Marina. Boaters say the aging marina needs to be rejuvenated. Does Golden Nugget have any plans to make improvements?
A: Well, we have already made some improvements. We added different types of electrical and water (systems) and we are starting a lot of woodwork. We are going to continue to improve the marina.
Q: Those sound like short-term improvements. Can you say what you plan to do for long-term improvements?
A: Besides taking care of the smaller yachts, we would love to create something where we could bring in and have this be a destination for big yachts. We have a lot of activity out here, like you get in other parts of the world. We think because of this great destination here, it would be good for all of Atlantic City and for the other boaters here as well.
Q: You currently have your 164-foot yacht, named “Boardwalk,” moored at the Farley Marina. How long will it stay here? Is the yacht a symbol of Golden Nugget’s intention to revitalize the marina?
A: Absolutely. We want to bring boat shows here and bring bigger boats here, and it will be here on and off forever. I love it being here, 100 yards from the front door of that casino. It will especially be here a lot between May and October. It gets a little cold here in January. I might have to go south.
Q: Your yacht’s name is not derived from the Atlantic City Boardwalk, but rather your Kemah Boardwalk Marina in Galveston Bay, near Houston. Kemah is a 60-acre entertainment complex that also includes a hotel, restaurants and amusement rides. Are any Kemah-style attractions coming to Atlantic City at the Golden Nugget?
A: Not yet, but as we make this project more successful we would love to do a variation of a Kemah Boardwalk right here. It’s probably the best master-planned boardwalk in the world. People have come from all over and tried to copy different things about it. But what makes it special is that we operate every business there. It’s master-planned — the signage, the restaurants, the shops, the rides — so it operates at an extremely high level. I would love to do something like that here.
Q: How successful is Kemah?
A: Extremely successful. It is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the Houston area.
Q: Do you think something like that would be a good fit for Atlantic City?
Q: Your main company, Landry’s Inc., is an empire of casino gambling, restaurant chains nationwide and entertainment. What does the future hold for the Landry’s brand?
A: We are going to continue to grow. That’s what we do, and continue to develop. We just bought a (casino) property in Biloxi that we are going to make look like this (the Golden Nugget).
Q: The Chart House and Vic & Anthony’s restaurants are examples of some of the Landry’s-owned restaurants that are part of the Golden Nugget’s attractions. In fact, all of the restaurants, retail shops and lounges in Golden Nugget are Landry’s outlets. What advantages do you enjoy in having all of your outlets in your casino?
A: We operate at an extremely high level. We are able to bring a consistency, because this is what we do at a higher level than other people. We are not dependent on somebody else. We do it ourselves.
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