the strip:

Phil Ruffin shuns high end as he modifies Treasure Island

Amid luxury boom, Ruffin eyes niche as a midlevel resort

Fireworks provide the finale during the outdoor pirate show Sirens of TI in front of Treasure Island Friday, May 27, 2011.

Ruffin's Treasure Island

Pyrotechnics light up the outdoor pirate show Sirens of TI in front of Treasure Island in Siren's Cove Friday, May 27, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Phil Ruffin's First Year

Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin checks out the saddle bar stools inside Gilley's, a country-and-western bar he plans to open in later this month. Launch slideshow »

Ruffin's T.I.: One Year Later (4-1-2010)

Ruffin\'s T.I.: One Year Later (4-1-2010)

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Almost exactly one year after Kansas billionaire Phil Ruffin bought Treasure Island, he takes us on a tour of the changes he's made to the property, including new restaurants and a new spa. Ruffin says business is slower than he had hoped, but that T.I. "will survive" because of a lack of debt and the $92-million room remodeling that MGM undertook before he bought the property.

Ruffin Takes Over T.I. (3-21-2009)

Ruffin Takes Over T.I. (3-21-2009)

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Kansas billionaire Phil Ruffin reflects on his $775 million purchase of Treasure Island and his first day as the Strip's latest casino owner. Ruffin purchased Treasure Island from MGM Mirage Friday morning.

It’s been two years since Phil Ruffin moved into his new digs, but the casino owner isn’t quite settled into his home on the Strip.

Since Ruffin purchased Treasure Island from MGM Resorts International in March 2009, he has continuously made tweaks to his resort to bring it up to his standards. He’s not making upgrades, but rather fitting his property to what he believes the new Strip customer wants: a midlevel resort.

It’s a strategy he’s had since his first Strip resort, the New Frontier, where the marquee often advertised “Cold Beers and Dirty Girls” and $6 chicken dinners. But the hotel was imploded in November 2007 after Ruffin sold the land to the owners of New York’s Plaza hotel for $1.2 billion in the midst of the luxury hotel boom on the Strip.

In all, Ruffin has spent about $20 million in renovations since he purchased Treasure Island to make it a resort for the everyman, the antithesis of the customers his across-the-street neighbors Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands are going after. It’s a niche that he thinks the Strip is missing as pricey restaurants and extravagant rooms have become the norm during recent years.

“We’re midrange. Our crowd is about 40 years old and real high energy. We’re not real high-end. Steve (Wynn) and Bellagio have that pretty well captured. We don’t go for that,” Ruffin said.

To carry out that mission, Ruffin started by taking out Treasure Island’s high-end Italian restaurant, Francesco’s, to resurrect Gilley’s Saloon, a staple at the New Frontier. The owner swapped white linen tablecloths and bistro tables for bar stools made out of saddles and the street-level seating. And of course, the mechanical bull has returned.

He replaced the store that sold Rolexes with a jewelry shop selling cubic zirconia baubles, added a pizza-by-the-slice shop across from Mystere Theatre and swapped the trendy Social House restaurant for another value-friendly Asian restaurant.

“We had a high-end Italian place, but people are shying away from high-end, so we put in Gilley’s. High-end is tough today. To sit down with four or five people for a $400, $500 tab is probably not the venue we’re going after,” Ruffin said.

Next, Ruffin will be adding Señor Frog’s in December, a popular bar and restaurant in spring-break destinations such as Cancun and the Virgin Islands. The outdoor-indoor venue will sit on the hotel’s lagoon in the space of the former Christian Audigier nightclub and Khotan Asian restaurant.

It’s not a nightclub, but a party scene that fits Ruffin’s older customers who aren’t looking to spend thousands on bottle service. Those types of venues aren’t what Ruffin’s customers are looking for, which is why the casino owner took out Treasure Island’s two nightclubs within the first year of operation.

“We have Kahunaville, which does very well. Nightclubs — we just didn’t fare well with them. There are so many nightclubs. Everyone’s got just one or two. Ours were just marginal,” Ruffin said.

Señor Frog’s will also be a way to draw the 9,000 to 10,000 people who view the pirate show each night. Right now, only 20 percent venture inside the resort, Ruffin said. The casino owner shells out $5 million a year to produce the free attraction.

“We needed to justify that by adding new venues to keep people coming into the hotel. So what we were looking for was a high-energy entertainment venue,” Ruffin said.

Ruffin boasts that Treasure Island was the only location on the Strip that the Señor Frog’s was considering while searching for its second U.S. location because the resort could offer a faux-waterfront venue. Sure, Wynn and Bellagio have lagoons, but yardlong margaritas wouldn’t have fit at the luxury resorts.

Construction will begin on Señor Frog’s in late summer with an opening planned for December. In the meantime, Ruffin is adding another Strip-front margarita bar and Starbucks where Treasure Island’s entrance and driveway once stood. With the new venues and the opening of Gilley’s, Treasure Island will have hired about 200 people by the end of the year.

Where you won’t see Ruffin making changes for the next few years is Treasure Island’s rooms. MGM Resorts spent $92 million to redo the hotel’s rooms from top to bottom, which is why Ruffin said he paid “so much” for the resort. Ruffin has, however, increased rates $10 to $15 over the past year as business conditions have improved in the gaming industry.

But what’s next for Ruffin after he’s ordered his last renovation and the last coat of paint sets?

Probably not overseas, Ruffin said. He’s too focused in the U.S. with his Las Vegas resort, joint venture in Trump Tower, two racetracks in Kansas and numerous real estate holdings across the country.

But maybe another Strip property?

As a man focused on value, he said only if the price is right.

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  1. To make a long story short Mr. Ruffin is going to cater to the middle class.

    Finally a rich man has seen where his bread and butter comes from.
    Mr. Ruffin should be the example instead of the exception.

  2. So, Mr. Ruffin is turning Treasure Island into "Spring Break on the Strip." it sure looks like it is working for him, but let's be honest: That isn't the only market existing between Travelodge and thousand-dollar dinners. He's targeting a specific type of visitor, and it's not "middle class" it's "blue collar party people." Nothing wrong with that at all, but there remains a hole or two in the wide gap between cheap and pricey.

  3. Seems like he's going after a market that most casinos have realized just don't have a lot of money-good economy or bad, in so doing he's focusing on quantity instead of quality. Focusing too heavily on one market can be a pitfall, esp. when the economy rebounds and the "blue collar" workers have more to spend and he doesn't offer something that they want. The Frontier seemed to have that issue in it's last years. He catered to a crowd that brought coolers full of beer and sleeping bags, so he needed the quantity of people to make it profitable.

    Anyone heard of the tales of duck tape holding the carpet in the Frontier together?

  4. Phil,is a savvy businessman. I am sure he is aware of the formula of reinvesting a portion of his profits back into the business. I wish him all the luck and good health in the world. Hang in there,phil.

  5. With every other casino hotel reaching out for the high end and all of the "trendy" nightclubs with faux celebrities, it's nice to see someone going for a nicer place in the mid range. The TI is a much nicer (newer) place than the old Frontier (New Frontier?) ever was during the Ruffin years (and long before he took it over). One cannot really compare the 2. With TI he bought a newer resort that wasn't as rundown as the Frontier. No need to "fix it up" since it's already a nice place. I don't see it as the "party scene" he is after. They all go to the Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock, and the clubs they have. The TI seems to be going for the people willing to spend a little more (not a lot more) for a nicer place than IP, Riviera, etc. I think it will succeed with this formula.