Alexandra Epstein Brings a Touch of Cool to El Cortez

IT’S TUESDAY AFTERNOON AND A 400-player slot tournament rages in the Fiesta Room of El Cortez, a hotel and gaming establishment located a block east of Fremont Street Experience and the Strip. In operation since 1941, an ad slogan boasts: “Serving downtown since Bugsy owned the joint.” El Cortez has never been busier and never looked better.

Neither has the property’s executive vice president, Alexandra Epstein, a leading, if not the lead, force in transforming Fremont East into Vegas’ commercial and cultural center. A Columbia University pre-med grad who dropped medicine to work in the casino cage of the El Cortez, Epstein is helping guide the vintage hotel through a series of $30-million renovations, drawing more customers to a property once deemed a “grind joint.” Her commitment to architectural energy and creative innovation in bleak economic times isn’t only admirable. Judging by the huge crowd here today, it has been successful.

“There are interesting limitations in working with a 70-year-old structure,” says Epstein, giving me a tour of the hotel. “For instance, we have our original 1940s Vintage Rooms accessible only by stairs. And in the early ’60s someone thought it a good idea to plop what was essentially a townhouse on top of the garage.”

Meeting the challenges is worth it though, insists Epstein, because she and her executive team are positioning the hotel for the next generation of guests. “We aim to draw them in visually, conceptually, aesthetically,” she adds.

For El Cortez, moving from “gritty” to “retro-polish” began in 2006. Then-owner Jackie Gaughan and Alex’s father, CEO Kenny Epstein, began updating the 300 tower rooms and replaced… well, just about everything inside (carpet, air-filtration system, gaming machines) and out (an elegant walkway extending from the porte-cochère to Jackie Gaughan Plaza to Las Vegas Boulevard). If you’d walked this casino floor five years ago and now were basking in its recently enhanced splendor, you would barely recognize the El Cortez if not for its unique signage and ranch-themed exterior.

In 2008 Gaughan sold the hotel to Kenny Epstein, a partner since 1975. The remodeling drive continued—from the public restrooms to the sports book, the ambiently-lit, casually upscale steakhouse (The Flame) to the old-school Café Cortez coffee shop, which a Yelp critic says “oozes yesteryear.” More striking was the transformation of the neighboring Ogden House into the 64-room Cabana Suites, complete with business center and 24-hour treadmills-at-the-ready-gym.

“We accomplished this without ever closing our doors,” points out Epstein. The only resort element missing is an awesome pool, but that comes later this year. Epstein is overseeing that project as well.

Turning around El Cortez’s image and changing the way others perceived it required Epstein to get creative. She oversaw last year’s Design-A-Suite-Downtown contest and invited Nevada-licensed design teams to compete for a chance to envision a hotel suite at the property on a $20,000 budget. Of the 32 proposals submitted, El Cortez actually built out four unique designs and selected one winner, whose design now outfits the hotel’s remaining suites. The publicity generated by the contest was priceless, making the hotel look current, hot, and design-savvy. In a word, “cool,” which is what Epstein brings to everything she touches at El Cortez, including last year’s short-film contest for which local filmmakers submitted cinematic narratives about the hotel and its history. The prize was the chance to be hired to shoot an El Cortez TV commercial.

Epstein’s crowning achievement thus far has been Emergency Arts Center, a once-dormant medical building on Fremont that she had the imagination to lease to downtown residents and small arts-business owners Michael and Jennifer Cornthwaite. The result has been the emergence of a bona fide downtown cultural center with a great coffeehouse, art galleries, fashion stalls, and small design firms.

“By working to improve our surroundings, we elevate our own property,” offers Epstein, sharing another secret of her and the El Cortez’s success.

Epstein realized that her idea of hotels collaborating with the local arts community was something radical in Vegas, but she didn’t stop with Emergency Arts. Instead, the lone female on the El Cortez’s executive team grew bolder. The neighboring Jackie Gaughan Plaza is now where outdoor and open-to-the-public culture events take place—the monthly Vegas StrEATs food, art, and music festival, the hotel’s annual Classic Car and Motorcycle Show, benefit dinners, concerts.

Despite Vegas’ high unemployment and wounded real-estate market, Epstein believes downtown has winning cards to play. Imploding old hotels to make way for sleek products that add rooms to an already-overbuilt market didn’t work out so well. “The classic hotels, by simply updating and honoring our history and tradition, might just lead Vegas into a brighter tomorrow,” she says.

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Alexandra Epstein.