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September 30, 2014

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McCartney eager to enact change on the corner of ‘Main and Main’

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Leila Navidi

Tom McCartney.

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Tom McCartney, the former president of Planet Hollywood who will now be the new president of the Tropicana, inside KUNV 91.5 FM studios on the campus of UNLV in Las Vegas on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009.

Tom McCartney started the year as V.P. of Luxor, shifted to Planet Hollywood to work with CEO Robert Earl and bring in such productions as “Peepshow” and “America’s Got Talent Live,” and next week joins longtime friend and colleague in the resort industry Alex Yemenidjian to help with a $125 million rebranding effort at Tropicana.

Otherwise, boring year.

What follows are excerpts from the interview I conducted with McCartney on Monday afternoon for “Our Metropolis,” the weekly issues-and-affairs show I host each Tuesday at 6 p.m. on KUNV 91.5 FM:

You were hired in January to move over from Luxor to Planet Hollywood with CEO Robert Earl. Why did you decide to make that move at that time?

It was an exciting opportunity and one I’d thought a lot about very hard before making the move. I’d been with the MGM Mirage corporation for 13 years and had an opportunity to work at a number of properties with Felix Rappaport, who is doing a phenomenal job as president of Luxor and Excalibur, needless to say. At that time, I was executive vice president of Luxor, and the opportunity to be responsible for a hotel in its totality was something that I was interested in doing.

Hadn’t you done that already in your career, in Atlantic City?

I’d been general manager of hotels, nongaming hotels, but this was the first time I’d had a chance to run a gaming hotel here in Las Vegas. I became part of Robert Earl’s team, and I have a great relationship with Robert, still. I’ve had an opportunity to work on some great projects, the opening of “Peepshow” was very exciting, the Miss America Pageant and of course the ever-controversial Miss USA Pageant were both great pageants that brought a lot of excitement to the city and to Planet Hollywood.

I’ve had the opportunity during my tenure to present “America’s Got Talent,” with Jerry Springer as the host, who’s also the host of the television show. We did a 10-week run with “America’s Got Talent” with this year’s winners, including Kevin Skinner, who was the champion, and we got to see individuals who, maybe a year ago, were working in another line of work, like (in Skinner’s case) a chicken catcher. I’m still trying to figure out what a chicken catcher is, and he was an unemployed chicken catcher, which makes it twice as bad, or twice as interesting (laughs). But I learned about what a chicken catcher does, and I can see why he wanted to become a singer.

When you talk about the Planet Hollywood experience, originally you had signed a three-year contract, and all of the projects you’re talking about were entertainment projects. Didn’t you want to do more in your career in terms of renovation and rebranding of a property than bring shows to a hotel that had already been rebranded?

That was the original intent, but after working around construction walls for the past 11 or 12 years, it was kind of nice to work in a hotel that had been finished. The team at Planet Hollywood had done a great job of repositioning and rebranding that hotel. It has several great restaurants, the entertainment is very good, and the general feel of the property is something you’d be genuinely surprised with. So the goal was to take a completed property from a construction standpoint and evolve the brand of Planet Hollywood, and the key components were celebrity and entertainment.

The focus for me was to work on developing more entertainment brands for the hotel. Robert has the biggest Rolodex in the world. He knows every celebrity, and knows them well. It wasn’t uncommon to be with Robert and have a phone call from Bruce Willis, and hang up the phone and it’s Demi Moore calling -- what a coincidence. In fact, one weekend, not all that long ago, their daughter Rumer celebrated her 21st birthday at Planet Hollywood, and Bruce and Emma (Heming) were there, along with Demi and Ashton (Kutcher), so it was a real family event. The list is very extensive of celebrities who visit Planet Hollywood.

As you talk about leaving Planet Hollywood, the logical deduction is you’re leaving because Harrah’s is taking over the property and is bringing in its own team and you’ll have to look at another opportunity, regardless. Is that right?

Harrah’s is preparing to submit their application for approval so that they’re able to operate as well as own debt for Planet Hollywood. Their plans for the property are still being developed. They certainly, in my conversations, anticipate keeping the lion’s share of the team that is there. They're maybe some individuals who want to move on. In my situation, what occurred was, there was a fork in the road, and I took it (laughs). When the announcement about Harrah’s occurred, there were some individuals who reached out to me to look at other opportunities, and one phone call led to another, and a mutual friend of mine and Mr. Yemenidjian contacted me and suggested that maybe he and I have a conversation.

When did you first encounter Alex Yemenidjian?

I met Alex in 1996, when I was recruited from Atlantic City. I was with the Caesars World Group for about 14 years and was recruited to come to Las Vegas to be part of the group that opened New York-New York, which at the time was a joint partnership between MGM and Primm.

What are your thoughts about CityCenter?

First, Jim Murren and his team at MGM Mirage have done a spectacular job in redefining what entertainment, hospitality, gaming and retail can look like. It is not an imitation or duplication of anything here or anywhere else. It is a one-of-a-kind experience. That goes for the architecture and style of service and experience you see inside the space. I think, for the uninitiated, it’s going to be an acquired taste, only because it is so different from what they have seen, but that difference begs the reason to see it and experience it and see how the city is evolving. And that is a good thing. Obviously, you wouldn’t pick these economic conditions to open the largest privately funded project in the United States, but not having that kind of crystal ball, Jim and his team have done a spectacular job of preparing to open the facility in the style manner in which it was designed. It is a game-changer. What it does is raises everybody’s game. It forces everyone to take a look and realize to compete, you need to do the very best you can to execute your style of service and your style of experience.

How it impacts Tropicana is perfect, because we’re in the process of redefining what Tropicana is, and we’re not in the same competitive set as CityCenter. We feel that our timing is good, we’ll be able to compete very nicely as we improve the hotel. We’re taking a property on the corner of Main and Main -- Tropicana Boulevard and Las Vegas Boulevard -- and taking it forward.

Didn’t you once make $2.50 an hour as an FM radio DJ?

Yes, I was highly compensated (laughs). This was at WVPO, the voice of the Poconos, in Strasburg, Pa. My on-air name was Thomas John McCartney -- which is my name, actually, and I spent hours thinking of it. I’m great with the obvious. I was compensated $2.50 an hour, part time, and it was discovered by some of the full-time personalities that I was making 25 to 50 cents an hour more than they were, and that caused quite a stir among the full-time employees. I think $1.75 was minimum wage.

Is that why you’re so comfortable with the media?

I suppose, but it probably starts even before that. My parents were very high-profile people in Pennsylvania and spent a lot of time speaking to the media. My father was commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police and had extensive exposure to the media with some very high-profile cases. My mother was involved with politics. If her picture wasn’t on the front page of the newspaper every week, she was very concerned something was wrong. It became second nature to me.

In fact, when I was in high school, I played football for the Lehighton Indians and was also a sports writer for the Times-News newspaper. I was actually a reporter, and reported about games I played in. I had a statistician take stats and would write the game from memory. I had good recall. I was a tackle. It was funny, I got paid $2 an article and 10 cents an inch. I wrote my own name a couple of times. I recorded a safety. I returned an interception and ran it back for a touchdown, and that was included in the story. It helps to be very objective (laughs).

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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