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July 24, 2014

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George Maloof is still the face of the Palms, optimism

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Leila Navidi

I’ve been working for free for four years, actually. I didn’t pay myself,” George Maloof said about his role at the Palms.

George Maloof

George Maloof sits down with John Katsilometes to talk about the future of the Palms Casino Resort.

George Maloof

George Maloof during a 2006 interview at the Palms. Launch slideshow »

Palms Casino Resort and Palms Place

Launch slideshow »

It is October 2001, just weeks after the attacks of 9/11 rocked the country, sending it into a psychological and financial tailspin. The Las Vegas resort industry is stricken as Americans fear boarding any aircraft bound for anywhere.

And the first resort to open in the aftermath of this tragedy is George Maloof’s Palms. It is set for a Nov. 15 unveiling. In that slit of time between tragedy and what the city hopes will be triumph, Maloof leads a tour of maybe a dozen journalists and assorted VIPs through the property, still under construction.

Maloof pads across concrete floors sprayed with sawdust, raising his voice to be heard above the slamming of planks and the whir of Skil Saws. Maloof is wearing a nondescript dress shirt, unbuttoned at the top, and dark slacks. His curled black hair peeks from beneath a construction helmet, and he sort of resembles a Fisher-Price figure as a fully grown adult.

Maloof and his hotel will need to be fully and formally outfitted in time for the grand affair.

Maloof walks the group through the finer amenities of the 455-room hotel tower, standing 42 stories above Flamingo Road and looking across the street at the Rio. He shows us Ghostbar, the lounge overlooking the Strip where patrons can stand on a pane of glass on an outdoor deck and peer down on the pool deck 450 feet below.

This is the first any of us has seen what are, today, some of the hotel’s most famous features.

We come to a halt at Rain in the Desert, the nightclub that allows guests to flow in and out of the back pool area. Maloof happily describes a fire effect inside the club that he says must be seen to be believed.

But what is most remarkable about this visit is the send-off.

As Maloof bids adieu to the group, the hotel owner pulls a small stack of scrap paper from his pocket and hands the little squares to all of his tour guests.

He’s handing out his personal cell phone number.

“Call anytime,” he says, pushing the number into outreached hands.

The message is clear: I’m George. I’m the owner. I am the brains and heart of this hotel. I am its face.

•••

Ten years on and George Maloof is still the face of the Palms. His family name is still placed on the hotel marquee. Maloof makes every red carpet event and every significant party hosted by the hotel.

When Hugh Hefner turns 85 at The Playboy Club, Maloof is there to toast the adult empire’s overlord. When Shaquille O’Neal -- who once referred to the Maloof family’s NBA team as “The Sacramento Queens” -- marks his retirement from the NBA with an official send-off party at Moon, Maloof is there to deftly remind the hundreds in attendance that he is, in fact, the hotel’s king.

It is indeed all fun and games for Maloof as the hotel’s top official, until the news is centered on issues other than celebrity-spiced events at the Palms. As the face of the hotel, Maloof is a solitary figure required to answer questions of concern when it is announced his family has restructured its ownership, bringing on partners TPG Opportunities Partners and Leonard Green & Partners to eradicate $400 million in debt accrued by the hotel during the recession. They own 49 percent each.

The Maloof family, for whom George runs the Palms, holds on to 2 percent with an opportunity to grow that percentage to 20. The family once owned 85 percent of the property. Dire economic times forced the Maloofs to seek help, no question.

Coinciding with this agreement is the appointment of Joe Magliarditi, late of the Hard Rock Hotel, as the resort’s president. He replaces Paul Pusateri, who resigned his post in June.

When such changes in authority unfold, the focus and concern are not with the company. Usually, they’re directed at Maloof. The question is not, “What is happening with the Palms?” Typically, it’s, “What’s happening with George?”

But not to worry. Maloof has been able to live a comfortable lifestyle even as he shifted his own salary to the hotel, saying the decision was his alone so he could shore up the property.

But in a larger sense, the individual focus on Maloof is a reminder that rarely in today’s Las Vegas is a resort so personalized. Generations ago, such resort operators as Benny Binion (the Horseshoe), Jackie Gaughan (first at El Cortez) and Wilbur Clark (Desert Inn) were the faces of their properties.

Today, such personal affiliation is rare. Yes, Steve Wynn is certainly the face of his resort empire, and Sheldon Adelson is without question the lord of the manor at Venetian and Palazzo. But Maloof’s physical presence at the Palms is so frequent and familiar that it is not uncommon to happen upon him as he’s chatting with guests in the hotel’s Brendan Theaters lobby or in the sports book.

A typical episode from about four years ago: A guest could not find a particular kind of breath mint in the hotel’s gift shop. The young guy turned and saw Maloof, who happened to be buying bottled water. The guest, not realizing he had encountered the hotel owner, guessed that Maloof was an employee and asked him where he could find this particular plastic container of mints.

Maloof showed him, then waited for the man to make his purchase before buying his own bottle of Fiji water. It all would have made for an effective commercial for the hotel, actually.

Maloof’s relative youth sets him apart, too, from most top resort executives in Las Vegas. He is 46. He’s hardly the old guard, even as a casino operator for 10 years. He feels as comfortable walking into Ghostbar as he does any hotel conference room. In fact, it was during a midday interview at Ghostbar that Maloof was asked if he thought the new Palms owners were investing in him as much as the hotel’s brand.

“I think so, yeah,” he said. Is he comfortable with that, “Oh yeah, sure,” he said, reminding that Maloof’s accessibility and candor do not always lead to elaborate answers.

Maloof has said that the focus on him, personally, is easy because he has been so willing to be the spokesman. He is fine with providing the personal touch on property and even starring in commercials promoting various casino promotions, but he says he would never star in a reality TV show based on his life at the hotel. Not because he possesses an aversion to being in front of the camera, but because the presence of a recording crew would impede his ability to make quick decisions and run the hotel efficiently.

Maloof even tried, in vain, to talk his sister, Adrienne, out of accepting a role in the reality-based series “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” before becoming hooked on the show himself.

As it is, Maloof has been feeling the reality drama that will never make a TV show. The face of the Palms has been feeling the city’s downturn for more than four years. It is evident, in his words, when he says he has not accepted a paycheck during those four years so he can allot that money (which he concedes is millions of dollars) to Palms Place.

The struggles are evident, often, in the fatigue of his face. The dark circles under Maloof’s eyes reflect a schedule that never ceases. Even while dealing with the stresses of the Palms’ financials, he’s negotiating on behalf of his family with Sacramento civic leaders to forge a new arena deal for the Kings.

But through that exhaustion, Maloof says there is hope. The $400 million debt having been removed, the new ownership team can start a comeback of sorts for the Palms.

“We will enhance the property and do things that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but the economy has made it so it’s not the right time,” he said.

There will be no build-out of new rooms, but expect renovations to the casino and hotel in the near future. Asked if he expects a new entertainment venue on the property, he said, “I have thoughts about it, some unique things that people will like. Maybe (a new venue will be opened), I don’t know; I think I’ve said enough (laughs). It is very competitive in this city.”

Indeed, the face of the Palms is showing his poker face. He reveals only enough to convey that he and the hotel his family founded will be OK.

With all the challenges, George Maloof remains the face of optimism and, he assures, the face of the future of Las Vegas.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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