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September 17, 2014

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With opening of Nikki Beach and Club Nikki, Trop shows it is ready for some serious fun

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

Brad Garrett, Tropicana Chairman and CEO Alex Yemenidjian and Wayne Newton at the Nikki Beach and Club Nikki White Party Grand Opening at the Tropicana on May 26, 2011.

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Holly Madison and Robin Leach at the Nikki Beach and Club Nikki White Party Grand Opening at the Tropicana on May 26, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Nikki Beach and Club Nikki White Party Grand Opening

The Nikki Beach and Club Nikki White Party Grand Opening at the Tropicana on May 26, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Halle Berry at Nikki Beach's White Party

Halle Berry at Nikki Beach and Club Nikki's White Party Grand Opening at the Tropicana on May 26, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Over the years, Tropicana has been the playground of the famous.

It is where Andre Agassi learned to be great, and where Larry Ruvo learned to be bad.

“This is the first hotel my father worked in, coming to Las Vegas in 1962 looking for a tennis court he could use 365 days a year,” Agassi said while standing next to his wife, Stefanie Graf, on the patio at Cafe Nikki, where guests flowed to the grand opening White Party at Nikki Beach and into Club Nikki on Thursday night.

“He saw two old, beat-up courts in the back lot, and he offered to give lessons to guests as a perk if he could use them for lessons for his family. I grew up playing on the courts at the Tropicana.”

Looking out at the nearly 5 acres of the Trop’s renovated back pool area, which has blossomed into the hip/sophisticated Nikki Beach, bedecked in wood and white linen and ringed with 10 teepees, Agassi’s eyebrows arched.

“It’s great to see the Trop come alive again,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s really incredible.”

Ruvo also recalled his experiences as a young man at the hotel, which were centered on approach shots of more mischievous variety.

“Well, I’ve got to tell you, we pulled some pranks when I was going to Las Vegas High School,” Ruvo said just moments after arriving to Thursday’s opening party for the club and pool venue. “We would drive up to the fountain out front, with a box of laundry detergent …”

You can sort of get an idea of what transpired next.

“Yeah, we’d dump it in, and these suds would start to rise,” Ruvo said, snickering at the memory. “We’d take off, and you’d see this giant mass of suds rising up in front of the Tropicana. Those were fun times.”

Decades before the Bellagio offered something more, shall we say, refined, Ruvo’s Suds Fest was likely the first public water show on the Strip.

But Ruvo said the hotel overhaul, $180 million and two years in progress under the direction of hotel operator Alex Yemenidjian, could be gauged in its attention to detail. Human detail, specifically.

The head of Southern Wine & Spirits and the mastermind of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Ruvo is unquestionably one of the city’s most influential figures. As such, he’s a good friend of Yemenidjian and can play that VIP card at his whim.

On Wednesday night, Ruvo tabled that whim.

He and a group of friends arrived at the hotel, unannounced, and dined at Carla Pellegrino’s Bacio Italian restaurant on the hotel’s mezzanine level. Then they hit the Gladys Knight show at the old Tiffany Theater, which has been named for Knight during her residency at the hotel.

“This was unexpected, we arrived and were greeted at the door with some high-quality servers who offered to walk us to the restaurant,” Ruvo said. “After we were finished, another employee offered to walk us from the restaurant to the theater, and afterward from the show to valet.”

When it was offered to Ruvo that this was the sort of Old Vegas customer service many visitors and longtime residents say they have been clamoring for in the wake of the mega-resort boom, Ruvo said, “Absolutely.”

“Our expectation is to exceed expectations, for every guest, every day,” Yemenidjian said during the white-carpet walk as the party began. “I think that meeting expectations is not enough to compete in today’s marketplace.”

The staff was out in force for Thursday’s event, which marked more than just the beginning of the summer and the opening of the hotel’s hybrid indoor-outdoor club venue and pool area. It is the living evidence that the $180 million overhaul of the Trop is taking hold. Initially, Yemenidjian and his team encountered a hotel that needed far more than a mere scrubbing and run-through with vacuum cleaners. The Trop needed significant improvements. The rooms were long neglected. The carpeting and wall coverings across the hotel needed to be replaced. Even the red curtain at Tiffany Theater, the home for nearly 50 years for “Folies Bergere,” was layered in thick dust as quality control seemed to take an extended vacation at the Trop.

The state of the hotel was such that those who treat hotel implosions as a sort of parlor game were guessing that the Trop would be the next famous Vegas resort to be reduced to rubble.

Not exactly.

The changes at the resort have often been measured and implemented in stages. It has seemed that whenever Trop President Tom McCartney had $50 to spend, that money would be spent instantly somewhere in the hotel, even in the form of a single new swatch of carpeting. The pedestrian Celebrity Lounge was renovated to Ambhar Lounge in partnership with the tequila company of the same name. A food court leading to the 24-hour Cafe Nikki has opened. Bacio and Biscayne restaurants are now in full operation. The rooms, always remarkably large in comparison to standard rooms at other Strip hotels, were made over, totally, with a simple, deep-orange blend of elegance and comfort.

But that vast back pool area, long under-utilized and certainly under-marketed, needed special attention. Not since the days a decade ago when Miss Hawaiian Tropic was crowned at the hotel has that expanse merited much attention. Nikki Beach and Club Nikki complete an important phase in the hotel’s renovation -- and just in time for summer.

“This represents the culmination of an ongoing process, an effort to transform the Tropicana into something new and make the best use of that 5 acres,” said McCartney, attired rarely in a white suit to match the night’s light-shaded theme. “Alex has seen that it is the ideal way to represent our South Beach theme, and what we’ve done so far has been very well-received.”

Guests can now enter the Nikki Beach, Cafe Nikki and Club Nikki venues through the newly opened porte-cochere on the northeast side of the hotel, facing Tropicana Avenue. Even for Thursday’s party, which drew hundreds of VIPs and media members, access was not terribly difficult. This is no small consideration; hotel access is a high priority for locals who are often allergic to Strip resorts. That’s one vital reason Cosmopolitan Las Vegas has enjoyed early popularity among Las Vegans.

Thematically, the mission at Trop is clear. The hotel is changing everything, as it has announced since Yemenidjian took over in the summer of 2009, with an eye toward Miami's South Beach.

“Nothing's more South Beach than Nikki Beach,” Yemenidjian said. “It’s casual elegance. It’s light, it’s fun, and it’s different from any other beach clubs in town. It’s very organic in its design, in its fabrics (white linen, primarily), in its wood, in the theatrical way we present food, in the theatrical entertainment we present … We wanted to do something different. We didn’t think we could succeed as just another club.”

Based in Miami, Nikki Beach runs nine clubs around the world, including those in St. Tropez, Cabo San Lucas and Marbella (which also celebrated its grand-opening party Thursday night). But Vegas has not seen anything quite like what has unfolded at the Trop.

The nightclub is a 15,000-square-foot, not-quite-circular space where dancers on platforms gyrate with those across the dance floor. “Champagne Angels,” donned in feathers and sequins and seated in Bob Mackie-styled caged artifices, deliver bubbly from on high around the perimeter. Opium Beds are placed around the rim of the club for guests to get a high view of the party below and an inviting look out to Nikki Beach.

The pool area is sectioned off to make the best use of all that acreage. The teepees are a unique touch and remind of the hotel’s logo. Inside the climate-controlled haunts are seating and flat-screen TVs. Daybeds of varying shapes are strewn across the pool area, and the crowd that turned out for an early look came away impressed. It was a mix of Hollywood -- Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry walked the white carpet and stayed onsite up through midnight at one of the VIP tables at the beach area -- and Old Vegas. Wayne and Kat Newton, good friends of the Yemenidjians, turned out. So did Siegfried & Roy’s longtime manager, Bernie Yuman. Elvis’ Presley’s longtime girlfriend, Linda Thompson, was joined by her brother, Sam, who worked as the King’s bodyguard late in Elvis’ career. The term “incredible” was most-often used to describe the transformation.

Off to the side, grinning and observing the activity, was Dan Aykroyd. His Crystal Head vodka, poured from its signature crystal skull decanters, flowed freely throughout the night. Aykroyd has seen his share of parties, to be sure. He eyed the scene and said, “I am awestruck.”

Elaborating, he said, “The Tropicana, honestly, was a dump. But they’re brought back the spirit of Vegas in 1957-’58-’59. The Caribbean culture has been imbued into this building, and I think they are going to kill here.”

No question, the Trop has held up its end of the deal. It is now left to that finicky marketplace, and a summer of promise.

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

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