One of the first orders of business for the new owners of Trump Marina Hotel Casino when they bought it in May was to strip the Trump name and all remaining remnants from the premises. That was the easy part.
Now comes the much harder task of establishing their own brand for the casino now known as the Golden Nugget Atlantic City. Houston-based Landry's Restaurants bought the casino-hotel for $38 million - about a tenth of what former owners Trump Entertainment Resorts nearly got for it just two years earlier. But that sale fell through and Atlantic City casino values collapsed as the economy headed south.
Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire owner of Landry's - which also owns Golden Nuggets in Las Vegas and Lauglin, Nev. - got busy right away on a $150 million renovation and re-branding he views as crucial to establishing the Golden Nugget's own identity in Atlantic City.
"Every single inch is being touched," he said. "The building is going to look brand new when it's finished. If you took someone who hadn't been in there since last year, blindfolded them and led them into the building now, they won't know where they are."
The casino's motto quickly became "Out with the old, in with the Gold." With its aging brick exterior and uninspiring institutional design, Trump Marina had long been derided as looking like a hospital since shortly after it opened in 1985 as Trump's Castle. First to go were the giant "Trump Marina" signs bolted to the sides of the building. The weathered brick was painted gold, and golden banners were unfurled at the main entrance.
Inside, the casino remains a whirl of construction activity. On a recent visit, workers had several areas cordoned off as they built new attractions, rewired electrical fixtures and reconfigured corridors. The main entrance was buried behind construction vehicles, cones and barrels.
"Let's call it a work in progress," said Karen Hudek of Monroe, Conn., who spent a recent weekend there. "There's a lot going on."
She was pleased with her accommodations.
"The rooms were clean and they came in punctually to clean them every day," she said. "I read some bad reviews of this place on the Internet, so I'm going to go home and correct that."
Yet she's not sure she'd go back, at least right away.
"There's a lot of other places on the Boardwalk I'd want to go to first," she said.
Willie Williams of Atlanta also enjoyed his first trip to the Golden Nugget.
"So far it's really good," he said. "The rooms are real nice. They're doing a lot here."
"It's definitely a construction zone, but we try very hard not to interfere with the guests," he said. "A lot of people like the excitement when you're building."
What's not building, at least so far, is the Golden Nugget's casino revenue. In October, the casino took in just over $9 million, a decline of 28.3 percent from Oct. 2010. It averaged less than $300,000 a day, compared with over $400,000 a year ago.
For the first 10 months of this year, the Golden Nugget is dead last in casino revenue in Atlantic City. Its $106.1 million take is down 15.4 percent from the same period last year.
Yet Fertitta is unfazed, saying he is focused on increasing overall profitability by controlling expenses, particularly by refusing to join an expensive arms race with larger casinos to throw costly promotional spending at prospective customers.
"We don't buy business," he said. He alluded to a promotion used earlier in the year by Resorts Casino Hotel, which is also struggling to build its business volumes. "I can go give rooms away for 20 dollars, but that has never been my philosophy," Fertitta said.
"When we bought the Golden Nugget Las Vegas in 2005, I took the revenue down and the (earnings) up," he said. "Some of the business we've lost is business where they (Trump Entertainment Resorts) just gave them too much. We just don't do that. Last summer they lost $3 million; this summer we made $2.5 million. That's a pretty nice swing."
The casino had a gross operating profit of $2.1 million for July, August and September, compared with just $247,000 for the same period last year when Trump owned it.
The rebranding returns the Golden Nugget name to Atlantic City, although in a different building unrelated to the original Golden Nugget, which operated from 1980 to 1987 in what is now ACH, the former Atlantic City Hilton.
A big part of the new Golden Nugget's renovation included adding new restaurants including the Chart House (one of several around the country that the parent company owns), and Vic & Anthony's steakhouse. Italian and sushi restaurants are coming soon.
The Golden Nugget recently hosted shows by Motley Crue singer Vince Neil and comic Kathleen Madigan. It hosted a best festival on its outdoor deck, and a Beatles tribute band, "1964," is coming in December.
The casino won some degree of loyalty from patrons when it was the only one of Atlantic City's 11 casinos to keep its hotel and restaurants open during a state-mandated shutdown of casinos during Hurricane Irene in late August.
"I know from hurricanes from dealing with them all my life in the South," Fertitta said. "A hurricane doesn't bother me. There's no need to shut down. Unless it's a Category 5 and it's coming right for us, we'll stay open."