Venerable hotel plans facelift to stay competitive

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LAS VEGAS -- After Imperial Palace owner Ralph Engelstad died last November at the age of 72, it didn't take long for rumors to start flying about the imminent sale of the 2,700-room, Oriental-themed property.

But Engelstad's widow, Betty, so far has opted not to sell what has become one of the city's few remaining privately owned gaming properties. Instead, she's allowing the Imperial Palace's management team to liven things up a bit at the 27-year-old resort.

"[Betty Engelstad] does not get involved in the day-to-day operation of the property," said Ed Crispell, who has been the Imperial Palace's general manager for 24 years. "She's left us here at the helm."

That said, Crispell and company are sailing into the uncharted waters of head-to-head competition with their Las Vegas Boulevard neighbors.

"We never had to compete before," Crispell said. "We always had a niche."'

That was before Sept. 11 brought the travel industry -- and Las Vegas -- to a virtual standstill.

"Now, we really have to do something," said Crispell. "We don't have a volcano [like the Mirage], and we don't have fountains out on Las Vegas Boulevard [like the Bellagio], and we don't have any ships to sink [like Treasure Island]. We just take what we have and build on it."

The Imperial Palace is changing its look inside and out."Build" seems to be the operative word here, especially when Crispell explained that the property "is getting ready to [undergo] a major, major facelift."

"We're going to knock off the front of the building, move the porte cochere over the sidewalk and [fashion it] in the form of an Oriental pagoda," he said. "Then we're going to knock out a front wall and put in a sidewalk cafe." Also planned is an "affordable" glass-walled restaurant with its own entrance off the Strip.

"We're in the process of talking to restaurateurs right now," said Crispell. "We already have a huge daiquiri and tequila bar inside, which we're going to move up [and locate near the restaurant]."

At the back of the property -- where a monorail station is being built -- the Imperial Palace also is busy designing a pedestrian corridor for passengers disembarking from the monorail. Crispell said it should be finished by spring.

Crispell also said he is working with designers on redoing all of the resort's guest rooms by spring.

"By the end of the summer we're going to be on our way [with this project]. We redid the penthouses last year; now we want to redo the suites and rooms."

Besides construction projects, Crispell and his team have been busy revamping some of the casino's gaming areas to make them more entertaining for the property's older clientele as well as members of the younger crowd.

"We have been cranking the gears and burning the midnight oil, and we're not done yet," he said.

The resort recently opened two themed gaming areas, the Legends' Pit and the Champagne Pit. In the former, which is open from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., Sundays through Thursdays, celebrity impersonator dealers, or "dealertainers," as they are known, entertain even as they keep things moving at the table games.

The property's first group of celebrities being impersonated includes Elvis Presley, Liberace, Buddy Holly, the Blues Brothers, Madonna, Patsy Cline, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart, Flip Wilson and El Zorro.

" 'Viva Las Vegas' starts playing and Elvis starts dancing," said Crispell. "Then Marilyn and Madonna come down dancing; security even comes in with jewelry for Madonna and Barbra. They just have a really good time with it."

The Champagne Pit, which operates from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., Mondays through Wednesdays, and from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m., Thursdays through Sundays, celebrates the Rat Pack era with 1950s music and dealers dressed in black fedoras.

In addition, free champagne is available to visitors of the Champagne Pit, which also features a champagne fountain in the middle.

"You can never get a seat in that area," Crispell said.

In fact, when the Legends Pit opened, it created such a demand for table games that the resort extended the pit by 12 games -- an unusual move at a time when most properties are cutting back on table games, according to Crispell.

The Imperial Palace also is adding 100 coinless slots to its mix come September. If visitors like the machines, the resort is planning to install up to 500 more units, Crispell said.

Depending on the season and the time of the week, some of Las Vegas' best bargains can be found at the Imperial Palace, where room rates can dip under the $50-per-night range.

The property is agent-friendly, with commissionable rooms and packages and special rates for travel retailers -- "our best customers," Crispell said.

For reservations, phone (800) 634-6441 or visit www.imperialpalace.com.

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For more details on this article, see Trademark attractions: luau, car exhibit.

To contact reporter Amy Baratta, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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