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VegasChatter Does Reno: Part 2

February 6, 2014 at 5:22 PM | by | ()

In part one, we explored how lenient divorce laws helped put Reno on the map. Legalized gambling and a surfeit of live entertainment options allowed Reno to become a top vacation destination during the Ď40s and into the Ď50s. Much like Las Vegas today, the city even found itself the subject of a number of films. Features like Maisie Goes to Reno and Vacation in Reno presented the town in a much more favorable light than more recent titles like Reno 911! Reno was booming, and its growth seemed to have no limits. Few would have guessed that 400 miles to the south, a stretch of empty desert would begin to chip away at everything that had made Reno the success it was.

While Reno thrived as the countryís divorce capital in the Ď30s, Las Vegas would not be far behind. In 1939, Vegas caught a huge break when Maria Langham arrived for a six-week stay in order to divorce Gone with the Wind star Clark Gable. Reno was no stranger to celebrity divorces, but the city didnít take advantage of what they had in the manner that the early Las Vegas publicity machine did. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the Las Vegas Review Journal and arranged for Maria to pose for photos in a variety of Las Vegas hotspots. The story, and accompanying photos, received national attention and Vegas soon began to capture a piece of Renoís divorce market.

Vegas casino owners catered to divorce seekers in ways Reno casino operators never envisioned. The El Rancho Vegas, The Stripís very first resort, not only brought in customers waiting out divorces, it kept them there. With a steakhouse, swimming pool, drugstore, barbershop, outdoor activities, live entertainment, free breakfast buffet, and a setting designed to let divorce seekers mingle, the El Rancho Vegas blew Reno offerings out of the water. Other hotel operators followed suit, the publicity engine was unrelenting, and Las Vegas overtook Reno as the nationís divorce capital.

Renoís reputation as the top gaming destination suffered a similar fate. Just as the El Rancho hotel outdid Renoís best in terms of accommodations for those seeking divorces, its casino outshined Renoís top gaming establishments. At nearly triple the size of Haroldís, arguably the premier casino in Reno at the time, the El Rancho Vegas started a trend of doing things bigger and better. The Ď40s also saw the introduction of the Last Frontier, The Thunderbird, and the legendary Flamingo, all of which greatly expanded upon the concepts that had been tested in Reno for the last decade.

Despite the Flamingoís turbulent start, it set a new standard for casino resorts and proved to founder Bugsy Siegelís mob partners just how profitable the casino business could be. Backed by mob money, Las Vegas resorts became goliaths. The Sands opened with 200 rooms, the Riviera with 300, and the Stardust with 1,000. Casino floor space ballooned and revenue soared in ways Renoís pioneers couldnít have imagined. Not only that, Las Vegas poached some of Renoís best and brightest. Wilbur Clark, founder of the famed Desert Inn, was a successful Reno gambler and casino employee before leaving for Vegas. Pit boss Jack Duffy and casino operator Bernie Einstoss similarly left the city for new opportunities in Las Vegas.

As Las Vegas took over as the nationís top entertainment and gaming destination, Reno looked for new ways to draw tourists. The 1960's Winter Olympics, hosted less than an hour away at Squaw Valley, were a large draw. Virginia Street, perhaps best described as Renoís version of The Strip, saw the addition of bigger, grander casinos. In 1964, the Primadonna expanded and added 20-foot tall ladies that dazzled at night. Harrahís introduced a four-star steakhouse and, later, a 24-story luxury hotel tower in 1969.

In the Ď70s, Reno saw a small surge of growth. The El Dorado, Circus Circus, and Fitzgeralds opened on Virginia Street, while massive Vegas-style resorts like Atlantis, Peppermill, and the MGM Grand Reno debuted in the surrounding areas. Despite the introduction of these new entities that could rival Vegas in terms of amenities, crowds did not materialize and the Reno market soon became over-saturated. Adding to the trouble was the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City. When its first casinos opened in 1978, they further drained Renoís customer base. Renoís oldest casinos were the first to feel the impact. The Mapes, Haroldís, and Nevada Club all disappeared. Even the newer resorts were stretched thin, fighting for shares of a market too small. The MGM Grand Reno was sold in 1986 and became Ballyís. In 1992, it filed for bankruptcy and became the Reno Hilton. It still operates today, now as Grand Sierra Resort, following a 2006 buyout.

Reno continued to struggle with oversaturation into the Ď90s and early 2000s, when it was dealt another hefty blow via the introduction of Indian casinos in California. After losing so many of its visitors to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Reno became reliant upon customers from more local areas like San Francisco. Once Indian casinos began to emerge, gamblers no longer felt the need to make the trip to Reno. Gaming revenue declined, and more properties shut their doors. The Virginian, a 16-story hotel on Virginia Street, closed in 2004. Fitzgeralds, which once brightly lit the Reno strip and sat directly beside the iconic Biggest Little City arch, was shuttered for renovation in 2008. Both still sit vacant today and serve as very big reminders of what once was a vibrant stretch of real estate.

Gaming in Reno will never be what it once was. The market is still oversaturated and the city is still struggling to deal with the results of expanding beyond demand. In the past three years, Circus Circus, El Dorado, Silver Legacy, and the Siena have all filed for bankruptcy. Many of those that have avoided such measures have gone without maintenance and updates for some time.

The layout of casinos in Reno today has strangely evolved to be a mirror of Las Vegas. The Virginia Street strip, which decades ago outpaced its Las Vegas counterpart, has fallen into disrepair. With former giants now standing as empty shells, and once impeccably maintained resorts becoming grim and grimy, the area seems remarkably similar to the version of Fremont Street that housed an empty Binionís hotel and where an abandoned Lady Luck could be found nearby. And, as Renoís off strip mega-resorts seized revenue that once kept the strip alive, they have secured their places as Renoís top gaming destinations. Just as the The Strip is the place that canít be missed in Vegas today, itís the off strip properties in Reno that are the stars.

Among the off strip resorts is Peppermill. Like MGM Grand and The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, the 1,600-room resort holds a AAA Four Diamond rating. With 10 restaurants, a nightclub, 33,000-square-foot spa, multiple pools, health club, impressive poker room, and lots of convention space, Peppermill offers nearly everything you can find at a Vegas mega-resort.

Atlantis, another off strip resort, also holds a Four Diamond rating. Like Peppermill, it offers all the luxury amenities that Las Vegas resort guests are accustomed to. If youíre a fan of themed casinos, you will appreciate its tropical motif. With indoor waterfalls, abundant plant life, and even a cave under which to gamble, Atlantis is a unique place to play.

What you wonít find in these off strip resorts, or anywhere else in Reno for that matter, are the wallet-draining super productions that Vegas has used to offset declining gaming revenue. While there is fine dining, donít expect to feast at any place with a celebrity name attached. If youíre hoping to catch Calvin Harris, Kaskade, or Tiesto, head eight hours south. The few clubs here donít attract names that big, although they do come with cover charges about a tenth the size. Likewise, pool parties and stage productions are miniscule in scale.

What you will find are the bargains and budget-friendly games that Vegas was once known for. Renoís slot machines are looser than those in Vegas, even Downtown Vegas. In 2013, Vegas slot hold (including video poker) was 6.7%. In Reno, it was just over 5%. On the Las Vegas Strip, finding a decent Blackjack game is nearly impossible. Itís either play $25 a hand, or head Downtown in search of the few remaining 3:2 games. In Reno, $5 tables are the norm, and few casinos dare to insult gamblers with 6:5 payouts. Casino restaurants and buffets offer deals that canít be beat. The average nightly hotel rate, $80, is about 20% lower than in Vegas. And, thereís no such thing as long hauling.

Renoís best offerings, however, are found outside the casino walls. The city is an outdoor loverís paradise. In the winter, the proximity to Lake Tahoe and some of the nationís top ski resorts makes Reno an excellent vacation base. Squaw Valley, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Heavenly, Mt. Rose, Alpine Meadows, and quite a few others, are just a short drive away. Most hotels offer stay-and-ski packages that can make an otherwise costly trip affordable. During the summer, Reno is home to virtually every outdoor activity you can imagine. Golfing, kayaking, and mountain biking are just the start of the options.

The days of Reno dominating the gaming and entertainment industries are long gone, unlikely to ever return. The city is still recovering from the wounds inflicted first by Las Vegas, then by Atlantic City, and most recently by Indian casinos that conquered the local markets. The surviving resorts continue to face financial difficulty, but havenít given up. They await a resurgence. Perhaps convention business will rise. Or, maybe that 2026 Winter Olympics bid will pan out. It will take something monumental to restore the city to its former glory. In the meantime, Renoís off strip hotels are ready. They may not have the extravagant shows and swanky dining options that Vegas is now known for, but they do offer the superior odds and budget buffets that it once was.

To those who are considering substituting Reno for Vegas, donít. That is, unless you are a Vegas veteran who knows exactly what you want: Classic Downtown Vegas gaming in a Strip-style resort. If you long for themed casinos and favorable odds, and can forgo the lavish Vegas entertainment offerings, you might find yourself in love with Reno.

(Photos: Drburtoni, Marco Wagner, and Panchenks on Flickr; Peppermill on FourSquare; VegasChatter)

Archived Comments:

A Very Fair Writeup

I'm a Reno fan. It catches a lot of flak for not being Vegas. But it's cool in its own, funky way, and I think this article conveys that.

Well done.

Not A fair Writeup!

I live in Reno, and your synopsis of the Biggest Little City is fair to some respects, but totally inaccurate in others. No, Reno will not ever be Las Vegas for gaming, those days are done. It's merely an amenity offering at this point for our city, but to say Fitzgeralds and Virginian are just sitting closed, that is not true. Fitzgeralds is under construction and will be reopening as Whitney Peak Hotel this May, a non gaming and no smoking boutique hotel with an awesome restaurant by a signature local chef and 1100 capacity concert venue and the Virginian was just bought by Vegas' own Siegel Group. Beyond that, there is so much more happening here. It's anything but dead, I suggest you come back, walk around, walk around every property. Walk around Downtown, you'll feel the momentum. Your write up is dated maybe six years. Oh and Silver Legacy, Siena's bankruptcies both have emerged and both are performing stronger than ever. Just wanted to add some valuable 2 cents from someone who actually knows this market.  


Thanks for your input.  I did my best to capture Reno as it stands now.  Based on what I've seen over the last few years, and the sentiment I've gathered after talking with locals, I'd say there is a real feeling of skepticism over the coming changes.  Promises have been made almost every year at both the Virginian and Fitz, with little ever materializing.  When the Fitz closed its casino and hotel, and later re-opened as a rock climbing wall, it really demonstrated how far the market has fallen.  What if Caesars Palace closed shop and re-opened as a mini-golf course?  Outside of tourists who didn't know any better, everyone I solicited a casino recommendation from sent me off strip.

I've been a regular in Reno for 3 years now.  Las Vegas is still my home base, but I didn't just fly in for a weekend and decide to bash the city.  The latest efforts to revitalize the failed hotels do seem the most likely to succeed yet, but there's just so far to go.  True, Whitney Peak is now taking reservations.  But what will be the impact on existing hotels?  Is a single, non-gaming hotel opening going to draw the crowds necessary to let Downtown recover?  Harrah's is in such bad shape that last summer a consultant recommended giving the property away.  How will the struggling Cal Neva fair?  

As for Siegel's purchase of the Virginian, consider what the $2 million price tag says about its value.  Even some of the most neglected and out of the way casinos in Vegas fetch far more than that, without the prime location.  The Greek Isles (now the Clarion) sold for $47 million.  The Gold Spike went for $21 million.  At $2 million, I wouldn't be surprised if the property is razed and turned into a McDonalds.

@Ramblin Gamblin

Thanks for responding, I respect that you did give our city a fair review. You didn't bash it, only point out the declines that only come natural with time. You must admit, even Las Vegas has had it's demises (ie, Fontainebleau) but there are positives and the same is true with Reno. I'm well aware of the falter with the Fitzgeralds building but I can tell you now, knowing the team and will begin working there when it opens, Whitney Peak is the best thing YET and what it's bringing is new and cool, I liken it to what SLS is doing for the North Las Vegas Strip, believe it or not, Vegas is like my other home. And I follow it pretty closely thanks greatly to this blog ;)

I don't think Whitney Peak will change things overnight but it's definitely going to be a complimentary addition to the Downtown landscape, non gaming, fresh and offer exciting new amenities the casinos don't offer. It's a complete remodel, and it's not cheap, stay a night for $125 at the lowest for a standard room. It's exactly what Reno needs, Harrah's, I agree, needs some help but it's merely a chip in the Caesars block of which you're well aware is focused on Las Vegas, but they aren't getting rid of it, it's doing pretty well actually and are slowly, and cheaply, keeping it up. Heck, Frank Marino's Divas just opened a two month run in the showroom there. I expect that to do well here as it does well down there.

Siegel has big plans for the Virginian, I've been in contact with the company and they are currently setting their plans. I expect them to go public in the next few months, keep in mind, property values naturally are going to be higher in Las Vegas than here that's just real estate. But if it's easy to buy, than hopefully that investor has plans to invest. Keep your eye on Reno over the next couple of years, certainly don't count it out and please, come by and perhaps stay at Whitney Peak when they open up in May.

Fitz was actually back open...

But under a different name.  It was bought out and changed names to CommRow, and now I guess changed again to Whitney Peak.  When it reopened as CommRow, they went without a casino.  It had a rock climbing wall on the front of the building so that you could scale the hotel for fun.  I guess it must have gotten bought out again, as Whitney Peak is not taking hotel reservations till July 1st, 2014.  I actually love going to Reno for fun.  My wife and I road tripped it once, and flew another time.  Both times we stayed at a hotel away from the main drag... Peppermill the first time, best place in Reno in my opinion.  Grand Sierra comped us a room for out second trip.  It was nice, but not as good as Peppermill.  We always like to hit up Tahoe when we go up there as well.  It's so crazy how different the south shore casinos are from the north shore ones.  North shore feels like something out of the 60's...

guess i shoulda read the other comments...

haha, didn't realize you guys already addressed the Fitz


Summer is a GREAT time to visit and explore the area like I did with a rental car. It's nothin' like Vegas and that's good unless you just wanna gamble! Lake Tahoe is just gorgeous and aside from the Peppermill, the other reason to go.

Interesting write-up

I'm curious about how bowling has impacted the economy in town. I've been coming to Reno off and on over the past 20 years for the USBC tournament that's been held at the National Bowling Stadium.

I visit Vegas more often - primarily because my wife likes the glitz that Vegas provides and Reno doesn't. However, I actually like visiting Reno since I can sit down and have a few cheap drinks and play some casino games without having to spend the $25 per hand. Also, it's a lot easier to learn new games such as the Pai Gow tiles game. I would never have tried that in Vegas but was great to try here in Reno.

I'll see Reno in just about 5 weeks when I arrive for the tournament! Looking forward to it!

Want to visit but.......

I've wanted to visit Reno for a long time - proximity to Lake Tahoe being one of the primary reasons.

However, the thing that has always kept me from doing so has been the cost of air travel.  Many major airlines offer reasonable airfare into Las Vegas, but I can never find fares even remotely comparable into the Reno area.

I guess another option would be to fly into SF and drive a rental from there, but that's a hassle (and a waste of gambling time!).

We're flying in...

...in June. Spending a night in Reno, then the next night in Yosemite, and the next three nights at Lake Tahoe before flying out of Reno.

I like Reno but for me it's just a one-night-stay kind of place. Coming from NY, it's a great gateway destination if you like renting a car and hitting the road.

This time we booked super early (September!) and got lucky with $300 airfares, but yoyoseven's right, usually it's $450 and up out of EWR. Not a deal compared with LV flights.  

Three years ago we stayed first night and last night of our trip in Reno, at Silver Legacy and Harrahs. Loved how SL, Eldorado and CC are linked inside and thought that part of town had a lot of energy. Harrah's seemed a bit tired in comparison. But for sure, the whole town has changed a lot since my first visit in 1989. I hope it pulls through!  

Completely agree

I completely agree with yoyoseven. A handful of years back I looked into Reno instead of Vegas but air from the Midwest was so much more expensive that we took the easy way out and went back to Vegas. I'd love to see Reno sometime. Hopefully I can work it out.


Flights to Reno have beenn one of the biggest challenges the casinos in Reno have faced over the last couple of years, probably only behind the eceonomy and California Indian Gaming.  Not only are the flights costly, many airlines have discontinued direct flights from major cities.  The casinos that have a good local clientele are still doing well though.  Peppermill is the best by far and continue to improve on the facility.

Bowling in May

I have also been coming to Reno for the National tournament (this will be my NINTH trip since 1995).

Reno has really grown on me.  The natural scenery is better than Las Vegas... there always seems to be snowcapped mountains in the background.  I also love Lake Tahoe less than an hour away.

I feel bad for the city, as so many casinos have closed in the last 20 years... Lets see how many I can name: Harold's Club, Nevada Club, the Virginian, Old Reno, Fitzgeralds, Flamingo Hilton (which closed, became the Golden Phoenix, which then also closed) Sundowner, Eddie's Fabulous 50s, the Riverboat and the Comstock.

I know people who scour the interwebs for pictures of Vegas in the olden days.  I am guilty of doing that for Reno, too.