The Downtown Grand: I Love an Underdog

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Chip-shaped signIf you follow Vegas news on blogs and social media, you can’t avoid hearing about the problems the new Downtown Grand has–restaurants and bars reducing hours (or closing altogether) and a casino that’s not exactly jumping with customers. I saw this with my own eyes during my June trip to Las Vegas, because the Downtown Grand was my home for two nights. I might have passed it off as mid-week low crowd levels, except the hotels on Fremont Street were very busy, so the lack of business was unique to the Grand. For instance:

Commissary at the Downtown Grand

Maybe it was too hot for people to eat outside at the Commissary….

I desperately wanted a shave ice to cool off in the 100 degree Vegas temps, but Ninth Island was never staffed. The casino was never busy; the bars and restaurants were mostly empty. People cluster around check-in, where there are no queues, making it hard to know who’s next “in line” and who’s just standing there waiting to meet the rest of their party to go out for the day. And that half-wall of glass in the shower is a bathroom flood waiting to happen.

So yes, the place has problems. Let’s get the biggest of those out of the way first, shall we?

Commissary 2

…but they weren’t very busy inside either.

Problem #1: Lack of Foot Traffic

The lack of foot traffic on this block is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing to those of us looking for a little peace and quiet Downtown, but a curse to the long-term success of the hotel. Is it because visitors don’t know it’s there? Or do they still think Downtown isn’t safe unless you’re under the canopy? Or is there some other reason? I’m not sure.

The Art Bar

The Art Bar

Triple George Grill and Pizza Rock are both on this block, and they’re well recognized as being among Downtown’s better dining spots. The Mob Museum (a must-visit Vegas attraction) is right across the street, as is a weekly Farmers Market (which is small, but worth checking out if you like to buy unique, locally-made souvenirs when you’re in Vegas). But it’s likely most Vegas visitors glance down 3rd Street and see nothing appealing on the block between Fremont and Ogden, so they never make it to the Downtown Grand on the next block (between Ogden and Stewart).

For the record, it’s plenty safe to walk back and forth by day and night; I made the trip several times, and I was always alone.

Stewart & Ogden

7am at Stewart & Ogden. I’ve never seen such an empty resort cafe at breakfast time.

Problem #2: Food and Beverage Operations

I’m not surprised that they’re scaling back bar and restaurant hours. The lack of foot traffic contributes to the lack of customers in their bars and restaurants, but that’s not the only problem here. They bit off more than they could chew with multiple eateries in a small hotel. In hindsight, they should have started small–with a good 24 hour cafe, a bar/restaurant, and maybe a Starbucks or something–and gradually added to their eateries as demand warranted.

When I first heard of their plans to relocate the Mob Bar across the street from the Mob Museum on the hotel’s first floor “off the lobby,” it sounded like a great idea. But in reality, it’s just not visible enough to anyone (even hotel guests!), and without a food menu, it’s now just a bar in an inconvenient location. What a waste.

Breakfast at Stewart & Ogden

The most disgusting omelet I’ve ever eaten.

The biggest disappointment for me was my breakfast at Stewart & Ogden, the 24 hour cafe. I didn’t know it was possible to screw up an omelet, since even I can make them, and I’m not much of a cook. It had been overcooked to the point that it was covered with a hard brown skin and had a slice of alleged cheddar cheese slapped on top instead of melted shredded cheese inside the omelet. It was disgusting. The breakfast potatoes tasted frostbitten. Only the toast was edible. They definitely need a new chef.

decor

The hotel is filled with decorative nods to Vegas’s past – like that picture

And Yet I Loved The Grand

It’s true. During my two days and two nights at the Downtown Grand, I fell in love with it. Yes, it has some problems, but they’re fixable. For me, the positives far outweighed the negatives. Such as:

Picnic at the Downtown Grand

Picnic at the Downtown Grand

Picnic

With not a lot of attractions and activities to keep you busy Downtown during the day, it’s nice to stay at a hotel that offers an appealing pool area where you can relax for a few hours, swimming, sunning or reading a good book. Picnic is the Grand’s rooftop pool and nightlife area. The only other Downtown pool that compares is the Golden Nugget’s, but Picnic feels less cramped and more spacious.

The pool is beautiful and not overcrowded. The loungers, daybeds and cabanas all look very stylish and comfortable, and there are misters in the cabana and bar area to keep you cool. There’s no natural shade, so they have umbrellas by the chairs.

The pool at Picnic

The pool at Picnic

Non-guests can use Picnic, but they have to pay for it. (Update: Access to non-hotel guests is available FREE with a two drink minimum purchase per person.) They check your name as you enter the pool area to determine whether or not you’re a Downtown Grand guest. No outside food or beverages are allowed, but there is free cold water and paper cups at the towel counter, as well as a bar and snack bar where you can buy food and drinks.

Bar and picnic tables

Bar and picnic tables

Next to the bar and snack bar, there is a shaded area of picnic tables with overhead fans and TVs. There was great music playing here, not too loud. If it hadn’t been too ungodly hot while I was in town (over 100 degrees every day), I would have spent more time out here.

Interestingly, there is no lifeguard at Picnic, but there is a security guard. I chatted with her a couple of different times during my stay. She told me Picnic is usually busier on the weekends with pool parties and nighttime concerts.

Discount coupons

Discount coupons received at check-in

Great Bang for Your Buck

I felt like this place was such a steal. You get nice, new accommodations in what feels like a boutique hotel, at Downtown prices, in a great location: Close enough to enjoy everything on Fremont Street but just far enough away from all that noise and drunken craziness so you can enjoy some peace and quiet, too. Dining issues aside, it’s perfect.

Room 1040

Room 1040

For just $39/night (plus $11 resort fee–which for some idiotic and inexplicable reason has apparently been bumped up to $18 since my trip), I got a cute room (room 1040) in the Grand Tower, which is across the street via an indoor pedestrian walkway (like the one between Main Street Station and the California).

walkway

Walkway between hotel towers passes over 3rd Street

The Commissary was located on the ground floor of my tower, which made breakfast there very convenient. The pool, casino, check-in, and most other facilities are in the main building. The resort fee covered amenities I felt were worth it:  Tons of discount coupons, 2 bottles of full-sized water upon check-in, free Internet, and free coffee in the Art Bar every morning. (Of course, now that the resort fee is $18, it’s too high.) Service was very good and responsive.

Art Bar

Ceiling of the Art Bar. Very cool.

My room here was much nicer than some other Las Vegas rooms I’ve stayed in (both on the Strip and Downtown)–despite the Ikea-like furniture. Obviously, it’s new, but it was also clean, and I liked the color scheme. The bathroom is beautiful. The linens were all in great shape and the toiletries smell nice.

In the public areas, I really appreciated the artwork that paid honor to Las Vegas and its history. (For a city with resorts themed after Paris and New York and Egypt, it’s kind of refreshing to see one that embraces its own city.)

Bathroom sink

I couldn’t capture the entire bathroom in one photo. Here’s the sink.

Downtown Grand’s casino is clean and not as smokey as most in Downtown Vegas (probably because it’s not as busy). It was easy to sign up for their players card. I doubled my money on an Iron Man slot machine, which made me happy.

Orange crepe

Yummy breakfast crepe from the Commissary – full of mandarin oranges and whipped cream

Skip Stewart & Ogden and get breakfast at the coffee/crepes bar in the Commissary. I had a huge orange crepe ($6) and iced latte for breakfast one morning and took it outside to eat at one of the sidewalk tables (there is plenty of indoor seating as well). I love starting my day in Vegas with breakfast outside–and because there’s no automobile traffic on this block, I didn’t have to smell exhaust while I was doing it.

paintings

More Vegas-focused artwork.

Conclusion: This is My New Downtown Home

I’m sad about the problems the Grand is having bringing people in the door, because I want them to succeed. They’ve got a good vision, it’s just that they’re having some problems with the execution of that vision. For me, the Grand’s greatest selling point is ironically the same reason they have little foot traffic and are having trouble bringing people in the door: The location.

sidewalk tables

3rd Street is refreshingly peaceful for Downtown.

I like visiting Downtown. It has a lot going for it. But the crowds on Fremont Street have gotten out of control. The loud drunks and costumed freaks are out in droves. The cigarette smoke is thick enough to choke a horse–even outside! There are so many people crammed into a narrow street, it’s hard to make your way through the crowd–even mid-week. It makes me cranky.

It was always a huge relief every night to be able to duck down 3rd Street and walk away from the crowds and the craziness and go back to the Grand and its relative peace and quiet. This is really a very pleasant block to stay on. It felt like my own sane little corner of Downtown, if that makes any sense.

Despite its flaws, I feel like I’ve found my new Downtown home (as long as they don’t close!). I hope they can get through their “growing pains” quickly and reach a level of success that keeps them in business for a long, long time–without being overrun with the swarms of loud drunks we see on Fremont Street. There’s got to be a place for a hotel like this in Downtown Vegas.  I, for one, am rooting for this underdog.

TV

I loved the high-tech touches here, from the TV that knew who I was before I even arrived in my room to the key card scanner at the door.

Miscellaneous notes about the Grand:

  • Room keys are scanned at the door, rather than inserted into a slot; very high-tech. And it worked on the first try every time.
  • The elevators here are very fast.
  • They have the tiniest “fitness center” I’ve ever seen. It’s just a small room with a few machines. The Race and Sports Book is also very small, as is the cafe. This contributes to the “boutique” hotel feel.
  • The hotel provides earplugs on the nightstand for guests. To me, this is usually a red flag. But I’m a light sleeper, I wore earplugs, and I didn’t hear any noise that kept me awake.
  • If you are a member of Choice Hotels loyalty card, you can use it here for points. Downtown Grand is a member of their Ascend Collection of hotels.
earplugs

Use them; they work.

22 thoughts on “The Downtown Grand: I Love an Underdog

  1. Jeff Broman

    I had to look at Google maps to find out where this place was. It is not the best location. Those Resort Fees are out of control. I wonder what hotel will be the first to charge $50?

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      The fact that you had to GoogleMap it, Jeff, is in itself not a good sign for them. They definitely need better signage to steer people in their direction. Yes, for a hotel that’s having trouble bringing people in the door, the fact that they jacked up their resort fee is insane. Basically, they’re penalizing the few customers they do have.

  2. Donovan

    I was there also in June (18-20)! I paid $11 for my weekend night (Choice Hotels price match). Everything you mention is on point, and I agree that I enjoyed my stay.

    Casino:
    You can tell everything is tight, although I did win $800 on Buffalo. The Video Poker payout is terrible!! I’ve never seen so many dealers and pit bosses bored in my life.

    Players Club :
    Very easy sign up and earned $3 of Freeplay that was gone in one spin. They reward you with slot tournament entries which is a utter joke. You play it at the same machine where you shoot a duck for extra credit while just tapping spin on the generic reels. If somehow you do end up on top, you better be there when they annouce or no prize for you.

    Room:
    Great room to get away from the canopy noise. They give earplugs for you because the bikers club on 3rd. We never heard anything and slept well after a night of drinking. The only downfall here is indeed the half glass shower and now the $18 resort fee!

    I’m staying here for one night again next month for by sisters birthday before moving to Mandalay Bay for 3 Nights. By using the price match, I again got 2 rooms for the night at $11. It’s a nice hotel that needs incentives for gamblers to walk over to and based upon your blog, some good food!

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Donovan – Your comments are spot-on. I do think they need to improve their VP pay tables and do whatever they need to in order to get the hard core gamblers in the door if they want to keep their casino. Gamblers will go wherever the best odds are and that will increase foot traffic over there.

  3. Jon M

    I mentioned that I hoped you’d stay here on your pre-trip post and I absolutely agree with everything you’ve written (I think we both said its our new downtown home). The location is great in terms of being the perfect distance away from Fremont; rooms and pool are great. I had some rubbish food here too (the Sportsbook cafe), but Triple George across the street is an established operation that actually know what they’re doing (and seemed twice as busy as everything else). I don’t mind the boutique Sportsbook and Fitness Centre; they’re kind of sweet, and large enough to cope with the traffic they get.

    I think the management could do a lot worse than implement the suggestions made both here and on Vitalvegas.com – some of the stuff they get wrong like virtually hiding the mob bar is just plain dumb. In fact the whole of the front of the hotel seems very disconnected from the street and the mob museum opposite – even casino entrances are fairly anonymous. It most certainly is possible to run a property a block off the Fremont Roof (ElCo and Main Street both manage – MSS does it especially well I think – perhaps lessons can be learned from them too); I just hope Downtown Grand figures out how to do it before the plug is pulled.

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Great point, Jon, about Main Street Station. They’re off the canopy, and they don’t seem to have trouble bringing people in. What are they doing right that DTG is doing wrong? (Well, for one thing, their restaurants are cheap and good!) The execs at DTG need to study that and learn from it.

  4. ContactRida

    $18!!! my resort fee at Vdara is nearly as much as one night’s stay at the Grand, at $28 a night. Don’t even ask how much I’m paying for my Panoramic suite upgrade, ha! But I hope to get the fees waived since I will be checking in a day before my birthday. Fingers crossed. Great review. If only I could take you with me to review Vdara. I am totally captivated by this hotel; I can’t bring myself to stay anyplace cheaper. I am ruined:)

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Yes, but Downtown is different, ContactRida. Typically, the Strip is much more expensive. You’re not ruined; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having found a hotel that completely works for you. If you love it, there’s no need to try anything else. Good luck on getting the fees waived.

  5. Hardware

    The ownership/management team running this joint must be composed of idiots.

    FYI: I have never stayed at the DG.

    I got to see it in its infancy last Halloween. Slow, unspectacular, but new and unvarnished. I figured they were simply getting the doors open and getting the word out slowly, as they hadn’t had their official “grand opening celebration” at that point, IIFC.

    So what have I read since Halloween? They started screwing with their pay tables within days o opening, which all informed gamblers quickly became aware of. If you’re going to offer lousy pay tables, why not open with lousy pay tables? How does it make any sense to pull the switcheroo after you open your doors?

    There’s some hit-and-miss food offerings, evidently. When you spent as much as DG did to renovate the hotel and casino, how do you fall short in the culinary offerings. Are there no experienced chefs, managers, servers or dishwashers in Vegas to tap hire?

    $7/night does not make or break a vacation budget. If it breaks your budget, then you shouldn’t be going to Vegas. That said, knowing most people feel like they’re being deceived or ripped off by pointless fees (fair or not), why garner bad vibes by drawing attention to your property in a negative way, especially when your public perception is already swirling in the toilet? Lunacy!

    There’s room downtown for nice rooms in a nice setting. The Nugget proves it. How much of an appetite is there for that kind of experience? Not sure. But I don’t think the location one block off the strip hurts it as much as its inability to make one brilliant decision in terms of marketing.

    How the hell does the Orleans do so well? Figure it out, DG brain trust, and mimic that. You can’t change the fact that drunks aren’t going to stumble into your casino after another tired Bon Jovi light show, because your doors don’t open onto Fremont, but people don’t stumble into El Cortez or Main St. Station, either. It should be so easy to draw people into a new casino, a la the aforementioned casinos, that it’s laughable that DG is failing to do so.

    And regarding the casino: yep, it’s nice inside, but not particularly memorable. Playing up themes such as Mardi Gras, ancient Egypt or the old west ain’t in fashion these days, but I’ve seen before and after pictures: a woman can look like a plain Jane in the comfort of her home, and a bombshell with the right outfit and makeup. Apply some cosmetics to your casino and give people something they’ll remember.

    Damn, I’m not 90 years old, why is it that the I know this crap and the people running a downtown Vegas casino don’t?

    I need a new job. Yesterday.

    1. Hardware

      i really need to copyedit my stuff before i post, since there’s no edit key. i know better, yet sometimes i’m still lazy. 🙁

    2. Gray Cargill Post author

      LOL, tell us how you really feel, Mike. 🙂 I’m not going to claim I could do a better job with all aspects of a casino resort, because I’ve never run a hotel or a casino before, but it might not hurt them to hold a focus group of long-time Vegas visitors/casino-goers (like you, me and several others I know). It always amazes me how businesses try to guess what their customers want instead of going to the source and just asking them.

  6. NMchop

    I can get better gamble at the race-ino 30 minutes from my home. Don’t need to fly to Vegas to get 6-5 Bonus poker. How would it really harm them to put 8-5 Bonus Poker in and take a shot at my $2,000 budget with a game that is less then 100%? But I’m not going to play there until they fix their video poker pay tables. I hit a dollar royal there right after it opened on 8-5 Bonus Poker. So I’d of returned in a heartbeat without the paytable downgrade. Too many places with good video poker and not enough time to fiddle with places like this (for me). Thanks for the write up though, glad you enjoyed it.

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Hi, NMchop — Thanks for your comment. I’m not so much of a gambler as a sightseer (my modest gambling budget is just an entertainment budget, I don’t expect to win), so pay tables aren’t as important to me. But I totally understand what you’re saying, and I can’t blame you. If you’re playing to win, you’ve got to go where you stand a chance of winning.

  7. JoAnna

    I’m glad to hear you liked Picnic, though I think they missed the boat on this one. There was supposed to be real grass, and it was supposed to be open and available to the general public. Having to pay to get up to Picnic is ridiculous. Why would anyone do that? This venue was supposed to attract local traffic with their concerts and events, and I haven’t heard about any of them.

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Good point, JoAnna. It doesn’t look anything like it was originally described–as a place where locals could come and spread out a blanket on the grass for concerts and movies. It’s more like a poolside nightclub. I have no idea if any locals go to their concerts. They do regularly have concerts out there on weekend nights, I often see them advertised. (Are you following them on Facebook?) I can understand why they would want non hotel guests to pay (Strip hotels do that, too); but that would only make sense if they were always busy, which they’re not. Apparently, they figured that out, too. This week, I heard somewhere (maybe Five Hundy by Midnight) that they’ve changed that policy. The website now reads: “Access to non-hotel guests is available FREE with a two drink minimum purchase per person.” I’ll edit the article to reflect that.

  8. Jason's Travels

    Huh. I had never before heard of the Grand. I wonder if that’s part of their problem – poor marketing. That’s interesting to hear, too, that the costumed nuts are downtown. I was hoping they’d stay up on the Strip so I wouldn’t have to deal with them during my upcoming trip. Oh well.

  9. Lydia

    I only venture to guess that DG is not doing as well as MSS, Orleans, El Cortez, Ellis Island because they are not marketing themselves as a budget casino. When you are a local, you want a place that offers a bargain for their meals and a place that is not frequented by tourists. The DG is too fancy for locals and therefore doesn’t feel like a homey hang out. Plus they have to compete with the Golden Nugget which boasts $42 a night during the week with a small $5 resort fee. Although, the nugget does charge $12.99 a day for internet.

    Personally, I’d stay at the DG over the Golden Nugget just to get away from that awful loud light show. What idiot came up with that idea? Why would anyone want to draw people out from the casino out to the street. And Why would they want to interrupt the live bands playing when people are enjoying the music. I am digressing.

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      I’ve always enjoyed the light show, personally, but that’s one of the reasons staying right on Fremont Street doesn’t appeal to me. I’m one of those people who is usually in bed before midnight in Vegas (I can’t help it, I have a hard time getting onto West Coast time!) and the noise would drive me crazy.

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