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As We See It

His name is Earl

He may have lost control of Planet Hollywood, but a wiser Robert Earl is no Vegas flop

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Robert Earl took a Sly approach to making Planet Hollywood a cool place.
Photo: Tammie Arroyo | AP

Vegas is a tough town to break into. Because the gaming business is seen from afar as an easy-money racket, all manner of showboaters, dilettantes and charlatans believe all they need to make it on the Strip is money and an oversized ego. The story of those hubrists’ flops are both repetitive and legend.

That’s why I must stand up for a man I fully expected to fail, who arrived from—almost literally—another planet, with the kind of unearned bravado that so typified all the previous wannabes who became never-had-beens. He was loud and proud and believed that just because he knew other hospitality-related businesses he could conquer Sin City, too.

He fell short, ’tis true, and his Planet Hollywood resort is now being absorbed into the Harrah’s universe. But I’m here to say that, while it may seem otherwise, Robert Earl was no Vegas failure.

The fact is, Earl did everything he promised back in 2003, when he acquired the moribund, desperate, horrifically designed Aladdin for $800 million. He took a place with a theme rendered radioactive by 9/11 and spent $1 billion making it bright and accessible on the outside, sultry and hip on the inside. He vowed to deploy his star-laden Rolodex in the service of rebooting the Planet Hollywood brand and he did so beyond anyone’s expectations, with constant film premieres and those big beauty pageants, and one ubiquitous mascot known as Holly Madison.

Earl formally lost control of the property last month as Harrah’s, which had bought up Planet Hollywood debt, commandeered the company. The enterprise was heavily financed and then beaten to a pulp by the Great Recession, the same situation faced by almost every operator in Vegas.

Unlike the others, though, the 58-year-old Brit ran out of time. He did nothing wrong, per se; that $1 billion he plunged into the transformation of the Aladdin to the Planet Hollywood was completely necessary to make the place viable. Earl just hit a bad beat and didn’t have the depth to weather it.

“In a nutshell, the days of individual entrepreneurs on the Las Vegas Strip, with the exception of Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, are over,” Earl said by phone last week from the CanyonRanch SpaClub in Tucson, lest anyone worry about his ability to make ends meet. “The Las Vegas Strip is such a competitive business that it is essential to have the backing of a large corporation. The large corporation provides you two things you need there. No. 1, consolidated cost, and No. 2, an incredible database.”

To Earl’s mind, Harrah’s is a savior, not a deep-pocketed Goliath cruelly inhaling Davids. In fact, the clearest evidence that Earl didn’t really fail in Vegas is that Harrah’s retained him as chairman of the property and has no major plans to change much of what he did. They’re in the process of booting the ongoing headache that is the rent-delinquent and bankrupt Prive nightclub, and they’re likely to use their larger showroom for bigger concerts. But the most specific and immediate change, referenced by Harrah’s veep Michael Weaver in a recent interview with me, was that they believe the casino floor can be reconfigured with a better mix of slot machines and table games.

Yet Weaver and his clan clearly feel Earl succeeded in his vision of creating a popular, celeb-centric Strip resort in the same category as—but larger than—the Hard Rock and the Palms.

“When we talk to customers, the opportunity to be associated with celebrity and famous, important people is one of the reasons why Caesars Palace is successful, because there’s some sense of being close to celebrities,” Weaver said. “But while celebrity is a piece of what happens at Caesars, it’s a much bigger component of Planet Hollywood.”

Another bit of proof: Earl remains empowered to do what he does to bring the movie premieres and celebrities to town. There have even been discussions about branding other casinos around the nation and world with the Planet Hollywood theme.

“They tell me they want to keep that edginess,” he said. “They want to Harrah-fy it, not horrify it.”

Some former fans of the Rio and Caesars may be skeptical, but Earl insisted he’s got the control to keep the resort functioning as he has established it. Even better, he hopes to exploit Harrah’s legendary marketing capabilities to take the Planet to new heights.

That’s exciting for a guy who admits he ran the restaurant brand into the ground, into bankruptcy and into ignominy. Earl founded Planet Hollywood in the early 1990s, got the likes of Sly Stallone and Bruce Willis to invest in it, went public in 1996 and grew it in a blink into a massive worldwide operation of more than 50 locations. Then he over-expanded and the company ended up filing for bankruptcy protection twice by 2001. He became a laughingstock, and it never stopped eating at him.

“I have a great ability to make money, but one of the things that mattered above all to me was to get the Planet brand to reemerge and rise again,” he said. “I don’t like to lose, I don’t like to fail, and the bankruptcy of Planet was probably the only business problem I ever had.”

Well, until this. The difference, he said, is that the collapse of the restaurant chain “was all our own doing,” whereas the inability to keep his hold on his casino-resort was a matter of lousy timing.

It’s too bad, too, because Earl was bitten by the Vegas bug in a big way and now—get this!—he even understands the business. In other words, he acknowledged that all that skepticism about him years ago was totally justifiable.

“There are many situations on casinos that in the beginning I would have been bluffing,” he said. Like what? “Just knowledge of gaming, knowledge of slots, knowledge of hold, knowledge of drop per game, knowledge of tables, knowledge of credit facilities ... Is that enough?”

Earl said he’s in the process of working out “a deal of great magnitude” to build a Planet-themed resort overseas, for which he hopes Harrah’s will be partner.

“Is it a bummer? Of course it is. Am I melancholy? Of course I am,” he said. “But I think it was the right thing for the brand at this time. I’ve managed to preserve 96 percent of people’s jobs and assure their future, so I feel happy about that.”

And then there’s this other thing. Even though he declared the solo-operator model dead, he seems to still be dreaming of being one again one day: “If you gave me the opportunity to build [a Strip resort] from the ground up, I think we would be an awesome competitor in the market with what I’ve learned. When we think what we managed to do just from the Aladdin, and that place was an unmitigated disaster.”

I’m sure it’ll be a while, but Earl has now earned his chops. Whatever he does next in this parts, I will be among those eagerly—and perhaps a little less skeptically—watching. Perhaps.

Follow Steve on Twitter at TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.Com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. Email him at SteveFriess@aol.com.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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