VANCOUVER, NOT VEGAS
Casino boss SCOTT MENKE goes all in with Parq resort
Ona brilliant late-June afternoon, Scott Menke strides through the posh lobby of Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel Georgia. “What’s up?” asks the co-founder and CEO of Paragon Gaming as he extends a hand. At first glance, his aquiline gaze appears haughty, but don’t mistake the tall American’s confidence for condescension.
For 20- odd days a month, Menke lives alone in this downtown hotel. Since 2006, he’s divided his time between Vancouver and Paragon’s home of Las Vegas as the company pushed to build an ambitious destination casino and hotel project, facing blowback from politicians, anti-gambling activists and concerned residents. Some critics have questioned Paragon’s track record. But in the end, Menke got his way: a few blocks south, in the shadow of BC Place stadium, Parq Vancouver opens its doors on September 29.
Yesterday a fire broke out at the site, sparked by tests of the building’s generators. “The silver lining is we had a very solid fire drill,” Menke says over a glass of wine in the Rosewood’s lounge. “It moves very, very fast when you’re at this stage,” he adds of construction. “You think, ‘Shit, nothing’s happening for three days,’ and then all of a sudden it’s done.”
Paragon has dealt with bigger setbacks. In 2011, after the company applied to move its downmarket Edgewater Casino’s licence across the street to what is now Parq, city council approved the relocation. But it unanimously blocked a request to install up to 1,500 slot machines and 150 gaming tables, capping them at the now-closed Edgewater’s 600 and 75, respectively.
Rather than try to bring Vegas to False Creek, Paragon recast the project as what it calls an urban resort. The $640-million Parq development, a slender, U- shaped building shrouded in orange glass, contains two Marriott hotels, one with 48 ultra-luxury suites. Amenities include eight restaurants, bars and lounges; Canada’s largest hotel ballroom; and its treed rooftop park. Among Parq’s other nods to Vancouver: 1886, its Chinese restaurant, references the year Chinatown was established, and the boutique Douglas hotel name-checks B.C.’S ubiquitous fir. There’s a 72,000-squarefoot casino, but it’s on the second floor so guests can avoid it. For serious gamblers, the third-floor high-limit area has private gaming suites.
One knock against Paragon’s first pass was that people don’t travel to Vancouver to hang out in a windowless casino. “I think that’s a fair thing,” Menke says. “That’s what we’re really trying to rebrand. Parq Vancouver in itself doesn’t even have the word ‘casino’ in it.”
With that rebranding in mind, Menke has been on a charm offensive. In midMay, he invited local and international media to the U2 concert at BC Place. There he worked the crowd with Las Vegas culinary power couple Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla, who oversee Parq’s restaurants and lounges. The next morning Menke led a hard-hat tour of the project, followed by a lavish brunch featuring local delicacies. Less than five months away from showtime, Parq’s sunlit interior was still a maze of drywall and exposed wiring, but he brought it to life.
Even when he relays talking points, there’s something disarmingly genuine about Menke, who prefers chatting to texting. To that end, he uses an old flip phone, so he can’t show me photos of Gracie, his beloved Labrador. “She’s more expensive than child support,” he jokes.
Martin Stitt, area vice-president for Marriott Hotels Canada, describes Menke as visionary, passionate—and determined. “I don’t think Scott is really a guy who likes a Plan B,” Calgary-based Stitt says with a laugh. “He has a very clear vision of what he wants to accomplish with Parq, and therefore Plan B is not part of that.”
Parq helps fill a shortage of downtown hotel rooms, specifically in the luxury market, Stitt explains. But it’s also a game changer for B.C. and the country, he says, noting that pre-bookings for conferences and incentive travel are the strongest he’s seen. “This is bringing business to Vancouver that wasn’t even considering Vancouver or, in many cases, Canada.”
Jim Lightbody, president and CEO of British Columbia Lottery Corp. ( BCLC), knows Menke well. “Scott is absolutely focused on that customer experience,” Lightbody says. “He really, really is trying to make Parq a truly Vancouver experience.” Lightbody recalls that when Paragon and BCLC were seeking approval to shut the Edgewater, a group called Vancouver Not Vegas protested expansion of gambling. “That’s actually a very appropriate term,” he says. “We do want to create Vancouver, not Vegas.”
For Menke, the casino business runs in the family. He launched Paragon in 2000 with his cousin Diana Bennett, daughter of the late casino magnate William Bennett. Besides Parq Vancouver, their portfolio includes the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe and the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. “He is very good at the big picture,” says Bennett, who gives Menke 80 per cent of the credit for Paragon’s success. “He’s very good at knowing where we need to go and how we need to get there, as long as there is somebody like me dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”
Until this spring, Menke kept a low profile in Vancouver. The first time I met him, in 2010, for a Bcbusiness story that looked at the case for and against Paragon’s casino plans, he came off as a cocksure Yank who had misread his opponents. Vancouver has changed him. Menke is leaner and fitter—the result of rising at 4:30 a.m. daily to work out with his trainer before running the Stanley Park Seawall. He’s also in less of a hurry.
“One of the lessons that I learned is sometimes you rush into a project,”
FULL HOUSE A rendering of Parq Vancouver, BC Place's new neighbour