VAN­COU­VER, NOT VE­GAS

Casino boss SCOTT MENKE goes all in with Parq re­sort

BC Business Magazine - - Front Page - by Nick Rockel pho­to­graphs by Me­lanie Du ne a

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

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