I returned a week ago from San Diego Comic-Con, but when I walked into the Landry's Showcase event at Inn at the Ballpark, I thought for a minute I'd been magically transported back. The first thing my eyes landed on were three big, colorful mascots. There were dozens of people milling about. There was even someone cosplaying as a showgirl.
One of these host locations, the Inn at the Ballpark, will be undergoing a change this year. It will be rebranded and roll out on December 1 as the Westin Houston Downtown. This was arranged through a licensing agreement between Landry's and Starwood Hotels. Landry's will retain ownership of the property.
"I think it's going to be a great thing for Houston, downtown and for me," said one employee of Inn at the Ballpark. "We're going to have the same employees. Aesthetics will change somewhat, with the Westin beds and the culture they'll be bringing in. I think people will get the best of both worlds. Inn at the Ballpark is a small hotel with great employees who really care, and the Westin culture is very training-oriented. That's going to help us out in the long run and make us better."
The visual theme of the event was the four diamonds that are now part of Landry's logo, each representing a service concept: dining, hospitality, entertainment and gaming. I ran the pattern in reverse, starting in the gaming room and ending up in the sumptuous dining extravaganza at Vic & Anthony's. In each venue, an ice sculpture, carved with its appropriate diamond, sat in the middle of a buffet.
A feast of desserts resided in the gaming room; macarons, chocolate parfaits, tarts and more. I grabbed a delectable chocolate mousse and focused on what, exactly, the point of this gathering was. That was harder to determine than you might think; it was a crowded, vibrant scene full of Landry's Select Club members and event planners. Fortunately, for those who sought it out, there was plenty of information to be found.
I knew Landry's was huge, but I don't think I really internalized exactly how big until that evening. For example, did you know they own the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas? Furthermore, did you know there are two other locations in Laughlin and Atlantic City, with soon to be a fourth in Biloxi? (Landry's next project is to finalize the purchase of the Isle Casino Hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, and rebrand it as yet another Golden Nugget casino.) You might have been to the Downtown Aquarium in Houston, but were you aware that there are three others (in Kemah, Nashville and Denver)?
The behemoth-like size of Landry's operation is a factor that leads some to criticize its restaurant holdings as overpriced or subpar. It doesn't help that Landry's overall strategy seems to be to take a unique, winning concept and make a chain out of it. (Viva la capitalism!)
However, there was very little food that I tried this evening that I didn't like. Vic & Anthony's across the street is one of my favorite restaurants in town. When I ran into the chef there, Carlos Rodriguez, we talked about the perception issue. "What people forget," he said, "is that Landry's does a great deal for the economy. In the last year, they have added hundreds of jobs in South Texas."
Many of the jobs resulting from the expansion have been created in founder and CEO Tilman Fertitta's hometown of Galveston, as well as in Kemah. The Pleasure Pier, an amusement park that includes the first Texas location of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (named after the endeavor in the movie Forrest Gump), opened on May 25. The park features some of the rides that have been missing since AstroWorld closed, including a log flume (remember the "Bamboo Shoot"?) roller coaster, tea cup ride and a giant Ferris wheel that also functions as a light show.
Speaking of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the best bite I had that evening was from their table, a spicy, peppery Cajun shrimp dish served with a butter sauce over toasty bread. I also enjoyed talking with Executive Chef Suzanne Giannetto, a Windows On the World veteran who thankfully was no longer there by the time 9/11 occurred.
But, really, what was this event all about? According to Nicki Kennan, Senior Vice President of Sales, "We've experienced so much growth in the last three years that we really needed to show people our four diamonds [representing dining, entertainment, hospitality and gaming] and how it all comes together."
The big "dog and pony show" might also have had something to do with offsetting some recent negative publicity. Landry's made the decision to close Pesce in April, ostensibly to focus on seafood establishments after its acquisition of three McCormick & Schmick's locations and Oceanaire in the Galleria. (However, a "focus on seafood" did not dissuade them from acquiring Morton's steakhouse. The transaction was completed in February of this year.)
There have also been safety concerns about the concrete support structure of the Pleasure Pier after a visitor snapped some photos and noticed broken and crumbling concrete. According to the Galveston Daily News, both Landry's and Galveston city officials say the structure is safe, and it was inspected seven times in 2011.
Despite the business focus on Houston and the surrounding areas, both Landry's and Fertitta draw a great deal of angry opposition from its home turf. Just take a look at the comments section on this recent 29-95 article about Landry's establishments. It certainly doesn't hurt to cultivate some "warm fuzzies" through an event like this one.
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With all that being said, Landry's must have a lot more customers than detractors or it wouldn't be able to support its rapid growth. Landry's shows no signs of slowing down, either. The company projects that its earnings for 2012 (before taxes, interest, depreciation and amortization) will be between $330 and $335 million.
Obviously, this Texas-grown company must be doing something right.