Grand Victoria in Elgin getting her first facelift at 19
By Janelle Walker For Sun-Times Media October 2, 2013 5:44PM
There is almost as much action taking place behind the work partitions as there is in front of them on the main floor of the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin. The casino is in the midst of a $4 million remodeling project to coincide with its 20th anniversary next year. | Jon Langham~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 4, 2013 7:16AM
ELGIN — For the first time in its 19 years here, the Grand Victoria Casino riverboat’s interior is getting an overhaul.
Soon, the Victorian fixtures, dark wood, crown molding and crystal chandeliers inside the casino will be just a memory. Instead, the boat will reflect a new, more-updated feel — as will the pavilion with its current prairie-style fixtures.
Remodeling began in August and has a scheduled Dec. 27 completion date. The changes are designed to create a new feel for the casino and include brighter lighting, chrome and brighter colors.
“We are going for Vegas,” said Suzanne Phillips, director of marketing. “We want to have more excitement and a modern, more-clean feel.”
That same feeling of Las Vegas-style casinos also will extend into the pavilion. “We want to bring the excitement of the casino out into the pavilion,” she said. “The casino is where the action is.”
The pavilion has seen its share of changes over the years, as has the riverboat.
When Illinois approved its first nine of 10 casino riverboat licenses, the boats had to travel the waterways they were was on.
In Elgin’s case, from 1994 through 1999, every two hours the boat traveled the Fox River from the National Street Bridge on the south to the Chicago Street Bridge on the north.
When the boat came back to dock, everyone in the casino was taken off, to allow the customers waiting in the pavilion to come on board.
“The pavilion was kind of a gathering place for people who were waiting for the next cruise,” Phillips said. “We would sweep the boat every two hours, all customers had to get off, and 2,000 could get back on.”
That is why the pavilion felt like a train station, Phillips said, and why it has one massive fixture that is verboten in most casinos — a huge clock seen by anyone walking across the parking deck’s pedestrian bridge. It is the first thing those customers see as they walk in.
The clock also will be a thing of the past, Phillips said.
The rebranding of the casino began in 2004, when the Victorian lady image was retired and the new silver crown logo replaced her.
What the casino discovered is that Grand Victoria branding — or even its name — isn’t as important to customers, Phillips said.
It surveyed customers to see what they call the Elgin riverboat. “No name had more than 30 percent” brand recognition, she said.
Some called it the Grand Vic, Some Grand Victoria, others “the boat in Elgin.”
One of her favorite monikers is “Aunt Vicky’s” — what some gamblers call the boat when they don’t want their kids to know where they are going, Phillips said.
“They call us whatever they want to call us, so we decided to modernize. We are moving away from the Victorian look and feel, the Victorian names, and modernizing everything,” she said.
Some of the modernization began five years ago, when the Fox and Hound sports bar was closed and remade into Prime Burgerhouse. Crave Deli opened shortly thereafter.
This past spring, the buffet was shut down and completely remodeled and is now known as the Indulge Show Kitchen Buffet.
Buckingham’s Steakhouse and Lounge is next. The steakhouse — which boasts its own butcher — will be renovated and rebranded as King in 2014.
That is when the other pavilion renovations also will begin, Phillips said.
They hope that the updated boat will help bring back some of the gamblers who may have drifted away to other casinos, said GVC General Manager Jim Thomason.
When Illinois banned indoor smoking as of Jan. 1, 2008, the number of gamblers here dropped. Then, when Rivers Casino opened in Des Plaines, Chicago gamblers found a closer location than Elgin.
While other surrounding states also have banned indoor smoking, that law doesn’t include Wisconsin’s tribal casinos, Thomason said — another place that smoking gamblers can choose to spend their money instead.
The Ho-Chunk Nation is looking at building a casino in Beloit, which also could draw Grand Victoria patrons. “The No. 1 factor ... when selecting a casino is who is closest,” Thomason said.
Attracting new and old customers back to Elgin is part of the reason the Grand Victoria began partnering with Ron Onesti and the Arcada Theater of St. Charles to bring live music to the adjacent Festival Park.
Following the Aug. 24 Joan Jett concert, 270 people signed up for Grand Victoria Club membership — four times the number they would see on a typical Saturday night.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is set to play Oct. 13.
“We are very interested in investing in Festival Park,” Thomason said, adding that any time the casino can get 3,500 people adjacent to its property, it is good for the business.
Festival Park may look different in five years, he added, as the casino is considering investments to make it a venue for future events.
“Elgin is a fantastic location for these types of things. People like to go out and do things, and we were thrilled with the response to Joan Jett,” he said.
If the weather holds out, he expects similar or better numbers for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“If we can get people on the property, our goal is accomplished: to expose people to the Grand Victoria and to take a look around and, the next time, check the casino out,” he said.