Sam Nazarian’s SBE Entertainment Group made headlines last week by announcing that it had secured $300 million of the $415 million it needs to transform the shuttered Sahara hotel-casino—which the company bought in 2007, at the height of the casino real estate boom—into the SLS Las Vegas, a “refreshing, fun and accessible take on Vegas luxury.”
There are still a host of concerns about the project, however: skeptics say that it’s too far away from the center of the action to compete; it’s too small; no one will invest in the north Strip; in any event, it’s not completely financed.
Rob Oseland, recently hired as the president and chief operating officer of SLS Las Vegas, is the guy to answer those questions.
Oseland sees the Sahara’s small size as a benefit. With 1,600 rooms, the property is roughly half the size of the average Strip resort, and the renovated SLS will cost one-tenth the price of a brand-new Strip behemoth. Even if gaming and room revenues are lower than at other properties, that won’t matter: SLS will have considerably less debt load. It will be a nimble operation that isn’t handicapped by massive costs or an unwieldy corporate hierarchy.
What about the location, which is as close to blighted as the Strip gets?
“I believe someone’s got to lead on the north Strip,” Oseland says. “It’s something Sam’s done before—taken a distressed property, created a lifestyle brand, and brought life back into an area. We’ll be first in, and we’ll reap the benefits. Others will follow.”
Oseland is no carpetbagging corporate flak; he moved to Las Vegas in 1987 to attend UNLV. After graduating two years later, Oseland went to work for Steve Wynn at Golden Nugget and then in the new Mirage. He took part in Wynn’s first-ever management program and worked as a dealer and as a casino analyst before focusing on slots and working his way up the ladder.
When Wynn started planning Bellagio a few years later, Oseland was tapped as vice president of slot operations and marketing. That was no small responsibility; despite its reputation as a high-rollers’ heaven, Bellagio has one of the largest slot floors in the country.
After MGM Resorts bought Mirage Resorts, Oseland left for a position as general manager of locals’ favorite Boulder Station. Within a year, however, Wynn had bought the Desert Inn and begun planning the resort that opened as Wynn Las Vegas in 2005. Oseland came aboard as chief operating officer, helming the operational design and development of the property. When it opened, he became executive vice president of casino operations and marketing. He then moved back into the COO role for Encore before leaving Wynn Resorts a year ago.
Many other executives leaving Wynn have found that his company’s name on their résumé is the ultimate career boost; if they stay in gaming, they often step into high-level executive roles. Ten years ago, Oseland went from working with Wynn to running a property elsewhere in the city. Having taken three of the Strip’s highest-profile resorts from drawing board to doors, Oseland was likely even more in demand. Why roll the dice with Nazarian and a project that’s not fully funded?
According to Oseland, SBE was the perfect choice for him because of its entrepreneurial spirit. He doesn’t want to be a cog in a corporate machine, and SBE is young enough—though it is growing rapidly—to remind Oseland more than a little of his early days with Wynn.
“My real passion,” he says, “is building. I love the challenge of developing, procuring, hiring, opening and marketing a new resort. When everything’s tied down, I get bored.”
Drawing on popular Los Angeles brands, keeping expectations reasonable—seen through Oseland’s lens, SLS Las Vegas doesn’t seem like such a long shot after all.
Of course, the doors aren’t open yet; construction hasn’t even started. We’ll know in two to six months whether the project will go forward at all, as it will either secure $115 million in additional financing and start construction immediately, or become another development dud in a city that’s had more than its share recently.
Oseland’s mentor, Wynn, confronted many skeptics when he built The Mirage, which transformed the central and south Strip. There were plenty of nay-sayers for Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas, too, yet they each redefined the Strip.
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