The Action, for Resorts, Is on the Street

2014 will be the year the Strip reaches for the future by becoming more like Downtown


While 2013 was mostly a year of building and transition, Las Vegas should definitively enter the post-recession era in 2014. That won’t mean a return to pre-recession prosperity, but rather a shift in how casinos approach visitors. In fact, it may turn out that the restaurants, retail and entertainment of the Linq will mark the biggest change on the Las Vegas Strip since the county began installing pedestrian overpasses in the 1990s.

We’re always told that everything—from the opening of CityCenter to the announcement of Britney Spears’ Las Vegas residency—is simultaneously unprecedented and transformational, so you may be tempted to brush off that last sentence as boilerplate pre-opening babble. But you shouldn’t: The idea behind the Linq—that resorts will cater to passersby without tempting them into the casino itself—reverses one of the most prominent strands of design wisdom on the Strip.

We’ve all heard that casinos are deliberately designed to be large and disorienting. Indeed, the reason that casinos evolved to include so many ancillary attractions was to keep players near the tables for as long as possible and discourage winners from leaving before the casino had a chance to win its money back. That idea has guided casinos from their earliest days to today. Even when Steve Wynn kicked off the age of outdoor attractions with The Mirage’s volcano, the idea was to get people curious about what was inside the resort, not keep them outside.

Wynn elaborated on his “lure” concept with Treasure Island and Bellagio before deciding, with Wynn Las Vegas, to forgo a street-side showstopper. Instead, his Lake of Dreams was visible only to guests already in the casino. It was a validation of focusing on the interior at the expense of the streetscape.
But the city has changed rapidly since the Wynn’s 2005 opening, and with the Linq, Caesars Entertainment is betting that success in 2014 means getting more business from people who never actually step inside the casino.

The Great Recession demolished the myth that Las Vegas was immune to economic contagion. In fact, the city has suffered through several downturns, but reinvented itself every time. It happened in the aftermath of the post-9/11 slump, when the luxury-heavy, nightlife-oriented Strip blossomed. Years earlier, the “Burger King Revolution” that followed the early-1980s recession saw casinos truly embrace the middle market for the first time.

Las Vegas has been in crisis since 2008, and without high-rollers—particularly those from Asia—propping up casino revenues, things would be much worse. These days, the typical middle-market visitor no longer has the gambling budget or inclination to spend hours inside casinos playing slot machines. Instead, that visitor seems to want a variety of experiences, from zooming along ziplines to listening to live music right out on the street.

As it happens, there’s a place where visitors get such experiences with budget-friendly service: Downtown Las Vegas. Thirty years ago, Strip casinos emulated Downtown’s low-roller focus, and it’s not surprising that today the giants of the Boulevard are again looking to Fremont Street for inspiration.

Even before the Linq is fully functional, it’s clear that, for the near future at least, the rest of the Strip (with the exception of Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands) is embracing this outside-in model. MGM Resorts has begun work on a similar project, the Park, on the south end of the Strip (though that project would be anchored by an arena). Meanwhile, Treasure Island and the Tropicana have begun adding their own street-front retail additions, with Bally’s not far behind.

The result will be a Strip where much of the focus isn’t on the casinos’ air-conditioned interiors, but on the shops and restaurants that face outward, toward the sidewalk. While this is unlikely to change how high-rollers enjoy their time in Las Vegas, it will fundamentally alter how the average visitor perceives the city, likely in ways that we can’t even imagine.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.