The Sahara’s closing on May 16, 2011, was significant in more ways than one: It was not only the demise of one of the Strip’s few remaining classic casinos, but it essentially marked the depth of the Great Recession. So the August 23 rise of SLS Las Vegas from the bones of the Sahara says a great deal about where Las Vegas is heading—and how it will get there.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that SLS’s opening could be the event that officially signals the end of the recession for Las Vegas. Things certainly are looking up: The city’s on pace to break the 40 million mark for annual visitation; Strip gaming revenues have a shot at matching their pre-recession high; and a host of projects Downtown and on the Strip (see the Linq, the Cromwell and Inspire Theater) represent new capital and new confidence.
So what does the new Las Vegas look like? It’s less focused on gambling, for starters. Gambling per domestic visitor is down, with spending on food, beverage and entertainment rising. In a country where gambling has not been a Nevada novelty for decades, people are still coming to Las Vegas—they just want to do more than feed a slot machine. And increasingly, visitors are opting for brands over traditional standards of customer loyalty.
Boil all that down into a single 21st-century property, and you get SLS Las Vegas. Unlike previous “build it and they will come” megaprojects, this one was constructed on a budget whose constraints likely enhanced its designers’ creativity. The French boudoir-style Lux suites might be smaller than similarly tiered accommodations farther south, but their idiosyncratic chic is calculated to keep guests from caring. Additionally, preserving the skeleton of the Sahara gives the property some quirks that distinguish it from “big box” casinos—for the better. Its restaurants—from the Strip-side beer garden to Cleo’s small-plates take on Mediterranean cuisine—are served up as the main dish. And, of course, there is nightlife galore in Sayers Club, Life and Foxtail.
The summer’s other “new” hotel-casino, the Cromwell, is also heavily focused on nightlife, with a rooftop pool night/dayclub. It also has what is fast becoming the Strip’s hottest restaurant, Giada. Its casino is serviceable but clearly not the focus. Then again, the Cromwell is owned by Caesars Entertainment, which has eight other casinos to fall back on.
SLS, on the other hand, is a stand-alone property, the only casino in owner SBE/Stockbridge’s portfolio. Building it was a bet that a new entrant could serve a relatively narrow niche in post-consolidation Las Vegas. SBE chairman Sam Nazarian, in a recent interview with the Las Vegas Sun, referenced the 5 million names in SBE’s database as a “tribe” of aspirational, influential and affluent people.
For a long time, Las Vegas casinos have prospered by appealing to niche audiences, be they serious gamblers, conventioneers, bachelorette parties or club-goers. Nazarian’s appeal to his “tribe” matches the SLS’s design: It is not a property built to the lowest common denominator, but one with gems and, yes, flaws, that will endear it to many and alienate some.
Still, such a business plan makes sense, because with casinos spread across the United States now, vanilla is poison for destination resorts. Character, even if it might not appeal to everyone, is the only way to stand out (particularly for properties not blessed with a central location).
So SLS has suites designed by rocker Lenny Kravitz, hunting tapestries in Bazaar Meat seemingly poached from Downton Abbey, and a plethora of primates where you’d least expect them (from the casino’s crest to the Monkey Bar). Those little touches, its owners hope, will distinguish it enough to give the “tribe” a reason to revitalize the north end of the Strip. Staking out an identity like that is a gamble, true, but a necessary one, if the property—and the city—is to adapt and survive.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.