A new las vegas casino. Ten years ago, that wasn’t such big news. Opening a new property on the Strip seemed as hard as throwing a quarter into Lake Mead. Then the recession hit and, as the bulk of the Fontainebleau and failed (but hopefully soon to rise in new guises) Plaza and Echelon projects prove, that’s no longer the case. No new casinos have opened in Las Vegas since the Cosmopolitan in 2010. But, later this year, the Lucky Dragon welcomes its first visitors, officially recognized as the first new casino to break Las Vegas’ recession losing streak.
The Lucky Dragon will be a different kind of casino in more ways than one. It’s just off the Strip on Sahara Avenue, and it will have only 206 rooms, just above the statutory minimum. But, as the days of the “everything to everyone” casino seem to be waning (hence the rise of boutique properties within properties), the most remarkable thing about Lucky Dragon might be its laser focus on a single niche.
That niche may surprise you. The casino was built in part with money from EB-5 investors. That program, as detailed earlier in this column (“Investing in America,” May 30, 2013) allows high net-worth foreign investors to become eligible for green cards in exchange for investments more than $500,000 in specified projects. That, combined with its small size, might lead you to conclude that it will focus primarily on Chinese high rollers. But since Beijing’s anti-graft crackdown and China’s economic slowdown, that group has gotten considerably less able, or willing, to gamble both in Macau and in Las Vegas, as evidenced by plummeting baccarat numbers on the Strip. In addition, the international high-end customer is an expensive and risky target to bet on, particularly without a large mass customer base to offset its inherent volatility.
So the Lucky Dragon is shooting for a different kind of customer.
“We’re looking closer to our backyard,” Lucky Dragon Chief Operating Officer David Jacoby says. “This is obviously an Asian-focused property, but not necessarily directly from Asia. We are focusing on appealing to Asian-Americans from Las Vegas, the broader regional population and even as far away as New York and Toronto.”
But, you might ask, don’t plenty of other properties cater to Asians and Asian-Americans? It’s hard to walk down the Strip in late January without tripping over Chinese New Year banners. And locals casinos a short drive from Lucky Dragon—particularly Palace Station and Gold Coast—already appeal to local Asian-American players.
That is true, but, as Jacoby points out, there is something missing. “We are taking it a step further than what you may have seen elsewhere. This is the first property built from the ground up to appeal to Asian-American players’ needs, particularly when it comes to entertainment, value and service. A lot of properties may have some visitation, but we are built for that customer. We appeal directly to them.”
It will not be a subtle appeal. All signage will be in Chinese first, English second, and all front-of-house employees will speak Cantonese, Mandarin or other dialects and languages.
You’ll see it first and foremost in the food, which is the strongest emotional lure a casino can offer guests. It will have authentic Chinese food—think la zi ji instead of chicken egg foo yong. “You’ll see authentic dim sum, great seafood,” Jacoby says. “We spent more effort on that than anything else, and we have some great partners.”
You won’t see a brewpub at the Lucky Dragon, or a pizza place, or an Italian restaurant or, incredibly enough, a steakhouse. No steakhouse? That’s close to blasphemy for casino designers. But Sheldon Adelson broke precedent when he opened the Venetian without a buffet and hasn’t regretted it. Breaking with one casino tradition to embrace another may be similarly fortuitous.
Lucky Dragon will also have an indoor and outdoor tea garden whose connoisseurs will help fanciers select from what Jacoby describes as “an expensive book of high-end teas from all over Asia,” each with its own terroir and story.
Just being the first new resort to cross the post-recession finish line is an accomplishment, and Jacoby credits architect Ed Vance & Associates, Grand Canyon Development Partners and general contractor Penta Building Group for getting them there. “They’ve been fantastic to work with, and have kept right on pace,” he says.
Beyond the focus on the growing Asian and Asian-American market, Lucky Dragon is interesting because it highlights what may be the coming trend in Las Vegas: specialization. Since broadening into the family and mass markets in the 1980s, increasing their focus on business and leisure travelers in the 1990s and reaching out to night and daylife devotees in the 2000s, casinos on the Strip have tried to appeal to as many sometimes clashing groups of people as possible.
That may be changing though, as giant casino boxes prove too money-intensive to build with such robust and established competition. A smaller property that can afford to be more selective in its appeal can be rewarded with greater customer loyalty.
Smaller and more selective seems very unlike Vegas, but it might just be the future of resorts on and around the Strip.