When the Lucky Dragon had its official grand opening earlier this month, there were few surprises. After all, the casino had been open for nearly two weeks. But the formal unveiling gives an opportunity to consider just what Sahara Avenue adds to the local casino and hospitality scene. In some ways it looks to the past, but in others, Lucky Dragon could be a glimpse into the future.
Since 2010, the “new” properties have been rebrands like the Downtown Grand, The Quad/Linq, SLS Las Vegas and The Cromwell, but Lucky Dragon is the first genuinely new property to open in the tourist corridor since The Cosmopolitan six years ago. Someone thought they could make money building a new casino in Las Vegas and convinced enough people to make funding a reality. That has significance: It is one sign that the recession is in Las Vegas’ rear view.
This is a different kind of casino, though. While Resorts World and Alon, the properties slated to rise on the sites of scuttled Echelon and Plaza Las Vegas, have yet to begin major construction, Lucky Dragon is up and running. With 203 guest rooms, five restaurants, a spa and a 27,500-square-foot casino, it is tiny by Strip standards; the typical resort on the Boulevard has more than 3,000 rooms, 100,000 square feet of gaming space and an array of restaurants, entertainment venues, shopping and convention spaces. Lucky Dragon has gambling, food and rooms—and little else.
Unlike most of the Strip, Lucky Dragon is going out of its way not to be all things to all people … It could be a harbinger for the Las Vegas of the future.
The casino’s size (one can easily see from one side of the room to the other) and layout (tables in the center, slots around the edges, restaurants just beyond) are a throwback to the 1950s. Las Vegas Strip casinos such as the Sands, Desert Inn and the Flamingo were a bit smaller than the Lucky Dragon and had significantly more supporting elements (namely, a supper club theater), but the scale feels the same. Travel to Las Vegas was, back then, a niche activity. The entire resort was built with one purpose: to draw and retain big (typically craps) players.
Lucky Dragon has a similarly tight focus: Its operators tout its “authentic Asian cultural and gaming experience” as the difference maker. Unlike most of the Strip, Lucky Dragon is going out of its way not to be all things to all people. If you are not into Asian games and Asian food, you will likely not enjoy visiting much.
Being so specific is, according to the conventional wisdom, a huge mistake. But casino history is filled with similar mistakes. It was a “mistake” for Thomas Hull to build his El Rancho Vegas three miles from Downtown Las Vegas in 1941; that mistake created the Las Vegas Strip, which has done all right for itself. It was a “mistake” for Jay Sarno to invest so heavily in a theme for Caesars Palace in 1966; that resort just celebrated 50 years in business. It was also a “mistake” for Sarno to open Circus Circus with a heavy emphasis on slot machines in 1968, but within 15 years slots would be out-earning table games in Nevada.
Lucky Dragon could be a harbinger for the Las Vegas of the future. With overall gaming revenue still behind its pre-recession high and nongaming increasingly dominating on the Strip, the age of “big tent” megaresorts may be over. The giants of the 1990s had themes, yes, but they were not niche-focused: Bellagio was aimed at those who wanted to pay $200 a night or more for a room, whether they were gamblers, business travelers or foodies. Lucky Dragon isn’t just a boutique property (which, in Las Vegas can be any place with fewer than 500 rooms); it is a focused boutique property. That is the big difference, and that is what should have people in the business watching closely.
Lucky Dragon executives pointed out, before opening, that their resort does not have a pizza place or steakhouse, but the more stunning omissions are the lack of a theater and convention space. “Everyone knows” that entertainment is a prime marketing tool, and that you need conventions to fill midweek occupancy. But the Strip only turned to conventions after it ran out of gamblers to fill up its growing hotels all week; a smaller hotel footprint with a more focused casino marketing program means no need for convention space. This seems logical, and it could work.
Should Lucky Dragon succeed, there may be more focused boutique properties on the way. Targeting demographics along cultural lines could be just the beginning. While the megaresorts will not go away, focused boutique resorts may provide another option for those who want to come to Las Vegas, which is always a good thing. 7
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.