Photo By Denise Truscello

Understanding the Wynn Legacy

This isn't Steve Wynn's first departure from the gaming industry—a look back at the history of his role in the creation of Las Vegas.

The news of Steve Wynn’s resignation from the company he founded, Wynn Resorts, has brought more questions than answers in Las Vegas. Most of those questions won’t be answered for some time, if ever. Right now, many people are wondering where Wynn’s apparent departure from an active leadership role leaves his company, Las Vegas and the hospitality business. I can’t answer those questions, but I can offer a few words about what Steve Wynn has accomplished in and for the casino industry.

Wynn began in Las Vegas as a small shareholder of the Frontier in 1967. He’d been out the year before for the opening of Jay Sarno’s Caesars Palace. His imagination fired by the possibilities that Las Vegas offered, a move with his family to the desert town seemed like a natural step.

But Wynn was not to remain long at the Frontier. In this process of its acquisition by Howard Hughes (which led to Wynn’s exit), he was befriended by banker Parry Thomas, an unsung legend of Las Vegas casino history. Thomas provided not only the financing for many casinos and other ventures, but also the civic spirit and financial support that helped to create the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The institution has shown its gratitude by naming its most famous building, the Thomas & Mack Center, after Thomas and his partner Jerry Mack.

With Thomas’ mentorship, Wynn’s exit from the industry was not permanent. Wynn was able to purchase a parcel of land next to Caesars Palace from Howard Hughes, who was not accustomed to selling anything. After threatening to build the world’s narrowest casino on the site, he flipped it to Caesars Palace, using the proceeds to buy stock in the Golden Nugget, a small, not-very-profitable, hotel-less gambling hall on Fremont Street. By 1973, he had enough stock to become the casino’s CEO and chairman, engineering a turnaround that got Las Vegas buzzing. What education in casinos Thomas had not provided Wynn was filled in by across-the-street neighbor Benny Binion, Downtown kingpin Jackie Gaughan and Sarno, each of whom, in his own way, offered some lessons that Wynn would apply in his own resorts.

But it was not in Las Vegas that Wynn made his first major move. In Atlantic City, he built an East Coast branch of the Golden Nugget that quickly became the city’s most profitable casino. It was also one that people wanted to work at, not least because of its charismatic president’s emphasis on people. When he sold it (due to overregulation and market saturation, two concerns that were not unfounded) in 1987, employees publicly cried.

Selling out of Atlantic City to focus on Las Vegas turned out to be the right decision for Wynn. In 1989, he unveiled The Mirage. It wasn’t the first themed casino or the first megacasino, but it was the first to combine the fantasy, otherworldly elements of Sarno’s Caesars Palace with the massive scale of Kirk Kerkorian’s International and MGM Grand. And, despite a good deal of preopening skepticism from the local community, The Mirage redefined Las Vegas hospitality, creating a model for resort design and operation that is still largely followed today. Almost 30 years after The Mirage opened, it’s difficult to imagine what the Strip would have looked like without it. We don’t have a gateway to alternate timelines, but anyone can do a quick experiment. Walk around Bally’s for a while—it’s a perfectly acceptable casino hotel and one of The Mirage’s top competitors in 1989. It has all the elements to provide Las Vegas visitors with everything they come to town for. Walk out to the Grand Bazaar Shops, then cross the overpass to Bellagio. Take in a fountain show. Step inside. Wander around. Even 18 years after the Bellagio’s acquisition by Kirk Kerkorian (who built Bally’s, which opened as the original MGM Grand), there is a palpable difference. The same elements are there, but the way they are presented produces a much different effect. That effect is due as much to the resort having been designed by a cohesive team of artists led by a single vision to the way it is staffed. It goes beyond the surface.

Indeed, if it was just themes and size that made for success, Luxor would still have its animatronic camels and the MGM Grand would be the leading revenue producer on the Strip. Wynn tapped into something deeper: the belief, which traces its Las Vegas lineage back to Jay Sarno, that a resort should be built around the customer in a way that maximizes his or her happiness, not revenue per square foot. In all his projects, Wynn has been integral to the design process in ways that no other Strip operator, with the exception of Sarno, has been. That focus on people—on both sides of the table—has always set Wynn apart, from the Golden Nugget days to his current resorts.

Which is why it is sometimes hard to draw a line between Wynn the human being and Wynn the resort—the latter is not just influenced by the former, but in many ways a reflection of him. An interview with Steve Wynn about the design process is a fascinating thing, as he shifts effortlessly from discussing the details of the project’s financing to the inspiration behind its entertainment to the progress and quality of the concrete pour. As Las Vegas has become dominated by committees of specialists rather than impassioned generalists, the chances of seeing this kind of personality emerge on the Strip have become smaller. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but now is not the right moment to speculate about future leadership.

Wynn and his team followed The Mirage with Treasure Island (1993), built on The Mirage model but for a less affluent market. He then built the Bellagio, for a more affluent market. But when Mirage Resorts opened Beau Rivage in Mississippi, Kerkorian’s MGM Grand swallowed up the company.

MGM’s buyout in 2000 was Wynn’s second exit from gaming, though it was short-lived. His purchase of the Desert Inn gave him the land to pursue his real passion: building. On it he opened Wynn (2005) and Encore (2008), and has planned a lagoon, convention center and a third casino resort.

Notably, Wynn was also an important part of Las Vegas–based operators building casinos in Macau. The Chinese market quickly became the hottest growth area in the industry, with revenues outstripping first Las Vegas, then all of Nevada. Downtown Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Laughlin, the Strip, Mississippi, Macau—it is difficult to find a growth market of which Wynn was not a major part at the least and helped to redefine at best. Each time, Wynn forced his competitors to—if not outright emulate him—respond meaningfully to his resorts.

At this moment of Wynn’s third apparent departure from a leading role in the gaming industry, his legacy as a builder is unmatched. Further, his ultimate influence on the industry is incalculable, with many employees and executives from his casinos going on to leadership positions elsewhere. So, whatever the ultimate verdict on Wynn’s legacy (if something as complicated as a legacy can ever be finalized), it will be inextricably tied to how we understand not just Wynn the man or Wynn the resorts, but Las Vegas and gaming itself.