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It was announced in March 2011 that Sahara, located on the north end of the Vegas Strip would close its doors for the final time later that spring. The news didn’t surprise many. After all, we were coming out of the worst financial meltdown in many of our lives and Las Vegas was hit hard. Hit harder were the 1,000+ Sahara employees that were impacted by the resort’s closure. Sam Nazarian, CEO of SBE Entertainment which purchased Sahara in 2007 with partner Stockbridge Capital noted that continued operation of the property was simply not viable.
Sahara sported a rich history as the 6th resort to be built on the Las Vegas strip by Del Webb and opened its doors in 1952. The Vegas resort sported a Moroccan theme and hosted entertainment legends to include Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Judy Garland, Don Rickles, Wayne Newton and so many more. Most recently, Sahara had added a rollercoaster “Speed – The Ride” to the property which originated in the NASCAR restaurant and accelerated riders from 0-45 MPH in 2 seconds.
(Where is Speed The Ride Now? VegasBright is on the case).
Nazarian and Stockbridge Real Estate Group stepped up to the plate to take on revitalizing the property. They injected $415 million into the project transforming Sahara into SLS Las Vegas. The property re-opened in the summer of 2014 under its new identity.
Now I’m not one of these guys that insists that change in Vegas is the work of Satan. No. Not at all. In fact, Sahara as she stood likely deserved to die. She was outdated, lost in time, lacking the new bells and whistles of other Strip casinos. Sahara was stranded in a terrible location at the north end of the Strip surrounded by dead, dying and stalled properties. Folks that are anti-change fail to realize that Casino properties close for one reason – We stop coming.
To qualify my expertise on the issue, I don’t run casinos. I don’t run resorts. Hell, I can barely manage 2 kids, a wife and a cat that won’t stop barfing. With that in mind, I feel as though if you gave me $415 million to renovate and renew Sahara I would have come up with an idea better than what seems to be a dark warehouse with slot machines sprinkled about.
I can picture it now. In the SLS design meeting, a guy… lets call him Todd… timidly raised his hand to voice his thoughts – after all, this was his big chance. “Alright guys, picture a large room with slot machines and the ceiling will be painted black to hide the pipes and utility lines. Then to attract the patrons, we will put MASSIVE portraits on the exterior of the building, OH, and this one-eyed blob dude will make a great signature statue! We’ll display it prominently out front. As for a name, I would suggest a set of initials that remind people of an Acura car model or a chronic, debilitating disease.. How about SLS?”. Todd waited nervously for a reaction as the room stood in applause.
Fast forward, SLS performance has been dismal and the property has yet to turn a profit. There just isnt enough character or differentiation to draw people away from the Strip or Fremont Street. The property was sold by Stockbridge in 2017 to the Meruelo Group for an undisclosed amount and the deal is finally expected to finalize in the first quarter of 2018.
My argument isn’t that Sahara needed to live on. My argument is that you can’t take a property in a very difficult, non central location and strip elements like heritage and character and hope the gambling public continues to show up. There needs to be a draw beyond luxury and for me, its just not there. After all, aren’t there plenty of luxury hotels and casinos in the middle of the action on the Strip?
Vital Vegas, a blog that is in the know, said there has been rumblings of a re-brand to Sahara under new management – They’ve already re-branded their players club as “Club 52” – out of respect for Sahara’s rich history? (see the Vital Vegas Article here) I think celebrating a beloved property’s 59 years of operation would be a step in the right direction. Sahara 2.0, if done right, and combined with renewed action on the north Strip (Resorts World, Faintainebleu, Purchase of Alon site) could lead to another era of prominence for the property.
One thing is for sure. SLS as it stands will never live up to Sahara’s legacy. SLS isn’t a destination for Vegas Enthusiasts. I hope that changes.