Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

When the SLS Las Vegas transitions to Sahara Las Vegas this year, it will mark the return to an iconic name and also become the latest Las Vegas resort to rebrand.

Reasons for such rebranding efforts through the years vary widely. Among other motivations, they have occurred because of disappointing numbers on the casino floor or in room booking, new owners seeking to put their own stamp on a property and marketing initiatives to reflect and better compete in the contemporary landscape.

Las Vegas resorts have a propensity to rebrand more often than other cities because it is a relatively new city compared with other resort destinations, such as Miami and Hawaii, says Michael Green, professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"Las Vegas could count mainly on gambling at one time.  Now with 48 states having some form of gambling, Las Vegas has to be on its toes. It happens broadly, and it happens at individual properties like the Sahara," Green said.

"If you are a gambler and that's what you are there for, it probably doesn't matter that much what all of the amenities are. But if you are a tourist for whom gaming is a part of the experience, a minor part of the experience or not part of the experience at all, then all of that matters a lot. That helps explain the theming.  This is why if you go to Las Vegas,  you can choose between Lake Como (Bellagio) and Venice (Venetian) and ancient Rome (Caesars Palace)," Green said.

Some changes (Mandarin Oriental becoming Waldorf Astoria in 2018) occur practically overnight. Others (MGM Resorts International's Monte Carlo becoming Park MGM, completed in 2018) take years to implement.

Some properties were closed and relaunched; others kept the doors open during the overhaull.

SLS (which stands for Style, Luxury, Service, according to the SLS Hotels website) may resonate in other markets but never took hold in Las Vegas in the five years with the name. With a $100 million renovation plan underway, new owners sensed an opportunity to rebrand the resort, which has stood on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue since 1952. It will remain open during the changeover.

The next major reinvention will occur next year when the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, a fixture just off the Strip since 1995, becomes the Virgin Hotel Las Vegas. It will complete a transition British billionaire Richard Branson envisioned when he and other partners bought the property in 2018. The Hard Rock is expected to close during the second quarter of 2020 for work on an ambitious revamp and reopen as the Virgin Hotel Las Vegas in mid-November.

Sometimes a local colloquialism becomes too tempting a marketing opportunity to miss. Earlier this year, owners of the Stratosphere announced the resort would officially become known as the Strat Hotel, Casino and Skypod. Its 1,149-foot tower has been a beacon in the Las Vegas Valley since 1996.

Other recent changes include: TheHotel, part of Mandalay Bay, became the Delano (2014), Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon (formerly Barbary Coast) became the Cromwell (2014); and the property that has the monikers Flamingo Capri, Imperial Palace and the Quad since 1959 is now the Linq (2014).

Fitzgeralds in downtown Las Vegas (which had been the Sundance Hotel) lost its Irish theme and became the D Las Vegas in 2012. The letter could stand for downtown, owner Derek Stevens or Stevens' hometown, Detroit. Also downtown, Lady Luck became Downtown Grand (2013).

The International Hotel, Kirk Kerkorian's behemoth just off the Las Vegas Strip, was built in 1969 and was the home of Elvis Presley's celebrated residency. It became the Las Vegas Hilton, the LVH and is now Westgate (2014).

One of the most successful launches of a new name was when Aladdin became Planet Hollywood (2007). "When the original Aladdin was imploded and replaced by another Aladdin, there wasn't much desert to it. There wasn't much of that connotation," Green said. "Planet Hollywood means something totally different, and that's what they've gone with.  [New owners) came in with an existing brand, not a Las Vegas brand, and that worked for them. There's a cachet to the name."

In what's been called a "de-theming," Treasure Island sunk its famous pirate battle on the Las Vegas Strip and installed a new marquee emphasizing TI (2003) to promote a more sophisticated, grown-up atmosphere. Its main logo, however, references both TI and Treasure Island, and the full name remains on top of the building.

"I don't think anyone really thinks of it as TI," Green said. "You can change the name to the TI; that doesn't mean it stops being Treasure Island to most people. It [has been the T.I.] longer than it was Treasure Island, but we still think of it that way. What that reflects is that it was early in the modern resort boom, and the whole Treasure Island concept with the pirate show really stood out," Green said.

Those who have visited Las Vegas even earlier may remember Hooters Casino Hotel on Tropicana Avenue as Hotel San Remo, among other names. The Westin Las Vegas used to be known as the Maxim Hotel, and the current Bally's Las Vegas is the former MGM Grand.

The name-changing frenzy is not even limited to existing hotels. The long-stalled, 67-story Fontainebleau Las Vegas project is now making progress and is anticipated to open as the Drew Las Vegas in 2022, a nod to developer Steve Witkoff's late son Andrew.

One of Green's favorite rebrands included an inspired bit of prophesy. "The second hotel on the Strip was the Last Frontier. It was totally Western-themed," Green said. "The new owners who took it over decided to rebrand it, rebuild it and call it the New Frontier and model it on the Space Age, in 1955, two years ahead of Sputnik. Maybe they knew something we didn't!"

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