Sahara aims to bring the swing back to Vegas' North Strip

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During a reveal party, the SLS Las Vegas said it would become the Sahara Las Vegas.
During a reveal party, the SLS Las Vegas said it would become the Sahara Las Vegas. Photo Credit: SLS Las Vegas

With the SLS Las Vegas set to be reflagged as the Sahara Las Vegas this fall, the North Strip site is looking to generate some much-needed buzz. 

The name switch, announced by SLS Las Vegas owner Alex Meruelo in late June, marks a return to the property's roots. First opened at the north end of the Strip as the Sahara in 1952, the 240-room hotel made its name with some legendary live entertainment, featuring headliners such as Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Jack Benny, Tony Bennett, George Carlin, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand, who graced the Sahara's stage in the property's heyday. 

Following a series of expansions and ownership changes, however, the Sahara saw its popularity wane, and the resort closed in 2011. It was demolished over a three-month period in 2013 after SBE Entertainment took over the property, reopening it as the SLS Las Vegas in August 2014. The hotel, which today has 1,615 rooms, changed hands again in April 2018, when Meruelo acquired it. 

"The Sahara kind of lost its way over the years, and it never kept up with the expansion and the changes on the Strip," said Alan Woinski, president of the Gaming USA Corp. consultancy. "And when plans were made to turn it into SLS, that part of the Strip was supposed to be hopping. But the two big developments, the Fontainebleau Las Vegas and Echelon Place, that were planned for the north end at that time didn't pan out."

Woinski cited a misreading of SLS' target market, millennials, as one reason for its demise.

"If you ever wanted to see a millennial-focused casino, that was it," he said. "But they never made any money. The millennial customer doesn't gamble, so while it's nice that those are the customers that they want, they likely found out that's not the customer who pays the bills."

Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, agreed that the SLS branding, for all its youthful appeal, perhaps wasn't enough to lure gamblers to a relatively quiet end of the Strip. 

"It's a question of whether the SLS brand had done the job it was intended to do," Green said. "I don't think the hotel ended up doing appreciably better being the SLS than it did as the Sahara. It isn't as if people talk about the SLS Las Vegas like they do the Bellagio, Caesars or other iconic hotels on the Strip."

Industry insiders say the time might finally be right for the Sahara brand to make a solid comeback along with the north end of the Strip in general. The former Fontainebleau site, for example, is now being redeveloped as the Drew Las Vegas, a 4,000-room complex expected to comprise a JW Marriott, an Edition hotel and a third eponymous property, the Drew. The Echelon Place site has been supplanted by the 3,000-room Resorts World Las Vegas, projected to open next year. 

Brent Pirosch, director of gaming consulting services for CBRE's Global Gaming Group, said, "There's been promise that hasn't quite been executed on in the past, but now Resorts World is well on its way, and the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion is also progressing. Things are actually happening now, and I think it's got people a bit more optimistic than before."

Meanwhile, the SLS rebranding comes as the hotel undergoes a $100 million refresh, which began last fall. In addition to reflecting the name change, the renovations will include updates to the property's 60,000-square-foot casino, which is getting a new layout for the slot, table games pit and high-limit areas as well as new ceilings. Carpeting and lighting are also being replaced, and the hotel suites, corridors and entertainment venues are being revamped. 

While further details on the property's repositioning have yet to be released, Pirosch said he expects that a return to the Sahara name could help the property strike a chord with a broader audience. 

"They're capitalizing on a well-known name on the Strip," Pirosch said. "With 1,600 rooms and change, yes, it makes them a smaller Strip property, but 1,600 rooms is still a lot of rooms, and you have to sell them, so it pays to have this broad appeal. The Sahara name also seems like a good way to shorten the marketing time for the property and cut through the noise a little more quickly."

Likewise, according to UNLV's Green, the Sahara name could mark a return to a more traditional, back-to-basics approach for the property. 

"There's still a lot of nostalgia for the old Las Vegas," he said. "I think that by going with 'Sahara,' they're promoting this hotel as exemplifying that Las Vegas as well as what Las Vegas is supposed to mean: good times, good service, fun at the tables and great entertainment. The Sahara name does have cachet in ways that other names don't."

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