Editor’s note: Veteran business journalist Chris Sieroty has joined Gaming Today and will be writing a weekly column about the casino industry in Las Vegas and nationwide.
The iconic Sahara Las Vegas hotel-casino has reappeared on the Strip as a new owner hopes turn the fortunes around for the once Moroccan-themed property that opened in 1952 and hosted a long list of legendary entertainers from Frank Sinatra to Dean Martin.
After struggling financially under the name SLS for five years, owner Alex Meruelo, who bought the resort last April for an undisclosed amount, revealed the name last Thursday amid fireworks and the Sahara name spelled out in lights.
The name change comes amid $150 million in ongoing renovations to the property. The resort’s 1,615 guest rooms, casino, restaurants and bars have been upgraded. Improvements to the lobby and other areas will continue into next year.
Additional updates include a refresh and new paint color for the building’s exterior along with soon-to-be installed marquee signage and lettering signaling the name change.
Sam Nazarian’s SBE Entertainment and Stockbridge, a private equity real estate investment firm, joined forces to acquire the Sahara in March 2007 for an estimated $300 million to $400 million. Nazarian closed the hotel in 2011 and reopened it three years later as the SLS.
The SLS, short for “style, luxury and service,” also hosted a W Las Vegas in one of its two towers for two years before Meruelo purchased the property and decided to bring back the iconic casino brand.
“The return of Sahara Las Vegas to the Strip is significant for the city,” Meruelo said in a statement. “The re-imagining of this iconic resort will enable an enhanced guest experience that runs contrary to the megaresorts that have recently dominated the Las Vegas landscape.”
Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV, said even with all the changes to Las Vegas gaming industry over the years, “it’s not too late to bring back the Sahara name to the Strip”.
“I don’t think we are pass the sell by date when it comes to the Sahara,” Green said,
“The question is whether they can sell the old Sahara to the public.”
Brent Pirosch, director of gaming consulting at CBRE’s Global Gaming Group in Las Vegas, believes the renovations and new management focus give the Sahara as good a shot at success as any other property.
“As long as it can communicate a good value proposition and execute on the fundamentals of customer service, the Sahara will be poised to capture a share of the growth,” Pirosch said.
Milton Prell opened the hotel-casino decorated with life-sized camels with only 240 rooms in 1952, costing $5.5 million. Over the years, the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon was broadcast from the Sahara.
For years, the property’s Congo Room featured headliners such as Charo and Tina Turner. Ray Bolger, who was the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz,” headlined in the Congo Room from opening night until 1957.
“There (are generations) that didn’t exist when every night was exciting in Las Vegas,” Green said, “The Sahara was part of that vibe.”
But when Steve Wynn opened the Mirage on November 22, 1989, Green said the north end of the Strip moved and the original Sahara really never kept up with the changes.
Meruelo’s investment in the property comes at a time when the Sahara will face increased competition from new properties set to open over the next three years on the north side of the Strip.
Genting Group, a Malaysian-based company, acquired the stalled Echelon in 2013 from Boyd Gaming Group, and announced plans to build a $4 billion Chinese-themed resort. Resorts World Las Vegas is scheduled to open by the end of 2020.
Developers began construction on the Fontainebleau in 2007 only to halt building and file for bankruptcy in 2009 after the recession devastated the region’s commercial real estate industry.
Carl Icahn bought the property in 2010 for about $150 million before selling it in 2017 for $600 million to New York developer Steve Witkoff and his partners.
The Drew Las Vegas, as the property is now known, is expect to open in 2022. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority purchased the Rivera casino and demolished the facility in 2016 to make way for an expansion of the convention center.
“The north end of the Strip in on the verge of realizing its promise,” said Pirosch. “The (Las Vegas) Convention Center expansion is a key driver of development, and Resorts World and The Drew will bring new attention to the north end.”
Pirosch said there are still some sizable parcels of undeveloped land in that area, “so the potential for new projects is even greater.”
Those vacant parcels include the former New Frontier site, next to Resorts World, which was acquired by Australian billionaire James Packer and his company, Crown Resorts in 2014.
Packer’s Alon hotel-casino project failed, leading the him to sell the 38-acre site to Wynn Resorts Ltd. for $336 million. The property remains empty.
Former UNLV basketball star and NBA veteran Jackie Robinson announced plans in 2013 to build an arena and hotel on the former Wet ‘n Wild water park site, next to the Sahara. The site also remains empty though Robinson has not abandoned his plan for the project.