Larson takes helm at the Sahara

Mar 5, 2002 10:38 AM

Mel Larson is back in the saddle ”” and he’s got a promotion.

The veteran casino marketer was named president of the Sahara by owner Bill Bennett last week. It marks a reunion of the two venerable casino gurus who built the Circus Circus empire back in the mid-1970s.

Larson, who retired from gaming a decade ago, has been keeping busy flying helicopters. But when his old boss called, Larson jumped back into the gaming game.

“It’s a new thing for me (as president). I’m looking at all the people and I’m looking into all the corners,’’ he told GamingToday. “I’m trying to get organized.’’

So far, he likes what he sees.

“It’s better than I thought,’’ Larson said of the north Strip property. “We had a great race weekend and we’ve got lots of publicity and promotions planned.

Marketing has always been Larson’s forte. During his days at Circus, he teamed with Bennett on a guarantee for road-weary travelers. “I found out that half the people coming to town did not have reservations, and more than half were driving, so we just hammered radio on the stations that reached people on the freeway. We captured all this walk-in business, which was unheard of at the time,’’ he recalled in an interview.

“Mr. Bennett and I spent a whole day coming up with the theme: ”˜Rooms available, if not we’ll place you.’ I put it on the marquee the same day. We advertised on rock stations, country stations, gospel stations . . . everybody else was after the upper income people, but we just wanted a lot of folks.’’

Larson eventually left the casino biz to join his wife, Marilyn, in operating Action Helicopter. When the old MGM Grand (now Bally’s) caught fire in 1980, Larson landed the first helicopter on the roof to assist in rescue efforts.

Exciting as that was, Larson says he’s looking forward to working again with Bennett, a gaming legend who ranks 378th on Forbe’s list of the world’s wealthiest at $675 million.

“I’m approaching this as a long-term job,’’ he says. Then, again, he has a long-standing joke that the demanding Bennett has let him go a time or two. “I was fired I think 194 times,’’ he laughed. “He always hired me back one more time.’’