It’s not as if Sam Nazarian just sat down a few months ago and penciled out his ideas for SLS Las Vegas.
He’s been conceptualizing and planning for the renovation of the aging Sahara ever since Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment acquired the Rat Pack-era Strip resort in 2007.
Now, less than a year from reopening the 1,600-room hotel-casino, Nazarian — SBE’s founder and CEO — can walk through the maze of construction activity that began in March and see how the former Sahara is becoming SLS through a $415 million transformation.
When completed, SLS Las Vegas will have an ultramodern look and style with elements reminiscent of Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. The property will have nearly a dozen restaurants and nightlife amenities from SBE’s roster of brands.
Many of the attractions are beginning to take shape. The redesign of SLS includes new entrances and corridors, while the property’s public areas, including the casino, are undergoing a reconfiguration. Entrances along the Strip and from Paradise Road are being redesigned.
The property will be much more open and inviting, Nazarian said. Guests will find easier paths to the hotel towers, which are being renovated. The lobby remains in its same location, but is being upgraded. Convention and meeting attendees will also find quicker access to the property’s 45,000-square-foot conference center.
Even the old Sahara monorail entrance has been torn down and rebuilt to make it more reachable from the casino.
“We don’t want people to think this was just a renovation. This is a whole new hotel,” Nazarian said last week during a 45-minute tour of the SLS Las Vegas. “The idea is to break down walls, both for the customer and the actual operation.”
The building went through several construction phases as the Sahara. Three hotel towers were built during different eras of Las Vegas.
Now, Nazarian’s team — Gensler Architects, designer Philippe Starck and Penta Building Group — are tasked with tying the entire property together. There have been a few surprises along the way.
For example, when construction workers began tearing out walls where the House of Lords gourmet room was located, they found windows that had been part of the original hotel tower that were never covered up.
Also, they found, ceiling heights throughout the casino and public areas were not uniform.
SBE operated the Sahara for 4½ years before closing the property in May 2011. That gave the company time to consider and reconsider what it wanted to do with the building.
Tearing down the Sahara and starting over was never an option to Nazarian. He has taken older buildings in other cities — Los Angeles, Miami, New York — and transformed them into SLS hotels.
The difference this time is that SLS Las Vegas is more than twice the size of what had been SBE’s largest-ever project.
“Part of our company’s culture, part of our DNA, is that we are thought of as neighborhood building,” Nazarian said. “Our company has always gone into areas that had their day. I’d like to think that’s what we’re doing on the north end of the Strip.”
Seeking counsel, making plans
When SBE, in partnership with Stockbridge Capital Group of San Francisco, acquired the Sahara, Nazarian was 31 years old and a budding Hollywood producer.
Since 2007, Las Vegas, SBE and Nazarian have all changed in growth and perception. The city and the gaming industry survived a devastating recession, and SBE and Nazarian have put their entire focus on the worldwide hospitality business. During that time, Nazarian was able to seek advice and counsel from others who have developed in Las Vegas.
He also created a partnership between SBE and MGM Resorts International. SBE opened a Hyde Lounge nightclub inside Bellagio and is adding two of its restaurant concepts, Double Barrel and 800 Degrees, to the outdoor retail, dining and entertainment complex MGM Resorts is developing between the New York-New York and Monte Carlo.
“Our brands have changed since 2007 and they have much more global awareness,” Nazarian said. “Our company had to recalibrate our program for the Sahara.”
Unlike other casino companies that license out amenities to third-party operators, SBE will oversee all aspects of SLS Las Vegas. The company said The Bazaar by Jose Andres, Katsuya by Starck, Umami Burger, The Sayers Club and 800 Degrees are part of the SLS lineup.
In 2012, SBE announced an agreement with Los Angeles retailer Fred Segal to place seven different outlets throughout the property.
Nazarian is proudest that he persuaded the The Griddle Cafe, a Los Angeles dining institution, to open a location inside SLS Las Vegas as the property’s 24-hour restaurant. He said it took him five years to convince ownership that he would honor their brand.
“That’s the beauty of having the ability to manage different verticals,” Nazarian said. “We’ve done food and beverage, we’ve done the nightlife, we’ve done hotels. We brought in the team to handle the casino. We’re bringing in the best people who have done this in Las Vegas.”
Former Wynn Resorts Ltd. executive Rob Oseland was named SLS Las Vegas president last year and will oversee the property, including the reconfigured 60,000-square-foot casino, which will have 80 table games and 800 slot machines.
promising glamour and value
Nazarian said SLS Las Vegas will be a locals property while also catering to the tour and travel crowd.
He said a perception that SLS will “be another Hard Rock or Cosmopolitan” because of the company’s association with the nightlife business, is not correct. Nazarian said the resort will have an affordable-value aspect.
“We want locals and we hope that is something people will realize,” said Nazarian, who moved into a multimillion-dollar custom home in Summerlin earlier this year.
He said SLS Las Vegas’ biggest feeder market will be Southern California, where SBE operates 60 restaurants and nightclubs. The company’s loyalty program could have 5 million names by the time SLS Las Vegas opens. Besides Los Angeles, New York and Miami, SLS hotels are being planned for Philadelphia, Seattle, Boston and Houston.
Tony L. Henthorne, an associate dean at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, said rebranding a well-recognized property such as the Sahara can be difficult. However, with SBE having a known customer base through its hospitality and nightlife businesses, the company will be targeting an audience familiar with the SLS name.
“It makes sense because they will be marketing to an existing customer segment,” Henthorne said. “The old-timers are going to remember the property as the Sahara, but that probably isn’t the primary market they are going after.”
welcome to the ‘party tower’
During the tour, Nazarian pointed out what he thought were key features of the redesign. The Sahara’s pool location remains but the facility is being rebuilt. Easier access is also being created. The three hotel towers are being renovated, including transforming the former Alexandria tower into an all-suite building. The tower nearest to the pool will become “a party tower.”
The area that housed the NASCAR Cafe and a small casino area is being converted in a nightlife venue that is open only in the evenings. It will include a casino, the steakhouse and nightclubs. The former Congo Showroom is being converted into a large nightclub suitable for live performances. The club will also have access to a second pool, which is being constructed on the casino building’s roof.
Along the Strip, where the Speed roller coaster once ran, the area has been opened up to the sidewalk, creating an indoor-outdoor patio area that will house Umami Burger, a beer garden and the William Hill-operated race and sports book. Other than the outline of the three hotel towers, there isn’t much left of the Sahara except for a few exterior signs and interior touches that will soon be removed.
The Strip hasn’t had a hotel opening since The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas was unveiled in December 2010.
That’s one reason Nazarian visits the SLS Las Vegas construction site several times a month; his visits will soon increase to several times a week.
Also, with other redevelopment plans on the north end of the Strip halted — Fontainebleau, Echelon, MGM’s project across the Strip — Nazarian knows SLS Las Vegas could be a catalyst for the area.
“Our proximity to revitalization of downtown is also exciting to us,” Nazarian said. “We’re an island property with different access points. That’s one reason we view ourselves as the next evolution of development.”
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.