Lucky Dragon, Las Vegas’ newest resort, firing up casino market

Casino openings excite us because we long to enjoy something we’ve never seen before.

For many, the openings of The Mirage (the arrival of the Strip megaresort era), Luxor (a unique idea and design), the Stratosphere (are you kidding … a 1,000-foot tower?) and Bellagio (what will Steve Wynn think of next?) have been highlights across the years.

Next up: Saturday’s grand opening of the Lucky Dragon. The anticipation is real not only because it’s the first from-the-ground-up property to open since The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas in 2010, but because it portends to be something new in the Las Vegas market, and that’s saying something in a city that celebrates all kinds of unusual ideas.

The owners were so excited about showing the place off to the public that they opened the doors two weeks ahead of the grand opening. That’s not a conventional move, but then, the Lucky Dragon defies convention.

The early reviews of the place have been very positive, but I’m convinced, after talking with President and CEO Andrew Fonfa, that the best is yet to come.

The anticipation of opening a boutique property that is Chinese first, English second, catering primarily to the taste, style and palate of Asians, has inspired casino rivals in the neighborhood to take to billboards advertising in Chinese.

“I’ve never seen so many Chinese billboards,” Fonfa said from his office atop the Allure residential unit that’s attached to the east side of the Lucky Dragon.

Fonfa said the 27,500-square-foot casino is a Chinese gambling hall, pure and simple. Major players around town have congratulated him for the beauty of the project and sticking to the boutique concept, he said. Fonfa figures the Lucky Dragon will be a success, but possibly not from the sources one might expect. And he welcomes the competition nearby rivals have generated.

“We hope everybody succeeds with what they’re trying to do,” Fonfa said. “I think we’re going to get our piece of the pie, our share. I think every Asian gambler and every Asian person that loves Chinese food is going to visit our casino and visit our hotel and if we deliver on the execution of the food and they like the intimacy of our gambling, we’re going to get our piece of the pie.

“Are we going to get all of it? No. If we can get a reasonable percentage of the Asian population gambling at our place, I think we’ll be very successful,” he said.

And where will those Asian gamblers come from? Probably not China, as one might expect.

Las Vegas’ first nonstop air service from Beijing begins a day before the Lucky Dragon grand opening, but Fonfa thinks if he gets many customers from those flights it will be icing on the cake. His market, he says, will be the 250,000 Asians who already live in the Las Vegas Valley or West Coast Asians visiting from California. He also notes that Las Vegas is the fastest growing urban location for Asian-Americans.

Of the 37 table games and 300 slot machines on the casino floor, only a handful lean toward traditional appeal, with the majority tilting toward what Asians like. Think baccarat, pai gow and sic bo.

The restaurants also are purely Asian.

Dragon’s Alley is a lantern-lit “night market” featuring a variety of Chinese and Taiwanese foods, with the Jewel Kitchen a glassed showcase for watching the chefs at work. The Phoenix is a 60-seat fine dining establishment, Pearl’s Ocean is a dim sum restaurant and Bao Now is grab-and-go.

Across from the restaurants is the 1¼-ton centerpiece glass dragon chandelier that dominates the room.

The property’s Cha Garden is a 24-hour indoor-outdoor tea garden extending from the hotel lobby into a small pool area and has its own tea sommelier, a first in Southern Nevada.

The color scheme is dominantly red, the lucky color of Chinese good fortune, and numbering is long on 8 (the lucky number) and short on 4 (the unlucky number). There’s no fourth floor in the 10-story, 203-room hotel.

Fonfa’s management team is young, but experienced. State gaming regulators marveled at the 435 years of collective experience the team has when the company was up for licensing in October. Between them, the leadership has opened 17 properties.

That’s part of what makes Fonfa’s vision for the Lucky Dragon and its neighborhood compelling.

Fonfa also owns Allure, the towering residential unit next door, and the opening of the Lucky Dragon has created a built-in neighborhood casino for its residents.

But there’s more on the horizon.

Fonfa envisions the north end of the Strip becoming the new Asian center of commerce. Over the next decade, he hopes to transform some of the immediate neighborhood to a new Las Vegas Chinatown. The city’s existing Chinatown, he contends, is a mishmash of shopping malls and restaurants, and he believes with good planning a new Chinatown could emerge. He expects Chinese and American investment for the development and sees possible opportunities farther south along the Strip.

MGM Resorts International, which is firmly established in Macau, is a neighbor just across Sahara Avenue from the Lucky Dragon.

And, of course, just down the Strip is the site of Resorts World Las Vegas, a planned Chinese-themed megaresort expected to begin construction in earnest next year.

It seems that everything’s coming up red along the north Strip.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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