Attaching a hotel-casino to a convention center was a money loser. That was the conventional wisdom before The Venetian opened on the Strip 20 years ago this week.
At the time, skeptics said linking a resort with a convention center that would stand empty much of the time was a waste of prime Strip real estate. Las Vegas, after all, was a place for entertainment and gambling — not business meetings.
Sheldon Adelson, who developed The Venetian, proposed a conference-centric strategy that “was not just laughed at, but made fun of,” said Rob Goldstein, then chief operating officer of The Venetian and now chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns the company’s resorts in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore. “I’d meet people in town and they’d say, ‘What are you guys thinking?’”
But Adelson and The Venetian proved the critics wrong and showed that conventions and casinos could do more than coexist — they could thrive.
Las Vegas “used to be very much a weekend party town,” said Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at UNLV. “We’re still that while simultaneously being a different town Sunday through Thursday, and The Venetian deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Before Las Vegas became the dominant convention destination in North America, the city’s hotel room rates were typically much lower from Sunday through Thursday. But Adelson envisioned industry executives flocking to the Sands Expo & Convention Center, enabling The Venetian to charge top dollar for weekdays as well as weekends — a model that soon spread to other resorts.
“About a third of the convention business that comes into Las Vegas are groups that are 15,000 or more attendees,” said Brent Pirosch, director of gaming consulting for CBRE’s Global Gaming Group. “That’s enough to move room rates across the whole Strip … really elevating everybody.”
Today meeting and exhibition spaces are driving much of the new infrastructure construction in Southern Nevada.
Wynn Resorts Ltd. is building a new convention center at Wynn Las Vegas. Caesars Entertainment Corp. is building one near The Linq Hotel. MGM Resorts International got an early jump on dedicated convention space by installing new amenities at the MGM Conference Center at MGM Grand and converting a Cirque du Soleil theater at Aria into meeting space. And the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is building a new exhibition hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center and renovating its other halls to the tune of $1.4 billion.
Not only did The Venetian model prove a success in Nevada, but Adelson, the chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, was able to replicate it in the Chinese gaming enclave of Macau — where a very similar Venetian Macao is that market’s most visited property — and in Singapore, where an iconic convention-driven resort continually turns heads.
“The opening of The Venetian in 1999 was the real beginning of our company’s story, and it also launched a new era of integrated resort development around the world,” Adelson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a statement. “The Venetian’s success in Las Vegas, and particularly our convention-based business strategy, would end up being the basis for our company receiving coveted licenses in Macao and Singapore.”
“When I talk about The Venetian in my classes, I always point to two things The Venetian did,” Bernhard said. “One, more than any other company, they transformed Las Vegas Sunday through Thursday, and that, of course, is because of the convention space.”
The second thing that Bernhard points to is the size of the hotel suites inside The Venetian. They are 650 square feet or larger — about twice as big as most Las Vegas hotel rooms at the time it was built.
“It’s easy to forget how big the hotel room is,” Bernhard said. “For a long time, the thinking in Las Vegas was, ‘Let’s build tiny, uncomfortable rooms, because that’ll get them downstairs to the casino, where we will really make our money.’”
Pirosch said the large, luxurious rooms weren’t built just for a visitor who worked all day and wanted to be somewhere comfortable at night. They were also built for a higher-spending guest.
“It spoke to a luxury customer that maybe wasn’t there before,” he said. “The Venetian and other properties built during its time transformed how money was spent in the city.”
Goldstein said he remembers getting a call from a rival casino executive telling him, “You guys aren’t playing fair” after a “very good” first quarter in 2000.
“He said, ‘You’re making more money in the hotel than anybody. You’re not really a casino … you’re a hotel.’ I said, ‘Gee, I didn’t know there were rules about that.’ Usually when you make money, people are happy. Sheldon had the funniest line. He said: When you go to the bank, they don’t say, ‘Did this come from the hotel, the food and beverage, the parking lot?’ They just count the money. And we started making a lot of money.”
While The Venetian’s large suites and convention emphasis attracted most of the attention, the resort’s approach to entertainment also turned heads. Beginning in June 2006, “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular,” a 95-minute, intermission-free adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” played 10 shows a week at The Venetian for six years.
Over the years, The Venetian also has been home to the 1980s-themed “Rock of Ages” musical as well as Blue Man Group.
Venice in Las Vegas
The Venetian sprung up on land that once was home to the Sands hotel-casino — the famed hangout of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — which Adelson and his partners bought in 1989.
A year later, Las Vegas Sands opened the Sands Expo & Convention Center on adjacent property. At 1.8 million square feet, it was the largest privately owned convention center in the world when it opened. It hosted major trade shows such as the annual 60,000-delegate Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show. The venue also is one of several where CES takes place every January.
In 1996, Las Vegas Sands imploded the dated Sands to make room for more modern resorts. The first was The Venetian, which cost $1.5 billion to build and was modeled on the city of Venice, complete with indoor canals and singing gondoliers, in keeping with the fashion of “themed” resorts.
“Gondola rides were a hit from Day One,” Goldstein said. “I was taken aback by the lines for the gondola rides. We were here for four years preparing, and it was a great feeling of relief to get it open.”
Adelson hired craftsmen and artists to faithfully replicate some of Venice’s most striking and memorable features. He previously has said he was inspired by Venice after visiting there with his wife, Miriam, on their honeymoon.
The resort was a work in progress when it opened. Only a handful of restaurants were open on the first day. Stores at the property’s mall — the Grand Canal Shoppes — lacked permits to open, and only six floors of hotel rooms were available.
Still, Kim Grange, vice president of facilities, says he won’t forget the proud look on the faces of the executive team when the doors finally opened the night of May 3, 1999.
“All that hard work finally paid off,” said Grange. “It was like being a new father almost. It was pretty cool.”
A few years later, after the trend shifted from themed resorts to pure luxury and elegance, Las Vegas Sands broke ground on the neighboring Palazzo in 2005. The two hotels and the expo center are now connected and operated as an integrated unit with more than 7,000 rooms.
On Friday, The Venetian will begin a yearlong celebration of its 20th anniversary. At the first stroke past midnight, The Venetian marquee will pay tribute to the 650 employees who have worked at the hotel-casino since its opening. A “founders ball” is planned to honor the Day One employees this summer.
In addition, all guests who ride The Venetian gondola attraction Friday will receive a special namesake Venetian Rose as they step aboard. This custom variety of rose, with warm peach undertones and champagne hues, was bred to honor the Las Vegas resort and was introduced in 2015.
This week, many of those who have worked at The Venetian since opening day will be thinking about what drew them to the resort in the first place. Most of them went to work weeks or months in advance of the opening.
Rosella Jensen, a guest services representative, remembers taking a hard-hat tour of the building before it opened. Like many of the thousands of visitors who arrive daily at The Venetian’s main lobby, Jensen’s eyes went skyward to the detailed Italian artwork reminiscent of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
“We all walked in from the casino, and then when we went to the lobby entrance and they told us to look up,” she said. “And we all looked up at the ceiling and our hard hats all hit the floor. It was a beautiful sight.”
Master cook Shelley Adcock made a move from Atlantic City to get a chance to work at The Venetian.
“We were very excited because it was the largest casino that I had ever worked in,” she said. “All the phenomenal equipment that we got to use was way over the top. So I was super excited.”
Housekeeper Gladys Estevez made a new life for herself in the United States by applying for a job at The Venetian from Miami, where she was living after a harrowing trip from Cuba in the late 1980s.
She said she would never forget cleaning every room on the 22nd floor, before they were ever occupied, because of all the construction dust. But what she remembers most is Italian film star Sophia Loren, who was at the opening as Adelson’s guest.
Chandra Allison, senior vice president of sales for the property, wanted the experience of opening a brand-new resort after working at the Flamingo Hilton. She had transferred there from the Reno Hilton.
Allison believes the next chapter for The Venetian may be the best, with the MSG Sphere under construction and targeted to open in 2021. “That’s going to change the landscape not only of Las Vegas, but for the entire entertainment experience,” she said.
The sphere-shaped, 18,000-seat entertainment venue promises to change the face of live performance with high-tech video screens inside and out and sound capabilities unlike anything ever developed in the world.
Allison said she thinks it will also change the convention experience.
“It’s going to be a home run for us,” she said. “The days of watching a PowerPoint presentation in a box will be completely gone.”
Although the globe-shaped building won’t be open for many months, she said companies are already making inquiries about when they can use the building for upcoming business meetings.
“And with the leisure business on the weekends, obviously we’re going to have amazing acts, we’re going to have daytime experiences that will go in there,” she said.
UNLV’s Bernhard agrees. In years past, he said, Las Vegas was like an amusement park that got a new roller coaster every summer. The Sphere sounds a little like the next must-ride roller coaster.
“If they can achieve a venue where it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard (Bruce) Springsteen, you’ve never really heard Springsteen until you’ve heard him here, that will be a game-changer. It’ll be interesting to see if it delivers on that promise.”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.
Venetian facts, pronto
Some quick facts you may not have known about The Venetian:
-When the Palazzo tower opened in 2007 next to The Venetian, the integrated resort became the largest hotel in the world, with 7,092 suites, according to company officials.
-The Venetian is the only hotel on the Las Vegas Strip to exclusively offer suites. At 650 square feet, the most intimate suites are about the size of some big-city apartments. The largest suite in the resort measures 10,000 square feet.
-At 475 feet (37 floors), The Venetian is the 21st tallest structure in Las Vegas. When opened in 2007, the Palazzo tower became the city’s tallest hotel at 642 feet (53 floors). It’s still the city’s tallest inhabited hotel (the uncompleted Drew is taller at 735 feet and 63 floors) and third tallest structure behind the Stratosphere Tower.
-The foundation of The Venetian required the largest continuous concrete pour in U.S. history, using the contents of 125 cement trucks over a 30-hour period. The 68,000-square-foot slab supported the first phase of The Venetian. When the Palazzo tower was added, the resort displaced the Pentagon as the largest building by floor space in the United States at 19 million square feet.
-About 500,000 people ride the iconic gondolas every year at The Venetian, one of the reasons why The Venetian has been named one of the most Instagrammed resorts in the United States.
Sands destruction on the big screen
The site of The Venetian was the historic Sands, a popular hangout for Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack.”
Purchased by a partnership headed by Sheldon Adelson, the Sands was imploded on Nov. 26, 1996.
But part of the building was forever immortalized in the climactic conclusion of the 1997 action film “Con Air.”
The Nicolas Cage film ended with a hijacked prisoner transport plane making a crash landing on the Las Vegas Strip.
The plane sailed past the Stratosphere Tower and onto the boulevard — with a touch of Hollywood magic enabling the plane’s wing to clip the guitar sign at the Hard Rock Cafe, then on Paradise Road at Harmon Avenue.
After the crash and the destruction of the Sands, the likes of John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames and Cage came spilling out of the wreckage and into the movie’s final chase scene.
■1952: The Sands opens on the Las Vegas Strip.
■1988: The Sands, a casino hangout for Frank Sinatra and the famed “Rat Pack,” is acquired by a partnership called The Interface Group, led by Sheldon Adelson.
■1988: Construction begins on the Sands Expo & Convention Center.
■1990: Sands Expo & Convention Center opens. At the time, it is the second largest convention center in the wo
rld and the only one under private ownership.
■April 1996: Adelson announces plans to build a major resort with a convention center on the Strip on the site of the Sands.
■Nov. 26, 1996: The Sands is imploded.
■April 14, 1997: Ground is broken on The Venetian, a themed resort that paid tribute to the northern Italian city of Venice.
■June 1997: Adelson completes a deal to acquire land adjacent to The Venetian for Palazzo.
■May 3, 1999: Italian actress Sophia Loren joins Adelson for the grand opening of The Venetian. When it opens, The Venetian has 300 suites.
■June 1999: The entire 3,015 Venetian suites open.
■2003: The Venezia tower opens with 1,013 suites.
■2004: Several small hotels adjacent to The Venetian are demolished to make way for Palazzo.
■Dec. 30, 2007: Palazzo, attached to The Venetian and continuing the theme of the city of Venice, opens, adding 3,064 suites and bringing the total to 7,092.
■2021: Scheduled opening of the MSG Sphere at The Venetian, being developed by the Madison Square Garden Co.