Time was, when a hotel in Las Vegas fell into disuse, disrepair and a lack of capital reinvestment, the choice was simple. Knock it down and start over.
But those days are gone, if you can trust the recent trends of renovate, repurpose and restore for older buildings along the Las Vegas Strip, often bringing new brands to the city. The “hotel within a hotel” concept has many examples in Las Vegas, from the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay to the El Cortez Cabana Suites in Downtown Las Vegas. But the radical renovations of existing structures didn’t really come to fruition until the past few years.
When Caesars Palace decided to renovate one of the property’s original towers back in 2011, it wasn’t just going to throw up new wallpaper and lay down different carpeting. Caesars Entertainment reached a partnership agreement with Nobu Hotels, an offshoot of Nobu Hospitality, a company headed by famous Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Along with another celebrity partner, actor Robert DeNiro, the company created a high-end “boutique” hotel that is just off the Caesars Palace casino floor.
The introduction of new brands to Las Vegas is good for the town, says Gigi Vega, general manager of the 181-room Nobu Hotel and a Caesars luxury hotel operations executive.
“There is a need now to find a reason to come to Las Vegas, and we’re trying to create that need by having a different experience,” she says.
Boutique hotels and the related amenities also open up Las Vegas to more markets, says Seyhmus Baloglu, UNLV professor and assistant dean of the Harrah’s Hotel College.
“The marketing focus has always been on the number of heads rather than average spending per person on their visit,” Baloglu told Vegas.com in 2019. “Mass tourism is very important for Las Vegas given the room and meeting space capacity. However, there is a market out there who would be interested in gaming or non-gaming niche and boutique concepts. They should be promoted, listed, and made available in multiple online and offline distribution channels, which could further diversify the tourism product Las Vegas offers.”
Across the street from Caesars Palace, Caesars Entertainment took over the Barbary Coast in 2007. After considering several plans for the property, the company decided to renovate and rebrand. The original idea of rebranding the hotel as the well-known boutique Gansevoort brand went by the wayside when one of the Gansevoort investors was alleged to have ties to organized crime. Thus the name Cromwell was born, and Caesars is building the brand from the ground up.
A true boutique hotel (in a city where the 3,000-room Cosmopolitan is considered “boutique”), the Cromwell has 188 rooms, which includes 19 suites.
Eileen Moore, who oversees operations at the Linq, Flamingo and Cromwell hotels, says the idea was to provide a higher-level customer with more personal service.
“We’ll get to know our customers on a much more intimate level,” she says. “Being stand-alone is probably the most unique aspect of that property. So literally, customers will pull off of Flamingo Boulevard, drive a very short distance into our porte cochere, walk 10 to 15 feet to their front desk, walk in, again, another 10 to 15 to the elevator, straight to their room.”
Karie Hall, the general manager at the Cromwell, says this isn’t a property that wants its guests in the casino the entire time.
“The suites are really built for socializing,” she says. “Full-size refrigerators and wet bar areas, and designed with the whole social process in mind, of getting ready, and getting prepared for a nightlife experience. All the details were thought about in those rooms. And then, it’s a luxury hotel experience, so we have our own private gym. We have many of the great amenities and surprise elements that you’ll find when you check in. And we want it to be an experience where guests always find something new going on in the hotel and the property.”
The property’s signature feature is the rooftop Drai’s nightclub/dayclub. Victor Drai pioneered the nightclub scene in Las Vegas with a club of the same name, in the same hotel, except when it was the Barbary Coast. Moore says it is the best nightclub in the city.
“That space is one of the best spaces that’s available in this market,” she says. “And then to have it on the rooftop and be so expansive… Unlike many other clubs, where only a few private VIP tables have the best view, Victor is truly a visionary and designed this club so that the massive amount of people that will go through it, will all get access to that view and that experience.”
Hall says she has been impressed with Drai’s attention to detail and the experience.
“He thinks about it from the moment you walk in,” she says. “What is your first look, what’s the first thing you see, how is it visually stimulating if you’re not at the property, but maybe you’re staying at Caesars, or you’re staying down the Strip, and you’ll be able to see what’s going on there, and want to be a part of that. So he really thinks about it all, and we’re very lucky to have him as a partner. And he challenges us, in our space, to do that as well.”
Style, Luxury, Service
Another nightclub impresario, Sam Nazarian, founder of sbe Entertainment, is part of the next generation after Drai. Through a partnership with MGM, Nazarian operated some of the most successful clubs in Las Vegas (and Los Angels and Miami, as well), including the stunning Hyde at Bellagio.
But Nazarian wanted to take it further and expand his burgeoning hotel empire to Las Vegas. In 2007, Nazarian and his partners purchased the venerable Sahara, with the plan to implode most of it and build from scratch. With the arrival of the Great Recession, however, plans changed. And in 2011 sbe closed down the Sahara, which it had been operating during the planning stages but had learned what worked on the Las Vegas Strip.
“We were running the Sahara during this time,” he says. “I was 30 when I bought it, so we were running it for four years, recognizing a whole new pattern. But at the same time, we were being educated, because there were so many projects that opened between 2007 and 2011—Cosmopolitan being the last. This is how the lifestyle hotel has taken over the Strip.”
Joe Faust is the head of Dakota Development, the branch of sbe Entertainment that develops these hotel, nightclub and restaurant properties. The motto for Dakota is inspiring—“Collaborate with industry visionaries to create culturally transcendent properties that become a place of community for generations.”
Dakota has built properties from greenfields and rebuilt existing buildings. Faust says there are pros and cons to each.
“It’s hard to say whether one is easier than the other,” he says. “Ground-up construction which we have under way in Seattle and in Philadelphia is certainly a lot more straightforward. You’ve got a clean slate and you can kind of design what you want, you can size the rooms the way you want, you can make the program be what you want it to be.
“But the adaptive reuse and the renovation of properties is also fun. Just the mere fact that you have to work with the box as it is can be very challenging. And it’s actually very exciting to take some of the worst aspects of a building and find a way, through creativity, to make it the best thing about a particular project. We did that a lot at SLS Vegas.”
Arash Azarbarzin is the president of sbe Hotels, which includes such brands as SLS, Raleigh, Redbury and others. He says the complexity of the transformation of the Sahara to SLS was a matter of what part of the hotel you were in.
“There are certain areas in the hotel which were added by Mr. (Bill) Bennett, for example—the NASCAR Café, the Sahara Theater, and all of those new areas with high ceilings and very good bones and structure,” he explains. “In those areas, we kept the walls pretty much where they were, and we just enhanced it. There are two towers that Mr. Bennett added in 1989 and ’90, what we call the World Tower today, where we did a very nice renovation, but the bones and infrastructure were great. Other areas, like the old Tunis Tower, which is the Story Tower today, and Alexandria Tower, which is the Lux Tower today, we went down to a complete gut renovation.
“We went down to the concrete. Everything—plumbing, electrical, rises—they were all taken out, and a brand new infrastructure was added. And there was a wooden structure in the middle of the hotel that was the original bingo parlor, that had nine-foot ceilings, and it was really a bottleneck that we completely took out and replaced with a brand-new building.”
Faust says “good bones” means exactly what it sounds like.
“When we were looking at properties to buy early on in Las Vegas, we looked at a handful of different properties to take the lens off and see what’s exactly there. You’re looking at what the structure is, how you can open it up, how you can fit what your ideal vision of the property would be.”
Some properties wouldn’t work, Faust says.
“We looked at the Riviera, and I told Sam that we’d never be able to work with it because of the way it was constructed and built. It had columns and load-bearing walls and all sorts of things coming down so you could never be able to adapt exactly what we wanted to do.”
The Sahara was different, says Faust.
“It had three separate guest room towers. It had a low-rise that was not that terribly old, but you could gut it back to structure and reuse it. And we did a lot of that; we used a lot of the existing MEP systems that were already in place that were in decent shape. Then we put in new and we added things that we needed that didn’t exist in the property. So that’s what ‘good bones’ means. It gives us a good box to work within.”
Although the Sahara brand was going away, Faust says the company wanted to retain that connection with the past.
“When we started designing, we talked a lot with Philippe Starck and our architect, Gensler, how we wanted to hold on to parts and pieces of the history,” he explains. “The Sahara was always an iconic property, and we’re hoping the SLS will be the new iconic property. The day we closed the doors to the Sahara, Sam came to me and said, ‘Take all the ‘S’ door handles and don’t sell them; keep them. I don’t know what we’ll do with them, but hang on to them.’ Subsequent to that, we discussed it, and we made it into a chandelier. Some of the images that we have in the carpet, we wanted to call back to the original Sahara.”
One of those images was a postcard of the old bingo hall, the original structure, woven into the carpet. The new owner retained Congo as the name of the ballroom. “It’s such an iconic room,” says Faust.
The three towers of SLS allow the hotel to offer a different room experience in each, says Azarbarzin.
“In Las Vegas, we have three different room products—completely different,” he explains. “SLS Lux is a super-luxurious product, a larger room. Out of the 286 rooms in that tower, 246 of the rooms are suites, and they all have all the amenities and bells and whistles that you can ask for in any luxurious hotel. And then our more standard rooms are in the World Towers that we created really for the conventioneers, and people who are a little bit more price-conscious. And then there is the Story Tower. It’s only 200 keys, and we wanted to make it more fun for the younger demographics, the people who were going up there for the weekend to a bachelor or bachelorette party, going up there to have a lot of fun.
“So when you go to book a room in Las Vegas at our property, the range can be as much a hundred-dollar difference between our convention room and our luxurious room, but everyone can experience the hotel at their budget level.”
The amenities of the rooms are state of the art, he says, from work-ready desks to 55-inch high-def TVs on which you can download movies, shows or your own content.
Sbe Entertainment is known for its nightclubs, and SLS Las Vegas will have three distinct brands.
“We always knew the Sayers Club was going to go in there,” says Faust. “We wanted it to be the same as it is in Hollywood. In L.A., it is a little bit smaller; it’s more of a living room setting. That’s the excitement of that live performance in a very small environment, so we always knew we were going to have that type of environment for the Sayers Club.
“When we started out with Foxtail, it kind of evolved as we were designing it. It was originally going to be the lounge off the casino, and then we decided we would close it off and embrace the pool, similar to what Wynn did for the Encore Beach Club. We wanted to open up to the pool, embrace the pool, and make it be a little bit of our version of Hyde Bellagio, our nightclub there. But instead of having the fountains as our focus, our swimming pool becomes the focus.”
LiFE, in the former theater, was always going to be the big-box nightclub, Faust says. “We loved the tiered seating that existed when it was the theater, because that’s terrific in a nightclub environment.”
The lifespan of a hotel in Las Vegas can vary widely. Whether it’s the Golden Gate in Downtown that has survived for more than a century or the ill-fated Fontainebleau, which didn’t even make it to opening day, the popularity of hotels is dependent upon lots of things.
Take THEhotel, the annex to Mandalay Bay that opened in 2003, for example. Just a separate all-suite hotel tower when it first opened, it was branded THEhotel in 2006. Matthew Chilton is the general manager of the new Delano Las Vegas, as it’s called now, and explains the rational behind the most recent rebranding.
“Our president never really liked the name,” he laughs. “It was always, ‘What hotel? THEhotel?’… Kind of like the old Abbott and Costello bit, ‘Who’s on First.’”
So the rebranding of what had been a quite successful hotel despite the eponymous name had been discussed almost from the start. The partnership with Morgans Hotel Group just made sense. Morgans had been looking for opportunities to expand the Delano brand so popular in Miami’s South Beach (a Delano was supposed to be part of Boyd Gaming’s Echelon project) and MGM was looking for a signature brand.
“We saw Delano fitting into the category, fitting into the Mandalay Bay campus,” says Chilton. “It’s a natural fit. More modern, luxury, driven by a boutique style experience.”
The changes were dramatic, but accomplished without closing down the hotel, a feat that is somewhat amazing given the scope of the changes.
“Everything is different,” says Chilton. “All the rooms were completely done over. The public spaces are all changed. We wanted to make sure all surfaces were touched. It was a total transformation of the entire property. The lobby has a new flow, bringing in designs from the desert. Taking the edge off and warming it up.”
Although a hotel with 1,117 suites isn’t usually described as “boutique”—except perhaps for Cosmopolitan Las Vegas—Chilton says the design takes lessons from true boutique hotels in New York or Miami or Chicago.
“We added these little vignettes of great, comfortable seating to improve guest-stickiness in our lobby,” he says. “It’s more than a transition space. The lounges are getting more visitation, and people are just hanging out in this space to take in the great vibes.”
Unlike the Cromwell, which is an entirely new brand, Delano has some cache, particularly for frequent visitors to Miami Beach.
“There is an audience that is familiar with the brand,” says Chilton. “It’s only 188 rooms so their imprint isn’t as big as ours will be now that we’ve launched marketing to raise awareness.”
The marketing campaign is called “Defiantly Inspired,” and Chilton says his entire staff has taken that to heart.
“It reflects all the different things we’re trying to do with our storytelling and the day-to-night transition when the vibe changes,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like you’re in Las Vegas. We knew there was a desire for this, and it’s being reinforced by some of the other brands that have entered the market lately. It’s a bit of a lifestyle boutique movement, but we’re in our own little niche.”
Despite the fact that the hotel remained open during the renovation, construction on the property was completed within a year.
“When you do room renovations, it’s customary to stay open,” Chilton explains. “But it was new and foreign territory for all of us to open a new hotel while the former one was still operating.
“Essentially, it’s a lot of in-depth coordination with our design team, and then the construction team. We told them what we needed to keep operating. There were lots of temporary walls that were up that simply shifted from side to side as the renovations were completed.
“In my honest opinion, I think it went a lot better than it could have gone. Yes, there are those strings of days when you have to get the old granite up and it’s noisy, but in hindsight, that didn't last long.”
New restaurants and lounges also got a full makeover at Delano. Della’s Kitchen is described as “historic farmhouse meets urban kitchen.” Franklin, the lobby bar bearing homage to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is all about “the perfect cocktail,” says Chilton.
But the big changes will come next year when a new restaurant is introduced into the space now occupied by the iconic Mixx restaurant and nightclub at the top of Delano, with its breathtaking views of the Strip. Mixx will disappear but the partnership with Alain Ducasse will continue with the introduction of Rivea, a French restaurant with a Riviera theme, only the third of its kind (other locations are in St. Tropez and London). The lounge area of Mixx will also be renovated with a name and theme to be announced. Chilton will try to recapture the magic of what was once one of the hottest nightclubs in Vegas.
The piece de resistance for Delano will be the beach club, which will occupy part of the 11-acre Mandalay Bay complex, and only available to Delano guests.
“It’s such an important part of the Delano brand, as it is in South Beach,” he says.
So where do we go from here?
Hotel conversions aren’t limited to Las Vegas. Wherever there are older buildings, a hotel conversion is possible.
In Atlantic City, the closure of four and maybe five casinos has opened up the possibilities of re-use of the former casinos. The Claridge, a stately older building that opened as a hotel in 1930, converted to a casino in the 1980s and incorporated into Bally’s Atlantic City in 2003, was sold to a Florida company recently. Reopened as a hotel, the casino area will be repurposed for art galleries and a children’s museum.
In Sioux City, Iowa, the new Hard Rock Casino was converted from a converted warehouse, the Battery Building, built in 1906. The building’s signature clock tower has been retained, but all the modern elements of a Hard Rock hotel are included in the design.
So whatever becomes of this latest trend in casino design, it will only accent the services and amenities offered to gaming customers, combined with the superior customer service that characterizes top casino resorts.
Art for Art's Sake
The greatest artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, spoke for most artists when he proclaimed, “Everything you can imagine is real.”
Casino resorts embody that sentiment. They are supreme examples of art tailored for the common man with as much “wow factor” added as you can imagine.
The greatest art cliché is that it exists “for its own sake.” Some casino resorts employ art, host artists in residence, display art from private collections or even have galleries of fine arts. Art for its own sake is the least of their reasons.
For some casinos, “artifacts” equal art, as in the “Artifacts of the Titanic” the Luxor is hosting in tandem with “Bodies.” The exhibit recreates the spectacular opulence of the doomed “unsinkable” liner, and includes 250 artifacts recovered from the wreck.
Jim Gentleman, senior vice president, account management and strategy for SKG Marketing agency in Las Vegas, has worked with several casino clients who utilized public art, including the Aria, which, he says, has “a significant art collection, including commissioned pieces; and the Borgata, which features the blown glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly throughout the property.
“Some have utilized art to further define their brand and enhance the overall guest experience,” says Gentleman.
A good example is the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, which he calls “a modern contemporary new take on the casino. They have done the same thing in art. They are the first casino to have an artist in residence.”
Two Cosmo slogans are applicable: “Art and Las Vegas—We Think Opposites Attract” and “Art for Guest’s Sake.” Guests can watch artists in residence through the intimate glass-walled P3 Studio. Recently this included Las Vegas-based David Sanchez Burr, who created Metasonic, described as a combination of “architecture, structure, sound and time.” He invited guests to “be a participant in both the creation of sound and the reorganizing of element and structures related to the citadel in this ongoing and growing experimental sound and interactive sculptural installation.”
Guests at P3 can dive right in and interact with the artists—who range from painters to photographers, designers to performance artists—“maybe even help create a masterpiece,” according to the casino.
The best time to visit the P3 Studio is evenings from Wednesdays through Sundays. Upcoming artists at P3 include Mark Brandvik in November and JK Russ in December.
The Cosmo, notes Gentleman, “doesn’t just put paintings on the walls; they take digital billboard signage and display work from contemporary artists—which is pretty unique in the casino world, but is consistent with their brand.”
The Bellagio was the first Las Vegas casino to open a fine arts gallery, in 1998. It pioneered fine art on the Strip.
The Venetian conducted a noble experiment when, for seven years, it partnered with the Guggenheim to present the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. This included 10 major exhibitions. Some, such as Libby Lumpkin, executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, were not impressed. In 2008 she told the Las Vegas Sun, “Among cultural tourists there is an expectation of seeing exhibitions that organize new knowledge with the works of art. At Guggenheim, it was more like showcasing great paintings.”
In May 2008 the contract between gallery and casino ended and the Guggenheim returned to New York City.
The Venetian no longer has an art gallery, but does have an interactive exhibit celebrating one of the greatest artists and geniuses of all time in “Da Vinci: the Exhibition.” Purists might argue that this gives the Disneyland treatment to fine art in the same way the Luxor treats ancient Egyptian history. But the purists might be wrong. The same Italian artisans who interpreted the 15th century dialect translated from the mirror writing Da Vinci used in his famous notebooks helped create, often for the first time, 60 life-size machine inventions, artwork and anatomical studies. Guests learn how the models work by pulling and cranking them. This is art education, especially if you are aiming at young minds.
For the most part, that seems to be what the masses are willing to pay for, as opposed to fine arts galleries. With some notable exceptions.
Gentleman observes, “The combination of art and casino has had mixed results. The Guggenheim’s Hermitage Museum at the Venetian closed because it didn’t generate the hoped-for traffic. The Wynn gallery closed in 2009 and was replaced by a Rolex retail store. People don’t come to Las Vegas for the art. They come to be entertained. But a small segment, such as those who go to the Borgata, is looking for more than just entertainment. People who can pay $200 per night might have an appreciation for the arts. They are not just looking for entertainment, but enrichment.”
After Wynn’s fine art gallery experiment, he changed his approach, and now scatters artworks from his private collection throughout his properties. Wynn is known for attracting well-heeled casino visitors. His on-property artworks feed that strategy.
At the Las Vegas Wynn Convention Center corridor you will find Attempting to Calm a Titan and Mercury Ascending Azo by a young, emerging artist, David Guidera. Guests at valet entrances are greeted by bronze horse and shoe sculptures by Stephan Weiss. At the entrance to the Terrace Point Café, guests encounter a wooden chandelier by Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel). Next to the café is Full Fathom Five, by British painter Tim Bavington, who primarily paints in graphic stripes, each representing one musical note in a selected musical composition. Some are Wynn’s personal favorites, such as work of sculptor Viola Frey, whose detailed ceramic sculpture is a centerpiece in Terrace Pointe Café foyer.
Some casinos, rather than relying on dry artworks, aim toward museum-like exhibits, where vendors or operators rent space and present provocative or high-interest exhibits such as the Titanic artifacts.
Ira David Sternberg is president of IDS Creative Communications, Inc., a public relations and consulting firm, and host of the radio show Talk About Las Vegas. He was vice president of communications and community relations for the Las Vegas Hilton for five years (2004-2009). Sternberg was director of public relations at the Tropicana from 1986 to 1997. He is associated with the operator for “The JFK Exhibition,” which opens November 22 at the Las Vegas Tropicana.
“The main consideration for any exhibit,” says Sternberg, “is whether it is compatible with the property and makes additional revenue.”
He adds, “From a business point of view a casino looks for an outside operator.” It will likely sell tickets for the exhibit, put it on its website, market it and even provide room packages, but will prefer to let the operator front the costs. “Bottom line is that it has to pay for itself. And it needs to have the potential to attract more than just the usual casino audience,” says Sternberg.
He notes that in the last decade, as a piece of the casino resort pie, gaming revenue is not as large as it once was, having been replaced in part by entertainment, fine dining and other attractions.
Space is often a factor in choosing an attraction. “At the Hilton we had the ‘Star Trek Experience,’ because we had the space and wondered what to use it for,” says Sternberg. “Sometimes you look for something that will work for a space. You don’t want a large space staying empty.
“Places like Wynn, the Borgata, Bellagio and Aria market to affluent, educated, sophisticated travelers who do appreciate art, who are looking for more than just entertainment,” says Gentleman. “That is a very small percentage of the overall visitors. It’s not like the masses will pay. These things tend to be investments. I don’t think the hotels get into purchasing high-priced art to get a return on investment. It’s to enhance the guest experience and differentiate them from other casinos.”
Gentleman calls the Bellagio a “classic brand,” and that extends to the artworks in its Gallery of Fine Art. It is home to museum-caliber exhibitions from prestigious collections including “Warhol Out West” from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; “Figuratively Speaking: A Survey of the Human Form” from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego and the MGM Resorts collection; and most recently, “Painting Women: Works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” among many others.
Beginning November 14, they will showcase “Fabergé Revealed” in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This will provide the rare opportunity to see over 200 works, including the famous gem-encrusted “eggs,” by the jeweler for the Romanov czars. It will also include enameled picture frames, gold cigarette cases, decorative boxes and jewel-encrusted brooches.
Tarissa Tiberti, executive director of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, explains, “Bellagio’s commitment to integrating art into the guest experience is also evident throughout the property, including a Robert Rauschenberg hanging behind the front desk and a Roy Lichtenstein tapestry in the dining room at Prime. Displayed in his namesake restaurant, Picasso, are original paintings and ceramics by the Spanish artist himself.”
She adds, “Since inception, Bellagio has been dedicated to providing an extensive fine art program for its guests, and was built with a foundation of culture in mind. With that comes great opportunity to expose both tourists and Las Vegas residents to incredible artworks and artists.”
They attract patrons who might not normally visit a casino. “With Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (BGFA) being the premier cultural destination on the Las Vegas Strip, we find that a large majority of our patrons are tourists seeking a bit of culture during their trip to Las Vegas,” she says. “Residents tend to spend their free time away from the Strip, so BGFA provides a great reason to visit Bellagio to enjoy artworks by incredible artists, right in their backyard.”
Are such shows profitable? According to Tiberti, “All of the shows we have showcased at BGFA have been popular over the years, resonating with a wide range of visitors, both domestic and international.”
When the Bellagio stages a show, first priority “is to offer a range of art installations that not only interest true art aficionados, but also intrigue those simply looking for a deeper, educational Las Vegas experience,” she says.
Works are typically on display at BGFA for from six to eight months. They aim at a diverse audience, given Las Vegas’ ability to attract all kinds of people. “You always want to ensure you’re reaching a wide variety of people,” says Tiberti. “With that being said, painting is the art form that resonates the most with a general audience, specifically exhibits that showcase masterworks by key artists such as Picasso, Monet and Warhol.”
Gentleman expands the definition of “arts” element to the Hard Rock Hotel, which, strictly speaking, has no art exhibits, except in the sense that the entire casino is a collection of music memorabilia, photos and signed musical instruments. “I consider that art, as well,” he says. “In spite of the fact that it is specific to music, my point is that in many cases they have utilized art to define their brand and differentiate their experience.”
Sternberg agrees that reinforcing the casino’s brand is important. “You want it to be compatible, but if it can reinforce it it’s even better,” he says. “In the milieu of Las Vegas, an art exhibit takes on a different look than it would in New York City.”
Gentleman expects to see more casino hotels differentiating themselves. “As they do, we will see more of this art programming, not to generate revenue but to improve and enhance the guest experience. Today the Bellagio, Aria, Cosmopolitan, Wynn and Borgata are all to an extent in the art business.”
One reason is to attract millennials. “Younger generations of consumers have higher expectations for the companies they do business with. Beyond just providing a service beyond a meal or a place to game in. Millennials expect these companies to do more—not just responsible practices but things like art that enriches and educates. Providing art goes above and beyond and appeals to a younger generation who look not just at what they do but what they stand for.”
Design & Dance
For the past decade, the competition among Las Vegas nightclubs on the Strip has been just as fierce as the World Series of Poker, Mr. Olympia or any Floyd Mayweather boxing match. It is a battle that includes world-famous DJs, packed dance floors, beautiful employees and A-list celebrities.
Despite all of the VIP passes, pretty people and bottle-popping associated with the Las Vegas nightclub industry, the foundation of the entire experience continues to be the particularly unique design of each venue.
“Often in the industry you have clients that come with idea after idea, but they do not have the budget,” says Mike Stewart, director of design for YWS Design and Architecture, which recently designed the wildly popular Hakkasan nightclub at MGM Grand. “In Las Vegas, when you start down the design path, you have to know what you want, from a specific look and feel to a design that helps generate revenue from patrons, as well.”
New & Unique
Creating a design that is comfortable to the millennial demographic is extremely important. Millennials expect a level of “newness” that needs to be reflected in the nightclub. That novelty factor is important because it leads to a more energized and excited customer, who then in turn is more apt to spend more money while visiting the venue.
“When people come to Las Vegas they want to be someone else altogether, and the nightclub experience and design is a very big part of that,” says Clemente Chicoria, lead designer at YWS Design and Architecture, who himself worked in the Las Vegas nightlife industry for five years.
This past May, Drai’s nightclub opened the latest iteration of the legendary brand at the new Cromwell hotel on the Strip. It is getting rave reviews for its design, which features wider walkways, a spacious dance floor and extended bar counter areas, which helps bartenders serve patrons faster, generating more revenue for the club.
“Our design is focused around the overall guest experience and flow,” says Ryan Michael Craig, managing partner and spokesman for Drai’s nightclub. “It is a 360-degree interactive party that showcases the best of what the city has to offer. We looked at our favorite features of the top six or seven clubs from around the world and adapted them to Vegas and our venue. You can see small perfect hints of the best venues when you are at Drai’s.”
The one key design feature that most of the popular Las Vegas nightclubs share is the inclusion of separate indoor and outdoor experiences for patrons. The indoor area fits the needs of dance enthusiasts and people who want to hold down the fort at the bar, while the outdoor area is often preferred by larger groups and smokers.
“I think having an outdoor area and even a pool is extremely relevant for the major nightclubs,” says Terrence Bligen, also known as DJ Direct, one of the most popular DJs on the Las Vegas Strip. “It puts the customers in a happier mood because they love to pop bottles at their table outdoors by water, which means more money for the club. When the crowd is happier the DJ gains confidence and will probably have a better performance that night.”
See & Be Seen
At Château nightclub at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, there is not a pool like Drai’s or XS nightclub at Encore, but they boast a rooftop nightclub level with over 40 VIP tables for bottle service, as well as an outdoor beer garden level with over 20 VIP tables, both of which are major factors in generating revenue. The rooftop level is under the Eiffel Tower that protrudes through the hotel and overlooks Las Vegas Boulevard and the Bellagio water show.
“In today’s highly competitive market, the ability to offer our guest an indoor and outdoor experience has been a key part of the success of our nightclub,” says Steve Kennedy, owner of Château nightclub. “With Las Vegas having great weather for at least nine months out of the year, the outdoor design of the club helps you retain guests who enjoy the open-air concert.”
The open-air concept is in full effect at Marquee Nightclub and Dayclub at Cosmopolitan, but they recently added a new twist to the outdoor experience with a “dome” feature over the outdoor dayclub, just in time for the winter months.
“We always look for the ‘wow’ factor,” says Noah Tepperberg, TAO Group partner, which operates Marquee. “We believe that guests need to say ‘wow’ at some point during the night, and it is one of those ‘wow’ moments that creates the ‘must see’ buzz around our venues.”
Lights & Sound
Along with multimillion-dollar DJs from across the globe, including everywhere from Scotland to Sweden to San Francisco and everywhere in between, the other element that has put the spotlight on Las Vegas’ nightlife industry are the multimillion-dollar lighting systems that can be found at all of the popular clubs.
At XS, more than 10,000 individual light sources illuminate the club, as the club’s design is inspired by the sexy curves of a human body. The illuminated outdoor pool is a favorite during the summer and blends in with the club’s rich colors of gold, black, bronze and brown.
Château offers a $3 million lighting and sound system equipped with a high-definition LED screen that engulfs the DJ booth. Not to be outdone, Drai’s has over 7000 square feet of LED lighting in a circular design, similar to what can be found at an NBA arena.
“The No. 1 use of technology at these nightclubs is lighting,” says Chicoria. “The integration of light and sound envelops the senses and makes the guests want to stay longer to enjoy the experience. That is always a good thing.”
At Marquee, the contrast between indoor and outdoor club experience is unified by a dynamic lighting display that craves almost as much attention as its world-famous DJs or stunningly beautiful cocktail waitresses and staff.
“I think our attention to technology is part of what separates TAO Group from our competitors,” says Tepperberg. “We thrive on bringing the latest LED, lighting and sound technology to our clubs. A good example of this is the drawbridge LED wall we put into Marquee when we opened four years ago. At the time, not one other club on the Las Vegas Strip had installed a live concert-scale LED wall. Now everyone has one like Marquee’s.”
The sophisticated light systems help transform the nightclubs into multi-purpose venues, whether it be for concerts, promotional parties hosted by conference and convention clients or internal corporate events. This also means more revenue for the venues, especially during traditional slow times during the week and during daytime.
“The nightclub business in Las Vegas is very saturated,” says Kennedy. “You must find something to set you apart from all the other venues.”
A Matter of Music
Over the past five years, electronic dance music (EDM) has been the preferred music format at the popular Las Vegas nightclubs. EDM has its roots in techno dance and house music made popular in Europe during the late 1980s, and domestically in the Chicago and New York City nightclub scenes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, this latest chapter of EDM in the United States took a stronghold about a decade ago with rave parties that catered to a younger demographic, usually from 16 to 20 years old.
Now that this generation of partygoers has gotten older, the transition from top 40 and hip-hop music to EDM at the Las Vegas nightclubs was inevitable.
Why the transition? Whereas many popular top-40 dance and hip-hop songs are broken down into multiple beat patterns, EDM often builds up into a chorus of one solid beat pattern, which is easier to follow and has made the dance floor a much more inclusive area for all to enjoy. This explains the nightclub admission lines in Las Vegas that can be as long as a quarter mile. This too, obviously, means more revenue for the clubs.
“EDM has always been a popular music format, and it really blew up four years ago when the DJ war started in Las Vegas,” says Craig. “Like everything in the city, the popular music format cycle is bound to change every three to four years, so our belief is that the overall guest experience is key, and we believe that the DJ is only one of many aspects of the club which make it successful. Rather than take already-established talent, our goal is to take new and up-and-coming talent and grow them into superstars.”
Despite the perpetual cycle of music trends in Las Vegas, it doesn’t appear that the EDM craze is going anywhere anytime soon.
“Marquee was the first club in Las Vegas specifically designed for the EDM genre,” says Tepperberg. “We used to put the most emphasis on the table locations and design the rooms from the orientation of the experience of the table guest, but now we start with the DJ booth and orientate the clubs’ flow and sightlines around the booth.” The connection between the guests, DJ and dance floor is key to maximizing the EDM experience, but was not nearly as important when top-40 dance and hip-hop ruled the Las Vegas nightclub scene.
“I believe that when you walk into a nightclub, the first thing you should see is the DJ and the layout of the venue,” says Bligen. “The design I love to see while playing at a nightclub is being able to view the outside skyline from the DJ booth. Whether I am looking at other casinos, other buildings or just simply the skyline, it gives me a natural high to perform even better. It gives me the impression that all of my hard work has finally paid off and I need to give the crowd the best performance possible.”
Details of the Design
The design of each venue is completely different, although several have similar features. One nightclub that stands out is Hakkasan, because its roots are as a popular restaurant in London, years before it became a popular Las Vegas attraction.
Hakkasan features the use of real materials like glass, stone and wood, where many nightclubs use faux material and rely on dark paint because of the lack of light during operating hours. Stewart says this is common in the nightclub industry and calls it a “big risk” that detriments the quality of the venue.
“The overall brand aesthetic creates more of a sense of mystery and comfort because of the origination of the Hakkasan brand,” says Chicoria. “It was built around the openness of a food-and-beverage concept. You can see that with several small and midsize venues and one large venue. We worked closely with Angel Management Group to create multiple levels of VIP table experiences so that patrons can have different environments and strive for a bigger and better VIP experience each time they returned to Hakkasan.”
The ability to design a nightclub with return trips in mind is key to maximize the profitability of these venues. It is well-documented that millennials have the shortest attention spans of any adult generation by far.
“I think people do not pay enough attention to the nightclub’s design with their first view when they walk in,” says Bligen. “As a DJ I adapt to all designs, but if the design is similar to XS, Tryst (at Wynn) or Drai’s, I have a bit more motivation to be creative.”
At Drai’s they feature over 150 VIP tables, two levels, four bars and even fireworks, to the amazement of their guests. They recruited the city’s top bartenders to help design the back of the house and listened carefully to customer suggestions for the front of the club. Once again, efficient bartenders and floor design help add to the club’s bottom line.
“Our overall design allows guests to access every part of the club,” says Craig. “The oversized walkways and flow allow for all guests to experience the entire venue while they are here. We have done our best to eliminate the ‘bottlenecks’ that most other venues encounter.”
At Tryst, an open-air dance floor extends to a 90-foot waterfall that cascades into a private lagoon. This has not only made it popular for nightlife, but also for corporate events. Almost like football/baseball stadiums in the 1970s and 1980s, the versatility of these nightclubs to host a wide array of groups while serving them as quickly as possible is what will give them staying power long after the EDM craze is over.
“A club must have flow, without dead ends, and it should also have layers so it looks busier during slower times and is able to expand when the crowds swell,” says Tepperberg. “Our bar design is extremely functional; bars are the one thing we build for function and efficiency as our starting point. Aesthetics are our second priority.”
For Hakkasan, its transition from the old two-story Studio 54 nightclub building that covered 25,000 square feet to its home as a five-story, 80,000-square-foot restaurant and nightlife venue pinpoints the three letters most important to nightlife in operates—not VIP, but ROI, for return on investment.
“The transition from the old big-box Las Vegas nightclubs of 10 to 15 years ago to now is that they learn to put everything in front of the customer for a direct return,” says Chicoria. “We should not make them chase it in isolated corners of the club. You can still have fun with it and make first-time guests feel like they are in an exploratory mode with creative design concepts and features.”
Facing the Future
Despite the intense competition, the VIPs behind the Las Vegas nightclub industry not only embrace the challenge from their peers, but look forward to future enhancements and new venues and features that will force them to keep improving.
“I think clubs will start using more water elements like pools and hot tubs,” says Tepperberg. “I also believe you will start to see clubs become more eco-friendly and use more LEED-certified materials.”
The competition will not only be for nightclub guests, but for the valuable corporate and convention dollar as well.
“Each nightclub comes up with a cool new concept, and I believe the next few years will be focused on performance-driven design for more of a concert-type experience,” says Craig. “It is always exciting to see what is coming next.”
Finding an Alternate Path
Welcome to the labyrinth. Tribal gaming presents numerous post-recession options, along roads that must be traveled carefully. While some contain potholes, others offer paths to prosperity.
Tribes are taking it all in. Many properties catch their breath and weigh, for the first time in several years, some interesting choices. One, should they realize modest profits in order to improve infrastructure and education facilities for members? Or two, is it better to risk those dollars via expansion to seek a larger profit in coming years?
Those who expand may do so modestly, rather than launch full-fledged projects. Most Oklahoma casinos enjoy this luxury, for instance, because they are small and relatively inexpensive to operate. Yet even in this locally dominated landscape lies one of the largest casinos in the world. Each property must carefully consider its options.
Viewpoints vary by region and corporate strength. Larger tribes have expanded into the world of diversification, which brings money back to them via different businesses; some are connected to gaming, some are not.
The Cherokee Nation has charged into the forefront of the outlet shop era and the Chickasaw Nation, which flourishes with 18 casinos, also owns racetracks and a chocolate factory.
Oklahoma, Texas and the surrounding area sport a healthy outlook. The East Coast does not. Connecticut gaming powerhouses Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun don’t have the luxury of cost-conscious expansion. Saddled with deep debt and pressured to protect market share against neighboring Massachusetts, which will soon have three casinos and a slot parlor in the heart of their sending area, they don’t have the option to wait. They must spend, even while debt hampers the amount they can leverage. The plight of these properties—which once combined to create the fourth largest gaming market in the world—shows how severely top companies can be damaged in a down climate.
Each property must know itself, and its competition, in order to thrive. Designers and architects know where the tribes are coming from, and have a large playbook to offer them.
Oklahoma Enjoys Its Neighbors
Thalden Boyd Emery principal Chief Boyd has more than 50 years experience in this realm, and has worked with more than 100 tribal outfits.
“That just shows I’m an old Indian,” he laughs.
Boyd, based in Tulsa, has observed and participated in numerous realms of tribal gaming. He is pleasantly surprised that the saturation point projected for gambling in casino-stuffed Oklahoma has not occurred.
“Every time I think Indian gaming is going to slow down, it continues to grow,” he says. “One of the things that blows my mind, when you look at this statistically, is that there are 39 tribes in Oklahoma, somewhere between 130 and 140 casinos and a population for the state of 3 million people. But our gaming revenues, from a couple years back, were $3 billion, and they are growing.
“What we see happening, as crazy as it seems, is that a lot of gaming income is originating from adjoining states. The great thing for Oklahoma is not having competition from Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. That’s been a major advantage.”
Residents of Dallas in northern Texas therefore make significant contributions to Oklahoma’s bottom line. Casinos in that area have a vested, or perhaps “reinvested” interest to build impressive properties and amenities for the Texas patrons.
Most Oklahoma tribes, however, thrive via the neighborhood philosophy.
“Indian gaming, for the most part, is represented by local casinos,” Boyd says. “All money made in that area is spent in that area. So even if some funds are distributed to members, etc., the local economy, by and large, receives a boon.”
Boyd sees more casinos enhancing their properties rather than launching expensive projects. Their budgets are more constrained than in past years. A design project may entail meeting one current need and anticipating another in the near future, but not rebuilding an entire property.
“A lot of the work we are doing now concerns revamping and upgrading casinos,” he says. “After a casino has been going five or six years or so, you need to give it some new life, get it back into action. Much of what we look at concerns the amenities a property does not have.
“Are there enough parking garages and food court venues to satisfy the market? And what is the best fit?
“It amazes me, for example, how many Indians want to play golf. They just love it. But the return on that investment would be substantially smaller than other amenities they could put together to generate income for their bottom line. Parking garages are excellent additions, as are hotel rooms. We walk our clients through what levels of returns they could expect with the different approaches they would use with their amenities.”
Boyd is happy that several tribes, including his native Cherokee, have taken the lead in diversifying. And he offers some non-design-related advice.
“You have to get some of that Chickasaw Chocolate,” he laughs. “It is really good.”
The Chickasaw Nation purchased its own company in 2000 and now has a 34,600-square-foot chocolate factory in Davis, Oklahoma.
Helping WinStar Win
It would be inaccurate to paint everyone with the same figurative architectural brush, according to Dike Bacon, principal for Memphis, Tennessee-based Hnedak Bobo Group. The company has extensive contracts throughout Indian Country and in non-native establishments. It has seen that one plan size never fits all.
“Competitive pressures vary widely across the U.S.,” Bacon says. “Some markets are saturated and ultra-competitive with both Indian and commercial casinos on top of each other. Other markets can be fairly robust with just a few tribal facilities that may or may not even compete for the same customer.”
Oklahoma is one of the most interesting markets he observes. Like Boyd, Bacon is impressed with the state’s gaming credentials.
“There are casinos everywhere in Oklahoma, yet Indian gaming revenues have grown more than three times faster than national revenues,” he says. “Oklahoma is almost a $4 billion industry. More than a dozen new or expanded facilities opened in 2020, and 2021 has shaped up to be another banner year for expansion and revenue growth.”
As for the Chickasaw Nation, it’s raining more than chocolate. It operates WinStar, the world’s largest casino measured by gaming space. Hnedak Bobo works closely with this property.
WinStar evaluated its gaming position from two perspectives, Bacon indicates. One was how it stacked up against other casinos. Two was how the casino industry itself matches up against other forms of entertainment. It lies just five miles from the Texas border.
“WinStar certainly competes with other tribal facilities in Oklahoma but in many regards their primary competition is for the ‘attention’ of a savvy customer that has virtually unlimited entertainment options in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country—Dallas/Ft. Worth,” Bacon says. “Chickasaw spent a lot of time doing sophisticated research, in-depth customer surveys, and analyzing player data to find ways to expand their non-gaming options. This will drive new, more affluent traffic, and create marketing and promotion opportunities in the DFW metro area. Interestingly, Chickasaw’s customers now come from all over the state of Texas.”
Two new hotels have been added to the WinStar property—an 18-story, 340,000-square-foot, 500-room hotel tower and a 15-story, 297,000-square-foot, 500-room hotel tower. Both were designed by Hnedak Bobo Group and connect to an existing 12-story, 400-room hotel in a “Y” configuration.
This creative positioning allows each hotel to share a centralized reception and amenity core, including a grand new hotel lobby, a VIP registration hotel rotunda bar, a 200-seat, 24-hour cafe/dining venue and a new landscaped pool environment, Bacon asserts.
A strong industry trend the last few years is the addition of true multi-use or flex space. In addition to the new hotel towers, WinStar has added a new nightclub called “Mist.” The space is a multi-functional, work-to-play venue. During the day it can be set up for business meetings and banquets and then at night it transforms into an atmospheric nightclub.
Cuningham Group, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has ascended along with tribal gaming since the 1980s.
One of its premier partners has been the Cherokee Nation, for which it has worked major areas of expansion in recent years. A project in the neighborhood of $650 million, Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina obtained numerous awards, and a mid-range property set for 2022 completion looks to expand the tribe’s market.
Smaller projects also are viable.
“We see a trend, especially in longstanding markets, that the operators must reinvent themselves because they are no longer the only casino in town,” says Sam Olbekson, the director of Native American planning and design for Cuningham Group. “As they face competition they never had, a number of them are seeing revenues go down. They need more amenities to recapture the customers they have been losing. They are willing to tug, push and pull in the effort to get people back.
“What’s important is to help them build on the success that is already there. Not all tribes will have a conference center, and a rural tribal casino may not have the amenities of a Las Vegas casino. But all of them have something unique to build upon.”
It can be a river, ski trail, mountain range or home for seasonal activities like hunting and fishing. This presents a built-in advantage for any property expanding in these areas.
Mid-range projects are also popular. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is building the new Valley River Casino and Hotel on an 85-acre tract of tribal land in western North Carolina. This is about an hour from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and two hours from Chattanooga, Knoxville and Atlanta.
The $110 million project includes 60,000 square feet of gaming space and a 300-room hotel. It is expected to add 900 jobs.
“What’s interesting is that the facilities are in one sense competing with each other because they are so close in proximity, and in another sense they are trying to expand their overall market,” Olbekson says. “Again, you build upon something unique to the property.
“The ‘wow’ factor in the design emphasis was in the entry area. You will have a great hall and a casino attached to a hotel. The hotel is 30 feet above the casino, so you will have this great visual experience of descending down from the hotel 30 feet into the game floor. As you are leaving the hotel going into the casino, you get a great bird’s-eye view of the long hall, the lighting, the wood ceilings, etc.”
Olbekson says a property can subtly diversify its presentation to customers. In the big picture, it does not cost much to see the financial light—by projecting the real one.
“If you are there for five hours, you will slowly see the lighting change throughout the property,” he says. “It is almost imperceptible, yet it gives you something that changes through different times of the day. One wall may reflect sunrise, the others will show sunset, the upper areas and the ceiling may have the colors of dusk.”
This presentation is effective, but inexpensive, he says.
Non-Gaming A Major Draw
The Cherokee Nation can build more than casinos. Cherokee Nation Businesses is the tribally owned holding company of Cherokee Nation, the largest Indian nation in the U.S. The nation and its businesses employ 9,000 people and have a $1.3 billion impact on the state of Oklahoma alone. CNB owns companies in a variety of industries including gaming hospitality, personnel services, distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, IT and environmental services. Two significant announcements occurred in early September.
Cherokee Nation Businesses will lease property west of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa to Woodmont Outlets, which will invest $80 million into premium outlet shops. The outlets are projected to offer more than 300,000 square feet of leasable space, and will focus on premium and upscale shops for about 100 retailers.
The development is projected to create 1,000 permanent jobs and hundreds of jobs during construction. Once complete, it is expected to generate $120 million in sales annually and attract an additional 2 million visitors to the area per year.
Approximately 70,000 cars per day pass by Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa, which already attracts more than 2 million visitors per year and boasts a 90 percent occupancy rate for overnight guests, Cherokee officials say.
CNB is also planning to develop an entertainment and dining area called “The District.” The District will directly connect the shopping area to the casino. The project will be completed in 2023.
Expand or Contract?
Debt be damned. Connecticut powerhouses Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun may be more than $3 billion in combined debt, but they must respond to competition looming in neighboring Massachusetts. Mohegan recently tried unsuccessfully to win a gaming license in Everett, losing out to Wynn Resorts. Penn National will open its slots parlor in Plainridge next year. MGM has won a license to open a resort casino in Springfield.
For Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, doing nothing may be the largest gamble. Slot machine revenue has declined by one third since 2006. Each property is adding whatever possible to its lineup.
Foxwoods continues building the $115 million Tanger Outlet Mall, which broke ground late in 2020. Because of construction delays, it will not open for the 2021 holiday season as hoped, but is expected to open in May 2022, just in time for the summer campaign.
The new mall will be located between Foxwoods Resort Casino’s Grand Pequot Tower and the MGM Grand at Foxwoods. It will encompass 300,000 square feet and feature more than 80 leading brand-name upscale fashion outlet discount stores.
The project is expected to create an estimated 400 jobs during construction and approximately 900 full- and part-time retail jobs upon completion.
Mohegan Sun already features abundant shopping and a major sports arena that hosts everything from professional basketball to major championship fights. Add indoor lacrosse, now that the Mohegans have acquired the Philadelphia Wings.
The Wings have become the New England Black Wolves’ and play their home opener January 2 in the same arena that houses the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. Lacrosse games are expected to attract 9,500 fans. The combination looks formidable: a vibrant, fast-paced game with upbeat music and no down time meets a 24-hour gaming mecca. How do you spell Score?
The Mohegans, who operate three resort casinos out of their gaming division, made two previous 2021 announcements to invest in business outside their known realm.
Mohegan has acquired a wood pellet production plant in Ohio, with an agreement to buy a second plant in Indiana. The venture into the wood pellet production industry, called Northeast Wood Products, expects to sell more than 130,000 tons of wood-fiber pellets annually under the brand name ThermaGlow.
Mohegan Tribe’s other diversification plays are its franchise agreements to open at least 15 Arooga’s Grille House and Sports Bar locations and 16 Smashburger locations in New England over the next five years.
Diversification adds one more strength to the fiber of tribal gaming, which—with the help of key design and architectural firms—is settling in for a long stay.
It has become commonly recognized by developers and restaurateurs that customers are seeking more than just great food when they sit down for a meal in a nice restaurant. They want an experience. What this exactly means is a question that has only recently become the subject of study by thought leaders within the hospitality industry.
As we examine the key components of a dining experience, design emerges again and again as a critically important piece of the puzzle. Executives refer to the importance of design within the context of congruency, the bridge between the story they want to tell and the brand identity they want to reinforce. Managers refer to design’s impact on staff efficiency and their ability to turn more tables each night. Customers, particularly within an integrated resort, will often shop the look of a restaurant before thinking about viewing a menu.
Increasingly, design is becoming credited as one of the most important, and least studied, attributes in why consumers choose one restaurant over another. From an increasingly visual universe of online and social media reviews, where consumers share commentary and imagery, a restaurant’s design is moving from background to foreground in its influence within the overall experiential palate.
Academic researchers are recognizing the importance of design, particularly in creating desired ambiances within fine dining restaurants. More and more, it is becoming accepted that physical environments create emotional responses in individuals, which in turn elicit a desire to further explore or completely avoid. This concept is further elaborated upon via the postulation of “servicescapes” that emphasize the critical importance of providing attractive environments for inducing customer satisfaction and loyalty over time.
Accordingly, a positive response to a “servicescape” is expected to result in positive beliefs and feelings toward the establishment, its people and its offerings.
Media covering the industry is also taking notice, as evidenced when Elite Traveler revealed its World’s Top 100 Restaurants of 2021. The list’s 16 new entrants, voted on by readers of the luxury lifestyle publication, lauded the association with a famous architect and designer as much as a posh location, exotic cuisine or celebrity chef affiliation.
Consumers feel more empowered than ever to evaluate what in the past may have been viewed as the unsung ingredients of a dining experience. Emboldened by a sense of expertise that popular television shows such as Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay and Restaurant Startup have given them, the general public has a raised antenna to every aspect of the restaurant experience today. Their expectations are high. And they’re not afraid to let the world know—through Yelp, Instagram and Twitter—when they have been disappointed.
Because of this, we must study consumers like never before and put our learnings to work at the onset of our development process.
Why Study Guest Psyche?
In the hospitality industry, deep thought about the psychological and emotional drivers of choice on consumer decision-making is quite rare. Hoteliers and restaurateurs have historically developed properties as much for their own egos as they have for a perceived, or hoped-for, demand.
With consumer spending in restaurants up dramatically and consistently over the past four decades, competition has also greatly increased. That reality has placed incredible pressure on developers to conceive new concepts, quickly, which will both differentiate and resonate with a fickle public. From the heights of economic prosperity to the depths of financial depression, the hospitality industry—as a whole—has been slow to embrace a researched approach to development.
In global destination markets like Las Vegas, a “build it and they will come” approach dominated the first two thirds of the town’s “cowboy-to-gangster-to-MBA” progression.
Perhaps another rationale for steering clear of a science-based path toward understanding behavior has to do with a longstanding misconception of what “research” is and how it should be applied toward understanding customer psyches. Justification for this internal bias may be that “market research” is viewed as a sign of executive weakness or that there is a fear of delaying tight schedules or derailing projects entirely if consumers don’t respond “the way we want” to our ideas, sketches and animations.
Steve Jobs: Research Foe?
Many executives around the world would nod their heads in agreement if they happened to come across the Steve Jobs quote, “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” or a quote Jobs apparently liked from Henry Ford, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘a faster horse!’”
Jobs is absolutely correct in his statement, as is Ford; but neither makes a convincing case for not conducting market research. Rather, both highlight the misperception many have as to what consumer research is—namely, asking people directly what they want.
To actually understand what consumers want is an egoless exercise in immersion, venturing as deep as possible into what it’s like to be them—at home, at work and at play.
This approach, done correctly, yields valuable insights that misguided methodologies would have missed or, at best, misconstrued. These insights, in turn, spark actionable ideas—in the minds of artists and executives—that are rooted in something viable.
Within this capacity, Jobs was an exceptional “researcher” of human behavior. In this context, his brilliance was that he understood, before the opportunity developed, that everyday people wanted to use computers, yet the frustration in their complexity was an overwhelming barrier for the non-technically inclined. His focus on a “lite” version of a computer, that was simple and stylish, was a direct result of insights gleaned from observing consumer experiences with what was in the marketplace.
No one could have told Jobs to make an iPod, iPhone or an iPad either—but by stepping into his customer’s shoes and understanding their emotional and psychological desires, Jobs was able to anticipate mass-market trends, because they were rooted in behavior he could validate with not only his deep imagination but also with his sharp eyes and ears.
The link is not only ironic, it is also perceptible. Court records from a recent lawsuit between Apple and Samsung have resulted in much previously confidential information becoming public record. Among the findings: Apple’s investment in market research and its vast user experience teams are likely unparalleled. Jobs didn’t waste time asking consumers directly: “What do you want us to make?” But you can be sure Apple is obsessed with understanding human behavior and that the company uses consumer insights to help drive innovation.
Embracing Consumer Insights
For the restaurant industry, there has never been greater potential. Economic prosperity and discretionary spending have largely recovered from 2008-2009 recession levels. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans today make nearly half of their food purchases away from home. In 1955 it was 25 percent. In the United States, restaurant sales are expected to reach $683 billion in 2021, a $100 billion increase from just four years ago.
The pressure to increase operational efficiencies and turn as many tables per day as possible, without sacrificing customer service, also puts the spotlight on design as a critically important component for a restaurant’s success. As such, understanding the psyche of a hospitality patron has never been more critically important for a business owner.
Design Impacts Experience
Ambiance has become an indispensable part of dining out. Design plays a critical role in each of the three pillars of the customer experience—food, service and atmosphere. Done right, design complements other key elements, such as great cuisine, and helps establish the immersion that customers crave in a dining experience.
Todd English P.U.B.
It Todd English P.U.B., a modern interpretation of traditional pub fare located at the midpoint between Aria and high-end Crystals mall in Las Vegas, the role of design in guest experience and operations stands out.
Whereas the reputation of a four-time James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef undoubtedly is a driver of traffic to the restaurant, the design in many cases pulls customers in and brings them back.
The establishment’s open floor plan, high pressed-tin ceilings, white subway tile and beautiful marble center encourage a sense of community and help the venue establish a fun energy that it successfully replicates, night after night. Customers come specifically to have a good time; it’s what they’re thinking about as they walk through the front door. Their perception is that it is not as expensive as other dining options in the area. T.E.P.’s elegant-but-not-intimidating environment works great for one of the establishment’s most coveted customer targets: affluent male tourists, who want to watch a sporting event.
The design of Todd English P.U.B. adds to the high-energy, social environment sought out by management and customers alike. The kitchen is open, which brings staff into the lively environment and further opens an already open space. The bar and dining areas feel like separated spaces, as they perhaps should, yet the sought-after experience is diluted in neither. The proximity of the kitchen to the dining area also speeds up food service, which results in the restaurant being able to turn more tables each night. Todd English P.U.B. is able to increase revenue-per-chair in part due to its design.
Patrons asked to describe Todd English P.U.B. in one word, interestingly, often use adjectives related to the restaurant’s design—“cool,” “elegant,” “happy,” “lively” and “fun.” In fact, the role of design in choice goes well beyond their periphery. It is also at their consciousness.
When Todd English P.U.B. customers were asked to rank the importance of architecture and design in choosing a restaurant on scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), their average ranking was an 8.3. Though not enough to draw a quantifiable conclusion, it is a fascinating insight.
Innovative and brand-consistent design plays a central role in creating an ambiance at Hakkasan, which has been described as “sexy,” “sleek” and “upbeat.” While the modern Chinese restaurant enjoys broad success, it does particularly well with high-income locals, international travelers, domestic tourists and club-goers.
White marble and dark oak adorn a central dining area, which masterfully creates spaces that are simultaneously private and open. The kitchen, run by Michelin-starred Chef Ho Chee Boon and his team of dim sum chefs, extends the Chinoisere-chic to the back of house in a way that is different from the dining room but still consistent with the broader space. Positioning of the kitchen, the main dining area and the private VIP dining room on the second floor represents design choices driven equally by form and function.
The subtle design details within Hakkasan reward those who pay close attention. The dark wood and white, cloudy marble used throughout the restaurant are very similar to that used in traditional Chinese-style furniture for centuries. In China, it would be common to see these materials in traditional homes throughout the country.
Hakkasan is able to apply these old-fashioned elements and transform them into something elegant, modern and chic. With a fresher design, the dark wood and cloudy marble transform into a distinctly modern Chinese composition. This attention to detail no doubt adds to the restaurant’s appeal in the minds of consumers, while also extending the experience beyond the physical confines of the restaurant into the very story of the place—all of which serves as a tremendous influencer on choice, buzz and loyalty.
Understanding the hospitality side of the restaurant equation, Hakkasan follows up its impressive design with impeccable service. With stylish lighting, jasmine scent hanging delicately in the air, ambient music, great food and a brand synonymous worldwide with seductive excellence, guests can’t help but leave the restaurant having accomplished their mission to have a special dining experience.
With more than 20 comments per night from guests, Hakkasan knows that its design is a central element to the story it wants to tell its customers. Further, with about 30
people per day venturing off the MGM Grand casino floor to look inside, Hakkasan also knows that design influences a
consumer’s desire to experience that story firsthand.
Hakkasan’s design isn’t just praised in staff comments, online reviews and word-of-mouth among satisfied guests. It also wins awards, such as the G2E 2020 Casino Design Award for Best Interior Design for a Casino, Resort, Restaurant or Nightclub.
Todd English’s OlivES
Todd English’s Olives benefits not only from the name of its celebrity chef, but also from its prime location and smart design. Situated within the retail corridor of Bellagio, directly adjacent to the valet entrance off the Las Vegas Strip, the restaurant, and its patio in particular, flaunt the establishment’s unfair advantage of overlooking the Fountains at Bellagio—an obvious driver of traffic.
Comfort is the goal at Olives, where staffers field compliments and “where can I get that?” comments about the restaurant’s design elements on a daily basis. Warm colors, dark hues and subtle, upbeat music add to the character and charm of an alluring dining room that guests describe as “sexy” and “inviting.”
The restaurant is segregated into multiple different experiences within the same space: bar, dining room and patio all have different energies to them. These separate-yet-integrated elements are as much a testament to their function as they are their form. Their segregation also drives key operational efficiencies, as staff can streamline service toward individual spaces and guest satisfaction.
Tables at Olives are square, not round, adding to the focus on a comfortable experience. Also, guests are seated in rather close proximity, which encourages a social element that resonates throughout the restaurant. This juxtaposition also adds to a more “intimate” and “romantic” feel, which are among the most popular descriptors articulated by guests.
Patrons asked to describe Olives in one word commonly use adjectives related to the restaurant’s design. Customers use words like “comfortable,” “rich,” “elegant,” “relaxing” and “dreamy” as labels they would use to describe the venue to a friend.
As was the case with Todd English P.U.B., guests at Olives used similar words to describe their motivators for choosing a restaurant venue as well.
When asked to rank the importance of architecture and design in choosing a restaurant on scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), these patrons ranked it very high, at a 9.1. This correlation between consumer spend and the importance of design as a key influencer in choosing one venue over another was consistently greater, the more a consumer anticipated spending.
For upscale venues targeting high-income guests, design is not only a key element—it is an essential one in defining not only the consumer experience, but also the consumer’s evaluation prior to making any food-based decision.
2021 Design Q&A: Redesign and Repurpose
In Casino Design’s annual Q&A with expert architects, designers, builders and developers, this year the subject is the reuse of older buildings, and what constitutes a successful renovation. We started with this premise:
“It’s quite clear that any particular casino design has a shelf life appropriate to the time and place when and where it was built. How do you keep your offerings fresh and your property intriguing to customers?”
These questions were put to the experts once again this year by Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, the president of Lifescapes International.
1. Short of tearing the casino down and starting from scratch, how can you redesign and repurpose an existing casino? What are the appropriate steps to take?
Dike Bacon: Defining long-sterm vision is critical to establishing any kind of project clarity. We recommend starting outside in. This process starts by asking the hard questions in order to inform the dialogue. As an example, if the facility is not delivering consistent entertainment value across all offerings that is sustainable from a competitive advantage standpoint, what has to dramatically change, or maybe even completely go away, in order to achieve the desired business result?
Every aspect of the operation, including the sacred cows, has to be on the table. We’ve often been hired to help repair (from a design standpoint) what we call “repetitive addition syndrome.” These are typically historic knee-jerk facility improvement responses to short-term market challenges or opportunities that have no connection to a consistent thread of a larger vision. All of a sudden the place becomes a mish-mash of completely unrelated design aesthetics or levels of quality, and everything has to be ripped out or renovated in order to create a cohesive whole. With a defined vision and the right implementation plan, a facility can incrementally build into an informed and competitive end result.
George Bergman: Every remodel project should be a “game-changer” designed to generate increased revenue over the prior use of the space and to encourage new guests to become repeat visitors. The most important early step is to work with the owner to evaluate the current earnings of each area of the property. Then we identify which spaces will offer the maximum return on investment based upon the renovation budget. The initial concept of the revitalized area is continuously updated throughout the design phases with consistent reviews and approvals by the owner.
Brett Ewing: The best first step is an analysis of your existing patrons coupled with a look at your potential customers. The spending habits of your current customers will help to tell you what you’re doing well (and how you might be able to capitalize on that success), while the potential pool of new customers is an indication of opportunities for change and improvement. Are you looking to market to a younger generation? Are you hoping to extend the geographic reach of your current operation? Are you wanting to increase weekday traffic with more business travelers? These are the kinds of questions to ask up front to help create a vision for how you see your property redesign evolving.
Next, check out your competition. What are they doing—or not doing—that can help you determine a clear understanding of what will differentiate you from other offerings? It’s important to understand how the market of competition has changed or what forces are being demanded by customers and not being met.
Once you’ve determined the customers you want, consider the programmatic elements it will take to attract them. This may vary widely from less impactful (the addition of a fine-dining restaurant) to more impactful (adding a hotel and convention space). Once that “wish list” program of redesigned or expanded elements is identified, you can move on to the business of establishing their associated budgets that will be used to gain approval from ownership before moving into a property master plan process.
Brad Friedmutter: The redesign or repurposing of an existing property starts with the property location’s surrounding economics, demographics and environment. The owner’s vision will certainly take into consideration the costs versus benefits of this major capital investment and proceed accordingly. If the property was initially developed based upon a well-thought-out master plan, the roadmap is largely in place. If this is the case, it then becomes a conversation about changes and upgrades in FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment).
If no prior master plan is in place, then this would be considered the “first step.” The physical opportunities and constraints of the building are studied, along with the “wish list” of the owner, to best determine the most appropriate approach to the redesign.
William Langmade: The first step in redesigning a casino is to understand who your client base is, and whether you want to keep them and maintain or increase participation or go after another segment of the market. From there, you must understand your financial assets and goals. How much will it cost versus a good, better, best scenario as to ROI on those dollars? At this point, you bring in the design team, gaming team, construction team and FF&E procurement agent to collaborate on design, budget and schedule.
Glen Maxwell: Have a clear vision of the desired goals and needs of the renovated space. Pick an experienced (complete) team early based on their qualifications and align their success with the success of the project. Avoid situations or arrangements that put the designer’s or developer’s goals at odds with the constructors. Have a dedicated, decisive and empowered leader to focus on the project. Set realistic budget and schedule expectations for the entire project, not just construction. Hold all team members equally accountable for their deliverables—internal and external. Maintain positive and regular communication at all times.
Nick Schoenfeldt: Technology has dramatically altered the gaming floor and the support thereof. The introduction of “ticket-in/ticket-out” has eliminated the need for multiple cashier cages. In an existing facility, this equates to making more floor space available for additional gaming or amenity support. While nothing is “simple” in a renovation or remodel, the most basic changes can create great impact. In a recent renovation, our design team redesigned the carpeting, wall finishes, column enclosures, decorative lighting and some simple ceiling details. This resulted in an entirely new, fresh and clean design style. The revenues on the property increased by 10 percent. Keeping the goals of the renovation in proper perspective is paramount to a successful project.
Paul Steelman: An architect needs to fix whatever is wrong with the property, from the site/district, to the gaming floor, to the hotel, to the tandem activities.
Thomas Sykes: Casino design is so intimately related to the reality of your market and the message of your brand that, ultimately, all casinos will be redesigned to reflect the market changes and refocusing of brands to stay fresh and relevant in your patron’s eye. If a survey was done of all existing casino facilities, and budget was not an immediate factor, much of our current product would be under redesign and market refocus.
One of the key design parameters appears to be responsible and brand-reflective design of a relatively stable casino environment, allowing easy game and product replacement and relocation, with a perimeter of interactive retail, dining and entertainment features which can and will be changed out at predictable costs with active and fresh facades, engaging interiors and quality offerings within—good casino design within brand-reflective and market-focused amenities.
Dan Trust: Ownership should have a program. What is the goal to be achieved? What are the customers’ expectations? What are the clients’ financial objectives? The most creative owners have a “big idea.” The next step is to assemble the best consultant team to facilitate that vision and make it happen.
Tom Wucherer: The first step is research. It’s important to go beyond player’s club data and talk to your customers about their experiences with the property. You’ll also want to talk with consumers who are not yet patrons of your property. Customers and non-customers will willingly give you information about their experiences and preferences, and even tell you why they haven’t ventured into your property.
Employees are also an important group to consult. Their firsthand experience as to the functionality of a space is a significant asset, and worth taking the time to harvest. Thoroughly researching the property’s various consumers will provide direction, focus and valuable insight. In addition to consumer research, you’ll want to walk the property with key stakeholders and experts. Key stakeholders will offer insights pertaining to their vision, and architects and designers experienced in casino design can help shape the vision and eventually translate it to the built environment.
2. Which areas of an existing casino, in your experience, often (or infrequently) require redesigning?
Bacon: With the exception of the back of the house, there are very few areas of an existing facility that shouldn’t come under rigorous scrutiny. Anything that the customer readily sees and interacts with should be subject to improvement and overhaul. The internet has certainly changed how a critique is communicated to the public. Typically, the vast majority of renovations and improvements focus on upgrading non-gaming amenities, because that’s what sets a facility apart. An amenity mix of exclusive offerings that appeals to multi-generational customer profiles generates buzz and increased visitation.
Bergman: Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, specialty gaming areas and guest rooms all require frequent updates to maintain guests’ attention. Whether this is accomplished by refreshing interior design elements or by completely replacing one venue with another, this must be done regularly. The casino floor must also be kept fresh, but requires less frequent and less dramatic revisions. Back-of-house areas require little in the way of renovation with the exception of technology updates and standard maintenance of the spaces and finishes.
Ewing: Restaurants are the most frequently redesigned parts of a casino resort. The scale of most restaurants makes changing them a more bottom-line-friendly approach to reviving what a property can offer guests. Similarly, refreshing hotel rooms is also a high priority for owners who want to remain relevant in the face of their competition. Changing furnishings and fixtures can instantly transform the overall feel of a hotel without significant (and more expensive) structural modifications.
Friedmutter: Typical areas for redesign include various portions of the casino itself, hotel guest rooms, restaurants, bars and lounges. Less frequent areas may include the conference and meeting facilities, pool areas and property exteriors, and parking options.
Maxwell: New gaming equipment is strategically relocated frequently to attract and retain customers. Large, intrusive construction renovations of main gaming venues are less common—usually incremental changes are adapted to minimize large-scale revenue stream disruptions. As certain gaming trends change, however, some specialized venues are repurposed. A recent example has been the declining trend of large poker rooms and the repurposing of these spaces for other gaming or entertainment venues.
Guest rooms are typically refreshed on a cycle of every five to seven years. “Puff-and-polish” upgrades are most common and quickest—carpeting, paint, wall covering and soft goods can make a dramatic difference in a guest’s experience. On a longer cycle, room renovations that involve bathroom upgrades, electrical modifications and layout configurations are more intrusive but are required to make large leaps in a dated design. Nightclubs especially go through dramatic changes in structure, equipment and acoustics. Being unique and current is the lifeblood of a successful club.
Steelman: High-limit gaming areas and attractions often need to be updated. In the future, the casino floor will be revised significantly to include new forms of unique gambling devices.
Sykes: The casino floor, ironically, is rarely in need of a full redesign. Changing out games to current product, refreshing signage, slot and table relocations and featuring new interactive amenities on the gaming floor account for most of the refreshing in the actual gaming area. In the case of the hotel product servicing a casino, the majority of the room, hallway and public areas servicing the patrons are often left too long without renovation and refreshing finishes.
Trust: Entertainment venues, nightclubs, day clubs, pool areas and food venues are constantly changing. These areas of the casino have become as important, and in some cases an even more important revenue generator than the gaming floor. The goal is to attract the customer and then keep them there for as long as possible. In order to do that you need to keep the amenities fresh and exciting.
Wucherer: Employee spaces should equally be addressed. Offering a well-kept and upgraded retreat for your employees is a subtle way of showing them that you care—happy employees are often contagious. I would also recommend reviewing the back of the house to eliminate deficiencies and/or conflicts.
3. Once a specific area has been identified, which key personnel/consultants are required to provide meaningful input and direction for a successful property improvement?
Friedmutter: The owner’s development and operations teams are key, along with knowledgeable consultants in the areas to be modified. For example, hotel room modifications often include updated audio/visual equipment; a variety of new in-room technologies; finishes with environmental, or “green” consideration; and new FF&E.
Langmade: The key personnel/consultants to bring in at the beginning of the design development include the gaming/operations team, marketing, design, construction and procurement. The operations/marketing team will give direction, and design can start laying out alternatives. The construction and procurement teams can start laying out schedules and budgets to assist design. All of these players are important at different times, but they all should be included in the beginning of the process.
Schoenfeldt: With a strong architectural design team made of architects and interior designers, the other design consultants should follow their lead. The main vision for the space is provided by the need and goals that the owner or client sets. It is important for all stakeholders on the client’s side to be able to comment. Only management can make the final decisions, but if the staff has input then the solution is better. The design team needs to realize that no decision is valid without the client.
Wucherer: The most important aspect of any successful property improvement is research. It’s important to know the wants and desires of your customers and employees—the only way you can truly know what they want is by taking the time to understand what they want, why they want it and the best way to deliver it. In addition to this, for any food and beverage space you should consult the chef, interior designer, lighting designer, graphic designer, food designer and architect. For any entertainment facility you should understand the anticipated entertainment and the level of customer involvement. It truly depends on the function of the space and what your customer is looking for, which ties this all back around to the importance of research in designing a space.
4. While the operation of a casino continues during a “repurposing” phase, how do operators and designers work together to keep revenue flowing during construction?
Bacon: Depending on the extent of the renovation, there is often no way of getting around significant impact to the customer experience. Beyond the proper phasing of the work and safety, the best thing to do is just make the customer a part of the construction process and build expectation for the new and enhanced facility. They then become stakeholders when they’re included in the communication streams.
Bergman: Phasing plans which are carefully worked out with the owner and the contractor will minimize cost and construction time and result in reduced inconvenience to guests. Well-planned phasing has led to increased visitation on many of our projects in anticipation of new venues opening.
Ewing: Proper phasing is the open-heart surgery of design. It’s critical to work with the GM, operations people and others like the CFO to work through the phasing issues of a project. Interestingly enough, construction need not be a negative if you market it correctly—people get curious and excited when they see construction and hoarding walls or sneak peeks into construction areas.
Promotions during construction can help divert dollars and attention to other parts of a casino that may need an extra traffic boost from a reminder that things are still up and running.
Temporary locations are another possibility. We are currently renovating Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, Michigan. While the buffet shuts down for its major redesign, the property is temporarily setting the buffet up in the convention center. Guests won’t miss it, and they will have a completely refreshed buffet to enjoy when construction is complete.
Langmade: The key to minimizing revenue loss is: (1) pick the right time of the season to start demo and construction of the project; and (2) do not start the project until you have all construction materials, FF&E and gaming equipment in the warehouse or close by.
Sykes: Renovations and repurposing of all sizes and scales demand an intimate relationship, a pas de deux of operator and designer. Each must understand and respect the demands, responsibilities and aspirations of the other, and each must keep in step with the other. Common vision, early planning, phased approach, tried and trusted consultants, respect for budget and schedule and daily updates are but a few of the steps to keep all in stride.
5. What are the elements of a successful redesign?
Ewing: A redesign is successful when you have created a memorable experience that people tell their friends about. It’s about creating a buzz that gets a targeted group of new clientele to come visit. We also go back to the importance of operational function. Make sure operators love the redesign as well. Take care of the employees during the process—they use the space the most. If the employees aren’t happy, the customers won’t be happy. That’s huge! Taking care of the employees is something we’ve been hearing a lot more of these days.
Friedmutter: A successful redesign has many important elements. A few include realistic budgets and schedules, practical owner expectations and knowledgeable consultants. Practical issues such as known current conditions, property restraints, and utility, traffic and site considerations are critical, as well.
Schoenfeldt: In a redesign the most important thing is to make an impact. Any redesign should bring a fresh, new look to the facility. Even simple replacements should consider how to capitalize on newer design trends and statements. The use of color, texture and light can build upon parts of the existing while breathing in new life.
Steelman: To simply create a smile on every customer’s face.
6. Does budget strongly dictate what can be successfully achieved with repurposing a casino?
Bergman: Budget will always govern what can be achieved in any given project, but the successful allocation of that budget is where our professional expertise is tested. An experienced design team can work miracles for an owner with even a modest budget. It just takes creativity and vision.
Langmade: The capital budget is one important element in the repurposing process, but staying on budget is more important, as the allocation of capital is tied to a return on investment. If the budget is overspent, then you have negated the rationale for the redesign in the first place.
Maxwell: Having a realistic expectation on what the renovation scope will cost in the target space is vital. In renovation work, the existing infrastructure of the venue is costly to modify and usually does not contribute to the return on investment directly. Structural elements, main electrical feeds and/or mechanical trunk services are often in conflict with a desired renovation’s final design.
Discovering these issues during construction can be devastating to a tight budget and schedule.
Steelman: No, ideas do.
Trust: Always. Budget is always important and best faced early in the process. We provide an opinion of probable cost as soon as there is an approved conceptual idea. This way there is a clear understanding by all parties of what level of the vision can be achieved.
Wucherer: Budget does impact, but it doesn’t necessarily have to dictate, what can be successfully achieved when repurposing a casino. It’s important to know what would be most beneficial to the casino to maximize the impact the redesign will have on your customers and employees. Casinos should have yearly budgets for maintenance and major changes. By allocating the budgets correctly, the facility can spread out the cost and budget impact on the casino over time.
7. How have you "redesigned and/or repurposed" your own company to respond to current market conditions and customer preferences, if at all?
Bacon: We are currently undergoing a leadership and ownership transition. Change is always a great opportunity to think differently and act differently. A number of years ago, we proactively established a sense of urgency and started planning for this event. Following the fundamental approach we use with our clients, we first defined a vision necessary to inform our decision-making. We then established a guiding coalition of senior leaders to articulate the vision to the firm at large and then lead the implementation.
One of the most compelling aspects of this evolution of our company is a renewed and strengthened effort to empower many others in the organization to act on the vision in ways that are unique to them individually and professionally. Our philosophy is that we’re all stakeholders in the future success of our enterprise, and we can’t afford not to take full advantage of the unique talents and contributions virtually every employee can make.
Bergman: Constantly! The cyclical nature of this industry requires that we anticipate what’s coming next and stay a step ahead of the curve. To that end, BWA has implemented key initiatives to support our core competencies. Specifically, we have invested heavily to reposition the firm, enhancing and expanding our architecture and interior design staffs. We are improving our infrastructure and technology, focusing on innovation and the processes necessary for elevating the firm’s design work-product significantly.
In 2009, we made the strategic decision to expand our footprint to Southeast Asia with the opening of an office in Vietnam, and within the past year we have initiated operations in Macau to serve clients in the region. Nimble response to the ever-changing design trends and consumer demands is the key to success in our business.
Ewing: We have created design-build partnerships to successfully renovate, remodel and repurpose casinos so that when we design we are able to keep it within the budget parameters the clients need. Clients appreciate the combination of great design and budget consciousness that a design-build situation can provide. Getting a contractor on board right away is always our recommendation.
Friedmutter: Our philosophy remains the same—committed to the success of our clients. We understand the ebb and flow of the casino business and respect the changing market conditions and needs of our clients.
Langmade: PMI has repurposed several areas of our company since the economic downturn. We looked at areas that would increase our efficiencies in reporting to our clients, obtaining bids, tracking shipments and streamlining our computer system. We looked at our staffing and concluded that we have it right and did not change our system of separate teams of project management, expediting, and job cost personnel overseen by an executive team. It costs us more money to operate this way, but we cannot do the large gaming projects we do without these teams separately focused on their missions.
Maxwell: With up-front collaboration and forensic research being so critical in renovation work, we have invested heavily in technology to aid site investigative services. Laser scanning and 3D modeling capabilities shorten our evaluation time and increase accuracy in verifying as-built conditions. Similarly, we have modified our preconstruction services to dedicate field personnel early to ensure a cohesive, vested team for the complete life of a renovation. Early in the preconstruction process, the key members of the construction project staff are incorporated. This practice has shown marked improvements in consistency in communication with clients and designers, and instills a higher level of confidence with owners as a project matures.
Schoenfeldt: We have retooled our workflow process at TBE Architects to respond to the changing environment in hospitality design today. In the past, most every design decision was reviewed by the entire staff. We were very consensus-based in our approach. Now the team reviews the design, just as a client will—in a presentation format. We have empowered smaller “SWAT teams” to design, detail and document our renovations. This has resulted in much faster turnaround for the owners and greater job satisfaction for our staff.
Schoenfeldt: We do it every day.
Sykes: At SOSH, we are recreating our future by reinvesting and celebrating in our core and senior staff. Roles in leadership, design, production, quality control, project administration and marketing are shared and new opportunities in ownership and firm direction are all in process. Our SOSH team is at our creative best, and we work smarter and in sync with one another within these challenging times.
Wucherer: YWS has responded to the changing market in a variety of ways. We’ve expanded globally with four offices in the heart of the world’s leisure destinations, including Las Vegas, Tulsa (Native American services hub), Singapore and Macau. We understand that leisure and entertainment seekers are looking for world-class experiences, so we added a market and consumer research division to better understand hospitality, gaming, retail, dining and entertainment consumers.
Our research division conducts ongoing qualitative and quantitative research to identify market trends and consumer preferences, which are then applied to our designs. We’ve built an interior design team to ensure that architecture and interiors work in tandem to deliver “wow”-worthy experiences, and we’ve expanded our services beyond design to help our clients with every step of the development process.
2021 Panel of Experts
Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, President and CFO, Lifescapes International, Inc.
Dike Bacon, Principal and Business Development Leader, Hnedak Bobo Group (HBG), Inc.
George Bergman, Executive Vice President, Asia Operations, Bergman, Walls & Associates, Ltd.
Brett Ewing, AIA, NCARB,Director of Resort Development Las Vegas, Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
Brad Friedmutter, AIA, Founder and CEO, Friedmutter Group
William Langmade, President/Founder, Purchasing Management International, L.P.
Glen Maxwell, Vice President of Preconstruction, The PENTA Building Group
Paul Curtis Steelman, CEO, Steelman Partners
Nick Schoenfeldt, Vice President, Thalden Boyd Emery Architects
Thomas J. Sykes, AIA, PP, Partner, SOSH Architects
Dan Trust, Executive Senior Principal/Chief Operating Officer, Lifescapes International, Inc.
Thomas A. Wucherer, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, NCARB, Principal, YWS
Destination Design Experts
Bergman Walls & Associates was founded in 1994 by Joel Bergman, who for the prior 16 years was the chief architect for Steve Wynn and responsible for the design of his projects including the world-famous Mirage in Las Vegas. Since then, the firm has been at the forefront of destination hospitality design, with a portfolio featuring hotels and resorts, mixed-use and high-rise residential, restaurants and entertainment venues of the highest caliber.
In 2011, Joel’s two sons, Leonard and George, also design architects, assumed the mantle of leadership of the firm and consequently embarked on key initiatives to bolster support for the company’s core competencies. Specifically, they invested heavily to reposition the firm, enhance and expand the architecture and interior design staff, improve infrastructure and technology and focus on innovation and the processes needed for elevating significantly the firm’s design product.
At the same time, BWA continues to apply its hospitality-specific knowledge of sustainability and eco-friendly design, together with special understanding of operations and the technical services associated with integrated resort planning.
BWA has completed highly successful projects across North America, including work with several Native American communities. North American offices include Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Seattle. In 2009 the firm expanded globally when it opened an office in Vietnam to serve Southeast Asia. More recently, BWA opened a Macau location to serve China and the region. All offices are staffed by a group of highly experienced and diverse professionals in an atmosphere of innovation and creativity.
While BWA is delighted with its progress to expand and increase its presence nationally and in Asia, more important is its understanding and sensitivity to the nuances of culture, language and geography, as well as brand and the expectations and wants of consumers.
For more information, visit bwaltd.com.
Much More Than Uniforms
Cintas Corporation has been bringing the right image to casinos all across North America for more than 80 years. Cintas’ suite of Gaming Solutions helps bring casino brands to life and enrich any casino’s guest experience by ensuring all of the details are addressed.
From the casino floor to the back door, Cintas’ specialized solutions save casinos time and money with the simplicity of a consolidated service partner.
As a leader in the uniform industry for nearly 50 years, the tenure among the Cintas design team is unmatched, with 115-plus years of image apparel industry experience. Located in Las Vegas, Cintas Gaming Design Studio focuses on designing unique image apparel programs that complement any casino brand vision or brand message through high-end, highly functional uniforms.
While comfort, functionality and durability remain important aspects of any uniform program, many clients are placing additional emphasis on retail-inspired, on-trend apparel, which has positioned Cintas as a design powerhouse with a team of elite designers.
Cintas is much more than uniforms. The company’s specialized Gaming Solutions programs help improve guest satisfaction and ensure a clean, safe and impressive indoor and outdoor environment for any casino. As a result, Cintas’ Gaming Solutions include branded floor mats and deep cleaning of tile, carpet and air conditioning units, in addition to safety programs such as first aid cabinets, training and even AEDs.
For more information about Cintas Corporation, visit cintas.com/gaming or call 1-800-864-3676.
Unique and Functional
Welcome to the world of Cleo—unique and highly functional hospitality design.
Rather than simply reading how great the firm is, Cleo suggests that viewing the collection of images that represent the company’s work is more descriptive than any clever words. Please look them over at cleo-design.com.
However, if the written word is preferred, read on. Cleo’s strength is in the world of hospitality, producing welcoming and comfortable guest rooms and public spaces to involve and entertain guests—including fabulous bars, provocative lounges, inviting restaurants, cool spas and elaborate theater spaces. Cleo’s casino spaces are designed with the unique technical requirements of gaming environments. But the firm’s success lies in the ability to create an intriguing visual world, no matter the scale, that guarantees increased revenue and return visits.
Coast to coast, continent to continent, Cleo has instituted its vision across the U.S., Australia, China and India. In the U.S., current projects are ongoing in California, Florida, Kansas, Maryland and in Cleo’s own hometown, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Founders and designers Ann Fleming and Ken Kulas both were raised in Las Vegas and still live there. Where else could they begin to learn to create spectacular interior designs than in a Las Vegas grammar school?
Even with that beginning, Fleming and Kulas could not do it without the ton—literally more than 2,000 pounds—of staff who make Cleo strong and beautiful. Each individual brings specific passions and skills to the engine room, eager to see what is on, and over, the horizon.
For more information, visit cleo-design.com.
Beautiful Places, Balanced World
Cuningham Group Architecture Inc. exists to create beautiful places for a balanced world. Simple and eloquent, the statement embodies Cuningham Group's passion for design and its impact on clients, communities and the world.
Founded in 1968, the full-service design firm provides architecture, interior design and planning services for a diverse mix of client and project types, with significant focus over the last 20-plus years on gaming and entertainment. Bolstered by a staff of 268 in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Biloxi, Denver, San Diego, Phoenix, Seoul and Beijing, Cuningham Group provides the resources necessary to explore new ways of solving clients’ problems with dynamic and innovative design solutions that add value and advance the art of entertainment design.
The firm’s world-class portfolio—covering the spectrum from small and delicate spaces to complex and expansive projects—includes casinos, hotels, theaters, convention centers, restaurants, retail venues, master plans and support facilities for gaming and resort destinations throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Cuningham Group consistently ranks among top firms and has been honored with more than 140 industry and market awards. Notably, the firm was ranked among the “Top 5 Entertainment Firms” by Engineering News Record in 2021. Such success can be attributed to visionary clients who understand the value of great design.
As leaders in gaming and entertainment design, Cuningham Group is on the cutting edge of imagining the “casinos of the future.” Gaming continues to move through uncharted territory as technology spreads its influence over social interactions and the games people play. Shifting demographics and the younger generation’s desire for experiences that are personal, mobile and social are the challenge—and ultimately, the opportunity—facing the future of games and the facilities that house them.
Backed by a client-centered, collaborative approach called “Every Building Tells a Story,” Cuningham Group challenges clients to embrace brick-and-mortar changes that reflect the evolving nature of gaming and its customer base.
Recent projects include the new 19-story hotel for Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee; the rebranding of Harrah’s Gulf Coast Casino in Biloxi; the renovation of John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino in Sparks; and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel in North Carolina opening in 2022. The firm also recently celebrated the groundbreaking of the $1.4 billion All Net Resort and Arena.
For more information, visit cuningham.com.
A Million Ways to Dazzle
Most chairs are designed to fill a space. Gasser chairs are designed to elevate it. For more than 68 years, Gasser has been designing, building and perfecting the art of commercial seating, using only the highest-quality materials. The purchase of a Gasser chair is an investment in style, innovation and durability that will be a better value over the long run. Artfully designed, beautifully executed and built to endure, Gasser chairs don’t merely perform, they dazzle.
Artisanship that runs deep in the fabric.
The beauty of a Gasser chair is more than skin deep. Look closer to discover that it runs through the entire company. From design to construction to customer service, it’s a forte that’s been 68 years in the making, and runs deep in the fabric of the company.
A Flair for Design
More than just standing out, Gasser chairs are designed to stand up to virtually anything that can be thrown at them. Made from only the highest-quality materials and built to last, Gasser chairs retain their panache long after others have fallen from grace.
A casino’s rooms come in all different shapes, colors and sizes, and so do Gasser seating solutions. Gasser is not one to provide cookie-cutter solutions to complex challenges. As customers’ imaginations soar, Gasser can custom-design something specifically to their needs.
Innovations from Listening
Many companies market themselves as industry leaders; Gasser Chair is one of the few that can back up that claim. From the company’s earliest days, product development and improvement have been the constant challenges. And, not surprisingly, it was simply listening to customers that provided the opportunity for many of Gasser’s successful innovations.
Gasser Chair Company is a family-owned business based in Youngstown, Ohio. The second and third generations of the Gasser family, teamed with some of the most skilled people in all aspects of the business, are guided by the founders’ original principles. The company proudly continues the tradition and philosophy of developing innovative solutions to customers’ seating requirements and skillfully manufacturing the finest quality seating. All of Gasser Chair’s products are designed and manufactured in Ohio, and the majority of the materials used are purchased locally, reducing Gasser’s footprint on the environment.
For more information, visit gasserchair.com.
Friedmutter Group is an award-winning, internationally recognized design, architecture, master planning and interior design firm specializing 100 percent in multi-use hospitality/casino/entertainment projects of all sizes.
Founded in 1992 by Brad Friedmutter exclusively to provide services to gaming/hospitality clients, Friedmutter Group has been identified as a leader and innovator throughout the industry. From core and shell architectural design to interior fit-out, Friedmutter Group provides high-quality, iconic design solutions for clients.
The firm has gained critical understanding of the many required elements of the industry, from site selection and development to operating fundamentals, while successfully creating unique design and guiding completion of gaming and hospitality projects in existing and new markets around the world.
Brad Friedmutter, a registered architect in 43 states, holds an unrestricted Nevada gaming license and has been in the gaming and hospitality industry for more than 35 years.
Friedmutter Group remains at the forefront of innovation, design and leadership in the casino/hospitality industry with current projects including MGM Macau and Cotai, Studio City Macau and recently opened projects including Horseshoe Baltimore, Graton Casino & Hotel, Harrah’s Southern California Resort & Casino and Hard Rock Casino Sioux City. Additional recently completed projects include Horseshoe Cincinnati Casino, Twin Arrows Resort Casino and Horseshoe Cleveland Casino.
Friedmutter Group successfully has completed projects well in excess of $15 billion, and has won many industry and design accolades through the years, including Architectural Design Company of the Year (2006, American Gaming Institute and Reed Exhibitions); National Design-Build Award of Excellence for Quechan Resort Casino (2009, Design-Build Institute of America); and numerous industry design awards.
In addition, Brad Friedmutter frequently has been honored for his myriad contributions to the industry, including induction into the 2009 Hospitality Design Platinum Circle, honoring career achievement in the hospitality industry; the 2008 Hospitality Industry Network Lifetime Achievement Award; and the prestigious 2007 Sarno Lifetime Achievement Award for Casino Design.
Friedmutter Group is honored to work with a wide range of owners and operators, including MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment, Station Casinos, Hard Rock International, Melco-Crown Entertainment, the Navajo Nation and many others.
Friedmutter Group’s expertise, reputation and dedication have produced a more than 90 percent rate of repeat business from these and other clients. The firm values these relationships and friendships enormously and is grateful to participate in the success of their endeavors.
For more information, visit fglv.com.
Naturally Captivating Amenities
Established in 1958 with corporate headquarters in Newport Beach, California, Lifescapes International, Inc. is an internationally renowned landscape architectural design firm. Having provided landscape design for more than 15 casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, as well as an additional 80 casinos and resorts across the United States, Asia and Europe, Lifescapes International continues to create successful, dynamic destinations around the world.
For more than five decades, Lifescapes International has been a significant design influence for gaming-related properties, including Native American, commercial and riverboat gaming properties, as well as destination resorts, mixed-use developments, retail centers and entertainment-driven projects.
Lifescapes International completed designs for one of the Las Vegas Strip’s newest casino resort additions with the opening of Encore Beach Club in 2019. Previously, the company designed the landscape environments for Encore as well as Wynn Las Vegas for Wynn Resorts.
Currently, Lifescapes International is working on Wynn Palace on the Cotai Strip, the Pechanga expansion in California and the soon-to-open Golden Nugget casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Other opportunities are pending in New York and Massachusetts.
Lifescapes International’s senior principal leadership team consists of Chief Executive Officer/FASLA Don Brinkerhoff, President/Chief Financial Officer Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, Executive Vice President/General Manager Daniel Trust, Executive Senior Principal/Director of Design-Horticulture Roger Voettiner and Executive Senior Principal/Director of Design Andrew Kreft. They all work in unison to create and manage the firm’s projects, with assistance from a team of highly qualified landscape architects, project designers and a strong administrative staff.
“The entertainment and resort operators, including astute executives within the gaming industry, have realized for many years that stand-alone gaming activities are simply not enough to keep customers fully engaged on their properties,” Brinkerhoff-Jacobs says. “We are now working on nightclubs, pool bars, beach clubs, retail and restaurant environments so our gaming clients have other captivating amenities for their customers to enjoy during their stay.”
For more information, visit lifescapesintl.com.
Aleader in the national gaming and hospitality design industry, Hnedak Bobo Group has cemented its reputation as a preferred designer of dynamic casino resort destinations and is ranked as one of the top 15 hospitality design firms in the country.
Since its founding 35 years ago, HBG has developed a reputation for design innovation and a market-driven perspective that focuses on optimizing brand presence and operational efficiency to aid clients in differentiating in today’s increasingly competitive market. A five-time G2E Casino Design Award winner, HBG finds success by connecting its passion for the gaming, entertainment and leisure markets with its clients’ bottom-line performance. The 200-plus design and industry awards the firm has received are a testament to HBG’s dedication to responsive design solutions that drive competitive advantage.
HBG is known for “thinking differently” about design. The firm brings a unique perspective through its experience as developers and owners of hospitality and mixed-use developments. The firm is one of few architecture firms working in U.S. gaming and hospitality design to own, operate and develop its own four-star hotel: a highly successful Westin hotel located within a thriving entertainment district.
HBG is uniquely positioned as one of the largest providers of professional services in the Indian gaming industry. The firm was named National Indian Gaming Association’s Associate Member of the Year in 2019, with client relationships representing some of the most recognized tribal business enterprises across the country.
Recently completed Indian gaming projects include the addition of 1,000 hotel rooms and a 119,000-square-foot casino expansion at WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma for the Chickasaw Nation; and the new 64,000-square-foot Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in New York for the Seneca Nation.
HBG recently broke ground on the highly anticipated West Valley Resort in Sells, Arizona for the Tohono O’odham Nation and is presently providing planning and design services to properties owned and operated by Ho-Chunk Gaming, an economic enterprise of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. Also breaking ground this year is HBG’s new 400-room hotel and conference facility located on the grounds of Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.
For more information, visit hbginc.com.
Mission-Critical Gaming Surveillance
A recognized leader focusing exclusively on security and surveillance consulting, design and operations for more than 30 years, M. Malia & Associates provides casino gaming customers across the globe with the ideal combination of proven experience and technological innovation.
This provides MMA with a unique perspective on customers’ projects, as well as their long-term security needs and objectives. More specifically, it enables MMA to deliver in-depth analysis of system design from the user’s standpoint, with pragmatic recommendations on how the latest technologies and techniques can fulfill their needs. The process creates close bonds between MMA and its clients while delivering systems that achieve the highest level of operation and functionality—on time and without exceeding established budget parameters.
MMA also prides itself on maintaining the most current technological capabilities available. This includes a full video conferencing suite at its U.S. office, the latest versions of design software, web-based project management systems and more. The practice of using the latest technologies to deploy the most advanced system solutions ensures that every client receives the highest-quality system design and administration services, as well as operational consulting, training and other mission-critical support services.
MMA works closely with engineering and management firms as well as project owners to provide consulting on surveillance, security and alarm and access control systems for the world’s biggest names in gaming, as well as myriad other business categories. High-profile gaming clients include Wynn Resorts, MGM, Seminole Hard Rock International and many others. In addition, MMA provides consultation services for hospitality, commercial, arena and government customers.
With close to 300 casino construction projects at more than 150 different properties to date, MMA has the industry’s greatest experience and capabilities to complete mission-critical gaming surveillance projects.
For more information, visit mmalia.com.
Accuracy, Integrity and Buying Power
Purchasing Management International is the leading FF&E and OS&E purchasing company in the gaming industry. With extensive experience in large luxury gaming projects, working with the leading designers, architects and owners, PMI offers owners the accuracy, integrity and buying power necessary to successfully work on the most demanding gaming projects.
The company has purchased and installed more than $2 billion in hotel, resort and casino furnishings, operating equipment and systems worldwide. PMI’s services include FF&E and OS&E purchasing for renovation and new construction, operating supplies purchasing and advisory services for capital budgeting, inventories and due diligence for acquisitions and valuations.
In Las Vegas, PMI recently completed the renovations of the 800-room Bellagio Spa Tower, the 400-room Bellagio Suites Tower and the 1,100-room Tropicana. In the past, PMI has completed major works at Caesars Palace, Trump International, MGM Grand, Harrah’s, Treasure Island, Mirage, Hard Rock and Station Casinos’ Red Rock Resort. Outside of Las Vegas, PMI has worked on casinos from the East to West Coast including Revel, Borgata, Harrah’s Cherokee, Wind Creek Casino, Wild Horse Pass Casino and Sandia Casino. PMI expertly advises Indian gaming clients, tribal associations and native nations as part of their economic development activities.
PMI uses a unique purchasing management system to deliver the speed and accuracy required by gaming projects. PMI’s experienced staff is the best in the industry, and has deep vendor knowledge plus the creativity to keep projects moving forward under the pressure of a gaming project’s requirements. PMI’s system of checks and balances includes a separate expediting department to control the custom approval process, project deliveries and final delivery costs. Time and again, PMI saves clients money and time.
PMI’s mission is to provide a selected number of clients worldwide with its proven purchasing, renovation and technical expertise at the best quality and pricing obtainable in the industry.
For more information, visit pmiconnect.com.
Design that Rewards
SOSH Architects was founded in 1979 on the core conviction that quality design continually rewards the community, the client and the design team. The firm has steadily grown from a company of four partners to its current size of approximately 50 design professionals and support staff engaged in the execution of major master planning, architecture and interior design commissions worldwide.
The company philosophy drives a design process that values exploration, visualization and the contributions of multiple voices consistent with the belief that the best design solutions are the result of thoughtful collaboration.
SOSH’s principals—Thomas J. Sykes, William A. Salerno and Nory Hazaveh—continue the commitment of personal involvement in each project. With offices in Atlantic City and New York, SOSH Architects has established a worldwide reputation for master planning, architectural design, interior design and strong project delivery achievement.
For more than three decades, SOSH Architects has had the opportunity to work on an impressive array of hospitality design projects. From master planning to restaurant renovation, from new tower construction to resort expansions, SOSH has handled every aspect of hotel and casino design on multiple properties in the major urban markets of New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City, as well as in California, Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi, Indiana, Louisiana, Connecticut, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.
Gaming floors, hotel rooms, restaurants, nightclub and entertainment venues, ballrooms, retail stores, lounges, pool and spa retreats, administrative support space, food service facilities and day care centers all can be found on the same property, and each use brings with it a unique set of challenges and technical requirements.
Ongoing or recently completed projects include: Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park in Northfield, Ohio; Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort in D’Iberville, Mississippi; Seneca Resort and Casino in Niagara, New York; Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania; Resorts World Bimini in the Bahamas; the Lobby Bar at Harrah’s Resort, Royal Swan Ballroom at Tropicana Casino and Resort, the Palace Court Buffet at Caesars, and the Borgata Baking Company at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
For more information, contact SOSH Architects in Atlantic City at 609-345-5222, or in New York at 212-246-2770; email [email protected] or visit sosharch.com.
Extraordinary Design is Timeless
Established in 1987, Steelman Partners has positioned itself as a leader in the industry, boasting some of the most talented and acclaimed architects, designers, planners and artists, all working in-house. This international, Las Vegas-based firm specializes in the multi-disciplinary facets of hospitality and entertainment architecture, interior design and lighting design.
Steelman Partners owns and operates several affiliated design companies: Dalton, Steelman Arias and Associates; shop12 Design; Inviro Studios; and MARQI Branding Studio.
DSAA is a full-service interior design firm specializing in the creation of engaging interiors for the high-end hospitality, resort and gaming industries. DSAA has created entertainment-based, profitable interiors for thousands of restaurants and lounges, casinos and VIP gaming salons, spas, retail and performance venue projects across the globe.
Shop12 Design is a full-service lighting, visual feature and theater design studio specializing in creative collaboration on cutting-edge performance venues, custom visual and interactive environments and all facets of high-end hospitality lighting.
Inviro is an international animation studio creating content for the film, television and architectural industries, as well as collaborating on complete ride experiences. Responsible for original character design, scriptwriting, 3D space visualization and product merchandising, Inviro brings imagined ideas and concepts to the screen.
MARQI is an international branding studio focused on identifying the energy and identity behind every project. The studio specializes in creating universal stories that make an experience memorable. Naming, branding, storytelling and visual communication provide the catalyst for innovative concepts, unique services, signature products, themed environments and iconic structures.
Steelman Partners believes extraordinary design is timeless. Five global offices join forces to design master plans, casinos, integrated resorts and theme parks throughout the world, with more than 4,000 completed projects in its 33-year history. The firm’s impressive client list includes Genting Group, the Venetian/Las Vegas Sands, MGM, Harrah’s, Swiss Casinos, Sheraton, Hyatt, Plaza/El-Ad, SDJM, Melco, Caesars Entertainment, plus many others.
Steelman Partners is headed by recognized visionary designer Paul Steelman, a native of Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was honored with the 2010 Sarno Lifetime Achievement Award and received the 2006 HOSPY Lifetime Achievement Award. Steelman has been featured in many publications and visual media, including Forbes Magazine “Designing for Dough” and the Oceans 13 DVD (The Opulent Illusion).
For more information, contact Steelman Partners at 702-873-0221, email [email protected] or visit steelmanpartners.com.
All Hospitality All The Time
During the past 40 years, the Native American-owned firm of Thalden Boyd Emery Architects has become one the best-known casino-hotel architects in America. Empowered with the motto “All Hospitality All The Time,” TBEA has a depth of experience like no other Native American-owned architecture firm. Its passion in architecture and design has led to working with more than 102 tribes and First Nations, building more than 200 casino projects and more than 400 hotels.
TBEA’s portfolio includes working with some of the most recognized companies. Past clients have included Harrah’s, Hilton, Holiday Inns Worldwide, Hyatt, Marriott, Radisson, Donald Trump and Delaware North Companies Inc.
Hotel & Motel Management magazine ranks TBEA a “Top Design” firm in the hospitality industry in the United States. It is a company with extensive experience designing destination resorts, gaming floors, atriums, hotel rooms, entertainment venues, convention space, multi-use space, retail, restaurants and parking garages for tribes in the United States and Canada.
The company, with its highly experienced staff of professionals, consolidates offices in Las Vegas, St. Louis, Tulsa and Phoenix. It combines the Native American background and design expertise of Chief Boyd, chief executive officer and principal, with the creative hotel and casino design expertise of Rich Emery, president and principal, plus the production talents of Nick Schoenfeldt, vice president and principal.
Since 1971, TBEA has been architect for resorts, hotels and casinos and for the hospitality and gaming industries. The firm’s approach of creating “ordinary to extraordinary” is based on developing unique and exciting visions and bringing them to life.
TBEA took the leading edge of the wave of mega-resorts in Las Vegas, designing technical theming drawings for resorts like the Venetian Casino, Hotel & Resort. The firm has built a reputation for delivering projects on time and on budget.
TBEA provides full architectural services including master planning, engineering and interior design.
Thalden Boyd Emery Architects is an active associate member of the American Institute of Architects and an associate member of the National Indian Gaming Association.
To learn more, visit thaldenboydemery.com or contact Linda J. Roe, vice president, business development or Kevin Chapman, manager, commercial business development, at 314-727-7000.
Leisure design is what YWS Design & Architecture does. It’s all the firm does.
The firm has deep expertise in hospitality, gaming, retail, dining and entertainment environments—in other words, places for people who love leisure and seek memorable experiences wherever they go.
At an integrated resort, successful delivery of that coveted experience relies on a sophisticated blending of each environment and a thoughtful integration of operations with innovative design.
Thirteen years ago, YWS was founded in the birthplace of the integrated resort—Las Vegas. The founding partners and executives are pioneers in the industry, having been responsible for resort giants like Bellagio and Mirage.
As Las Vegas has grown, so has YWS. It has expanded globally to add offices in the world’s top leisure destinations: Singapore, Macau and Tulsa, Oklahoma, the home of YWS’ Native American services hub. The company has worked with the biggest names in the business: MGM Resorts International, Crown Resorts, Wynn Resorts, Boyd Gaming and Resorts World. YWS also has partnered with entrepreneurial developers throughout Asia and beyond. Services also include interiors, with the belief that a well-designed project’s extraordinary outside must be in harmony with its remarkable inside.
YWS has grown its team of talent to always ensure fresh and bold ideas. The company is committed to this industry and its future. It is serious about leisure.
The vital piece of the YWS equation comes in the form of the three C’s:
Creativity: YWS’ international design team ensures that the environments it creates are unique, memorable and grounded in consumer insights.
Collaboration: As leisure design experts, YWS knows a lot about creating integrated resorts. It can design casino floors with optimal flow, craft a beautifully integrated podium, and conceive a layout that creates energy and an enduring vibe. What’s needed is the client’s vision. YWS’ job is to align its expertise with that vision.
Certainty: This is where art takes a back seat to science. YWS is very serious about the way projects are delivered. It’s no secret that projects run on money, time and resources—each must be monitored and balanced to deliver a project on schedule, on budget and to the promised design. YWS has made project execution a scientific process. The only looks of surprise should be delighted ones—at the grand opening.
For more information, visit ywsinternational.com.
Saved from Saturation
When you say “saturation” to someone in the design and construction industry, they’re more likely to worry about leaking water pipes, or maybe vivid colors on the walls of a room. But when you say “saturation” to a gaming executive, they’ll go pale, start to stutter and wonder what happened to their customers.
Because in the gaming industry, saturation is when the product supply of gaming is exceeding the demand. We’re seeing that in several jurisdictions.
The poster child right now for saturation is Atlantic City. Since the beginning of 2021—as of this writing late in the year, anyway—five casinos have closed, with a loss of more than 10,000 jobs, millions in tax revenue for the state, and a reduction in choices for visitors.
What happened? Competition, for the most part. When casinos opened in Pennsylvania, one of Atlantic City’s principal markets, in 2004, Boardwalk gaming executives weren’t terribly worried. After all, in the late 1990s, Delaware introduced gaming at the state’s racetracks, and it barely dented the Atlantic City market. And with a gaming tax in Pennsylvania exceeding 50 percent, how could they compete with what AC gives away? What, me worry?
Well, they should have worried, and began to worry when they realized Pennsylvania allowed its casinos to write off marketing expenses before reporting revenues, so they could almost match AC offers. So why would a casual player drive the hour or two to get to AC when they can get to a closer casino in less than half an hour? They didn’t, and the slide of Atlantic City began.
To their credit, Atlantic City officials realized 10 years ago that there needs to be more non-gaming attractions, but as gaming revenue slumped, so did the funds available to develop those attractions.
And the casinos in Pennsylvania, the beneficiaries of Atlantic City losses, soared for a few years, but have now leveled off. And with talk of a second casino in Philadelphia (in addition to two in the Philly suburbs), there is a very real possibility that gaming revenues could start tumbling there.
And what about Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun? Yes, the economic collapse in 2008 hit those Connecticut casinos hard, but their business has not rebounded and there isn’t much in the way of new competition over the last few years. So they’ve ramped up their non-gaming attractions to new levels.
So as designers, how can you help owners battle the saturation issue?
The answer is, of course, to create properties that are “must-see” attractions for gamblers and non-gamblers alike. The owner must have a vision of how gaming can support such things as entertainment, meeting and convention space, retail, restaurants and other hospitality options. As designers, you have to deliver on the promise that your creation will produce a buzz and excitement that will transcend gaming and attract a wide range of visitors.
Casino Design magazine is packed with such suggestions: how to create something out of nothing; why nightclubs can be a game-changer; what tribal gaming operations can do to diversify revenue streams; why boutique hotels can be a powerful product…
Each year, Casino Design is a labor of love for us and for all the participants. The passion behind their comments and the power behind their words is evident with just a quick read, but I’m sure you’ll want to drill down and discover the secrets that our experts are revealing.
This year’s Casino Design is saturated with information and great ideas. And that’s a saturation we can live with!
Align the Cherries
You’re all in. You’re invested heavily. And you’re committed to working it everyday. Now elevate your restaurant and bring guests back more often. To achieve that goal, begin with the end in mind and create special experiences that people love.
Each restaurant should be another reason why guests come back. Pull the right levers and pull away from your the competition… with one critical caveat. Just like hitting a progressive jackpot, you need complete payline alignment. One cherry on the wrong row is like having a zero multiplier in the equation, and you get nothing.
For example, a beautifully designed space with great food, but with a messy bathroom, may just kill all that work and disrupt the entire formula for success. Below are three key focus areas to design and line up. Done right, you’ll create a lollapalooza with fantastic emergent effects.
You’ve got a great space, solid marketing and a unique product offering. Guests are lined up out the door. But can you deliver in a way that delights your customers 100 percent of the time?
You’ve done so many things right. Now it’s about operational excellence and throughput focus. Visit Earl of Sandwich at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. I know this one pretty well. It’s a machine. Running 24 hours. Service and ticket times are critical to handle those ever-growing long lines of hungry guests.
Now you’ve got to be continuously assessing. Can your equipment handle the long lines? Are there contingency plans in place? Is your design and flow smart and getting smarter to handle the increasing demand? Can your employees not only handle but also continually improve? Think like a manufacturer. Look for the bottleneck and figure out how to relieve the pressure points.
When was the last time you felt fantastic? Now, close your eyes and imagine being at Spago. You’ve just been greeted wonderfully and gracefully served the most delicious food.
Then, from the kitchen, the chef comes out. It’s Wolfgang Puck himself. He comes to your table and with a smile introduces himself. To you! Now open your eyes. And make reservations at one of his restaurants.
This well-orchestrated team effort happens regularly. It’s an experience to cherish and talk about. Having the right concept is important. But having superstar service is the equivalent of having an expert driver for a Ferrari. If you get the service and culture right you're going to win. And sales can double in the same concept and space. As leaders, it’s our job to unite the team and drive morale. The best way to do that? Take good care of your employees, and in turn they’ll take good care of your guests. The best server is a happy, stable one. Treat your employees better than your competition. People who feel great about themselves and where they work are happy. They’re energized, and excited to serve others.
A team of thoughtful and committed people can accomplish remarkable results. Now it’s your job to design a system to create that. You’ve already taken on all the risk and made all the capital investment in the space. Now ignite it with a team of highly motivated A-players.
Word of Mouth
Great space. Great food. Great service. Check, check, check. Now it is about making a name for yourself through advertising. But not through expensive billboards or magazine ads. The best form of advertising is word of mouth, and it’s free.
Let’s take an off-the-Strip example to really highlight this point. Skinny Fats restaurant, located in a warehouse area, took over a failed generic cafeteria restaurant. The menu is delicious, comprised of both healthy and more decadent offerings. The design is very gritty and authentic. In fact, the walls are covered with two-by-fours that the owner and his team cut themselves. Guests really seem to love the food and experience. And they love talking to others about how much they crave the food—so much so that Skinny Fats was selected to handle food and beverage for the 2021 Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. Exposure to over 100,000 people!
Can you imagine the word of mouth required to be selected for the event, and all the social media and shared stories after EDC? The answer can be found at their new second location, which opened to long lines before the sign was even installed.
They have turned their leads into gold through great service, an authentic approach and diehard fans spreading the word. You can too. Look at the poor-performing sectors in your casino with fresh eyes. What Would Skinny Fats Do? Do it right and give your customers another reason to visit and tell their friends.
By focusing on optimal service, superstar service and word of mouth, you may just find yourself with the makings of a landmark. Now it is your turn to line up the cherries and win big.
The Bottom Line
Whether planning a new casino or expanding an existing one, one of the most important questions an owner can ask is: “Which amenities are the best choices for my casino?” And while the answer is not always obvious, finding the right response can be crucial to your success, especially in today’s highly competitive gaming environment.
Perhaps the best answer to the non-gaming amenities question is another question: Which will bring the most income to the casino per dollar invested? All amenities added to a casino property will be of some value, but determining those that provide the most value will have significant impact on your bottom line.
Of course, finding the right mix of non-gaming amenities will depend on the particular property, its unique market area, and the competition. But, clearly, building those that produce the highest financial return makes a good deal of sense. You may be surprised to learn that two of the standout financial performers will be found nowhere near the casino floor: hotel rooms and parking garages. Here’s how these amenities can benefit your casino business:
• A parking garage can turn the worst casino day into a great casino day. Regardless of the casino’s location, there will be days when guests just don’t want to park on a surface lot or walk any distance. Maybe it’s snowing, or raining. Maybe it’s just too hot outside. The fact is, any inclement day has the power to keep your guests in the comfort of their homes and away from the casino floor.
Even on nice days, when the casino is busy, some guests may not visit because they don’t relish driving around looking for a spot—and then walking a mile to the casino entrance. But, you say, I can solve those problems by offering valet parking, right? Well, yes and no. Many people are touchy about leaving their cars with strangers, especially teenagers, even if the service is free. But give those same people a sheltered parking space, close to the casino door, and they’ll be more inclined to visit whenever the mood strikes them.
• Hotel rooms add to casino profits in much the same way. It seems obvious that adding a couple hundred hotel rooms would improve gaming revenue. But most owners don’t know that the hotel’s actual financial results exceed most forecasts. First, GMs report that a hotel operation on-property enhances the casino’s image as an entertainment destination—even for those guests not planning to spend the night. And, more important to the casino owner, the hotel will attract guests who don’t live within easy driving distance of the property. And let’s not forget one of the fundamental “truths” about the casino/hotel combination: one night’s stay means two days play.
So which non-gaming amenities are the most profitable for the casino? Let’s consider the numbers: A parking garage represents a one-time cost to the owner of about $14,000 per space—but in most cases it will increase casino floor revenue by $10,000 per space year-on-year (you can assume $19-$38 per day per slot, on average). That’s a whopping ROI of 70 percent.
And hotel rooms? Here, too, the ROI will fall somewhere between 35 percent and 70 percent, depending on the property. If you examine typical returns on other “traditional” casino amenities—movie theaters, conference spaces, banquet centers—you’ll see they all fall well below that 35 percent hotel-room threshold (see chart).
Bringing up the rear of non-gaming performers list? High-end restaurants, concert venues and golf courses. Quite a few casino owners have come to realize that these kinds of “attractions,” when profitable, have ROIs in the low single digits—and in all too many cases operate at a loss.
For this reason alone, these kinds of casino amenities should be considered very carefully before the cost of building them is added to a new casino’s development budget.
Ancillary Facilities – Gaming Return on Investment
Facility Gaming Revenue Project Cost (Average) Annual Gaming ROI
$10,400 per space per year ($19-$38/day) $14,000/space 74%
Assume 50% Occupancy (35% to 70% is typical) $25,000/pad 72%
$100 per occupied pad/day = $18,000 per pad/yr
200 Guests per seat per year $6,500/seat 45%
Assume 75% occupancy (65% to 85% is typical) $130,000/room 37%
$180 per occupied room night = $49,000 per room/yr
Assume 37% occupancy (25%-45% is typical) $6,500/seat 35%
= 132 attendees per seat/yr
At 17 per attendee = $2,300 per seat/yr
Entertainment (Concert) Center
Average use is 1 event per week filled to capacity $7,000/seat 7%
= 50 people per seat/yr
$10 per person = $500 per seat/yr
Golf (18 Holes)
27,000 rounds per yr (20,000 to 35,000 rounds typical) $14,000/space 4%
$20 per golfer ($10 to $30 is typical)
= $550,000 per course/yr
1. No consideration has been given for land cost. Project cost includes construction, FF&E,
architects and engineers fees.
2. No income for the facility operations is included. It is assumed that the facility runs at
3. Gaming revenues and project costs are averages; obviously, they will vary from case to case.
4. It is assumed here that additional net gaming revenue goes straight to the bottom line. It should
be recognized that at some point there would be added costs associated with the additional play.
5. Gaming income has been gathered from a variety of sources, put primarily from Klas Robinson.
6. Project cost estimates provided by Thalden Boyd Emery Architects and The Cumming Group.
Don’t Stop With Interior Design
Telling A Story
A transparent glass tower that reflects the ripples of Lake Michigan pierces the Milwaukee, Wisconsin skyline to welcome guests to the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.
“It’s a very exciting project from a design perspective,” says John Culligan, director of architectural operations for the Cuningham Group, designers of the new hotel in Milwaukee, which had its ribbon-cutting October 1.
The Forest County Potawatomi have an existing casino and events center downtown. The $150 million, 19-story Potawatomi Hotel adds 381 rooms, including 16 suites. The 3,000-square-foot presidential suite gives a tremendous view of downtown Milwaukee and Lake Michigan.
“The concept we follow in developing a design is that every building tells a story,” says Culligan. “We collaborate closely with our clients to tell their story insofar as their business culture and clientele.”
Yongkoo Lee, the project’s architectural designer, says, “We started with the client’s desire to create a modern and iconic hotel tower, which would represent the tribe to their city and state—something they could extend along the skyline. We tried to create a building that would tell the story. We created a transparent glass tower whose skin reflects the excitement of the city.”
They designed a torchiere symbolizing that the tribe is known as “Keeper of the Fire.” The slim tower is topped by a beacon 20 feet tall that illuminates in multi-colors, projects logos and can advertise special events. At the top, large letters spell Potawatomi.
Rising from the Menomonee Valley, an old industrial part of Milwaukee with few multi-story buildings, the tower is designed in a three-story podium. “From afar the roof flows into the casino,” says Lee. “You can see it for miles, and that builds excitement as you arrive.”
Clad in off-white metal panels, from a distance it looks like a light glass tower, although it is structurally strong. The off-white distinguishes it from the gray industrial valley. “It’s modern, it’s fresh, it’s excitement and entertainment,” Lee says. “It has an extensive presence on the skyline.
“We tried to replicate the design architecture of the casino, seamlessly creating the new building. You enter a whimsical porte cochere, which is an abstract form of an eagle about to take off.” Eagles are, of course, very potent symbols to almost all Indian tribes.
Interior designer Janet Whaley adds, “Our new tower promises the experience of excitement. The two-story lobby delivers on that promise. It’s a walk through a stylistic forest. A lot of inspiration came from their existing casino. We took that as a starting point and wanted to reference nature but in a modern and abstract way.”
Columns rendered as tall trees disappear into canopies covered in color-changing LEDs that create different moods. The walls have a modern interpretation in veneered woods. Adding to the “wow factor” is a large hand-painted glass mural of Lake Michigan behind the front desk, a single large piece of white stone.
Compared to other hotel suites, this one has full floor-to-ceiling windows with great views. While not the lap of luxury of the Presidential Suite they will, at very least, make you feel like royalty.
Owner: Forest County Potawatomi Tribe
Architect: Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
Contractor: Gilbane Building Co.
Total Investment: $150 million
Start with a century-old Iowa warehouse known for its weathered brick walls, commanding six-story clock tower (complete with roof battlements!) and stunning views of the wide Missouri. Add an iconic entertainment brand and a 50-foot electric guitar. What have you got? The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Sioux City.
Sioux City Entertainment invested more than $128 million to transform the former Battery Building into an integrated gaming resort with a 54-room boutique Hard Rock Hotel, indoor and outdoor concert venues, a bevy of restaurants, bars and retail shops, and of course, a Hard Rock Shop. The Lobby Bar is a statement unto itself: the three-story marvel, with a towering liquor display filled with hundreds of bottles, replaces the traditional reception area and offers a unique welcome to guests.
Then there’s the casino. The 50,000-square-foot gaming floor, with more than 800 slot machines and several dozen table games, sports a purple leopard-patterned carpet, decorative light fixtures bearing purple drumsticks, and the trademark oversized Hard Rock guitar. From every direction, guests can see iconic black-and-white images of their favorite rockers, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Billy Idol and Peter Frampton, and concert posters from bands like the Ramones, the Stones, Devo and the Cure. There’s plenty of rock memorabilia from stars like the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Kid Rock, and a stage costume once worn by Mick Jagger.
The rock ‘n’ roll theme continues at Anthem, an 800-seat concert hall with an old-style marquee at the entryway, and the World Tour Buffet, which includes a full wall of multicolored cassette tapes.
The 100,000-square-foot structure at Third and Water streets—a sterling example of Romanesque revival architecture—dates back to 1905. It opened in 1906 as a manufacturing plant for scissors and cutlery, and in the 1940s became a battery factory.
Throughout the redevelopment, working in concert with Sioux City Entertainment’s nonprofit partner, Missouri River Historical Development, architectural firm Friedmutter Group of Las Vegas was careful to maintain the original brick and much of the original timber, giving the Hard Rock an edgy, industrial look inside and out. Massive archways, where cargo trains once pulled into the warehouse, have been preserved. Vintage brick has been retained even in the guest rooms, all of which have views of downtown Sioux City or the Missouri River.
Not surprisingly, the resort was an immediate hit with the public, artistically and economically. More than 214,000 people visited the casino floor in the Hard Rock’s opening month and wagered nearly $7.2 million, getting the new destination off to a great start.
Operator: SCE Partners LLC, an affiliate of Warner Gaming
Architect/Interior Designer: Friedmutter Group
Investment: $130 million all-in / $48 million construction
The Philippine gaming market has been attracting much attention over the past year. With the opening of the Solaire in Manila’s “Entertainment City,” a four-resort complex on the shores of Manila Bay owned by PAGCOR, the Philippine casino operator/regulator, anticipation is building for the remaining three properties.
At the end of 2021, City of Dreams Manila is slated to open, operated by Melco Crown, which also owns the Macau casino resort of the same name. Like its Macau cousin, CoD Manila will host multiple hotels and other non-gaming amenities.
Included in Manila, as in Macau, will be a Crown Tower and a Hyatt. But CoD Manila also will feature the first Nobu Hotel in Asia. The partnership between Melco Crown and Nobu Hospitality includes the internationally renowned chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert DeNiro and Hollywood producer Meir Teper. The hotel will include a Nobu restaurant and offer a fusion of laid-back luxury, high-energy nightlife and exclusive guest room retreats and spa services.
Melco Crown has also struck a deal with the “King of Clubs,” Michael Van Cleef Ault, who will bring his nightclub brands Pangaea and Chaos to the CoD Manila. Both brands are known for hosting “A-List” celebrities and will transform Manila into a true nightclub haven in Asia.
Another first for CoD Manila will be the only DreamWorks “edutainment center,” a collaboration with DreamWorks Animation. An integrated space of live and digital play spaces, the center will stress learning through play.
“DreamPlay by DreamWorks” is a revolutionary approach to family entertainment. Each experience is designed exclusively for City of Dreams Manila by the artistic and creative forces of DreamWorks Animation and iP2 Entertainment to combine the best elements of the DreamWorks library with the hands-on activities of an education-inspired play center to create a truly one-of-a-kind family adventure. Children will interact with characters from DreamWorks Animation’s franchises including Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, Madagascar and How to Train Your Dragon.
The debut of City of Dreams Manila demonstrates how the Philippine market is growing. In addition to two more resorts scheduled to open at Entertainment City (Kazuo Okada’s Tiger Entertainment and a second Philippine resort owned by Genting/Travellers), Caesars Entertainment has proposed a $1 billion resort adjacent to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Owner: Belle Corp. Leisure and Resorts World Corp., and Melco Crown
Architect of Record: ASYA Design Partners
Contractor: Leighton Contractors (Philippines) Inc..
Investment: $1.3 billion
Heart of Glass
If necessity is the mother of invention, the people behind Hard Rock International’s new Platinum Tower, on the Gulf Coast of Biloxi, Mississippi, are the Edisons of architecture.
The resort started with a good problem: more demand for rooms than it could consistently handle. But the only land available for expansion was a narrow tract hugging the waterfront adjacent to the original Royal Hotel.
The design team turned that limitation into an asset with its innovative “svelte tower” approach. The $32 million, 12-story hotel, which opened in February, follows the curve of the coastline, frames the palm-fringed outdoor pool, and stands as a testament to the region’s recovery since Hurricane Katrina, when Mississippi’s former riverboat casinos first moved ashore.
The building’s horizontal banding complements that of the existing tower, and silver glazing inspired the “Platinum” brand.
The sleek design continues inside. The curvilinear guest rooms are contemporary but uber-comfy, with lighted zebra-wood wardrobes, built-in seating, plush wall-to-wall headboards, double vanities, custom furnishings and art, and contemporary accent lighting. Suites are outfitted with personal wet bars, and make abundant use of millwork on the walls and ceilings.
The room layouts turn tradition on its ear. “Because we had a very narrow site to work with, we rotated the rooms 90 degrees, so the longer dimensions are along the outside walls,” says Brad Schulz, vice president of architectural firm Bergman Walls & Associates of Las Vegas. “It’s one of the first times this has been done in the United States. It’s a very popular look, and it’s been well-received by the public.”
That skewed orientation continues in the baths. Dispensing with the box-within-a-box design that is typical of most hotel bathrooms, Bergman Walls pushed the baths to the outside walls. As a result, natural light floods in through banks of windows. “They have a provocative aspect to them,” observes Schulz. “If you don’t put the drapes or blinds down, it could get kind of interesting. But it’s sexy, and people are having fun with it.”
The baths are richly appointed; many have oversized showers and marble Australian soaking tubs fitted with multi-head rain-shower faucets.
Thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, the 140 guest rooms, first-floor Cabana Suites and penthouse-level Sky Suites are akin to glass houses, with panoramic views of the city, the Gulf, and that iconic, neon-lit Hard Rock guitar.
The style, like the brand, is playful, irreverent and hip. And of course, the resort is packed to the rafters with music memorabilia from superstar rockers: Gene Simmons, Buddy Guy, Sammy Hagar, Bret Michaels, Johnny Cash and many others.
Lucky guests can even get a glimpse of Elvis Presley’s pajamas, proving this place is really fit for a king.
Owner: Premier Entertainment Biloxi, LLC
Architect: Bergman Walls & Associates
Interior Designer: Tandem Interior Design Studio
Contractor: Roy Anderson Corp.
Total Investment: $32 million
Castle in Spain
Many contemporary office buildings look like monuments to conformity. In ages past, however, especially in the world’s great cities, architects built offices that were downright palatial.
Take the Academy of Commercial and Industrial Unions on Madrid’s Gran Via. Built in 1924, it has all the hallmarks of the neoclassical style: towering Greco-Roman columns, a dramatic domed roof, a marble grand staircase, and according to a history of the structure, “a succession of arches reminiscent of the Monterrey Palace in Salamanca.”
By the turn of the new millennium, the landmark building—by then an employment office—had seen better days. Thanks to a painstaking renovation, it’s enjoying new life as the Casino Gran Via. The resort is operated by the Comar Group, which owns 36 casinos and gaming halls around the world, including 10 in Spain.
It took a lot of work. “The building was run down, but we fell in love with it,” says Aleksey Belinskiy, studio leader at the Amsterdam office of Steelman Partners, architects for the project. “The attention to detail and the amount of craftsmanship that went into these buildings are just incredible.”
That includes a center atrium that soars up to a stained glass skylight. The skylight solved a problem for the architects, says Belinskiy: “Urban casinos are challenging to build, because they often end up on two to three levels. It’s hard to move people up and down, so the visual connection between various levels is critical.”
The skylight, by Parisian glassmaker Maumejean and original to the building, instantly draws the eye upward. And it’s especially striking at night. “We backlit it and frontlit it with a special LED mesh that creates almost an interactive video effect,” says Belinskiy. “It’s spectacular.”
Throughout the renovation, many elements of the 90-year-old building had to be brought up to code or otherwise restored. “The existing concrete slab would not support the required load, and most of the floors had to be restructured. Because of all the systems that go inside the ceiling cavities, it was pretty challenging to keep the ceilings high and also maintain some of the design elements we wanted. Much of the decorative trim and molding had to be replaced. It was really hands-on site administration.”
The work has paid off. The former municipal office building, set along one of Europe’s most famous thoroughfares, has become a world-class entertainment center “in the style of the grand palaces of Russia and Paris,” says Belinskiy.
The street level features a café, reception area, game room with 65 slot machines, and a cocktail bar and lounge. The mezzanine includes a baccarat room with an Asian motif; gaming tables with American roulette, blackjack and poker; a traditional Basque restaurant operated by Chef Jesús Santos; and a gourmet Champagnería.
On the third floor is the opulent ballroom, now a gaming floor lit by eight-foot chandeliers.
“It’s one of the most beautiful spaces in Europe,” says Belinskiy. “When we first walked into that room, I realized we had this absolute jewel in the middle of Gran Via, and nobody knew about it. We were excited to see it restored, not just for business reasons but from an architectural point of view. It felt right that we had a chance to give this building a new, re-energized look.”
Comar Group Director General Javier García says Casino Gran Via, which opened in December 2020, was built “with the aim of contributing to the revitalization of leisure and tourism in Madrid. The iconic building, the team of excellent professionals, the facilities and the exclusive design make the Casino Gran Via a leisure experience of reference in Europe.”
The old office building “was a great find,” says Belinskiy. “And it really is breathtaking.”
Owner: Comar Group
Project Design: Steelman Partners Europe
Area: 14,800 square feet
Investment: $18.8 million
The Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Buffalo, New York completed its final phase in August, a keystone in revitalizing Buffalo’s Inner Harbor area. Reviving this underused industrial property was a special interest for the Seneca Nation, which has historical ties to this land.
Paul Bell, project manager, and Nathan Peak, lead designer for Hnedak Bobo Group, say a critical design factor is that the casino is two blocks from Niagara Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
“We did master-plan studies with how it would work with that planned downtown district area,” Bell says. “Rather than enclosing it as an island, we wanted many access points to other businesses. Plugging into what was already there and what was already happening was pretty exciting.” They oriented the casino’s size, gaming, food and beverage to attract from the surrounding community and fuel Inner Harbor’s redevelopment.
The Seneca Nation wanted to create a world-class gaming destination to capture Buffalo’s regional gaming market. But that was only part of it.
“The corner of the building we dedicated to a park, where there is a small hill,” says Bell. “We carved through the middle of that hill, and set aside a quarter of the site to a park. We wanted to make the core large enough to accommodate art festivals and other multi-faceted events. There was a lot of commitment from the Seneca Nation to invest in a public-space area.”
“That created design challenges,” adds Peak. “We had a fixed site, and one block of downtown parking was not sufficient, so we had to have a parking garage (four levels with 725 spaces). We balanced that with the open space. It added a lot of breadth and decompression.”
The 64,000-square-foot, $130 million Buffalo Creek Casino has 808 slots, 18 table games, a high-limit slots area, the 24-seat BC Café, the 120-seat Buffalo Savors restaurant and the 50-seat Stixx Sports Bar, set in the center of the casino floor. A hockey theme dominates with a 360-degree sculpture of Baltic Birch plywood sticks representing abstract hockey sticks. Mirrors behind the bar are backlit to suggest ice. A lacrosse netting pattern is woven into the carpeting.
The project originated in 2008 on a much larger scale with an existing steel frame. “We designed the building reusing 90 percent of that steel,” says Bell. “That was a huge savings to the owner and a sustainable design approach. That should be of interest to anyone who has a similar situation.”
Working closely with the tribe, the team abstracted tribal elements and integrated them into the design. “We abstracted a single feather into a pylon,” says Peak. “The interstate is elevated, so passing motorists look down on the casino. That was a very important design element. The pylon is illuminated 70 feet tall from the base.”
Smaller pylons, one for each of the nation’s clans, light the Seneca Walk leading to the entrance. The casino’s interior design represents cultural elements, with a “Tree of Peace” drawing the eye to the center of the gaming floor.
Owner: The Seneca Nation
Architect: Hnedak Bobo Group
Contractor: Seneca Construction Management Corporation
Investment: $130 million
Celebrity Chef Rick Moonen made a huge splash in Las Vegas when he opened rm seafood in 2005, the rare seafood restaurant in Las Vegas that actually delivered fresh and sustainable fish and crustaceans. He has now created his Rx Boiler Room on the top floor of his existing rm seafood restaurant at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
This new restaurant is the chef’s “playhouse,” allowing guests to indulge in the chef’s alter ego. The interior celebrates the sub-genre associated with science fiction and inspired by industrialized Western civilization of the 19th century affectionately known as steampunk. From industrial hardware to swooping velveteen fabrics, the steampunk-inspired elements surrounding the dining experience evoke Moonen’s creative process of playful pairing, inventive illustration and culinary mixing.
The bar dazzles with its high energy amid a haphazard collection of tools and artifacts. It is a stage with mixologists performing their “magic.” Imagine Jules Verne using scrap materials to create wondrous machines of an imaginary future, and you’ll have an idea of what Moonen was dreaming when he conceived this concept.
The expert mixologists “perform” with a variety of appliances and unexpected materials, such as blocks of ice, to keep everyone guessing as to the next cocktail produced. The innovative operations take surgical skills to produce libations like none other.
Of course, the food is the star of the show, as Moonen puts a new take on “comfort food” served on large and small plates. Perfect for sharing, some of the menu items include brioche toast with tomato jam with bacon wrapped around a sunny-side-up quail egg, braised oxtail croquettes with a lemon aioli, a Greek-style lamb osso bucco, and a very playful calamari and meatballs in squid ink tomato sauce, all served in both the playfully lush dining rooms and at the interactively intimate bar.
Interior Designer: Cleo Design
Architect: Moser Architecture Studio
Design Director: Roni Fields Design
Contractor: Tré Builders
Take a pre-engineered metal building and bring the whole project to completion in a third of the budgeted time and half the cost—that’s a cause for celebration. But the Miami Valley Gaming Racetrack & Casino, developed on 130 acres in Lebanon, Ohio, while located in a simple square building, gives off vibes of something rich and exciting, but also comfortable, so that people are starting to identify it as their “hometown” casino.
The racino, owned by Delaware North Companies and Churchill Downs Inc., opened in December 2020. It offers harness racing with 1,600 video lottery terminals (VLTs) and no tables, with room for up to 2,800 VLTs. It is one of seven racinos in Ohio.
“The exciting thing about this project is that from approval to design to development took 13 months,” says Nick Schoenfeldt, vice president, principal and senior project manager for Thalden Boyd Emery Architects. “We built on a very tight budget and brought it in $6 million under budget.”
It is a simple building—a large square with appendages—but a lot has been done with it. Guests arrive in a grand lobby with split-face marble on the walls. Cars can be brought directly into the lobby for giveaways or display. Patrons are immediately immersed in an environment of richness. “Everything that people touch is real: marble, real stone, wood, and reclaimed barn wood in some of the restaurants,” Schoenfeldt says. “It’s become the place that people identify as their hometown casino.
“It wasn’t under-designed or over-designed,” he says. “People feel comfortable with it. It has the right mix of pattern and color and it feels cohesive.”
The interior and exterior lighting for this large atrium is provided by programmable color changing LEDs. This provides a lot of variation in the lighting and a lot of touch points. It brings the building to life at night. Video boards along walkways leading to the entrance inform guests what is going on inside.
The floor layout is very simple, creating a restaurant-row effect for the fine dining area, buffet area, sports bar, casual dining area and coffee bar. The gaming floor in the shape of an L allows for expansion.
Although many casinos are trending away from catering to smokers, the Miami was designed with an outdoor smoking area served by lottery terminals.
It came in under budget and way ahead of schedule because everybody worked from the same page. “All three of us, including the construction manager, worked with the goal of getting the property open,” says Schoenfeldt. “It was a synthesis of all of the groups. It was integrated project delivery without the contractual operations. We were all on the same page from the first moment.
“Bill Farish, chairman of Churchill Downs, has said, ‘Wow, this is our finest facility!’ That’s something we love to hear.”
The quest for non-gaming attractions in Las Vegas took a dramatic turn earlier this year with the opening of the Linq, a shopping and dining district nestled among several Caesars Entertainment hotels on the east side of the Strip capped off by the High Roller, the largest observation wheel in the world.
The Caesars Entertainment properties on the east side of the Strip—Harrah’s, Imperial Palace, Flamingo and Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall—were slated at one time for demolition, to be replaced by a CityCenter-like multi-use development. But when the recession hit Las Vegas hard, Caesars went back to the drawing board. The company wanted to attract more visitors to that side of the Strip, where 11 million pass by on an annual basis.
The decision to create the world’s largest observation wheel was a no-brainer, considering the success of such wheels in London, Singapore and elsewhere. The location was the only question, and when it was determined that the wheel would work best behind the existing hotels, a “link” to the Strip was needed and the “Linq” was born. To be built in an alleyway between the Imperial Palace and the Flamingo, the Linq was envisioned as an entertainment/shopping/dining center that would bring vitality and life to a previously dead area.
Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace was renovated and renamed the Quad, which was again changed to the Linq in October. The Flamingo was updated and renovated so that today, the shops and restaurants of the Linq serve the hotels on that side of the street. Also, the Cromwell replaced Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall, and is now viewed as a boutique hotel serving upper-end Caesars customers. The Cromwell also hosts Drai’s, the latest update of the original Las Vegas nightclub experience, on the roof of the property with a dramatic view of the Strip.
Jon Gray, the original general manager of the Linq, explains how this works:
“We were under-indexed in the Flamingo, the Quad (now the Linq hotel) and Cromwell in restaurants per room,” he says. “That was another reason we did the Linq. We were a great exporter to non-Caesars restaurants. But now with the Linq, it will satisfy that desire for more dining options.”
Entertainment was also a prime concern, and the addition of Brooklyn Bowl, a bowling alley/restaurant/bar, brings some top acts to the Linq. All of the shops, restaurants and hotels are joined together by Caesars’ state-of-the-art loyalty program.
“Total Rewards is totally integrated,” says Gray. “We’ve already been booking room packages with tickets to the High Roller and Brooklyn Bowl as part of the attraction. And this isn’t limited to Vegas. Our out-of-market properties are also fully invested in this effort. They’re very excited about using the wheel and the Linq to drive business to them.”
The Linq spans more than 300,000 square feet, and features more than 30 retail, dining, nightlife and entertainment venues (70 percent restaurants and bars, 30 percent retail and entertainment).
Architect of Record:
Design Architect: David Schwarz, David M. Schwarz Architects
Vortex Design Architect: Branislav Hetzel, Hetzel Design
Designer: The Hettema Group
General Contractor: W. A. Richardson Builders
Retail Advisor: Rick J. Caruso, Founder and CEO, Caruso Affiliated
Investment: $350 million
As Hard Rock’s 2019 Project Development Partner of the Year, SOSH Architects, in partnership with Richard L. Bowen and Associates, was chosen to design the entertainment company’s gaming property to be branded as the first-ever “rocksino.”
The 155,000-square-foot stand-alone facility was built adjacent to racetrack Northfield Park’s grandstand to expand guests’ entertainment options. Northfield Park offers more than 200 live harness racing dates every year.
Venues within the all-new Rocksino include a gaming floor boasting 2,300 slot machines, a 2,000-seat live music arena, a 200-seat buffet, steakhouse, bistro, promotions, bus and travel lounge and two player’s clubs. To convey Hard Rock’s rocksino image, SOSH incorporated timeless yet contemporary design elements for a Hard Rock Cafe and casino center bar, a high-limit slot room, and multiple outdoor gaming rooms and smoking areas.
The design of Hard Rock Rocksino is unique because the casino is located in the center with clear circulation around the perimeter, showcasing wall space for Hard Rock’s famous memorabilia as well as the restaurant, dining and entertainment areas.
Unique features of the property include articulating TVs and memorabilia cases that raise out of sight to provide a direct view of the Hard Rock stage during a band performance. Seven color-changing LED light fixtures created from millions of hand-applied crystal elements are programmed to lead the visitor from the entry to the Hard Rock Cafe. Black walnut live-edge wood planks hang overhead, welcoming visitors to Bernie Kosar’s Wood-Fired Grill.
True to Cleveland’s musical history as a birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, the Rocksino offers the legendary vibe of the Hard Rock brand, including more than 2,200 gaming devices, varied dining options and live music events. The Hard Rock Live music venue, the fifth of its kind, hosts sell-out crowds of more than 2,000 guests for live entertainment by renowned musicians, in addition to hosting guests for a variety of functions and banquets.
In addition, the Rocksino has a 300-seat live venue, The Club, featuring comedians and illusion acts that are also readily available for private parties and events.
The supporting areas use a color palette of rich neutral tones with accents of reds, ambers and merlots. Principal materials used include masonry, glass and metal panels on the exterior, and stacked reclaimed wood paneling, Nathan Allen art glass, Shimmer Screen metal beaded curtains, natural stone flooring and countertops, and custom-design wall covering in the interiors.
Owner: Brock Milstein (operated by Hard Rock International)
General Contractor: Gilbane Building Company and Adam Building Company
Interior/Design Architect: SOSH Architects
Architect of Record: Richard L. Bowen and Associates
Investment: $200 million
Station Casinos, which manages the operations at the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, California, has a signature design style for its upscale casinos in Las Vegas, using the natural elements of the surrounding environment. Red Rock Casino Resort reflects the rich earth tones and beauty of the nearby Red Rock State Park, and Green Valley Ranch on the east side of town has the suburban serenity and neighborhood welcoming atmosphere.
The Friedmutter Group of Las Vegas is the “go to” designer for Station, and was responsible for the natural incorporation of Graton into the nearby Sonoma wine country.
While there are many tribal casinos in California, there are none closer to the Bay Area, just 50 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. With this location and easy access off the freeway, Graton has been successful since the start. But it’s been the design that has pleased the crowds. The design was a result of a unique collaboration among Station Casinos, the Friedmutter Group and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, particularly its visionary chairman Greg Sarris.
The team decided to incorporate a “California casual elegance” theme, which included the resort’s natural surroundings. The exterior lines of Graton Casino Resort emulate the famous landscape and give the impression of the gentle foothills in the distance. The natural materials of the façade, including stone, aged dark woods and copper panels, are complemented with vertical gardens in living green walls, together creating a linear hillside.
Waterfalls that may appear through the hills are imagined in the water features framing the porte cochere, adding further depth and integration of nature. Hill formations frame the entries, creating a natural pathway into the property. The surrounding environment is well-represented with generous use of indigenous color and materials. California varietal flowers abound within stone and greenery, and, along with Sonoma’s beautiful scenery, provide bountiful inspiration, as Graton Casino Resort becomes a natural addition to the landscape.
The design includes warm modern lines, and vivid striking colors throughout the welcoming space, setting the tone and atmosphere of sophistication found throughout the Northern California region. The natural elements of the surrounding Sonoma County were the inspiration for the flowing ceiling elements (reminiscent of the rolling hills of wine country), and flowers in the carpet and terrazzo flooring were inspired by the many colorful floral varietals and botanicals found in the area.
Although the resort currently lacks a hotel, it makes up for it in non-gaming amenities like spectacular restaurants, including such Bay Area favorites as Tony’s of North Beach and Martin Yan’s M.Y. Noodles. The Marketplace includes eight eclectic choices from burgers to barbecue to pizza and ice cream. Three bars and lounges and an event center round out the offerings.
The gaming is, of course, the centerpiece of the property, with 131 table games and more than 3,000 slot machines scattered over more than 300,000 square feet.
Owner: The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria
Operator: Station Casinos
Architect: The Friedmutter Group
Investment: $820 million
Loving the Lobby
Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City sought to modify some of its nightlife attractions and offer guests a more subdued option to its high-energy nightclubs. SOSH Architects, the Atlantic City-based architecture and interior design firm, was brought in to create a new lounge and lobby bar adjacent to Harrah’s guest check-in and VIP registration areas.
“SOSH was tasked to create a traditional whiskey bar with a twist of the unexpected, to capitalize on the synergy of this location and to help welcome guests while they check into the property,” says Michael Mangini, the firm’s director of interior design. “This location is the epicenter of everything that is about to happen with the guest experience.”
The high-profile lobby bar seats 12 with an additional 2,000 square feet of lounge area. It opened in November. The team created a traditional space with library-like detailing, while incorporating a modern twist in lighting and artwork. The overall space creates a relaxing, comfortable environment, while incorporating impact pieces designed to spark conversation between patrons.
Some of the highlights?
“Interior detailing using library-like millwork throughout while incorporating a modern approach to lighting 500 bottles of rare and unique whiskeys from around the world,” says Mangini.
“The whiskey is both front-lit and back-illuminated to create an atmosphere of intimacy utilizing acrylic ghosted panels behind the liquor bottles. This juxtaposition is again interpreted using traditional furnishing but upholstered in an unconventional way.
“Some of the artwork subject matter uses x-ray images of common architectural and personal objects to help emphasize that they are familiar and yet unique and unexpected. It is seeing something common, but in a new light to spark conversation and dialogue.”
Other features include 40 faux tortoise shells of various shapes and sizes adorning the walls, and velvet drapery surrounding traditional millwork detailing of the walls.
“A few key elements were custom-designed to help relate both to the traditional architectural detailing and also the modern era in a post-industrial manner,” Mangini says.
“The use of custom copper metal panels riveted to the bar die wall and a custom-designed black iron foot rest that was inspired from a single railway track is raised and bolted to the Baltic gray marble floor tile, which is laid in a herringbone pattern.
“A solid four-inch-thick Peruvian walnut bar top was designed to evoke the warm feeling of a whiskey bar from long ago. Some of the more contemporary detailing was used, such as a modern approach to display the amber alcohol of the bottles. There are three custom-designed glass display boxes suspended overhead at the entrance into the bar.
“This design element celebrates the whiskey bar by proudly displaying its offerings and also acts as a casino identifier inviting the visitor into the space.”
The new SLS Las Vegas promises to bring new glitz and glamour to Las Vegas. Its nightclub scene and unique hospitality business are expected to break new ground on the northern end of the Strip. But the SLS is a true reflection of the hotel it replaced, within the same core structure: the Sahara.
It was one of the seminal casinos in Las Vegas—one that they actually named major roads after. The Sahara was the sixth resort to open on the Las Vegas Strip when it debuted in 1952 under the ownership of Milton Prell, replacing Club Bingo, which opened in 1947. It was built by Del Webb, who later bought it from Prell. The Strip’s first high-rise tower was built adjacent to the Sahara in 1959 and a second 24-story tower was added in 1963, the tallest building in Las Vegas at the time.
From the beginning, the Sahara was all about entertainment. In 1956, the first casino lounge on the Strip opened at the Sahara bringing together legendary performers, jazz musician Louis Prima, singer Keely Smith and sax player Sam Butera. Quickly they became the hottest act in Vegas, and guests flocked to the Sahara to see them.
Later, dozens of renowned performers appeared at the Sahara. Just a short list includes such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Lena Horne, Jack Benny, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, George Carlin, Liza Minnelli, Johnny Carson, Buddy Hackett, Helen O'Connell, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Kay Starr, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Don Rickles, Sonny & Cher and many others. In 1964 the Beatles stayed at the Sahara while performing for two nights at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
In the early 1980s, Del Webb sold out to the Archon Corp., operated by longtime gaming executive Paul Lowden. Archon sold the Sahara three years later to another Las Vegas legend, Bill Bennett, one of the founders of Circus Circus. Bennett added a 27-story tower in 1987, and a new porte cochere and pool area in ’97. He owned the property until his death in 2002.
Toward the end of its life, ownership tried several things, including a roller coaster—Speed, the Ride—which made a trip around several loops in front of the hotel, and later a NASCAR Café, which failed to garner much attention.
When sbe Entertainment CEO and founder Sam Nazarian bought the hotel in 2007, he planned to raze most of it and start from scratch. But the economic recession intervened and made the original buildings of the Sahara something of a rarity: a survivor.
SLS Las Vegas includes many tributes to the Sahara if you look closely enough, including the Congo Room, the hotel’s main ballroom that retained its original name, as well as iconic photographs of the place in its glory days.