Hanging on the wall of Sam Nazarian’s office at SLS Las Vegas is a hastily conceived diagram of a Las Vegas casino floor. The drawing is framed and positioned nondescriptly, just off to the left as you enter. You see it only if you are seated on the sofas near Nazarian’s desk, at the nerve center of the new casino-resort.
This simplistic sketch seems to have been drawn on a very large cocktail napkin, and would not be fit for framing but for the artist—Philippe Starck—and what it represents: The first concept of the SLS Las Vegas, which will open this Friday at midnight.
“It’s for posterity,” Nazarian says, smiling at the drawing in black ink on white drafting paper. “We’ve gone through several versions since then, about 200 times over. That sketch is actually the first one Starck made, in about 2007. He did it in my conference room in LA, very informal, but that is his genius. It’s the start of what we have now.”
Nazarian’s Las Vegas headquarters have since been built into that design. His life, too, is centered in Las Vegas. Nazarian’s primary residence since the summer of 2012 is an estate in Summerlin (he’s trying to sell his secondary residence at Park Towers, if you’re interested), and he’s known to frequent Piero’s, a haven for old-Vegas characters and characteristics.
Most notably, Nazarian’s company, SBE, has taken stewardship of one of the city’s most iconic brands and symbols. For nearly 50 years the Sahara was one of the Strip’s most famous hotel-casinos, the unofficial northern tip and a reference to Las Vegas’ Golden Era of resort development.
Nazarian bought the Sahara in 2007. Today, some elements of the property remain at the new SLS, where Nazarian has a design effect that he calls “Sahara-esque.” He has saved 50 or so S-shaped door handles from the old resort and turned them into a chandelier. And, if you look along the carpet, amid the photos by Nazarian favorite Terry O’Neill, you’ll see images of the old property during its heyday.
When Nazarian closed the Sahara’s doors in May 2011, he left the neighborhood temporarily dark. Today, he sees himself as an agent of revitalization. An ambassador, if you will.
“I call myself the Self-Imposed Ambassador of the North End,” he says, as if trying out a moniker that might or might not stick.
It’s a big term, isn’t it?
“It might be,” he says, chuckling. “It really was five or six years ago, when people were just trying to stay alive in Vegas. But maybe not now.”
Maybe not. Besides, ambassadorship has always suited the well-suited entrepreneur.
Ambassador of the Family
Nazarian is tall and even a bit imposing—6-foot-4, often donning black suits and wearing his hair tightly cropped. He turned 39 on July 22. He’s a jet-setter, an entrepreneur, a rich young guy.
His American success story is actually seeded in his family’s home country of Iran, where his father was a member of the military police, and as a teenager fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
“They were born in the Jewish ghettos, had nothing, their father died and they escaped to Israel, where they got their education and training. Their first home was three walls with no roof,” Nazarian says. “They left [Iran], him and my uncle, when they were 16 and 17 and smuggled themselves out of Iran through Israel, and then through Iraq.”
Nazarian’s father, Younes, started a manufacturing company, which was eventually seized by henchmen from Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. The family fled to LA in the influx of Iranian Jews that settled in the region after Khomeini took over Iran in 1979.
In the U.S., the Nazarian family was not well-off by anyone’s standards. They lived in a residential motel for a time, and gradually they were able to rebuild their lives and a small empire. They invested in a manufacturing plant that sold parts and equipment to Caterpillar tractors, and the family also invested in a small tech company. Soon that company would merge with another corporation, changing the Nazarians’ fortunes forever.
“It was called Qualcomm,” Nazarian says. The company wound up making the family more than $1 billion.
“I think really, the reason we have had success as a family is the endurance my father had in his life,” Nazarian says. “There were a lot of families that came from wealth to America and lost everything, and they could never let it go. But I never remember hearing anything like that at the dinner table.”
Nazarian has frequently put himself at the front of SBE, a worldwide hospitality company that has more than 40 nightclubs, restaurants and related projects, including the swanky SLS Beverly Hills, SLS South Beach and Redbury hotels in South Beach and Hollywood. Nazarian has been featured on MTV’s The Hills—where he was for a time Heidi Montag’s boss (with predictable results)—and, along with his LA nightclubs, on the HBO series Entourage.
Historically, Las Vegas is a city where putting a face and a story to a resort operation can help engender its identity. It’s strategy that dates to the days of Sam Boyd and Jackie Gaughan, and has carried through to Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson and many aspiring operators who have put themselves at the front of the business to generate buzz.
Still, Nazarian is unsure how far to carry his personal equity.
“Initially, it was a lot about me, when I first started the company,” he says. “But as opposed to some of these amazing people who have come before me, I’ve got a different story. Steve Wynn was in gaming, with the Golden Nugget and then the Mirage and Treasure Island. Obviously Sheldon came in with Comdex. They have personalities, and I think there is a value in a personality ... There is a value in having an association with a story of a brand. I believe that. The way I run my business is a little different, though. I do delegate out, and you have to deliver from the property level, at the end of the day, and not just from the brand-recognition level. That is really what we are trying to achieve here at SLS.”
Ambassador of the Neighborhood
For days the Stratosphere has beamed a “Welcome to the North Strip SLS” message from its towering marquee facing south along Las Vegas Boulevard.
No ambiguity there. Of all the variations of the acronym “SLS” being generated by the resort, “Stratosphere Loves Sam” has to be high on the list.
“We’ve definitely looked forward to it as a super-positive development,” Stratosphere General Manager Paul Hobson says. “Ever since the Sahara closed, we have seen a drop-off from walk-in traffic. People need a reason to come to the north end of the Strip, and we have known this for a long time.”
On the very day his company finished the purchase of LVH, Westgate Resorts CEO David Siegel said, “We think we are in a perfect position for the next several years of development in Las Vegas, and that is largely because of the opening of the SLS. Things are starting to move to the north end of the Strip.”
Take a drive along Las Vegas Boulevard from Sahara toward Spring Mountain Road. To the east is the budding SLS Las Vegas and its gleaming LED marquee. To the west is the site of what will eventually serve as the City of Rock, the permanent festival parcel being built by MGM Resorts that opens in 2015. Just to the south, an 87-acre lot promises Genting Group’s $4 billion Resorts World Las Vegas, which will likely begin construction this fall and be finished over four phases in the next 24 to 36 months.
Across the street is the towering eyesore that was to be Fontainebleau, leading to the Riviera and Wynn/Encore, which have essentially served as the northernmost point of the Strip since the Sahara closed.
The trek from, say, the Riviera to the new SLS Las Vegas is still something of a stretch, but Nazarian summons his mental map to suggest otherwise.
“If you go from the front door of the SLS Las Vegas to Wynn Las Vegas, it’s a shorter distance than going from there to Harmon on Las Vegas Boulevard,” he says. “It’s a matter of just opening the doors. We’re right next to the [Las Vegas] Convention Center, and we have our own Monorail station.”
Longtime Las Vegans may raise an eyebrow when SLS execs, including Nazarian and hotel president and COO Rob Oseland, point to the Las Vegas Monorail as a way to build clientele. But perhaps the Monorail can play a role in delivering tourists (and locals, for that matter) from properties all along the Strip to SLS.
The goal is to have a 60-40 or 65-35 split between tourists and locals, says Oseland, formerly a top executive at the Wynn.
“This type of transportation is really important to me,” Nazarian says. “We’ll have packages that will come pre-paid with passes to the Monorail. Fifty percent of the business in this market is Monday through Thursday convention business, citywide. We are kind of a champion among champions for the Monorail, and it will give people another way to reach us. I don’t think we’ll have a problem filling the place up, I really don’t.”
Nazarian pauses, as if to let that point take hold.
“I think locals will really get what we are about,” he finally says. “We are here. I live here. And we are in Las Vegas to move the meter in Las Vegas.”
Ambassador of Service
Who is the SLS for? Nazarian notes the 5 million names in the company’s database average age 38, people who travel and are smart and sophisticated about how they spend their discretionary income.
“This is the trend of traveler coming to Las Vegas today, and that is right in our demographic,” he says.
He also trumpets “the Code,” the $7 million SLS rewards program that focuses on predicting what guests will want and builds loyalty through access rather than discounting.
Moreover, SLS is positioning itself as something of a luxury brand with built-in value. Rather than accumulating points on a card to earn a discount at the buffet, Nazarian says the value for anyone entering SLS is already established.
“We are not overloading our restaurants with $150 check averages,” Nazarian says. “My favorite restaurant is Milos [at Cosmopolitan]. … But if you go to Milos, or any of the places on that floor at Cosmopolitan—Scarpetta or STK or even Blue Ribbon—you’re not getting out of there without a $120 to $150 check. You can’t expect to spend that three times a week, in Las Vegas, I’m sorry. And the only restaurant that we have at SLS that has an average $100 check is Bazaar Meat by José Andrés.”
Restaurants like the Griddle, Umami Burger and 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza are more likely to appeal to repeat visitors who live in Las Vegas.
“You can come into a space that opens to the casino or opens to the Strip, like the beer garden, walk in after work and grab a beer for $6,” Nazarian says. “The Griddle is just the second Griddle open anywhere, and it took us seven years to convince the owners to open a second Griddle. They opened it here because they are confident of succeeding here.”
Nazarian is also proud of the partnership with Fred Segal, which will be segmented into seven separate boutique outlets spread around the SLS.
Nazarian thinks back to a now-defunct project from about a decade ago. “Remember when the W was going up on Harmon Avenue? Their advertising was W Las Vegas on half the sign, Fred Segal on the other. We are selling what works and what people want that is not yet here.”
The Ambassador of Perseverance
When Nazarian took over the Sahara in 2007, there was no such brand as SLS. That would come later, with the opening of the first hotel in Beverly Hills in 2008.
Meanwhile, the Sahara was staggering in the months before it closed in ’11. Did Nazarian ever consider simply walking away? No one with access to a simple calculator would have blamed him ...
“I never considered it,” he says, cocking his head in slight defiance. “The idea, I don’t think, ever hit my head, not ever. I can tell you that I was advised by almost everybody in my life to walk away from it, but I would not.”
He mentions again his father’s doggedness, and that no one in his family had any background in hospitality when he began opening nightclubs under the SBE brand more than 10 years ago. Nazarian brought that same determination to the Sahara.
“I was personally invested in making this work,” he says. “I ran that place for four-and-a-half years when it was the Sahara, home of the 6-pound burrito at NASCAR Cafe (laughs). I knew how special and unique this place was. I knew that this box worked for what I thought Las Vegas was missing, and that idea never left me.”
And the man who owns that box, the old Sahara and the new SLS Las Vegas, sets up for the big finish.
“Two years ago, when you told people you own the Sahara, you became the butt of every joke in the room when you walked away,” he says. “A year ago, when we were in construction, the expectation was very low. Maybe we’ll open, but don’t expect much.”
Now, he says …
“The expectations are very high, super-high, and that’s what scares me.”
Then the man in black stands and says, “I don’t mind that. I think people deserve, especially in this city, a new resort. We’re here to deliver it.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the location of the upcoming Resorts World Las Vegas. It will be just south of Sahara on the west side of the Strip.