A year ago, I squabbled with a Vegas friend who had been hired to shoot publicity photos at the soon-to-open SLS on the Strip. I baffled over why the hip set would go there given its remote location and all the overstocked competition. “What they are doing there is completely different,” the photog said, parroting the press releases. “It’s revolutionary! It’s really hard to explain.”
I doubted that, and I was right. I swooped into Las Vegas for the first time since SLS opened last week, and my reaction was as I predicted: It’s very nice. It’s also the same as most other casinos. Short of handing out $100 bills to everyone walking in, there’s nothing “completely different” a casino owner can offer.
However, my journey inside SLS was still a unique experience. Before my friend Amy and I ran in to get an Umami Burger and place some Super Bowl wagers, I had not read a single digital inch of the hype or the media reaction to its Labor Day debut. I was blissfully unaware that impresario Sam Nazarian had stepped away from operations and that the place was being likened to Atlantic City’s high-profile flop Revel.
This was new for me, after more than a decade as a member of the Vegas media. In those days, my pre-opening ritual included personal preview walkabouts, often with the CEO, during which everyone from the architect to the horticulturalist was trotted out to explain “design choices.” These tours usually included samples of the culinary wares, and entertainers of relevance would genuflect, too.
I’m not slamming this approach. These businesses wanted publicity and, to their credit, never limited the scope of my questions and rarely punished me for negative reviews. The public devours the vicarious experience and wants journalists to be knowledgeable about the trivia of a place. Hopefully everyone—including the reader—is aware that the reporter’s experience isn’t the same as that of the average chump actually spending money, and I always tried to make sure that was clear.
But I live elsewhere now, and my membership has been revoked. Vegas no longer keeps me in the loop, and I no longer feel obligated to know every wrinkle of who comes and goes or what thread-counts the latest room redesigns have deployed. Thus, I walked into SLS as most people do, knowing little about its backstory, the company’s earnings or the media scuttlebutt.
The only bit of hype ringing in my ears was that of my photog friend. I didn’t go to Life to hear how it’s any different than other clubs, and I didn’t sneak up to the rooms, which look from online photos like typical modernist Vegas fare. No, I did what the folks do. I went in, ate dinner at a burger joint, placed some bets, looked around for my favorite slot machine—multi-hand blackjack, which I could not find—and left. I was amused by the amoeba-shaped statue in the porte-cochère that reminded me of a Yo Gabba Gabba! creature, and I marveled at the LED fixture above the center bar, which was pretty and unusual.
So, like I said: It’s nice. It’s better than the dying Sahara, but so are the bathrooms at the Riviera, so whatever. The burgers were delicious and, as Strip fare goes, reasonably priced ($12-$15). The sports book staffers were by far the kindest and most patient I’ve encountered in Vegas as we confronted the anxiety-inducing experience of placing wagers at the counter. Everything was clean and pleasant, a fine first impression.
Yet it felt obvious that none of that was enough. The place feels quieter than a Wednesday afternoon at church, although perhaps mid-week at dinnertime isn’t the fairest for taking SLS’ temperature. I might lodge there if I had something to attend at the Las Vegas Convention Center, because of the monorail, but that’s not the stated core market. This place’s success requires a certain hipster demographic to spend dough there.
Completely different? Revolutionary? Hard to explain? No, no and no. Happily for Vegas, none of that is Vegas’ problem. Someone plunged $400 million into the economy to rehab a decrepit lot, and that’s always a good thing. The place inevitably will change hands, and the next owner should turn a profit with cheaper rooms and attractions. It might even give the monorail ridership a boost as a cost-effective destination for conventioneers.
Not every Vegas bet pans out. As Steve Wynn once told me, if it were that easy, everyone would do it. But sometimes even when the house loses, the neighborhood wins.