Sam Nazarian’s big gamble had all the makings of a great Vegas story. When his hospitality company SBE opened SLS at the site of the former Sahara a year ago, it seemed certain Nazarian would join the pantheon of outsize personalities who’ve operated casinos on the Strip. His family’s success story is the stuff of legend; they gave up everything leaving Iran for LA and slowly built a new life, until a tech company they’d invested in merged with Qualcomm and made them a billion dollars.
No one in his family had any hospitality experience when Nazarian entered the nightlife world. He once told The New Yorker his favorite hobby as a child was ironing dollar bills. He made TV cameos as himself and was a partner in Element Films, and he holds executive producer credits on films like Waiting, Pride and Mr. Brooks. Before he moved into a Summerlin mansion in 2012, his primary LA residence was a $12 million spot off Mulholland Drive previously owned by Jennifer Lopez.
Nazarian bought the Sahara in 2007 and closed it in 2011, sticking a hand-written note to the glass doors that read, “Be back soon!” There was little faith he could turn the property into what he was planning, an edgy resort that would attract the type of visitor who frequented his LA clubs, hotels and restaurants—the “curious class” cultivated by the Cosmopolitan. But the support was overwhelming when SLS opened, with Nazarian titling himself “The Self-Imposed Ambassador of the North End” of the Strip and receiving a standing ovation at an opening press conference. He called Las Vegas home. He said he received emails from Steve Wynn and Jim Murren rooting him on.
“We’re not here to build a hotel and move on,” he said. But that is what Nazarian has done. He sold his Summerlin home, and he’s selling his stake in SLS to Stockbridge Capital Partners, the San Francisco group that already owned 90 percent of the property. SBE’s agreement with the resort transitions to a licensing deal, so everything continues operating unchanged, for now. If Nazarian’s style and personality were big parts of SLS, they’re still there ... on paper.
Whether Stockbridge holds on or looks for a buyer, another rebranding likely awaits, and it makes the most sense to return to the Sahara name somehow. What about Sam? He might not be done in Vegas. SBE has other venues on the Strip, like Hyde Bellagio and Monte Carlo’s Double Barrel Roadhouse, and The Wall Street Journal reports a merger is being discussed with Morgans Hotel Group that could create a publicly traded company to manage hotels in major cities like Las Vegas, with Nazarian as CEO. Good or bad, maybe one turn deserves another.