Years from now, when the Strip is once again freckled with new casinos, resorts and attractions helping bring Las Vegas back to vibrant, thriving glory, we might look back at 2014 as the year the momentum began to build again, when the snowball started its downhill plunge.
Mandalay Bay, Venetian and Paris all opened in 1999. Think about the hugeness of that—more than 10,000 hotel rooms coming online in seven months. Six years earlier, Luxor, Treasure Island and MGM Grand opened in the last quarter of 1993.
Those were big years. No one would claim 2014 will have anywhere near the impact of those periods, but there were significant events this year that will pave the way for the next wave of development on the Strip, the still-pumping heart of Las Vegas.
In March, the High Roller observation wheel opened, hoisting humans 550 feet into the air for interesting new views. April ushered in the Cromwell, a boutique-style renovation of the former Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Barbary Coast. Both projects are owned and operated by Caesars Entertainment. Then in August, another wholesale casino revamp debuted when the once-iconic Sahara was reborn as SLS, compliments of SBE Entertainment Group. Finally, in September, the Morgans Hotel Group’s Delano brand took hold of the golden tower formerly known as TheHotel at Mandalay Bay.
Though none of these four developments equates to a bona fide brand-new casino opening—traditionally, it’s the only thing that can generate more than a few weeks or months of hype on the fast-paced Strip—each had a significant impact:
• The High Roller instantly changed the Strip skyline forever, and it serves as the anchor for Linq Promenade, an energetic pedestrian thoroughfare laced with restaurants, bars and stores leading from Las Vegas Boulevard to the big wheel. The Linq generated enough heat to prompt Caesars to simply rename the renovated adjoining casino and hotel. It was the Quad, now it’s the Linq, too.
• The Cromwell refreshed a property badly in need of a makeover, but most importantly, it’s headquarters for two game-changers in nightlife and dining, respectively—Drai’s Beach Club and Nightclub and Giada. Both were among the absolute hottest Strip destinations in 2014.
• SLS also put a healthy dent in the nightlife and dining scenes, but its opening was most relevant for geographical purposes. Nothing has happened on the northern end of the Strip for so long, everyone forgot about it. SLS made a Sexy Little Shockwave, one that will reverberate as other mega-projects are in the works nearby.
It also brought a new casino operator to the Strip in SBE, although some are questioning how influential Sam Nazarian’s brand will be on the future of the property in light of recent troubles. Nazarian has stepped down as the resort’s chief executive after the Nevada Gaming Commission approved only a limited gaming license for the 39-year-old CEO. The Los Angeles Times reported that although Nazarian, who admitted to paying millions in extortion money to a convicted felon and to using cocaine earlier this year during recent commission hearings, is stepping away from his hospitality empire to deal with an addiction to alcohol, SBE’s ambitions in Vegas and beyond will continue as planned. Don’t expect any major changes at SLS, where major stakeholder Stockbridge Capital and new president Scott Kreeger will call the shots, and don’t count out Nazarian.
• Delano brought a proven, hip hotel brand to Vegas, but its grade is incomplete. The hotel-within-a-hotel still needs to complete its lineup with a private pool club and a revamped 64th-floor restaurant from culinary legend Alain Ducasse.
I don’t gamble, but here’s my bet: The Linq goes down as the biggest thing to happen on the Strip this year. Caesars made something out of nothing by carving out an exciting, comfortable, diverse Vegas experience from what was an alley between two old casinos. It’s stocked with good food and booze and popular retail, and its massive Brooklyn Bowl has already become a go-to multipurpose fun spot for locals and savvy frequent visitors.
More than anything else that happened this year, the Linq—the promenade and the casino, and the packaging of those elements together—sets the tone for what’s to come. In 2015 we’ll see similar, if scaled back, developments in front of Bally’s and Treasure Island, and after that, MGM’s arena-adjacent Park project will try to make us forget about the Linq altogether. This particular snowball will be big and fast by then, but this was the year it began.