The invention of Las Vegas—first as destination, then as a thriving city—happened gradually over decades.
There was no single development that made Vegas. Historians might point to the opening of the Flamingo in 1946 as the spark for the modern Strip, or to the 1989 arrival of the Mirage, the first Vegas megaresort. Those were monumental years for boosting tourism, the lifeblood of Southern Nevada.
Then, the booming ’90s brought serious volume. Three mammoth casino developments that still stand tall today all opened in the final quarter of 1993: Luxor, Treasure Island and MGM Grand. In 1999, the Strip added more than 10,000 hotel rooms thanks to the openings of Mandalay Bay, Venetian and Paris Las Vegas.
Times have changed. The traditional tourism spike of a new casino on the Boulevard is no longer the norm, as Vegas hospitality giants focus on non-gaming entertainment to attract new and returning visitors. The most recent ground-up project to make a noticeable impact wasn’t the Cosmopolitan in 2010, but two years ago, when T-Mobile Arena opened its doors.
Las Vegas continues to diversify. That’s why 2020 could go down as the biggest yet for the Strip and its ongoing evolution as a world leader in hospitality, entertainment and events. That’s the year six major projects, all in the works, are all scheduled to open for business:
• The 65,000-seat Las Vegas Stadium, the new home of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, now under construction at Russell Road and Polaris Avenue.
• The Las Vegas Convention Center District expansion, 1.4 million square feet which includes 600,000 square feet of new exhibit and meeting space where the Riviera once stood.
• The Drew, a resort development of nearly 4,000 rooms by Marriott International and Steve Witkoff at the dormant Fontainebleau site on the north Strip.
• MSG Sphere, an 18,000-seat arena touting groundbreaking technology, to be built by the Madison Square Garden Company just east of the Sands Expo & Convention Center.
• Wynn Las Vegas’ 25-acre lagoon attraction—to include a state-of-the-art, 280,000-square-foot luxury meeting and convention development—on the site of the former golf course.
• Resorts World Las Vegas, the Genting Group’s 3,400-room, Asian-themed casino resort at the site of the former Stardust.
“If you look at the late ’90s and early 2000s, Las Vegas was remarkably productive in building some of the biggest hotels on the planet. When the recession hit, it sort of shifted the reason to build,” says Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst with Applied Analysis, which serves as staff for the Stadium Authority. “Now in 2020 it’s not only additional hotel rooms, but additional convention space and the development of the stadium project, and there’s no doubt this is a reflection of what Las Vegas has become as a multifaceted entertainment industry.
“When you see cranes at the stadium site and the Genting site driving along I-15, that is pretty symbolic of what we have become as an economy. The magnitude of those and other projects reflects not only a commitment to this community, but a belief that we still have some growing to do.”
The six developments might be the highest profile happenings around the Strip, but they’re far from the only projects in the pipeline for Las Vegas in 2020 and beyond. Several hotels around the Valley have planned room renovations, facilities like the World Market Center and The Linq are expanding convention spaces and at least one more ground-up casino resort will be built Downtown. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority’s tourism construction bulletin lists some astonishing numbers for projects scheduled to open in 2020 and beyond: nearly $16 billion in construction costs and the addition of more than three million square feet in convention space and more than 14,000 hotel rooms.
“It definitely has the potential to be one of the [biggest years] if everything gets built,” says David Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. “It’s a question of broadening what people can do in Las Vegas, which has always been the story.”
Schwartz says that anything that gets built on the Strip, including integrated resort plans like Resorts World and the Drew, will be multi-use. He points to the MSG Sphere as an example of an entertainment venue that will host corporate events as well as concerts and performances.
“I think the Sphere is really interesting, because it seems to be something new not just to Las Vegas but new to the world,” he says. “It’s interesting they are unveiling this non-gaming innovation in Las Vegas, and it really speaks to where Las Vegas is as a tourist destination.”
The Sphere isn’t the only first-of-its-kind project coming in 2020. The lagoon attraction—officially unnamed but referred to as Wynn Park—will be lined by a winding boardwalk and will feature recreational daytime activities and nightly entertainment, seen by some as a return to the whimsical developments of past Strip eras when erupting volcanoes and pirate battles dotted the landscape. (It’s worth mentioning that Wynn Resorts also has acquired the land at the former Frontier site across Las Vegas Boulevard, though there are no immediate plans to develop there.)
It’s easy to get excited about the $1.8 billion stadium just across I-15 from the south Strip, expected to house many monumental events in the coming years beyond NFL games. There’s already talk of Las Vegas potentially hosting the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four and concert tours that can’t be accommodated at T-Mobile Arena. But it’s difficult to choose one of these projects as the key ingredient in the recipe for 2020.
“Las Vegas is not one thing,” Aguero says. “The construction of the stadium absent additional hotel rooms could lead to a situation where growth could be limited. The construction of the convention center [expansion] absent the transportation investments would lead to decreased productivity and a lower quality visitor experience, which is required for us to deliver on the Las Vegas brand. So I hesitate to say one is more important than the other. All those things coming together is what makes the economic magic of Las Vegas.”
With the exception of the stadium, the 2020 projects are all located near the northern end of the Strip, the portion of the tourism corridor that has struggled most in recent years. Observers figured the long-gestating construction of Resorts World would rejuvenate the area, but now, with the frozen Fontainebleau site coming back to life as the Drew and the Convention Center District set to power adjacent developments and fill up hotel rooms with business travelers, the north Strip couldn’t be more promising.
“Obviously we’re bullish on Las Vegas’ future and what we’ll be able to do,” says Ed Farrell, president of Resorts World Las Vegas, which is targeting an opening in late 2020. “Even as gambling has dropped off, Vegas has continued to reinvent itself, and we see the resiliency in the market. By the time we open, we’ll be the first [big] new room inventory in a decade, and we’re happy about the other hotels coming up behind us, but we think we’ll be the first one and that will give us a nice advantage.”
Resorts World has another advantage—space. Resort sites like the Drew and the Cosmopolitan are smaller and necessitate vertical building. Resorts World has around 90 acres, providing room to develop additional amenities and hotel product well beyond 2020. It will be a true megaresort in the grand Strip tradition.
Perhaps the combination of these projects will disassemble another Vegas tradition: skepticism from outsiders. From Caesars Palace to the Mirage to the MGM Grand to Bellagio, the success of massive Strip developments has always been met with doubt by economists, analysts and others. Maybe 2020 is the year Las Vegas puts that pessimism to rest.
“Everyone has underestimated Las Vegas, and time and time again Las Vegas has proven itself to be both resourceful and resilient,” Aguero says. “Are there still those people who want to believe Las Vegas’ best days are behind it? Sure. But this level of investment shows an attitude different from that. Even if someone looks at Resorts World and says we don’t need another hotel in Las Vegas, the reality is if it’s marketed and positioned properly it will be competitive, and some older property will be less competitive, and that’s the cycle continued. That’s the elegance of our economy.”