Harnessing the glitz and glory of Downtown Las Vegas

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Derek Stevens, CEO of Circa Resort & Casino, is fresh off building the first casino in Downtown Las Vegas in the last four decades. The casino has been a resounding success, winning North American Property of the Year at the Global Gaming Awards Las Vegas 2021. Now it is time for him to get down to what he loves: operating. Stevens took time out of his day to speak with Gaming America about the creation and execution of his marquee project.

Coming from Michigan, what led you to seek your fortune in Las Vegas?

I had a business in Michigan and moved an investment portfolio to Vegas in 2006. The fact that there’s no income tax in Nevada might have had something to do with it! But, in reality, I’m more of an operator type guy and I had an opportunity to buy into a small casino called the Golden Gate.  We bought 50% of that in 2006. I ended up really liking Las Vegas – I loved Downtown – and was able to use that as a starting point. It kind of grew from there.

From there, how did you come to develop this relatively recent project, the Circa Resort & Casino?

In 2006, that’s really when my licensing process began. I got licensed in March 2008. Then we were going through a bit of a recession in the country at that time, so some prices really came down. I had the opportunity to buy into a property in Downtown Las Vegas, right on Fremont Street, called Fitzgeralds. I purchased that in 2011. We renovated it, turning it into the D Las Vegas, a project which came out pretty well. My brother and I wanted to keep growing, and we had the opportunity to purchase some land and an old casino called the Las Vegas Club. That commenced in August of 2015. It was the first of about seven real estate transactions to get us the property on which Circa stands today.

How agile have you had to be in manipulating the property market in Las Vegas, to pull off the Circa development?

I think, to be honest, we were just pretty damn lucky. When we first purchased the Las Vegas Club, our initial thoughts were orientated around renovating the property. But as 2015-2016 evolved, I had the chance to speak to other landowners on the city block – between Main Street and First Street, and between Fremont Street and Ogden – and we were able to acquire all those other properties. It was really one of those things when the stars aligned. Once we put this real estate assemblage together, that’s really when we knew, okay, we’re going to do a much bigger project than initially thought. We thought that city block was one of the most important in all of Las Vegas.

Do you think building Circa in that location has had the effect of revitalizing that area?

I would say that what you see in Downtown Las Vegas is really starting to take off. When we bought Fitzgeralds in 2011, Downtown had project after project really help support both prior projects and future projects. So, I would say this has been about a great 10-year run downtown; and Circa certainly was a part of that. It’s pretty amazing to see all these new housing developments, all these apartments going up. You see investment in additional bars and restaurants, and new businesses moving downtown. It’s been pretty amazing over the last 10 years, seeing all this investment going into the neighborhood.

Is it true that Circa Casino has the largest sportsbook in the world?

Yeah, that’s true. You know, the Fremont Street Experience is the second-most visited tourist attraction in America. Las Vegas as a whole has 150,000 hotel rooms, while Downtown Las Vegas only has 6,000. Yet Fremont Street has always been an attraction. When we designed Circa, we wanted to design an attraction within an attraction. Now, I’m a sports guy, and we wanted to create something special from the sports experience perspective, so part of the project of Circa was to design the world’s largest sportsbook. It’s three stories tall.

From an operational standpoint, where do you see sports betting going in the coming years?

What we’ve seen in the last two years has been exponential growth, as more and more states have legalized betting. I’ve always thought that would be a great thing for Las Vegas and the State of Nevada. It’s really awakening a lot of the overall public in the US to sports betting and how fun it can be. It’s good for teams, it’s good for owners, it’s good for media networks; and it’s a hell of a lot of fun for plenty of people who are now making their first sports bet.

Have you transferred your allegiance from Detroit teams to Las Vegas teams?

Fortunately I’m a sports fan. I like all sports. I’m always going  to be a Detroit Tigers, a Detroit Lions fan, because that’s where I’m from; but I love the Las Vegas teams too, the Golden Knights and the Raiders.

Do you find it’s important to have a presence on the floor in the operation of a casino?

Well, I’ve always been fortunate that I love my businesses, so it’s not as though I want to run out at five o’clock. I get a bit     of a benefit in that I work in an office throughout the day, but at night I get to go down to the casino floor. I get to hang around customers coming in and watch some games. It’s one of those things: everyone likes to see a maitre d', everyone likes to see the owner, whether you’re in the casino business or the restaurant business. There’s a something a little bit special with private ownership and entrepreneurialism.

And I love meeting the crowd. That’s, frankly, where I get a lot of my best feedback from: when people belly up to the bar, get some drinks and we start talking about what’s been nice on their trip.

On to future trends, do you see the presentation of casinos changing in the future?

It’s always evolving. Right from the get-go, I wanted a multi-level casino. We spent a number of years trying to develop processes for getting people to the second floor. I would say 15 years ago it would have been taboo to design casinos with two stories. We really took a different approach. I love multi-level casinos because it can give you the ability to have different energy. And some casinos in more urban areas – like Detroit, for example – are multi-level. I was intrigued by that. It allows for a higher capacity of players. Let’s say, too, that you’re in a regional casino with very inexpensive land costs. Well, that might be a different ball game than if you’re in a city or a downtown area where land is at a premium and building up is the way to expand your property.

Casino design is always going to keep changing, it’s always going to keep evolving. The important thing is to have a design that really works for the geographic environment and jurisdiction you’re in. And you’ve got to know who your customers are going to be, and ensure they like your design.

Do you have your eyes on building something on the Strip?

Right now we’re pretty happy with what we have with Circa. We’ve had the hotel open for less than a year now and, after a five-and-a-half-year construction project, I’m pretty excited to do what I love doing: operating. I’m more orientated around that side of things.

What is your five-year plan?

We have a couple of projects here for 2022. One thing worth noting for Circa is that we designed the property with seven empty floors. The reason we did this is because I wanted to get a good idea of how the property would run. It is important to get a real sense on the final build after the property has been up for a couple of years, because we really wouldn’t have known what we needed more of: more premium rooms, two-bedroom suites, three-bedroom suites, etc. Keeping some floors open, to address where the biggest need is, is something that makes sense to me.

So we’ve got a couple of phased elements to Circa. Next year we’re going to build out our ballroom and meeting space. That‘s a pretty big project for 2022. Then, if you look at 2023 and beyond, we’re going to make a call on how to utilize these empty floors within the structure.

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