Milton Prell was the owner of Club Bingo. A couple of blocks south from the Club, The Desert Inn opened in 1950 and The Sands in 1952. Prell decided that bingo was out and resorts were in, and commissioned Max Maltzmann to design the Sahara, which had 240 rooms and cost $5.5m.
The immediate success led to further rooms and investment. Arizona developer, Del Webb, invested in and built a 120 room addition. Casino manager Sam Boyd also participated in the fundraising and was charged with the management of the new resort.
In 1958, the Sahara was ready for further expansion and Prell met with E. Parry Thomas and Jerry Mack for a loan.
The Bank of Las Vegas was led by Thomas and Mack, who had a mission to use traditional financial methods to fund local development and back legitimate businessmen. Businessman Prell suited the brief and was awarded Thomas and Mack’s first casino loan: $600,000 to add another 200 rooms in a 14-storey tower to be designed by Martin Stern Jr. If this loan had defaulted, there would have been no “clean” route to financing Las Vegas’ early growth.
With the property growing in popularity, and as one of the town’s early jewels, Prell exited The Sahara, selling to Del Webb in 1961 as part of a wider trade. Del Webb became the first corporation to own major a casino hotel, with a separate operating company running the casino, a trend that has continued to dominate the industry from that first deal.
THE CORPORATE WEBB
Delbert Eugene “Del” Webb, was a prominent card in the rolodexes of every casino owner in early Las Vegas.Webb’s business was building, initially setting up The Del E. Webb Construction Company in 1928. He focused on retail stores but began expanding to all sectors in short order.
When Benjamin Siegel needed a building contractor for his Flamingo, he turned to Webb. As noted, The Sahara and Mint were also built by Webb, followed by acquisition of The Thunderbird and Lucky Strike casinos in Las Vegas, Sierra Tahoe, Reno’s Club,
Prima Donna and The Golden Nugget Laughlin. They all received expansion and finishing touches by the now named, Del E. Webb Corporation.
The company also built national landmarks, including The Beverly Hilton, Phoenix Towers, LACMA and Madison Square Gardens.
In order to manage the diverse interests, Webb needed good people, and trusted lieutenant L.C. Jacobson brought in businessman William G Bennett. Initially serving in Tahoe, then moving to Las Vegas in 1966, Bennett was ultimately to manage Webb’s casino empire, including The Sahara.Webb’s period was emblematic of wider corporate management. Initially there is a period of investment; in this case, Webb added a further 400 rooms in a 24-storey tower, a convention center and a range of improved food and beverage options. Plus, he hired trusted management to run things, and Bennett excelled.
However, the desert sands were shifting, and the generic template seen in the Las Vegas offering was about to change. 1966 saw the highly experimental Caesars Palace open, followed by Circus Circus in 1968 to the west of The Sahara, and Kerkorian’s International in 1969 to the east. All of these properties were amenity and experience heavy (although Circus had yet to have any guestrooms) and were positioned to compete against the established order.
Many of the high rollers from the early post-war generation moved to the newer properties, but also a new customer was emerging, and they wanted something else. As revenues fell, reinvestment diminished and slowly, throughout the late 60s and early 70s the once great properties of The Sands, Dunes, Riviera and Sahara all fell down the pecking order of relevance.
The Sahara was built by and for those like Prell and Webb, men that wanted to enjoy themselves during the post-war growth years. Their departure from the industry marked a changing shift in Las Vegas management and the experiences that were offered.
Despite further investment in new towers, The Sahara looked and felt old compared to the new competition. Neither appealing to mass market customers, high-end gamers or even families, and without the range of offerings of the mega-resorts to bring people in.
In 1981, The Del Webb Corporation sold the property to Paul Lowden, the owner of The Hacienda, for $50m and fully divested from its gaming and hospitality portfolio over the subsequent decade. Del Webb, the first corporate gaming company and one of the biggest names in Nevada casinos was now out of the business, never to return.
At the beginning of the decade, Atlantic City had legalized casinos and within short order had captured much of the high-end play. The MGM fire had shattered the illusion of safety in Las Vegas’ resorts, especially the older properties, and a double-dip recession and economic crisis had eroded consumer confidence.
Sam Boyd and Bill Bennett had built their reputations at The Sahara, but by the 1980s they were directly challenging their old stomping ground, with Boyd at The Stardust and Bennett at Circus Circus. Steve Wynn’s Mirage opened in 1989, followed by Bennett’s Excalibur and then Luxor, the second MGM Grand, Treasure Island and Rio, plus the resort was challenged with additional rooms at the Riviera, Desert Inn and Circus Circus all seeking to compete in “new” Las Vegas.
The future of The Sahara remained uncertain when in 1995 Bill Bennett returned to the industry, having recently retired from Circus Circus Enterprises. He acquired The Sahara for $193m. The property was not in good shape.
Bennett was possibly the greatest casino operator in the history of Las Vegas, certainly in the top few. He had a clear understanding of his customers’ needs, meeting them with an amenity-heavy and themed offering.
FEEL THE NEED
In Jack Sheehan’s biography of Bennett, “Forgotten Man,” his daughter, Diana Bennett observed,“There might have been some nostalgia involved there, because The Sahara was the first property on the Strip that he managed, but the main thing is he thought he could do something with the place… there were bones in the construction that he could work with.”
The two Bennetts worked together for a short time at the property, with Diana as General Manager, but she was soon to depart, just one of many executives through the continually revolving doors. It was clear that Bennett was physically ailing, but his formula remained proven.
Under the Bennett ownership, The Sahara saw investment. Firstly, he brought back the desert motif. The casino floor was enlarged for more slots, the hotel received new rooms, in came the buffet (it was said that Bennett watched two metrics more than any other: slot coin-in and buffet eaters), a steak house, and then came the rides. The former navy pilot loved speed, and so came Sahara Speedworld, one of the earliest interactive VR racing machines followed by The NASCAR Café and Speed – The Ride, a full-loop rollercoaster.
Although the changes brought in new customers, Bennett died weeks after the property celebrated its 50th birthday.
The Bennett Family sold the resort to Stockbridge, a private equity company, and Sam Nazarian’s Los Angeles based SBE, for $331m in 2007.
PLAY IT, SAM.
Sam Nazarian, then aged 32, was already established as one of the coolest creatives on the West Coast. He operated nightclubs, lounges, restaurants and hotels in LA, and had successfully dipped his toe in the Las Vegas market, notably with Hyde at The Bellagio. It was clear that operating a family-themed, value proposition was not on his agenda.
On 16 May 2011, after a 59-year run, The Sahara closed its doors. Then work began on the new SLS Las Vegas, incorporating the greatest hits of SBE, those belovedby the cool crowd that was discovering Las Vegas.
The remodel retained many of the external structures, but the interiors were gutted. Despite success with the contemporary dining offering, a clear customer focus and strong management team, the resort did not meet revenue projections.
Stalled resorts, such as Echelon and Fontainebleau, left The SLS alone in a virtual desert on the northern Strip and the target customers from LA were highly prized by others, with other resorts targeting the same customer.
Ultimately, Las Vegas SLS was a failure and in 2017 Stockbridge announced its exit for an undisclosed amount to serial entrepreneur and owner of Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Alex Meruelo.
The Sahara brand had one of the richest histories in Las Vegas. The SLS couldn’t touch it.The Beatles stayed in room 2344 when touring the city in 1964. Entertainers from George Burns to Bobby Darin, from Marlene Dietrich to Tina Turner, played at The Sahara over the previous six decades.
Under the new ownership, Meruelo’s team sought to eradicate many of the SLS’ perceived faults, most visibly by returning the property to its former name, (albeit capitalized) SAHARA Las Vegas. It embraced its unique history. Although a differentiator, legacy alone cannot sustain a future.
The $200m budget for renovations has been well spent, including remodeling the rooms to a sedate palate and bringing a diverse range of imported culinary offerings. Mexican inspired Uno Mas was introduced, sports bar Chickie’s& Pete’s made its Vegas debut, local favorite Chef “Sam” Xin opened The Noodle Man, and the highly acclaimed Jose Andrés’ Bazaar Meat was retained from the SLS. The successful Magic Mike Live was enticed from The Hard Rock to the new showroom.
The 2022 SAHARA is a very different proposition to past iterations. It is without the fantasy desert theme of Prell, the post-war gambler's den of Webb, the discount offering of Lowden, the family excitement of Bennett, or the Gen X industrial urbanism of SBE.
But make no mistake, today’s SAHARA is a themed property, and the theme is the self-assurance of classic Las Vegas. Compared to recent modernizations, there is a notable serenity and comfort to the experience. It has an old school elegance and warmth that seems to be absent elsewhere on the Strip, especially in some of the newer additions. The first corporately owned hotel is decidedly un-corporate. It is aimed at the convention customer, without being a clinical business hotel, instead, providing a casual environment equally suiting leisure customers. It is undoubtedly good value, without being a value proposition. This was the traditional Las Vegas promise.
Much of what we know as modern Las Vegas started at The Sahara. This property has seen it all and emerged sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. As the Northern Strip re-introduces megaresorts to replace the imploded past, SAHARA will find itself less isolated, which has been its curse for the past two decades.2022 marks it’s 70th anniversary and the SAHARA Las Vegas gives us all a reminder: what is lost can be found, if you look for it.