The SAHARA Is Back – But Is It Too Late?


The iconic hotel gets yet another chance after the SLS debacle…

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The Sahara Hotel was one of the first casino resorts I stayed at when the Vegas love affair began. This was back in 2005, just when the landmark property was about to plummet to its lowest depths. Once a legendary destination, Sahara had become a place of despair. That being said, it still had its purpose as a value destination for those on a budget.

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In 2007, Sam Nazarian and Stockbridge Real Estate Group purchased the Sahara…and quickly ran it into the ground. My final stay in the summer of 2009 was so awful that I vowed it would be my last. Exposed electrical wiring, broken lamps, cigarette burns in the carpeting and furniture, golf ball-sized hole in the shower stall, broken bed frame, filthy casino restrooms….well, you get the idea.

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Nazarian locked the Sahara’s doors on May 16th, 2011, taping up a handwritten sign as his final farewell. To those of us who knew what he’d done to the place, this served more as a threat than a beacon of hope:

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When the property’s liquidation sale was announced, I flew in from Oregon to attend. We bargain-hunters and nostalgia-seekers were escorted onto the property in controlled groups, required to listen to a presentation before being unleashed to go exploring. Our guide told us that the hotel would eventually be re-opening under the name “SLS”. The fellow next to me said “S.O.S.? What kind of name is that for a hotel?”. If he only knew how prescient his question was…

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SLS Las Vegas opened three years and three months later. I was one of the first guests to check in on opening day….and just about everything went awry. No elevators in the parking garage, malfunctioning elevators in the hotel towers, being assigned a room that was already occupied, problems with the TV and more. Of course, all of these things were growing pains and could be easily forgiven for a newly-opened establishment.

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What couldn’t be overlooked was that the concept of turning a rundown north-Strip relic into an expensive knockoff of a Los Angeles hit was a fool’s errand. Nazarian and team had entertained the idea that LA residents would come to Vegas to experience what they already had at home. They packed the SLS with not one but SEVEN Hollywood-based Fred Segal shops, taking up every retail outlet within the resort. Within a year, they were all gone.

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Some things vanished even quicker that the Segal stores. An excellent new second-floor buffet was shuttered after only three months. LA-based Griddle Cafe lasted an entire five months before pulling out. Foxtail Nightclub was quickly shut down and LIFE Nightclub was gutted/converted into The Foundation Room (allowing for Foxtail’s pool club to reopen at night).

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The musical chairs within the building were shuffled as frequently as the execs in the boardroom. SLS Las Vegas was, without a doubt, a resounding flop from every perspective. All because it tried to be something it wasn’t and deliver something the city never needed.

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What Sahara really needed was another chance to be the Sahara again. Refreshed, revitalized, reborn as “The New Sahara”, perhaps….but NOT re-branded into an expensive luxury destination built on a rickety old foundation. The little nods to Sahara’s past had been peppered into the SLS decor, but this was essentially lip service to people like me…those who continue to embrace Sin City’s past.

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But the Sahara’s soul had been ripped out along with the theme, camels and that unforgettable neon porte cochere. It was replaced by bare concrete and a nearly-colorless, white/grey/black palette with bare ceilings, exposed duct work and a bar that looked like a boardroom full of monkeys. An artistic representation of reality, perhaps?

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Last week’s announcement that current owners Meruelo Group would be restoring the Sahara name was met with great fanfare (Scott Roeben’s VitalVegas.com readers knew quite awhile ago that this was in the works). It’s the hottest topic on Vegas message boards, Facebook pages and blogs like mine right now, so there’s interest in the old property after all.

Mostly everyone seems to like what’s been happening at the old/new Sahara. Meruelo has re-acquired a tower that had been taken over by W Hotels. They’ve restored full in-house operations and are putting a reported $100 million or more into additional renovations, much of them to address the despised flaws in the SLS room redesigns. Even the Casbar Lounge is back in a modern incarnation!

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             Sahara owner Alex Meruelo and wife Liset and name-reveal gala…

The company’s founder Alex Meruelo had this to say last week about the property’s future:

The SAHARA played an important role in the evolution of the destination. And, we are now responsible for shaping a new narrative. We are writing the next chapter in the city’s evolution, for the love of Vegas.
We are committed to delivering an intimate, unexpected and memorable visit for our guests. We want people who stay with us to say, ‘My God what an experience!’ because experience leads to memories. And, that’s what we want to create, memories and experiences you won’t forget.
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                                               Casbar Lounge then…
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                           …and now…(photo by Scott Roeben, Vital Vegas)
You can watch a video of the announcement by clicking here. The press release went on to say:
Alex Meruelo’s debut comes at a time when there are few sole proprietors left along the Las Vegas Strip. As a life-long entrepreneur with a track record of business success, Meruelo expressed his commitment to continual improvement and investment in SAHARA Las Vegas ensuring the resort remains both timeless yet modern so that guests will want to return time and time again.

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So yes, there’s plenty to be excited about The Sahara’s return. All signs point towards things being done correctly this time. But is it too late to matter? That depends on the final product and where it fits into the 2019 market.

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    World Tower room at SLS. Super-boring, oddly arranged, claustrophobic…

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                               New color scheme on current Story Tower room…

I have no problem in admitting that, just because of the name, I’m much more inclined to book or recommend a hotel called “Sahara” than “SLS”. After all, there is a major road and several current businesses in the area that are named after it. Sahara IS Vegas…it evokes the desert, a rich history and promises of an experience that “SLS” (that nonsensical clump of letters) never could.

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Many of us have complained about the removal of themes from Strip resorts. Then we lost our cool when office-bland City Center bleached out any hope of their restoration in the future. So if Sahara dares to restore its past Moroccan motif, even just a little, we owe it to Meruelo Group to support their audacity and daring.

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It’s reassuring to know that the new owners have already done a great job of returning Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort to relevancy. They’ve wisely appealed to a variety of guests from the frugal to the elite, managing to modernize that hotel/casino while acknowledging its rich 41-year history. That’s exactly what The Sahara needed to do all along.

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There are plenty of reasons to give the new Sahara a try. Resorts World and The Strat are drawing much-needed attention to those few blocks of the Strip. Sahara has its own monorail station, tying with Westgate for the most accessible of any stop on the line. Vital Vegas broke the news that foodie-favorite Bazaar Meats will remain and get expanded. He also reported they’re gaining an established resident production (the nauseating-yet-inexplicably-popular Magic Mike Live) that is sure to draw traffic back into the resort.

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So let’s hope that Meruelo Group continues their current audacious path for The Sahara. They’ve been running reduced booking rates, “No Resort Fee” and “Half-off Resort Fee” specials since taking over, have maintained free parking, attracted a variety of hip comedians and made the casino layout more appealing.

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With the right mixture of value, service and dining/entertainment/gaming offerings, The Sahara could become a standout destination that the current Las Vegas is sorely lacking…a fun affordable Sin City resort worth returning to over and over.

Photo By Denise Truscello

Sahara fans are invited to witness its rebirth and transformation via a newly-launched website. Follow the excitement and sign up for updates by clicking here

Photos: Sam Novak, Greg C., SLS/Sahara, Vital Vegas, KVVU-TV, Pinterest, The Publicity Lab, Denise Truscello

 

 

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Lost Vegas: The Fall of Neon’s Reign


Greg C. brings us another photo essay, this time on sadly-departed classic neon…

When you hear the words “Classic Vegas” or “Old Vegas,” your mind probably tends to gravitate towards Rat Pack shows or tales of the Mafia. For my photographer friend Greg C., the classics are spelled out in miles of glowing neon. Glorious, painstakingly-created works of art…

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There’s nothing like memories from past visits…arriving in the city under a blanket of darkness, turning onto the Strip and seeing the dazzling light show that stretched out for miles ahead of you.

Driving past the dual ivory and gold towers of Tropicana, gawking at the multi-colored rings of Bally’s futuristic entry, basking in the flickering of Bill’s Gambling Hall…eventually reaching the ultimate Vegas throwback…Sahara Hotel Casino.

For me, the colors of the Sahara will always hold a special place in the hall of memories. It was the second place that I stayed in the city. I vividly remember getting out of the taxi and listening to the buzzing of the neon tubes and on-off clicking of the bulbs around the porte -cochere.

It was chilly that night, but the signage and blinking lights gave off their own warmth, inviting me inside for an adventure not to be forgotten.

After my scathing analysis of current Vegas trends was published, Greg suggested taking a more visual approach to what we’ve recently lost around the Strip:

I am assembling photos of all the neon signage and cool structures that have vanished in Vegas since 2010. When the photos are seen all together, it creates a vivid idea of how much has been lost in only the last six years.

Greg is absolutely fascinated with Sin City architecture. His photo essays of Westgate Sky Villashidden structural oddities and recent implosions speak for themselves. Now he’s ready to turn his lens towards the demise of long-loved neon signage and very familiar landmarks.

The beautiful neon and bulbs from the Barbary Coast were kept by Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall….. but scrapped when they transformed the simple old-school place into the bland Cromwell….

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O’Shea’s gave its life so that Project Linq could live. The new version is a pale ghost of the original…a raucous, cheap, easy-access place for casual fun lovers to get plastered and grab some basic eats. Naturally, it had to be wiped out as it runs counter to the modern corporate ideal of high-end, high-budget fun. The old façade was awesome — lots of neon and flashing bulbs. Yep….get it outta here! No place for that in Vegas.

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Imperial Palace: Yeah…it had really gone downhill. Still, it was a cheap place to hang if you wanted to be on the central Strip and were on a budget.

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The entrance of Bally’s being destroyed to create the wonderful ghost town of retail shops — the “Not-so-Grand Bazaar”. And the cool purple-glowing section of Casino Royale, destroyed for the modern blah Walgreens and White Castle additions. Gotta have retail now, don’t we?

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And out on Flamingo and Paradise, the familiar neon outline of Mr. T (of Terrible’s) was replaced by Silver 7’s. Adios to $9.99 Baby Back Ribs….

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Tropicana is still there (well, most of it) but the old-school signage with neon and flashing bulbs is gone…as is the Folies Bergere, which was the resort’s trademark entertainment for most of its pre-renovation life.

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One of the older wings of the property was demolished in 2010 (the 300-wing)……half of it by a little-known implosion. Today’s look is much more bland without the alternating dark/white stripes and the gold-accent glass on the tower tops that was whited out during the refit. The tower along the Strip also had a cool electric-blue waterfall going down the end (which they turned dark — bad decision). We need all the neon we can get…..

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Convention Center Drive:  Greek Isles was not a big name for sure…..it was actually a dump–in bad repair. The hotel has the dubious distinction of being the most renamed joint in Vegas….Debbie Reynolds before Greek Isles…. and the Paddlewheel before that……..and the Royal Americana before that……and finally the Royal Inn (its original name when opened in 1970)…. it was bought by Clarion in 2010 and imploded wearing that name.

The elderly Somerset House Motel across the street dated to the early 60’s. It was leveled in 2011. Nothing but empty lots where both stood (seems to be a recurring trend in that area).

It’s hard to get excited by the new trends of “office-building chic”, multi-toned beige and monochromatic blah. Even some room renovations have stripped out colors in favor of hospital-room white (see Delano‘s clinical decor at Mandalay Bay, which feels like being in a padded cell). When Sahara became SLS, the cans of white paint must have numbered in the thousands.

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The north end of the Strip has clearly been hit the hardest. Not only have historic properties like New Frontier and the legendary Stardust been turned into rubble, but ballyhooed projects meant to rise from the debris have fallen into their own decay. Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen where Riviera once stood.

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Can’t begin to say enough on this one–it’s already been talked about enough…. but it has to be mentioned as it was probably the greatest loss of neon glory in recent years…..

These days, visitors are greeted by huge LED screens that rival those in Times Square. Sure, they’re eye-catching, but also cold and clinical.

Fremont Street is the best remaining place to see authentic neon artworks in all their splendor. But they, too, are falling out of favor as hotels get purchased and modernized (think The D and Golden Gate).

If you love neon like Greg and I do, be sure to visit your favorites and snap some photos while you still can. The pile of carcasses at Neon Museum will most likely grow higher as Sin City continues to rip out its own electric heart.

Photos and quotes by Greg C

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been updated.

Palace Station Rises Rapidly From The Rails


The frequently-overlooked locals hotel is climbing to the sky…and back into relevance…

Sure, sure….all the north Strip talk continues to center around Resorts World. And whether Fontainebleau will ever open. And if SLS will  have its name restored to Sahara….or totally close. Nobody talks about Lucky Dragon anymore, because….ZZZZzzzzz…..

But if you peek over the interstate, just a stone’s throw from the legendary Golden Steer Steakhouse, you might see a little action worth paying attention to. That’s because the scene of OJ’s crime (no, the other one) is getting a lot more than a fresh coat of paint. Palace Station on West Sahara Avenue is getting an infusion of some big bucks…and a brand spanking new hotel tower.

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         The train is pulling into the Station with a few more sleeping cars…

If you’re an infrequent visitor to Sin City, you might not even be familiar with Station Casinos. The railroad-themed chain has destinations sprinkled throughout the valley, carrying such catchy names as Sante Fe Station, Sunset Station, Boulder Station, Texas Station. And of course Palace Station, the original and very first stop on the line.

Locals casinos such as this are usually pretty low on the luxury stylings, offering great value and lots of casual entertainment and food selections. In more recent years, the chain has gone upscale and shaved away the choo-choo theming, erecting more modern palaces (sorry, couldn’t resist) like Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Casino.

Not all of them succeeded (bye bye, Aliante Station) but the ones that did raised their profile, and apparently their bottom line, allowing for the acquisition of Palms Casino in 2016. Now they’re looking backwards and refreshing those themed resorts of the past.

How do they do that, exactly? Well, in the case of Palace Station, it’s so long railroad theme. And the removal of outdated motel-style “Courtyard Rooms”. In their place is a new 27-story, 600-room hotel tower, rising from the ground at a pretty epic pace (take that, Resorts World). Those will be in addition to the existing 576 rooms and suites.

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                           Above photos taken on September 2nd, 2017

With a new porte cochere already in operation for arriving guests, updating taking is place inside as well (new Bingo Room and restaurants, modernized look and an impending re-do of the lowest-priced buffet anywhere). There will be a new multi-screen theater coming with the expansion.

While all that construction activity may not currently be the best atmosphere for a stay, you might want to check things out once construction is completed (nobody enjoys the sound of jackhammers with one going on in our heads already – thanks, Mr. Bartender).

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    Pics from October 22nd, 2017 demonstrate the speedy progress being made…

With conventions being the future hot ticket for Vegas, it isn’t surprising that Palace Station is erecting a new meeting space as well. Again, they’re way ahead of the announced expansion of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority aka the Vegas Convention Center. Those plans flattened my beloved Riviera Hotel more than a year ago, with nary the slightest evidence of new construction activity. Not even a hammer.

It will be several years before Resorts World greets its first guest, so enjoy all those photos of construction cranes on other sites. In the meantime, I’ll be marking my calendar for a stay at the reborn Palace Station.

The project is slated for completion in late 2018. But don’t be surprised if they beat that deadline by a wide margin. All aboard!

Photos courtesy of Greg C.