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Betting Big: New Hotels Go All In on Las Vegas Strip

Image: SLS Las Vegas opens Aug. 23, 2014, after a $415 million renovation of the legendary Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

SLS Las Vegas opens Aug. 23, 2014, after a $415 million renovation of the legendary Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. David Becker / Getty Images

On the Las Vegas Strip, north is the new south.

Long dominated by old-school casinos and mega-resorts that never were, new players are betting big bucks that the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between Spring Mountain Road and Sahara Avenue could provide the city’s next big jackpot.

“If you look back far enough, Las Vegas was originally downtown, then got built up south along the Strip,” said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Now the choices are to go a lot further south or go north.”

Case in point: the new SLS Las Vegas, which will open on Aug. 23 on the site of the former Sahara. Built at a cost of $415 million, the 1,613-room hotel is a sister property to owner SBE Entertainment’s SLS South Beach and SLS Beverly Hills. As such, it will forgo the thematic conceits and gaming-centric approach of the Strip’s well-known mainstays in favor of a modern aesthetic and hipster hangouts designed by the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Philippe Starck.

Image: Amelia Perez, left, and Fabian Perez lounge by the pool at the SLS Las Vegas in Las Vegas
Amelia Perez, left, and Fabian Perez lounge by the pool at the SLS Las Vegas in Las Vegas on Aug. 20, 2014. John Locher / AP

It will also get several new neighbors in the coming years. Later this year, the Malaysia-based Genting Group is expected to break ground on a $4 billion, Asian-themed resort near Circus Circus while Australia’s Crown Resorts recently bought a site across from the Wynn Las Vegas with the intention of opening a resort in 2018.

The irony, perhaps, is that all three projects are in the same area where Las Vegas’ last round of mega-resort dreams died. Undertaken during the boom before the Great Recession, projects such as Echelon (now the Genting site) and The Plaza (the Crown site) were abandoned when capital got tight and the tourists stopped coming. Even now, the towering but unfinished Fontainebleau stands on a nearby lot, a rusting monument to grand plans gone awry.

But this is Vegas, after all, a city where big bets are a way of life and unbridled optimism is almost obligatory, although it’s also true that there are good reasons to believe that past performance will not be an indicator of future results.

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For one thing, the city is clearly on a roll. Through June, all of the major visitation measures — hotel occupancy, average daily rate and visitor totals — were up over last year. In fact, assuming the trend holds, the city will likely top 40 million annual visitors for the first time in its history.

At the same time, Las Vegas has diversified its offerings. As gaming revenues have declined, the city’s major players have been focusing on attractions and amenities rather than the casino floor. From zip lines to DJ-driven nightspots to celebrity-chef restaurants, the idea is to appeal to travelers willing to spend big bucks on bottle service and poolside cabanas.

“Las Vegas has moved away from being just a gambling town,” said Rob Oseland, president and COO of SLS Las Vegas. “It’s about offering a broader array of products from luxury rooms to fine dining to entertainment for people who aren’t necessarily interested in gambling.”

It’s a trend that has already given rise to boutique hotels like The Cromwell, which opened in May, and the Delano, set to open at Mandalay Bay next month. And it will no doubt be on full display as the north end of the Strip becomes the “next big thing” in a city where newer is always considered better.

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“The north end of the Strip is going to be hot,” said Anthony Curtis, president of LasVegasInsider.com, who, like Brown and Oseland, believes the latest “bet” will pay off by bringing new life to a neglected stretch of the Strip and doing so by expanding, rather than cannibalizing, the market.

“It’s not competition; it’s the high tide that raises all boats,” he said. “Right now, the happiest guy on the Strip is probably Steve Wynn.”