Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Plugging a Blackhole: The North Strip

The north end of The Las Vegas Strip was not doing well before the recession, but the collapsing economy has been catastrophic for the area. Once the site of the last remaining old-school casinos, The Stardust was imploded to make room for a hotel that was never finished, The Sahara has been closed down to make room for a planned SLS Hotel, and all that remains are the increasingly low-rent Riviera and Circus Circus (which is billed as a family friendly destination complete with a theme park but is also the kind of place where you immediately remove the comforter on your hotel room bed).

So what is Las Vegas to do with this large chunk of the iconic Strip? While Steve Wynn's luxury towers were built towards the north end of The Strip as they square off against The Trump across the street, as if the two exceedingly rich men (who famously have no love for each other) chose their locations in order to have the world's most expensive staring contest, the flow of Bellagio-like luxury stopped there and isn't likely to continue. The SLS gamble may well pay off and create fancy-pants luxury resort even further up The Strip, but the dead zone creates an opportunity for casino builders to think smarter instead of bigger. Being the visionary that I am, here are my personal (and only half snarky) recommendations for how to fix the north Strip.

Go Old School: Conservative scumbag casino mogul Sheldon Adelson knocked down The Sands in 1996 to make way for The Venetian Resort. The Sands is still a powerful brand name (why else would he call his company Las Vegas Sands even after knocking down the resort?) and nostalgia for old-school Vegas style is still palpable, with a trilogy of Oceans 11 films grossing over $1 billion (with a b) worldwide over the last decade by riding a tone of neo-Rat Pack cool. The Mob Museum has opened its doors recently in celebration of the seedy history of Sin City. And even though Las Vegas has lost market share to the more loose book-keeping practices of Macau as a destination for the world's gamblers, it's still friggin' Las Vegas. Sin City is the original and someone needs to make the smart move by building a casino that plays off that history of Rat Pack cool and bad behavior. It be a bit ironic to knock down a property and build a modern take on The Sands barely a decade and a half after the original was destroyed... but Vegas is ever changing, so why can't it change back and regrow some of its roots?

Niche It Up: I've already noted in the past how nichey Las Vegas is becoming. The North Strip could be a great spot to serve some of the niches who are not coming to Las Vegas. Put that Ace Hotel I keep talking about in one of those empty lots, build a Standard Hotel (for the d-bag Entourage loving crowd who thinks they're artsy and interesting), create a techy and gamer-centric destination geeks will love, build a gay resort, target Latin-Americans (a strategy that's been working for nearby Primm), market to pirates. Builders can think smart as they build these more modest places with specific target audiences in mind instead of spending billions as they try to become all things to all people. And while these niche based properties will appeal to smaller audiences, those same audiences will be fiercely loyal to the resorts that speak to their desires directly.

Go Downscale: The pre-recession Vegas boom witnessed the opening of more and more luxury resorts on The Strip, but those salad days are over (I've never understood that term, btw... salads are sensible and healthy meals, so why does the term "salad days" mean a time of youthful irresponsibility? Just sayin'.) and more and more resorts have seen the writing on the wall. While Treasure Island (or TI as it's known to the kiddies) was never an upscale resort (even before Steve Wynn sold it), the place is now smartly marketing to mid level audiences, replacing upscale nightclubs with more affordable party destinations like Senor Frogs, Gilley's Salon, and Kahunaville. The entrepreneurs of the North Strip's future would be wise to follow this model as they build out in the desolate area. There's enough luxury options for the 1%... open some fun options for the rest of us out there.

Connect to Downtown: I know, I'm obsessed with the continued development of Downtown Las Vegas, but I find Tony Hseih's plan to renovate the area inspiring and fascinating. The North Strip and Downtown will never actually physically connect to each other, but they can do so spiritually. Downtown is becoming the part of Las Vegas where the cool, bohemian, artsy, and progressive can hang out... why can't the North Strip open a few bars and establishments that appeal to the creative class who live in and visit Sin City. And who knows, maybe Hseih, the Santa Clause of Downtown, will reach into his bottomless moneybag and build a monorail that connects the end of The Strip to his beloved hood? It might sound crazy, but making it easier (and cheaper) to travel between The Strip and Downtown will bring more people out to the area, which is exactly what Hseih wants and needs for his vision to succeed.

Turn Failures into Wins: Sure there are now a ton of empty lots where historic resorts once stood and luxurious new properties were supposed to tower above The Strip. But why not turn those failures into wins? Don't think of them as empty lots, think of them as giant theme parks. The owners of these failed properties could stop losing money every day with unfinished products and turn the husks of resorts they've built into fun attractions, like haunted houses, spots to install ziplines, or "recession tours."

Okay, this is a terrible idea, but someone has to do something with these massive empty lots.

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