Sahara Transformed: Old Moroccan-themed Venue Reborn as Luxury Casino

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As far as new investments go, Sin City hasn’t seen much action over the past few years, but the SBE Group is here to change that with its SLS Las Vegas.

In the good old days, Las Vegas used to be a hangout place for stars like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. But the Moroccan-themed Sahara casino that used to host the Rat Pack and the Beatles had not been very profitable in more recent days, and in 2011 its former owners decided to close the 59-year-old venue.

Now the casino has reopened its doors. With a new name, a new look and a new concept, SLS Las Vegas is ready to welcome gamblers in search of their luck. Moreover, American gambling news outlets are praising it as the first major investment in Las Vegas in years.

A breath of fresh air

By 2015, SLS Hotels will finalize four more projects:

• SLS LUX at Baha Mar
• SLS Hotel in Park Avenue
• SLS Brickell Hotel & Residences
• SLS Hotels in China

In 2007, the SBE Group bought the Las Vegas Strip resort, hoping that it will someday be able to restore its former glory. But the project turned out to be quite a challenge, as chief executive officer Sam Nazarian told reporters. The recession stalled the group’s plans, and the owners were forced to close one of the three hotel towers. Rooms were hawked for $1 per night over Twitter.

“There were some dark days, but we held on,” SBE president Sam Bakhshandehpour remembers. The Los Angeles-based company owns a number of hotels, nightclubs and restaurants in the US.

Seven years after SBE purchased the resort, it’s finally starting to look like it was worth the effort. The Sahara has reborn as the vibrant SLS Las Vegas, which has already caught the attention of gamblers and tourists visiting Las Vegas.

Among the empty lots, low-budget motels and half-built resorts in the northern part of the Las Vegas Strip, now stands a flashy new casino. For regular customers who are bored of spending their money in the same old American poker rooms, the SLS is like a breath of fresh air.

SLS stands for “Style, Luxury, Service,” and all venues included under the brand are designed to meet the highest standards. The $415 million casino opened its doors last week, after a lavish reception with 3,600 guests and fireworks.

Reviving Las Vegas

Other fresh projects in Las Vegas have been announced, including plans to turn the half-finished Echelon casino into an Asian-themed Resorts World. Australian casino developer Crown Resorts also bought some land – the place where the New Frontier once stood – and is preparing to build a new gambling venue.

Another company is working on an open-air concert venue which will host the massive Rock in Rio USA music festival next spring, and America’s largest drug retailing chain Walgreens is building a store across the street.

“Global gaming companies with deep pockets are investing in the north end of the Strip, and that bodes well for the north end of the Strip and the SLS,” said analyst Michael Paladino, who works for Fitch Ratings.

Although American gambling laws encourage such investments, it’s been four years since the last major resort opened in Las Vegas, and that was in 2010, when the Cosmopolitan opened.

“Approachable luxury”

It cost SBE $415 million to reopen the casino, which got a full makeover from French designer Philippe Starck. The resort includes trendy outlets as well, much to the delight of visitors looking for fine food and nightlife.

Those who are not there to gamble can spend their money at the eating place run by celebrity chef Jose Andres. The Bazaar Meat, the gourmet burger joint Umami and The Griddle Café are all sure to attract thousands of customers.

And of course, since this is Las Vegas we’re talking about, there’s a fancy casino floor too, but it’s smaller than it used to be. Hotel rooms are airy and modern, and according to SLS Las Vegas president Rob Oseland, the resort offers “approachable luxury.”

“There’s something special about bringing something back to life,” Bakhshandehpour said. “It was absolutely humbling.”

A few years ago, Las Vegas residents saw hundreds of people lose their jobs when the Sahara closed. From the slot-machine chairs to lamps, everything in the old venue was sold. About 117,000 people applied for jobs at the newly-opened SLS Las Vegas resort, but the company only had 3,400 available positions.

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