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December 20, 2014

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SLS boss giving resort’s ‘tribe’ a place to go

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Leila Navidi

Sam Nazarian, the CEO of SBE Enertainment, the company that owns the Sahara, waves goodbye to the crowd after locking the door to the casino Monday, May 16, 2011.

SLS Las Vegas Exterior

An eye appears to keep watch on landscapers at the SLS Las Vegas Thursday, August 7, 2014. The new resort, formerly the Sahara, will open on August 23. Launch slideshow »

The last time I saw Sam Nazarian on this property, he was locking the doors at the Sahara and taping a note to the glass that read, “Thank you for 59 years.” That was May 16, 2011.

On this hot August afternoon, Nazarian is placing a welcome mat at the entrance of SLS Las Vegas.

That is a figurative reference, of course. There is no actual mat, but rather a statue depicting Nazarian that will be unveiled at the hotel’s porte-cochere when the Sahara is reborn as the SLS at 12:01 a.m. Aug. 23. Nazarian is founder of SBE, the company that owns the hotel.

Dressed in a coal-black suit and smiling easily, Nazarian spent nearly an hour last week in his office at the SLS talking about the painstaking transition of turning an old hotel-casino into a chic new resort.

Among the highlights:

His management approach includes surrounding himself with capable people and trusting them with authority.

“The way I run my business is, I really do delegate out to the people around me. My goal, ultimately, is to be like the general manager of a football team. When you are the general manager of the football team, you bring in a great head coach and a great offensive and defensive coordinator. Really, on the day-to-day aspects of things, I try to let the people who are much smarter make the decisions. … I am not drawing up the plays.”

Though his resort is on the north end of Strip, he also is a fan of downtown Las Vegas.

“I love what Tony Hsieh has done here. Downtown Las Vegas, to me, is almost like the privatization of Hollywood, when my company was coming in, in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. This is the sort of growth that Vegas had not really seen or really even embraced before.”

He professes to not be good at too many things.

“I’m really not. But the one thing I like to do is study and understand flow of people, how they like to migrate. What is important to locals. What is important to conventioneers. What is important to tourists. Figuring out what we call ‘the white space’ in a market, what is missing, and filling that. We are going to do that here, as a company, at SLS.”

He says that when the plans for SLS were being drawn, “there hadn’t been a new idea here for a while.”

“Luxury, with Bellagio opening, had set such a high benchmark, and obviously followed by Wynn/Encore and Palazzo, CityCenter, Cosmo ... Everything was just going toward being bigger and better. These were conceived by architects who were the titans of our industry. What we are about is being a content company, building confidence with our customers through a large database, and selling the idea that we will be trendy but timeless. And that doesn’t always mean that we will be the biggest, but we will provide operations to sustain a culture that is our own for people who buy in.”

His company is designed to appeal to a large “tribe.”

“Our database has 5 million names, and the average age of our customer is 38 years old and they travel and have a sort of world view. To me, it’s a tribe of people. Like any tribe, some people are aspirational, and they want to work hard to get to a point of success and of influence. There are those who are influential, who people respect and follow. And there are members of the tribe who are the affluent. To us, that tribe is in place as much in Hong Kong as it is in New York as it is in Las Vegas.”

He says access is crucial to the appeal of the SLS to Las Vegas residents.

“People will come here, first and foremost, because they can get here. As Vegas continues to come into 2005-2006-2007 levels, I think access is crucial. People say, ‘Look at the Cosmo, it’s right in the middle of everything, and you’re in the middle of nowhere.’ I ask people, including bankers from New York who come here for a convention and stay at the Wynn or wherever, ‘When was the last time you were in Times Square?’

"If I’m a guy from Beijing visiting New York, yes, I’d want to be in Times Square. But if you live there, you’d never go to Times Square. The island of where we are will meet the flow of the 300,000 locals who work up and down the Strip and make north of $35,000 a year and just want a place to go.”

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