Las Vegas Looks to Build on Record Year

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Las Vegas hit the tourism jackpot in 2014, welcoming a record 41.1 million visitors

“Breaking the 40 million-visitor milestone has long been a goal. Surpassing it is a real testament to all of our great partners, including the agent community,” Art Jimenez, senior director of leisure sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), tells us.

Jimenez notes that last year’s tourism figures include some impressive components. Meetings and conventions reached a six-year high. Average citywide occupancy grew to 86.8 percent, more than 20 points higher than the national average. 

At that rate, Las Vegas is filling more rooms per night than any other destination in North America.

But with some $9 billion in recently completed or planned developments, the Vegas landscape is spinning faster than a roulette wheel. City officials now set their sights on a 45 million-visitor year. Here’s why that seems a safe bet. 

high roller observation wheel

Masters of Reinvention

“The striking thing about Vegas is that it continues to constantly change. You go back from one year to the next and there are new celebrity restaurants, celebrity DJs and new clubs. It’s tough to find that anywhere else,” Michael Schmeltzer, president of American Airlines Vacations, tells us. 

“Reinvention is the number-one factor in our success. But 84 percent of our visitors are repeat visitors. We have to continually refresh,” says Jimenez.

Sometimes, “refresh” is more akin to a complete transformation. 

Take The Cromwell, for example, on the site of the old Barbary Coast and Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall. It reopened last year as the first standalone boutique hotel on the Strip. Occupying a prime spot within the property is celebrity Chef Giada De Laurentiis’ first restaurant. 

Another major transformation took place at the former Sahara Hotel & Casino. It’s been rebranded, remodeled and reopened as the 1,600-room SLS Las Vegas. The property is making a name for itself with three distinctive towers, Philippe Starck design and trendy nightclub, dining and shopping venues. 

“SLS is an example of how Vegas has evolved. It’s a completely new type of product. It’s not for everyone. But Vegas doesn’t have anything like it in terms of room types and there will be people who want to experience that,” says Schmeltzer.

Other notable rebrandings include the transformation of THEhotel at Mandalay Bay into the all-suite boutique Delano Las Vegas. Guests at the non-gaming Delano have access to the 11-acre Mandalay Bay Beach aquatic playground. A private Delano pool opened recently. 

Linq to Millennials

If there’s one project universally cited for last year’s record-breaking numbers, it’s The Linq Promenade. The $550 million outdoor dining, entertainment and retail district by Caesars Entertainment is a pedestrian magnet. Its focal point is the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel. It takes riders up some 550 feet for panoramic views of the Las Vegas Strip and Valley. 

“Anytime there’s a new project like the Linq, opening it brings in new business. People get excited about a revisit,” says Randy Otts, owner of 2 Getaway Travel in Houston.

Otts also thinks Las Vegas is hitting the right notes with Millennials

“The new Linq hotel [formerly the Imperial Palace and the Quad] will spark a lot of interest among the younger folks. I was there last Halloween and the entire entertainment venue was amazing,” he says. 

The importance of the Millennial market is not lost on the LVCVA.

“There are 80 million of them. You’re going to see more properties catering to that segment. We’ve designed some social engagement for that market, because traditional advertising doesn’t always reach them. They want to be inspired, to hear about something from their friends. They don’t want to be told what to do,” says Jimenez. 

living room at the Linq hotel

Downtown Evolution

One area attracting a younger crowd is Downtown Las Vegas. That’s a change from its traditional audience: older visitors interested in smaller hotels and looser slots. 

“I went Downtown recently and it had a whole lot younger crowd than in the past. That has to do with the fact that Downtown hotels are less expensive and the food is less expensive than on the Strip. So who knows, we might see a migration of the Millennials there,” says Otts. 

“There’s definitely been a renaissance of the Downtown area in the last few years. You have new attractions, such as SlotZilla, that are bringing in the younger crowd,” says Jimenez.

The latest over-the-top Vegas attraction, SlotZilla is the world’s first power-launched zip-line. It shoots riders out of a giant slot machine, sending them flying across the length of the Fremont Street Experience pedestrian mall. 

In the Works

Without a doubt, 2014 will be a tough act to follow for Las Vegas. 

There are plenty of new attractions in the works, though. They include the newly opened Grand Bazaar Shops at Bally’s, a collection of boutiques and restaurants in an outdoor promenade facing the Strip. 

On the festival front, the first U.S. edition of the iconic Rock in Rio will take place in May. The first week features heavy metal acts such as Metallica. The second weekend will include Taylor Swift and other pop artists.

“I know Rock in Rio will bring in the mid- to upper-thirties crowd. I just booked some specifically for that event,” says Otts.

As for larger-scale developments, MGM Resorts International has the Las Vegas Arena and Park slated to open in the spring of 2016. Sited west of the Strip between the New York-New York and Monte Carlo resorts, the new 20,000-seat arena will host boxing and other sporting events, as well as concerts and awards shows. 

Both New York-New York and Monte Carlo are redeveloping their Strip-facing entrances into a pedestrian plaza and walkway that leads to The Park.

“We’re very excited about the Arena and Park project. It will have an interactive neighborhood environment with venues for nightlife and dining. It will be similar to LA Live. But this being Vegas, you can expect some surprising elements,” says Jimenez.

Perhaps the most anticipated project in the works is Resorts World Las Vegas, backed by Malaysia’s Genting Group. With a tentative opening set for 2017, the multibillion-dollar complex in the north Strip will include 3,000 rooms in phase one. Additional facilities include a 100,000-square-foot gaming floor, 22 villas, extensive water features, boutiques, eateries, plus an observation deck with views of the Strip. 

Though specific details have not been made public, the project is reportedly directed at the burgeoning Chinese leisure market.

“It may focus on that fantastic Chinese market, but in reality it will appeal to a lot more than that,” says Jimenez. “We have such phenomenal partners, resorts, attractions and shows here. Resorts World will fit in perfectly with the entire Las Vegas experience.”

New Business District Planned

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s Board of Directors has voted to approve a contract for the purchase of the historic Riviera Hotel & Casino’s 26-acre site as the cornerstone for its planned Las Vegas Global Business District. Under the agreement, the LVCVA will spend $182.5 million to buy the site.

In a written statement, LVCVA President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter said that the Global Business District is “the single most important economic development project in the state.” The acquisition, he continued, gives the LVCVA “the much-needed space for expansion while also providing a highly visible presence on one of the most famous streets in the world — the Las Vegas Strip — and is essential in helping us to reach our goal of 45 million visitors.”

The expansion project is expected to lead to an additional 480,000 new attendees as current conventions grow and through attracting an estimated 20 new trade shows and conventions. The $2.3 billion project is the largest economic development initiative the LVCVA has undertaken since the Las Vegas Convention Center was originally built in the late 1950s.