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Gaming Guru

Richard N. Velotta

Kerzner Still Interested in Vegas

28 April 2005

LAS VEGAS -- When Sol Kerzner paid Las Vegas a visit some 35 years ago, he didn't consider it to be a competitive threat to his growing empire of resort properties.

"I remember telling my son that the problem was that the entrepreneurs have moved on and the accountants have taken over," he recalled in an award acceptance speech at the International Hotel & Restaurant Show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on Wednesday.

But that changed a few years later when he returned to see the erupting volcano Steve Wynn had built in front of the Mirage hotel and the plans for a retail center called the Forum Shops at Caesars that was being developed by operators and partners of Caesars Palace.

"This place has been dead," Kerzner said. "But now, the entrepreneurs are back."

And today, Kerzner, the chairman of Kerzner International Ltd., is saluting Wynn again for opening his new Wynn Las Vegas property early this morning.

Kerzner was in the city to accept the International Hotelier of the Year award from the Nevada Hotel & Lodging Association, and the UNLV-Harrah Hotel College Dean's Medal of Distinction, given only occasionally to the world's top industry leaders.

The fact that the Wynn property opened at the same time was a lucky coincidence. But he said he expected he would pay a visit to Wynn and to see the property that supplanted the Desert Inn, a resort Kerzner nearly acquired to get his own foothold in Las Vegas.

Kerzner, who has developed resorts in South Africa, Mauritius, Dubai, Maldives, Mexico, and The Bahamas and opened the Mohegan Sun gaming resort in Connecticut in 1996, said he's still interested in entering the competition in Las Vegas.

"It's possible," he said. "If you're in the resort industry, you can never rule out Las Vegas."

Kerzner held an option to acquire the Desert Inn from Starwood Hotels & Resorts International in 2000, but he backed out of the deal when he decided to take his company private.

That opened the door to Wynn, who eventually transformed the site into Wynn Las Vegas.

Kerzner wouldn't discuss details on how he'd get into the Las Vegas market or his reported interest in obtaining a subconcession from Wynn in Macau.

While Kerzner is regarded as a hero and has been saluted by Nelson Mandela for helping turn around the fortunes of the tourism industry in his native South Africa, Kerzner said he has no favorite resort property.

Sun City, Africa's most ambitious resort development, includes four hotels, two golf courses, a 6,000-seat arena and a water park that draws more than 3 million visitors a year.

In 1994, he made his first acquisition outside South Africa, buying the Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas out of bankruptcy and converting it into a major resort with a marine biology preserve called the Atlantis.

Wednesday's award ceremony at the two-day International Hotel & Restaurant Show also included presentations to Gamal Aziz, president and chief operating officer of the MGM Grand as Nevada Hotelier of the Year, and Thomas Kaplan, managing partner of Spago as Nevada Restaurateur of the Year.