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Chris Jones

A Little Bit of London Rolling into Vegas

25 May 2005

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- From the Roman columns of Caesars Palace to The Venetian's canals and Bellagio's picturesque Mediterranean lake, businesses on the Strip have for years mimicked the Old World charms of Western Europe.

This summer, a transplanted Berliner hopes to bring a more-authentic European attraction to Southern Nevada, this time in the form of London's signature red double-decker buses.

"The potential passenger volume on the Strip is crazy," said Raimond Capel, who alongside Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will at 5 p.m. today unveil his company's first bus at the Fremont Street Experience. "I've seen this in Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney, Johannesburg -- almost everywhere. It was so blatantly obvious to bring this idea to Las Vegas."

Round-trip times will vary based on traffic, but Capel said the Strip's typical congestion could actually become a selling point.

"Let's be real. At 6 o'clock, we know what happens," Capel said of the resort corridor's usual rush-hour slowdowns. "But the beauty is, if we're in a traffic jam in front of these casinos at 9 o'clock in the evening, that could be part of the magic.

"If you're sitting on top of a London double-decker bus in front of the Bellagio, your (snapshot) is going to be best -- not one taken from the pavement, from a taxi or wherever else -- because you'll have an unobstructed view."

A longtime investment banker who lived in London for eight years, Capel became a frequent Las Vegas visitor once he attended a local trade show 23 years ago. He soon noticed the Strip's frequent traffic problems, and five years ago he began crafting a business model that became Las Vegas-based London Transport Corp.

Capel's efforts intensified over the past year, and the 45-year-old businessman now looks forward to hosting paying customers once his first few buses pass their safety tests sometime in late June or early July.

Patrons will pay $25 for full-day tickets that allow holders to board or exit the buses as often as desired. Plans call for tours that range from one to 2 hours intermingled with stops at most major hotel-casinos on the Strip and in downtown Las Vegas.

Each London Transport bus will be air conditioned on the lower level, with open-air seating above. They'll also offer onboard guides to provide Las Vegas trivia and history to passengers.

"How much did Bellagio cost? Where was Bugsy Siegel's place? The real history of Las Vegas tourists want to know," Capel said. Several longtime locals, including Nevada State Bank Chairman Bill Martin, offered insight on the tour guides' potential narrations, he added.

Capel paid a London depot approximately $100,000 per bus, each an authentic model retired after more than 25 years of service across the Atlantic. The company's 22 employees include three mechanics who previously worked on similar buses in London.

London Transport now has three buses on hand, with 16 more on order. Capel hopes to have at least 10 in operation this summer, with more on tap by year's end. How many more? "Plenty," Capel said, refusing to further tip his hand.

The privately held company required about $2 million in start-up funding, most of which was raised by Capel. An unnamed investment bank is also onboard as "a very junior partner," he added.

Capel's buses won't be the valley's only double-decker option for long. The Regional Transportation Commission, which owns and operates the Citizens Area Transit bus system, in June expects to receive its first shipment of new double-decker buses from Alexander Dennis, one of Great Britain's largest manufacturers.

After several weeks of testing, RTC spokeswoman Sue Christiansen said Tuesday the CAT bus system will in October deploy a few double-decker buses on the Strip, as well as Flamingo Road between Cimarron Road and Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

CAT has ordered 50 buses at a cost of $563,000 each. But unlike London Transport, its fully-enclosed, 120-seat buses are intended for mass transportation more than sightseeing.

"They'll increase our seat capacity without taking up more room on the roadways," Christiansen said.

Said Capel of his 80-seat buses: "We're not transportation; we're a scenic chartered tour. If you want to travel somewhere in a hurry, do take a taxi."

Double-decker buses should also offer a small taste of home to visitors who come here from the United Kingdom, this city's top overseas market in 2003 with an estimated 362,000 visitors.

Last year's local foreign visitor counts have not been determined, though it's likely the United Kingdom's total increased because of the May 2004 addition of a fourth weekly London nonstop by Virgin Atlantic Airways and the Oct. 31 debut of Manchester-to-Las Vegas service operated by bmi. Virgin plans to add a fifth weekly flight here in July.

"Open-air, double-decker buses are popular in many vacation destinations, so there's a likelihood visitors will know these are for sightseeing purposes," said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "Anything that helps us sell Las Vegas and improve the experience for visitors is a positive thing."