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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

The strip: That old 'Pack' magic

23 November 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Unlike its Rat Pack-era contemporaries, the Sahara has been spared a date with a demolition team.

Instead, new owners Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment and Stockbridge Real Estate Funds of San Francisco have invested a little more than $2 million since August to refurbish and make cosmetic changes through the main public areas of the 55-year-old Strip hotel-casino.

The Sahara's outdoor landscaping has been trimmed and cleaned up. New carpeting and wall paper have freshened the hotel lobby. Sofas and chairs give customers comfortable seating in the lobby and areas near the property's two main entrances.

Hotel staff sport new uniforms and the property's restaurants, including the venerable House of Lords gourmet room, have been infused with new menus. Even the towels at the Sahara's swimming pool are bigger and plusher.

Large black-and-white photos of legendary performers who entertained at the Sahara in the 1960s and 1970s seem to shine a bit brighter these days from their perches behind the hotel's front desk.

"This makes the customers feel better, it makes the staff feel better and it makes us feel better," said Arash Azarbarzin, president of the SBE Hotel Group who also holds the dual role as president of the Sahara. The quick renovations, he said, are similar to what the company did when it took over the Le Meridien Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. "We wanted to give some value back to our customers," Azarbarzin said.

Meanwhile, SBE brought together a pair of long-standing Las Vegas-based hotel-casino contractors and architects to decide what shape the Morroccan-themed resort will take in the future. That process may last anywhere from eight months to a year.

"We have to understand who we are and who we are not," Azarbarzin said. "We are a historic property. Every version of our master plan includes keeping the hotel intact. There are some areas we might take down and remodel, but you're not going to see a big implosion here."

Azarbarzin said SBE, which is the managing partner of the Sahara, hired Marnell Corraro Associates, builders of Wynn Las Vegas, Bellagio and other Strip hotel-casinos, as the general contractor. Bergman, Walls and Associates, which developed and redeveloped The Mirage, Paris Las Vegas, Treasure Island, and others, is the architect for the Sahara redesign.

"It's a great team that is looking at all aspects of the Sahara," Azarbarzin said. "We're not in a hurry. We want to figure out what we're going to do and cost it out."

What has also changed for the Sahara is the north Strip neighborhood. Since March, when SBE founder and co-owner Sam Nazarian signed the paperwork to buy the 1,720-room Sahara and its 18-acre land parcel for between $300 million and $400 million, several new developments have taken shape.

The $2.8 billion Fontainebleau, with nearly 4,000 hotel rooms, is under construction just down the block. Next to the Sahara, a $5 billion, 5,000-unit mixed-use project is planned, although the height of the eventual Crown Las Vegas hotel tower is still being determined. Across the Strip, MGM Mirage bought a 26-acre parcel and is planning a large hotel-casino development in partnership with Kerzner Holdings International, developers of the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas.

Nazarian, a 32-year-old Los Angeles entrepreneur, said determining what the north end of the Strip will look like into the next decade will determine the Sahara's redesign.

"Moving forward, we have to differentiate ourselves," Nazarian said. "We're focused on the clientele of Las Vegas and the Sahara. We want to make sure that our project will fit into the right space in whatever the landscape is in 2010 or 2011."

Since March, Nazarian has become a historian on the Sahara, which opened in 1952 and is considered one of the Rat Pack's last remaining haunts. The Sands, Dunes, Stardust, New Frontier and other historic Strip hotel-casinos have been imploded into memory over the past decade. Nazarian said the redeveloped Sahara will carry through some of the property's original elements, but the name, Sahara, may not remain.

"That's still to be determined and we're studying that," Nazarian said. "Sahara is an amazing name and it's known worldwide, but we don't know yet if it will stay on the hotel or just become a part of the property. For me, the history is just as important as the all the hotel rooms that will be built around us."

The Sahara was the setting for the original "Ocean's Eleven" movie, and the hotel's Congo Showroom has hosted such celebrated performers as Johnny Carson, Tina Turner, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Don Rickles, Dean Martin and the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.

Nazarian, whose company owns and manages Los Angeles-area nightclubs and restaurants and operates a Hollywood film division in addition to its hotel group, said he wants to recapture some of the Sahara's old magic through the renovation. Some of that restored popularity may be found by adding several outlets of SBE's popular nightclubs and restaurants.

"We were approached many times to bring some of our trendy restaurants to Las Vegas," Azarbarzin said. "But we always knew we wanted them to go into our own casino in Las Vegas."

SBE and Stockbridge took control of the Sahara in August, overseeing the hotel and nongaming amenities. While SBE seeks a Nevada gaming license, veteran gaming executive Larry Woolf and his Navegante Group are managing the Sahara's 85,000 square-foot casino.

Woolf said the slot machine floor was updated with newer games and the Sahara's player's club was enhanced. To attract Asian customers, the casino added mini baccarat. The customer base, including locals, is being marketed to more heavily than in the past with casino specials, such a reduced price on the Sahara buffet.

Woolf said the efforts seem to be paying off. August was the Sahara's worst-performing month because of the ownership transition, but the casino is up in volume some 20 percent in September and October.

"We've invited the customer base back and we've offered various specials. All that has helped," Woolf said. "There seems to be a much higher energy in the casino, and its showing in the revenues. We've worked the employees and customer service has improved tremendously."

Since taking over, Azarbarzin said, SBE has added employees in the hotel area, giving the Sahara a work force of 1,477.

"We spent the first 60 days regaining the sole and essence of the Sahara," Azarbarzin said.