Closing Of The Sahara Las Vegas – The Real Story

When I heard that The Sahara was going to make a major announcement last week, I figured one (and only one) thing: They were announcing investments and improvement in their property. It only made sense. New hotel construction is out of the question given the current saturation of Las Vegas rooms. But a number of mid-level (similar category) hotels to the Sahara have been in the process of upgrades and renovations. With Las Vegas tourism numbers on the upswing, I figured The Sahara would be jumping on that bandwagon.

OOOPS (on my part). The actual announcement was that come May 16, 2011 the hotel would be shuttered.

This simply made no sense. Other similar properties were holding their own and reinvesting despite the economy. For The Sahara to hold on through the worst of the recession and then simply shut just as things were picking up signaled a big JDLR in my book. (JDLR is a Las Vegas term used mainly by casino surveillance and stands for Just Doesn’t Look Right).

Let’s look at examples of The Sahara’s direct competitors and others in the mid-level hotel market:

* The Stratosphere Las Vegas – This hotel (known as Vegas World when I moved to town) just spent $20 million dollars in upgrades. Both to the casino and to the rooms. Their upgraded rooms are going for more money and we hear are quite popular. While people note that The Sahara is isolated (a possible reason for it struggling), The Strat is even more isolated.

* Palace StationWhat? Ted… that is a local’s casino. Yes it is. I agree. It happens to by MY local’s casino (I can see the Palace hotel tower — and also the Strat Tower — from my front yard). But when I cruise the parking garage at Palace, you know what I see? License plates from California, Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico, and beyond. These very people exit the I-15 and instead of turning east toward The Sahara, they turn west towards Palace Station.

The entire Station casino chain has recently hired 1000 people, some of which to boost the staff at Palace. Another Sahara competitor upgrading, not cutting.

Side Note: You can tell quite about about a hotel’s occupancy and clientele simply by observing their parking garage.

* The Riviera – They have re-opened their buffet, opened the new Queen Victoria British Pub, and are re-doing their gaming tables.

* Circus Circus – Did not close anything down even during the worst of times and in fact have added Rock ‘n Ritas bar/restaurant. They still the worst buffet in town (you have that hospital food taste in your mouth after eating there). But at least they kept it open!

* The Plaza – Not in close proximity but a direct competitor in terms of class of property. The Plaza is in the middle of a top-to-bottom upgrade including all newly remodeled rooms.

* The Tropicana – Just concluding a $100 million upgrade. Incredible. The rooms are nice, the new marble and carpet in the hotel makes you feel like you are in a swanky place, the South Beach theme has been needed in Las Vegas for a long time, and one look at the new Nikki Beach and Cafe had us swooning.

In the meantime that all of the above happened, The Sahara has closed two hotel towers, closed their buffet, and severely limited both their food offerings and hours of food outlet service. (Side Note: This was a boon to local pizza companies as late-night, drunk-and-hungry hotel guests called out for pizza delivery). No wonder people were staying at Palace Station instead of on The Strip at The Sahara: Palace has numerous, nice quality, reasonably priced food options including a 24 hour cafe.

So exactly what the hell was going on with this closure? I set out to find out.

The Saturday night after the announcement, I took the arduous 2 mile drive from my front door to The Sahara. The place was mostly full and very lively (partially thanks to Spring Break and March Madness) I listened to employees talk among themselves. I listened to what appeared to be former employees who had come down (after hearing the announcement) talk with their former co-workers. I talked to employees.

I found out something interesting. I assumed that they would have it in for current Sahara owner Sam Nazarian. The ones I talked to didn’t. They instead cited the terrible management that Nazarian put in place. Not a management vs. employee beef but simply how badly the place had been run.

For the uninitiated, Nazarian is a nightclub mogul from Los Angeles who bought The Sahara 2007 with plans to completely refurbish it into a trendy, upscale property. The economic downturn put his plans on hold.

Now it all started to come together and the closing (from his standpoint) made sense:

1. He needed to clean house with the management team. Yes, they could be replaced. But if they were previously people involved in his nightclub group or that he otherwise has present business relationships with (outside of The Sahara), that can get sticky.

2. He needed to clean house regarding Sahara employees. The majority of Sahara employees are legacy employees with long tenure earning top union wages. And they are older. Las Vegas values youth and looks when hiring. If Nazarian kept the hotel open, he’d have to keep these employees which don’t fit in with his trendy vision of what he wants to do with the property. So, now he’ll get to hire fresh, young faces at significantly lower wages. (Don’t shoot the messenger here. If that bothers you, leave a comment below).

3. Summer is pending. For Las Vegas hotels, this means they have to charge some of the lowest hotel rates but pay obnoxiously high electric bills to cover the air conditioning. The prospects of making a decent profit over the next few months wasn’t promising. The heat also cuts down on the number of people staying at Strat, Riv, or Circus who will attempt the trek to The Sahara. And yes… people make the walk When the weather is not too hot or cold, you regularly see people on the sidewalk headed toward The Sahara. Remember, hotels here look a lot closer than they really are!

Hence, Nazarian pulled the plug.

Final late-breaking note: Local gossip monger Robin Leach (yes, the “Rich and Famous” guy) has teased that “The modern makeover of a legendary Strip hotel is back on the drawing board” and the executive who was holding it up had returned to Hollywood.

We looked at the scenario involving every legendary local property. They were all either remodeled (Trop and similar) or highly unlikely to see any work because of the financial condition of parent companies (Circus, Imperial Palace). Only one property is in position to go through this: The Sahara.

Plus, the makeover is being teased as a very unique concept. Which reads “trendy” and upscale. Fitting Nazarian’s original vision.

Additionally, an executive who had come in and has now returned to Hollywood fits the bill of someone associated with Nazarian. Hotel executives usually don’t otherwise come in from (nor depart to) Hollywood. Perhaps things would be different if Nazarian had hired someone from Las Vegas who knew how to run a casino. (Ed Deline comes to mind).

If the above turns out to be more than conjecture, I’m going to campaign hard that the new project retains the historic Sahara name. You can reposition a property while maintaining the name. The Tropicana did. Real Las Vegas casino people were hired to remodel and run the place. Let’s hope they indeed do the same with The Sahara. People from out-of-state who “think” they know Vegas often end up falling flat on their faces here. When it comes to the gaming and resort business, Las Vegas is its own separate beast and has very little in common with the hospitality industry in general.

If you subscribe to our free Las Vegas newsletter, we’ll keep you up to speed. If not, go subscribe now so you don’t keep missing out on the latest about Las Vegas!

Ted Newkirk
Founder/Managing Editor
Access Vegas

37 thoughts on “Closing Of The Sahara Las Vegas – The Real Story”

  1. A few years ago,we visited Sarhara and were disappointed. Very run down and dirty! The buffet was lousy and remote!!We came on the tram,which is also REMOTE!!.We have been to various casinos in that general local and they are all pretty much the same. We do like Palace Station.What about the RIO? thanks!!

  2. Thanks for the informative Las Vegas blog. I hope what you say turns out to be true. I have stayed at the Sahara several times. The atmosphere at the Sahara has changed in the last few years to a race track atmosphere and I didnt like that. I still hope the Sahara opens back up soon.

  3. Sounds right. Keep up the great work. I’m on SSI, but ageism is practiced, because the real market is the young pups, who think they can beat the system.
    Us old gray beards don’t hardly drink enough to let out the 22 year old inside. Maybe they’ll revive the SHOW in showgirls.

  4. Thanks so much for your insight on the Sahara closure. I was just sick when I heard the initial announcement. The Sahars was the first Las Vegas hotel I stayed at way back in the early 70’s. I thought it was so classy; I stayed there several times over the years and always stopped in several times while in Vegas. I do so hope this iconic hotel can be “re-imagined”. I always feel a sense of sadness when the older properties disappear, I have so many good memories of times spent in them and I hate to see them lost to history.

  5. This is typical of big business everywhere and directly related to the economic downfall of this nation. Finding ways to get rid of your well paid middle class employees, sending them to the poverty level and hiring people at lower wages and lesser benefits. They call this a business challenge. Ha! Your witnessing the down fall of the words greatest economy. Sleazy business practices are the main reason for this depression. Underpaying employees and over charging for everything from gas to food. Learn Chinese.

  6. Very sad to hear of the pending closure. Lots of History to this Casino. It was the first Hotel casino complex that my wife and I stayed at on our very first trip to Vegas. It was a very memorable experience that we will never forget.It is disturbing when Vegas starts to loose a part of its identity due to Politics,Economics or mismanagement.We are back in Vegas in April so we will definitely have to stop in and bid farewell to a good friend.

  7. I’ve visited the Sahara numerous times both as a tourist, and now as a local. I don’t think they should even try to cater to the younger, trendier clientele. That type is going to hang out at Wynn, Encore, and City Center. They should focus on what the majority of Vegas visitors want- clean rooms, where everything works, and at a fair price. Lots of food choices, talented headliners, and slots that actually pay. I love that hotel and I’m sorry to see it close. I hope someone takes it over who is willing to spend what they need to in order to make it what it was meant to be.

  8. I’m very sorry to know that the current management has decieded to close Sahara’s doors. I’ve stayed there a couple times during my Las Vegas visits and although Sahara doesn’t have the luster of the more modernized places on the strip – it still maintained a comfortable and enjoyable atmosphere to stay and play. I was envisioning the new owner to slowly transform parts of the Sahara over a period of years (much like Tropicanana has done) but there was no evidence of this. It will be sad to see the only colorful part the corner of the strip and Sahara Blvd to be all dark. In addition – I know that many Vegas visitors use the monorail to go to Sahara and play there and then catch a cab to go downtown (as its cheaper to do it that way then take a cab in the middle of the strip.. plus a little faster than the bus). I think the Sahara closing will also effect the flow of visitors on the monorail (and that operation is already having financial difficulties)to downtown or even the Stratosphere. As much as I enjoy modernization – the era of “Old Vegas” is slowly dissappearing. I was SOOO dissapointed in the new City Center plans. It changed the whole look of the strip. I can go to other cities to see high-rises. I prefer the glitz of the neon and themed casinos. I hope the new management is taking a serious look at the future of the Sahara and not redo the name or its entire look. I will be keeping tabs on the ongoing stories. Keep us informed Ted!!!! Patrick from Upstate New York

  9. Very good column…I wrote the same thing basically in my two columns, and as an insider, I gave a strong example of how badly the property was managed by a pencil pusher. And, I did hear, but of course,unable to prove, that the out-of-town owner wants to bust the union…Norm J

  10. GREAT article, Ted. As always, it is insightful, thoughtful and provides a geniune behind-the-scenes look I’ve come to expect from you.

    For those reading this, if you’ve not subscribed to the Access Vegas “Insider Vibe” newsletter, it’s highly recommended.

  11. I sure hope the Sahara and it’s name do indeed see a re-birth. It is bad enough that historic Binions has shut down its hotel rather than take a page from the Plaza. Here is hoping the Sahara does not go that way.

  12. The announcement saddened me but to tell the truth the place had indeed become a dump over the past few years. Current management wasn’t proactive enough in catering to their clientle. It truly felt like an old age home instead of the iconic gambling joint it once was. I will miss the House of Lords and the pool which even in disrepair reminded you of Vegas in it’s heyday. I hope Mr. Nazarien does reinvent the place but keeps the name, the minaret and the essence of the place intact. Nonetheless,
    I toast my Sahara and hope for it’s revival in the not so distant future!

  13. I was in Las Vegas this past January and visited almost EVERY hotel along the strip (got the foot blisters to prove it). The Sahara was just about the most unglamorous property we spent time in, if fact we just walked through it to get to Speed the ride. The ride made the effort of getting there worth while.

    Every city needs this kind of venue though. As it was my first trip to Las Vegas we stayed at Caesar’s, but next time I don’t intend to spend that much on accommodation and would be ok with the Imperial Palace or perhaps the Sahara. Its not got the ease of access that the centre strip hotels do so I hope if its gets a make over they still keep it an affordable hotel as that’s what I’ll be looking for next time I’m in town.

    Oh, and I will be back. My 7 days in Las Vegas were quite literally the best 7 days of my life! That place is AMAZING and I just love it.

  14. It’s too bad this casino is being closed it has been a part of what Las Vegas stands for. The famous Casino has been in many movies and has been a great place to visit over the years.

  15. You wrote a great article. So much of what you say makes perfect sense.

    Let’s hope it is what is really going to happen. Must retain Sahara name, adds to the mystique.

    Where will NASCAR cafe go? Would not fit in to a boutique hotel. Downtown maybe??

  16. My sister and I stayed at the Sahara a couple of years ago and had a good time; even won money, plus their pool area is very nice. Yes, needs upgrades, but a shame to be shuttered. Vegas still needs low/midrange pricing. Also, an FYI for you, I for one love the business side of Vegas (even living in the Midwest), and always try to stay on top of what is happening in that regard, so thank you for this!

  17. I think closing the Sahara stinks! when I stayed at the Stratosphere we moved across the street to the Sahara because of the crowds, lack of quality security and the uncomfortable tight rooms. the Sahara’s gaming floor was small but at least the room was large and the atmosphere was better. I will truly miss it!!!

  18. Ted, you hit it on the head. Yet missed two important points about the bad management and location.

    1) You can’t run a successful Vegas resort while someone else runs the casino. Same issue that plagued the Hard Rock now plagues the Sahara.

    2) Yes, the Strat is off by itself, sort of isolated. But when in the room, what is the view? The city and the Strip. The Sahara has a big blue silo in their front yard. Even Motel 6 has a better view!

  19. Even though it was old, we always visited the Sahara on our frequent trips to Las Vegas. I don’t know why, just to punish ourselves I guess. We saw several shows there and the employees treated guests unbelievably rude…insisting everyone stand in line in a certain place.
    And yes, their buffet was awful (We used it as a measurng stick for other restaurants i.e. Is it as bad as Sahara’s? No? OK we’ll try it.) But these things were all poor management. We loved to play the slots under the vintage Chevy – knowing we wouldn’t win and hoping we wouldn’t win because we didn’t know what we would do with the thing if it would become hours. It was just fun to try. Also loved the NASCAR store.

  20. As a local I used to go there on occasion, but it lost it’s charm some years ago. Thanks for giving your readers the inside story on this. What would we do without you? It all makes sense and let’s just hope that the current owner/owners use some common sense in implementing their plans.

  21. I like the charm and feel of old world Hollywood when I go to the Sahara. I hadn’t stayed there as of yet but I did want to try it. So sad and I do hope that what you said above does happen.

  22. Great insight and fab newsletter Ted. I’ve stayed at the Sahara from the UK several times this last decade and although the rooms were a bit faded in quality the overall place is friendly and reminiscent of Old Vegas which is why I chose The Sahara. I’m deeply saddened to find it’s closure as I had planned to stay there this fall.
    This Nazarian guy is best off the scene and “howked”(local dialect word)back to LA by his tail. I hope someone buys it up and restores it back to it’s rightful place among Golden Las Vegas hotels and not a shattered remains lake New Frontier ot Stardust.
    Thanks again Ted.

  23. I visited the Sahara about two years ago and was extremely disapointed with the way I was treated. While playing slots I ordered Jack Daniels and ginger ale, when I got my drink I knew it was regualar bourbon. When I returned my drink I was told that they didn’t serve slot players any premium brands only well drinks. In my over 20 years of coming to Vegas I have never been denied Jack Daniels while playing slots. I knew then they were hurting if they were treating the bread and butter customers this way. I vowed never to return even though I had decent luck while playing there. The closing doesn’t surprise or disappoint me.

  24. Very good story ,I hope the plans are to reopen and not let this place fade away.My daughter is visiting in May and the first thing we’re doing is hitting the rollercoaster at the Sahara!

  25. sorry to hear the fate of the Sahara.stayed their quite a few times,and my most memorable was when 911 happened,i woke up that morning on the 21st floor and turned the TV on and seen the towers smoking,i thought it was a movie at first,but sadly the scene turned to reality,we stayed a week than drove back to PA as our flight was canceled,luckily i had a rental car,transportation out of Vegas was scarce after that happened.thanks for the memories anyway.we always enjoyed our stay there,we usually stay at the south end of the strip now,easier to get on the interstates.

  26. I have been coming to LV since ’99 when my grandparents first moved there. I’ve only been to the Sahara a few times to go on “Speed-The Ride” roller coaster and will miss not having this anymore. Do you think this could be replaced at some other hotel?

    Also, i think the monorail will have to do some rethinking and re-rout this last stop. Perhaps extend it to travel to the Stratosphere? Only time will tell, but the Sahara is just an outdated hotel and can’t keep up with the trendier ones.

  27. I am from Auckland New Zealand and have now been to Vegas 5 times to date. In August 2009 I chose to stay at the Sahara as the cost seemed good, even though the situation of the hotel wasn’t the best.

    I spent 22 hours travelling to get there and was totally exhausted. No one came to help with my luggage, and I had to drag 2 suitcases, my carry on bag and purse through the Casino to the registration desk.

    My room was totally dirty and smelt, the air-conditioning didn’t work properly and I starving. I put my things away and headed through the Casino to find somewhere to eat. I went to the buffet. An hour after returning to my room, I started to get a blinding headache, then promplty started vomitting at both ends. I ended up with paramedic’s and hotel security in my room, as I was so voilently ill and actually thought I was going to die on my arrival in America. I was upgraded free of charge to a better room, but no one would take responsibility for the bad food I had eaten at their buffet and no compensation was given not even a free ticket to their show. I’ll never forget the Sahara. I stayed at NYNY the last two visits and loved it.

  28. I hope they don’t tear down the Sahara. I agree that it does need redone, but I think that will be a new Vegas trend…especially since this hotel once had an elegant chic to it.

  29. Glad the tax season is over and I can take some time to go over past issues.
    We always visit Sahara when we go to Vegas and planning to be there Saturday – were going for a last visit, but hopefully it will stay for many years to come.
    Keep up the great info.

  30. I have been going to The Sahara for a long time now. Usually with my daughter. We ALWAYS stay at The Sahara. Our very absolute favorite casino in Vegas. We have the most wonderful memories. I visited there this past March, for my last time. I had a sort of panic attack so to speak when I left because I felt that a part of myself was being torn apart. So sad. I will miss The Sahara, and nothing fancier or newer or with ‘younger’ waitresses’ etc. will EVER take it’s place. Many people working there have been so kind to me during my visits. My best to them.

  31. Thanks for this article, very informative.

    So maybe it’s going to turn out to be a good business move for Nazarian. It’s awful that he would let go of the legacy employees to hire new, younger, cheaper salary employees.

    Makes a lot of sense to pull the plug for the summer. Maintenance on the Sahara has been in decline for at least 3 years.

    I sure hope it reopens as Sahara, and they put a couple 100M into it. Hate losing these legacy LV casinos.

    Congrats to the Tropicana, and Plaza for refurbishing history.

    Once again, excellent article. Please follow me on Twitter @LV89109

  32. It’s sad to see all the history of Las Vegas being demolished or closed. It seems to be the trend in are country we don’t appreciate are buildings or history. There are other countries we visit to see all the old buildings. So lets just restore this beautiful hotel to her greatness. We will be there on friday before she closes for what we hope is a remodeling project.


  34. At final closing of the property, Sam Nazarian posted a note that said:

    “Be back SOON! Thanks for 59 years.”

    Perhaps there is something to this. I for one would love to see The Sahara reopen soon, as The Sahara again.

  35. Do you know if the NASCAR CAFE has been moved to another address ? Please advise, thank you.

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