Change is a Necessary Fact of Life on the Las Vegas Strip

It is an old cliché that change is the only constant and that is definitely true in business. Fads come and go; customers’ ages, interests, preferences and habits are always in flux and businesses must adapt. In my mind, no place on earth demonstrates the changing nature of business more than Las Vegas and the famous Las Vegas Strip. When gambling was first legalized in Nevada and before Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel invented the Strip, gambling was the only thing a casino needed to offer. Legalized gambling was new to most people and they were eager to make whatever bets a casino offered. The pioneers who brought gambling brought the games they knew and put them in a simple gambling house. In time, those early gamblers were replaced by a new breed of casino operators who built a new kind of place to gamble.

The operators that followed the gamblers were showmen, entrepreneurs, developers, mobsters, entertainers, hoteliers, advertising men and accountants. For that new generation, gambling was not enough. They built grand casinos with hotels, entertainment, lavish food offerings, expensive gift shops and vast parking lots to accommodate the millions and millions of visitors who came to Las Vegas every year. Their creations eventually passed on to publicly traded corporations.

The pioneer gamblers who thrived in the downtown gambling houses have all died. Only a few of the Strip pioneers remain, Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson and Kirk Kevorkian are still alive, but their creative energy no longer drives the Strip as it once did. In May, Burton Cohen died, he was one of the last of the professional managers hired by Strip innovators to run their casinos. Wherever he went, Kirk Kerkorian hired Cohen. Kerkorian had the vision and the money necessary to build a series of the “biggest hotel in the world” hotels, but he needed a guy on the floor, watching the action, counting the money and making sure the place lived up to the expectations of Kerkorian and the customers. The gamblers managed the joints themselves, but the entrepreneurs needed managers. They all needed a Burt Cohen.

Gaming industry icon Burton Cohen, who managed some of the Strip’s most iconic resorts during a career that spanned multiple decades, died Tuesday morning at his home in Las Vegas. Cohen managed the now-demolished Desert Inn on three separate occasions. He also held management positions at the Flamingo, Caesars Palace, Thunderbird and Dunes. Cohen was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame in 1995…Cohen, 90, was a current member of the MGM Resorts International board of directors…Cohen was closely associated with Los Angeles financier Kirk Kerkorian, 98, the founder of what is now MGM Resorts. Kerkorian coaxed Cohen out of retirement to run the Desert Inn for a second time in the late 1980s. “Burton was a dear friend and trusted colleague for more than 50 years,” Kerkorian said in a statement released through MGM Resorts. “I am very saddened to learn of his passing and want to offer my heartfelt thoughts to Linda and their entire family. Burt was a special person and I am deeply honored to have known him and called him a friend.” Howard Stutz, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 5-7-14

When Burton Cohen died in May, the first of a new generation of operators made a bid to replace him and his generation. Genting, a Malaysian conglomerate with casinos all over the world, was approved to build and operate a $4 billion dollar resort. Genting is more than a casino operator; it is a resort operator on the scale of Disney. When it is built and opens, Genting Resorts will be the first new megaresort to open on the Strip in a decade. Fittingly, it will occupy the place on the Strip where the famous Stardust once stood. The Stardust was famous for its mob ownership. In the 1970s, the Nevada Gaming Control board discovered a major scam and forced the mob out. The state turned over control of the property to the Boyd Group. Boyd was started by Sam Boyd, one of those pioneer gamblers, a refugee from Texas. Boyd, under the direction of Sam’s son had expanded out of the downtown and besides the Stardust had many properties scattered around the valley. Just before the Great Recession hit, Boyd had torn down the Stardust intending to build Echelon, its own billion dollar resort. But the recession hit and the project was stalled.

The next phase of Las Vegas starts today in, of all places, the Sawyer Building. Nearly a dozen representatives and executives from Genting Berhad, the Malaysia-based company that acquired the unfinished Echelon project on the Strip for $350 million 14 months ago, will face questions from the Gaming Control Board. The corporation and several of its entities seek a finding of suitability from Nevada casino authorities. Genting wants to build the $4 billion Resorts World Las Vegas on the largely vacant 87-acre parcel and will proceed after it receives approval. State gaming agents spent much of the past year investigating the multifaceted corporation, traveling to Malaysia, Singapore, London and New York. It might be the agency’s most expensive and largest probe ever. The Echelon parcel once was home to the long-demolished Stardust. Genting’s project would result in the Strip’s first new megaresort in nearly a decade. Construction will incorporate much of the unfinished Echelon, which was shut down in 2008. Howard Stutz, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 5-7-14

In 2012, the Echelon site sold for $350 million to Genting. With that sale, the last remnant of Sam Boyd was gone from the Strip and with it a new era is set to begin. Since its beginning at the end of World War II, the Strip has changed dramatically. Genting will usher in a new era and that will be good for everyone in town. The City of Las Vegas gets 40 million visitors a year, most of them are interested only in the Strip. They come back over and over again just to see the changes. The world is full of choices for travelers. The Strip must always have something new and different to offer if it wants to compete with the other destination choices available to travelers.

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June 2014
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