Re-designing History at the Start of the Strip
By Stacey Gualandi
Neither wind, nor rain—nor early speculation—would interfere with this much-anticipated announcement: The seminal Sahara Hotel and Casino is back on the world-famous Las Vegas Strip, and will be better than ever.
It was a “dream come true” for owner and lifelong entrepreneur Alex Meruelo, who purchased the hotel formerly-known-as-SLS in 2018. In June, he heralded a new era for the iconic property to much fanfare, including a dynamic Intel® Shooting Star™ drone light show high above more than 700 guests gathered at the Foxtail pool, and a new tagline: “The Strip Starts Here.”
“We can make a big impact here at this iconic location. Our property is just the right size to deliver the bold, yet personalized experiences that made visitors first fall in love with Las Vegas,” says the founder of the Meruelo Group.
This blast-to-the-past renaming is part of a prodigious plan to bring Sahara into the future, but it’s just the beginning of Meruelo’s $100 million commitment to improvement, says Paul Hobson, the senior vice president and general manager of SLS Las Vegas.
“What we want to do is take that name and interpret it for today’s Las Vegas. It’s not really so much looking back as looking forward.”
To date, upgrades to the casino floor; hotel rooms and corridors; and additions to its award-winning culinary program have been completed, with more scheduled to begin later this year, including updates to the hotel lobby and guest check-in.
“It’s the rebirth of a legend,” says Nancy Paolino, the re-design expert entrusted to bring Meruelo’s vision to life.
To better understand their SLS-to-Sahara sea-changes, one must first head North to Meruelo’s other crowning Nevada achievement: the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno.
As a project design executive for Las Vegas-based Innovativo Design, Nancy Paolino first joined forces with Meruelo after he bought the Reno property in 2011, when GSR was a shadow of its current self. “It used to look like a brown dungeon: Very, very dark and drab,” says Paolino.
Like Sahara, GSR has plenty of history to offer. It originally opened in 1978 as an MGM property, but changed hands many times throughout the years. The 2,700-seat Grand Theater is home to the world’s largest indoor stage, with more than a full acre of usable space. But what started out as a run-of-the-mill room renovation for Paolino turned into a $200 million, 8-year, ever-evolving massive makeover.
“It bled out into public spaces, restaurants, casino, [and ] bars and lounges. At this point, 8 years in, we’ve pretty much touched everything at least once…with a few exceptions,” says the New York City transplant.
That included a revamp of the resort’s Restaurant Row‚—a dining destination worth dishing about. With its “edgy rustic-luxe” vibe, it features the Grand Buffet on one end; Charlie Palmer Steak by its master-chef namesake on the other; and the brand new Reserve Wine Bar and Cantina in between (…which will tease your tastebuds with everything from Tempranillo to tequila!).
“We’ve used a lot of rich materials,” according to Paolino, like wool carpets and with custom patterns that are lively and bright.
For me, everything screamed decadence…a far cry from the aforementioned dark dungeon when I visited the nearly 2,000 room resort earlier this year. From the mosaic marble and bejeweled bar in the new “Crystals” lounge, to the warm and airy 13,000-square-foot boutique spa (the signature spa massage is definitely grand!), to the dramatically upgraded and re-lit casino ceiling, it felt like an open and inviting oasis near the biggest little city in the world.
The grand dame Grand Theater—now partnered with Live Nation—even got a facelift, offering more luxury leg room, and exclusive VIP booths with bottle service. (All the better to enjoy the Pixies and Hozier during my getaway weekend!)
“I think the property reflects Mr. Meruelo’s personality: very elegant, very sophisticated. And we really do travel the world to try to find the best of the best without really breaking the bank.”
Nowhere is that more evident than at the 25,000 square foot Lex Nightclub, now the region’s go-to nightlife venue, according to GSR. At a cost of $15 million, it boasts a glass dance floor above an indoor pool; three full bars; 40 VIP tables; nine intricate skylights; and a multi-million dollar lighting system. And, it plays host to dope DJs like Steve Aoki and Tiesto.
“Good design is timeless,” says Paolino. “We really look for a design that will excite the senses but also be approachable for the guest and make them want to sit, stay and have [an] experience where they’re gonna create a memory.”
Speaking of memories, I won’t soon forget the newly rejuvenated resort-styled pool with three hot tubs, seven fire pits (with optional s’mores!), private levels, and a highlight for me: a gigantic two-story wooden chair. Says Paolino, “When I first said it’s gonna be orange, everybody looked at me like I had ten heads.” But it is, in fact, very Instagrammable.
Paolino says they’ll continue to push the design boundaries, bring fun and excitement to the property and never stop being clever.
“I have enormous construction background and, of course, Mr. Meruelo and his whole group come from a construction-related industry as well. So I think that’s why we get along so well,” she says. “We really don’t design anything that we fear is not construct-able.”
The high-limit room just opened and is ready to take bets, but next up on the makeover manifest is the Charlie Palmer 80 Grand Wine Bar; a bowling alley overhaul and the installation of a show-stopping, 36-and-a-half foot wide chandelier with 3-D, hand-cut leather-designed walls to hang in the hotel lobby.
“We wanted to have that ‘aah!’ moment right when you walk in the front door,” says Paolino. “I designed [it] in my head a couple years ago. It’s very difficult to execute because it’s an 18,000 pound monster, but it’s going to be quite spectacular.”
Paolino says it will be a sad day when the work is done—sometime in 2021—because she’ll always have a connection to GSR. “In the end, the improvements have been fast and furious and have attributed to the bottom line, and people’s overall guest experience has certainly been elevated.”
Now, GSR is the premier destination in Reno, and the powers-that-be are praying history will repeat itself at Sahara. For Meruelo and his team, the dream continues.
Says Meruelo: “We are now responsible for shaping a new narrative. We are writing the next chapter in the city’s evolution, for the love of Vegas.”