For many years, Las Vegas’ attitude toward casino resorts was “Out with the old, in with the new!” But everything old is new again at the revamped Sahara on the Strip, which is celebrating its 70thu birthday October 7. The renovated hotel offers a lot of 70 peopleu anniversary promotions, with the slogan, “Seventy never looked so good!”
Much of the Sahara is new, but the past also holds power.
Entertainers such as Elvis, Don Rickles, Tony Bennett and a TV host named Johnny Carson all played the Sahara, as can be seen in the framed photos on the walls of today’s hotel. Celebrities such as Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Marlena Dietrich and Frank Sinatra came to stay, play or perform.
Back then, there was a high diving board and epic card games like pan poker. The Beatles stayed there on their only visit to Las Vegas, but due to demand, their Sahara show was moved to the Convention Center.
But unlike its cascading contemporaries like Sands, Stardust, Dunes and Desert Inn, Sahara is very much alive today. The resort is an oasis at the northern end of the strip, with soothing earth tones, cool marble and an inviting pool and lounges. It has one of the newest poker rooms on the Strip, opening in 2020. And unlike today’s big resorts, walking the Sahara from check-in to the lounges to the cafe to the rooms from the casino to the pool is a simple stroll .
Sahara is opposite the Festival Grounds which is used for large outdoor concerts, attracting a younger crowd. The pool area has one of the largest outdoor TV screens, loud pop music, an outdoor bar and seating from sun loungers to luxury cabanas.
It is easy to get in or out of the hotel by car, taxi, shuttle or Monorail. For example, Sahara has about 100 airline pilots and crew per night. No doubt they have a good percentage. But coming from the airport, crews pass at least 50 hotels, including all the resorts on the South Strip. Easy access and a rough day’s sleep have their value.
The Sahara hardly looks its age, with lots of light, marble finishes, an updated pool and cabana, and beautifully renovated rooms. Much of that has to do with a $150 million upgrade from its current ownership, which bought the Sahara and took its name from the SLS (the less said about this disco incarnation, the better) four years ago .
Small(er) is beautiful in the Sahara. The hotel has 1600 rooms. That’s significant by most measures, but not in Las Vegas, where it doesn’t even make the top 10. The biggest is the MGM Grand, with over 5,000 rooms. Mandalay Bay, number 11 on the list, has 3,209 rooms, twice as many as the Sahara.
But from a business perspective, fewer rooms mean fewer rooms to fill. And while the Sahara doesn’t have an exhibition space like the 4,000-seat Caesars Coliseum or a massive 1.8 million square foot convention/trade show at Mandalay Bay, the hotel is suitable for both leisure and business travelers.
“It’s hard to call a 1,600-room resort a boutique hotel,” said Paul Hobson, President of Sahara Las Vegas. However, that’s the feel Sahara wants. On the meeting side, Hobson said, groups of a hundred to five hundred get the hotel’s full attention. “Groups like this can feel lost at one of the big resorts,” he noted.
Sahara also has an efficient text messaging app for guests. He offered quick answers to simple questions like where is the gym, can I checkout late, etc.
The Sahara’s smaller size and somewhat less desirable location on the Northern Strip likely contributed to its survival. There was no need to demolish the property, which could operate efficiently without a multi-billion dollar demolition and rebuild. When billionaire Phil Ruffin bought the nearby 3,800-room Circus Circus, (admittedly in scratch and dent condition) he paid just $825 million. By contrast, the 3,500-room Resorts World Las Vegas, not far from the Sahara, opened in 2021 at a cost of $4.3 billion.
Why did Sahara survive seventy years while others barely reached middle age? The Sands, for example, one of Vegas’ top hotels, lasted just 44 years.
“Of the Sahara [North Strip] the location had a lot to do with it. The South Lane is where most of the action is,” says Dr. Michael Green, Associate Professor of History at UNLV.
“However, the Sahara is an important historical site for the Strip. It starts with entertainment. The Beatles stayed in the Sahara, Elvis Presley played there,” says Green. “Bill Miller, the entertainment director, brought in a scrappy guy, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, who ended up doing the place for years.”
Green notes that the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon was held for 20 years in the Sahara, “with celebrities booking the hotel.”
When I visited in September, I heard a live lounge act playing songs from the 1970s. Sahara’s big show today is Magic Mike Live, based on the hit movie and partially supported by actor Channing Tatum. The largely female crowd seemed to love the cast of handsome men in skimpy dresses and the Cinderella story of an aspiring dancer. In a different venue, comedian Eddin Griffin (Undercover Brother) delivered a crazy set.
Dr Green notes that in the 1950s, showrooms were just as intimate. “Sands with 600 seats was the biggest. When Sinatra first appeared at the Desert Inn, he said, “You’ve got me a filet mignon, too.”
Sahara was known for its cuisine when Las Vegas was a “food desert,” according to Dr. Green. Restaurants like House of Lords and Don the Beachcomber have given way to the famous Bazaar Meat By José Andrés, one of the best restaurants in Las Vegas for discerning meat eaters. Then there’s Noodle Den, an upscale Chinese restaurant, and what ESPN calls the #1 Sports Bar in North America, Chickie’s & Pete.
The Sahara was one of the first theme hotels, with buildings like the Casbah and camels guarding the entrance for years, Green says. “The old properties of the Strip have fallen apart. They cannot compete with the modern megaresort. I am grateful that Sahara is interested in her story. Mainly, in Las Vegas, we blew up our story.” (Late at night, you can still see electric Vegas signs at the Neon Museum.)
Dr. Green recalled that “My parents got married and settled in the Sahara.” Some things haven’t changed much. In September, I saw a bachelor with a leaf,. Wedding party accompanied a bride in an off-white buttoned dress. A dad nodded to a security guard and told his young son to “Say hi to Big Mike!”
“In today’s Sahara, you don’t feel like it was built in 1952. Nobody comes to Las Vegas to stay in a place that reminds them of the ’50s,” says Dr. Green. “They offer what they offer – relaxation, entertainment, gaming, chef names – without overwhelming you.”