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[The Incidental Tourist]

Vegas was all about nongaming revenue until the pandemic arrived. Now what?

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Workers complete installation of an exterior sign on the south side of Downtown’s Circa
Photo: Steve Marcus

Development surrounding the Las Vegas Strip has tilted toward nongaming revenue for two decades now, a trend that has culminated in the past five years with the construction of free-standing sports and entertainment venues T-Mobile Arena and Allegiant Stadium.

The casino might have been relegated to a complementary role in the greater Vegas experience during this era, but there’s never really been a major resort built specifically for these times. And while two new projects set to open in the coming months—Resorts World on the Strip and Circa on Fremont Street—might have been envisioned as such, they will now have to also contend with COVID-era circumstances that have, so far, returned Las Vegas to its gaming-centric roots.

The Resorts World construction site

From 1984 to 1993, gaming hovered around 57 percent of total revenue for Strip casinos, according to the UNLV Center for Gaming Research. In 1989, when the Mirage opened as the first modern Vegas megaresort, food and drink, entertainment and other income not including gaming or hotel room occupancy accounted for approximately 24 percent of total revenue.

In 2019, gaming came in at 34.8 percent for Strip casinos, while those nongaming numbers added up to approximately 37 percent of total casino revenue. Downtown, where entertainment is a lesser component and gaming has always generated majority profit, last year’s numbers were 50.5 percent for gaming and approximately 31 percent for nongaming.

In 1999, the year Mandalay Bay, Venetian and Paris Las Vegas opened, gaming dipped below 50 percent of total revenue at Strip casinos for the first time. The path forward was clear: Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shows and live music options were as important as casino fun. The next three new Strip resorts were Wynn, Palazzo and Encore, all luxury-driven updates on the standard template.

Aria (2009) could have signaled the start of a new era of building on the Strip, but it was designed as an ultramodern take on that same model, with the new twist of City Center’s surrounding residential development, and clearly and severely handicapped by the recession. One could argue that the neighboring Cosmopolitan (2010) was created for the nongaming-revenue era, but many of its innovations were born out of its limited footprint; Cosmo had to stack other amenities above and around a smaller casino floor, and for all its coolness, it didn’t become truly successful until it mastered the gaming element.

One significant step in this direction was a resort refashioned, not built from the ground up. When MGM Resorts transformed the 20-year-old Monte Carlo into Park MGM, adding stylish new restaurants and nightlife venues—the Eataly food marketplace, the boutique NoMad Hotel and the 5,200-seat Park Theater for residency shows from Lady Gaga, Aerosmith, Bruno Mars and others—it essentially created an entertainment complex around T-Mobile Arena, one that easily extends to related Strip properties New York-New York to the south and Aria to the north. Though the Monte Carlo casino footprint remains the same, gaming is essentially an afterthought at Park MGM.

That may be why it’s one of only two MGM properties that hasn’t reopened yet. A weekend in Vegas right now consists of gaming, eating and drinking, and maybe visiting the pool or spa or another attraction at your hotel. While additional resorts and venues could reopen as soon as September 1 and create new entertainment programming to adjust to current restrictions, no Strip resort is designed to succeed in the current environment, or even to sustain itself over the long term.

Resorts World, scheduled to open next summer, isn’t changing its strategy for the pandemic. The long-simmering $4.3 billion project has made significant adjustments to its design and scale over the course of development and construction, watching Vegas trends and trying to stay ahead of them. But resort officials recently reconfirmed their commitment to creating grand nongaming experiences, including the 5,000-seat Theatre at Resorts World, a 65,000-square-foot nightlife and daylife venue, and a 17,000-square-foot entertainment zone in the casino. It doesn’t want to be the first post-pandemic Vegas resort; it wants to be the first new Strip megaresort in a decade, with all the best new everything.

Downtown’s upcoming Circa will strike first, launching its two-story casino and many of its amenities on October 28, three months ahead of schedule. The hotel tower is expected to follow at the end of the year. Owner Derek Stevens, who has demonstrated an ability to create experiences that blend gaming with other activities, recently unveiled an exciting array of bars and restaurants planned for the resort on the corner of Main and Fremont, adding to the excitement of his previously announced three-level sportsbook and fifth-floor rooftop pool amphitheater.

Circa’s approach, which has always been about celebrating Vegas traditions, could hit the right notes right now, making gaming as fun as it can be and adding as many cherries on top as are allowed.

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An award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, Brock Radke covers entertainment ...

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