Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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Major Makeover for Bill's Gamblin' Hall

Ever since Caesars Entertainment took over the aging Barbary Coast on the corner of The Strip and Flamingo, the small hotel casino has been - well, I wouldn't say languishing - but certainly holding on to the status quo. Other than the name change to Bill's Gamblin' Hall and a few entertainment and dining shuffles, there hasn't been much to talk about with the hotel because not much has happened.

That's all going to change in a big way next year as the property is going to get a $180 million, top-to-bottom renovation aimed at turning into a swank, boutique hotel aimed at a younger, more party-hearty set.

Almost everything will get some sort of makeover including the casino and public areas, the restaurants, all of the nearly 200 rooms, and the exterior of the building. A rooftop pool and nightclub overlooking The Strip will be added as the lynchpin of the new demographic strategy. A new name for the hotel is also likely.

The hotel opened in 1979 as the Barbary Coast, most notable for its small size compared to its towering mega-resort neighbors, and for its stained-glass decor meant to evoke a turn-of-the-century San Francisco. It became Bill's in 2007 when it was purchased (in a land-swap) by Harrah's Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment).

The hotel was originally the brainchild of Michael Gaughan, scion of legendary casino magnate Jackie Gaughan. Michael used the success of the property to build his Coast Casinos empire, which eventually came to include The Orleans, Suncoast, and South Coast, the latter of which was renamed South Point and is the only casino owned by Gaughan after he sold everything else to Boyd Gaming.

One really interesting bit of Barbary Coast history... on November 21, 1980, there was a small electrical fire in the hotel that was quickly extinguished. An hour later a devastating blaze broke out at the MGM Grand (now Bally's) across the street and Gaughan shut down the casino, moved all the gaming tables, and used the Barbary as a first aid and comfort station for the wounded.

There is no time table set for the renovations of Bill's but most analysts are expecting that it will be spring of 2013 before the dust starts to fly and sometime in 2014 before it settles. The hotel will most likely remain open during construction.

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Bye Bye Bill's


 


Bill's Casino


 


Garth Brooks Moseys Out of Town

When country legend Garth Brooks came out of retirement to do a series of shows at Wynn/Encore Las Vegas, no one had any idea what to expect. The singer had been famous for his larger-than-life stadium spectacles and how he would translate that into an intimate 1,800 seat theater environment was unknown.

Turns out he went the completely opposite direction, taking the bare stage by himself with only his guitar, his voice, his humor, and his down-home ability to be able to spin a good yarn. The one-man show has been one virtuoso performance after another, adding up to what I called the best show in Las Vegas and one of the best concerts I've ever seen anywhere in my entire life.

Now, after three years of sold-out shows, Brooks is packing up his guitar and heading back to Oklahoma. There are eight shows left in late October and mid-November and tickets are scarce. The final date is November 17.

Originally the deal for Brooks to perform at Wynn was trumpeted as a five-year exclusive, but representatives for the singer said that five was a maximum not a requirement and after three years he is ready to move on. To what is unknown although the one-man show is reportedly going to be filmed and released on DVD and may become the basis for a touring show in 2013.

Read my full review of the Garth Brooks concert here.

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A Tip of the Hat


 


Cirque du Mandalay Bay

Cirque du Soleil has been a good partner of MGM Resorts for years, with all of their Las Vegas shows but one playing at MGM Resorts hotels. And the only reason there is one that isn't is because MGM Resorts sold Treasure Island, the hotel that is home to Mystère.

Those partnerships have extended beyond the showrooms to lounges, shopping experiences, and more but the plans for Cirque integration into Mandalay Bay far exceed anything they have done before.

On the docket is a major Cirque du Soleil themed nightclub and performance space, which is taking over the room once home to rumjungle. The multi-level facility is expected to span more than 50,000 square feet, making it one of the biggest nightclubs in Vegas. In addition to the requisite bars and dance floor, the club will also feature acrobatics and gymnastics by Cirque du Soleil performers throughout the room.

The opening of the club is being tied to the opening of Cirque's biggest Vegas spectacular yet, the Michael Jackson Immortal residency show going into the old Lion King showroom at Mandalay Bay.

But they may not be stopping there. There are rumors of a Cirque managed Michael Jackson themed lounge and possibly even a restaurant, plus Cirque themed suites in the hotel. Mind you these are just rumors at this point but the nightclub and show are done deals that should open in May of 2013.

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Getting Cirque-y With It

 

Top 10 Ways to Save Money in Vegas

Several years ago, as the economy was taking a nose dive, I did a story about ways to save money in Las Vegas. It focused a lot on finding ways to still have a Vegas vacation without worrying about bank failures and rising unemployment rates.

Four years later, the economy is showing signs that it is recovering, slowly, but does that mean you should throw caution to the wind and go blow your 401K in Vegas? Of course not. The frugality lessons we tried to embrace as the recession took over are the same ones we should be holding onto today if for no other reason than we don't really know what's around that next corner, now do we?

Visiting Las Vegas these days is cheaper than it has been in years. Average room rates have been ticking up this year but they are still well below the averages of most of the last decade. Many expensive restaurants have been replaced by more moderately priced eateries. Even shows have gone out of their way to make sure that there are at least some affordable tickets mixed in with the pricey ones. They may not be the best seats in the house but at least you'll be in the room.

So I took that piece I wrote back in 2008 and updated it to a 2012 way of thinking. To be honest, there weren't many changes.

1. Be Flexible
I know not everyone has the luxury of being able to pick and choose when to have their vacation but if you can come up with even three or four different options, it can go a long ways toward saving you money. Room prices in Vegas vary dramatically from week to week and having a few different periods when you could take your trip could mean you could save yourself hundreds of dollars on your accommodations. For instance, I'm looking at the Bellagio rate calendar for October through December and if I were to stay at the hotel on Friday and Saturday, October 19-20 I would pay $728 plus taxes and resort fees for the two nights. If I were to go the next weekend I would pay $538, a savings of nearly $200! And if I could swing it to the weekend of December 14th I'd pay $359 for the two nights, less than half the original rates.

2. Know What's Important
If you're reading this, there's a good chance that cost is one of your primary considerations when considering a vacation, but you'd be amazed how many people still think they can get 5-Diamond luxury for Motel 6 prices. Saving money means you will probably forgo some of the niceties like bazillion thread count sheets and bathrooms big enough to park a ship in, but were those things really important to you anyway? If you're looking for bargains, you can't be a snob and that applies to everything from hotels to restaurants to shows and beyond. You don't have to pay $100 a head for a great meal; you don't have to pay $150 per ticket to see a great show; and you don't have to pay a $30 cover charge to get into a fun club. People equate price with quality and it doesn't always work out that way.

3. Do Your Homework
Usually in my life I go with the theory "the dumber you are, the happier you are" but when it comes to Las Vegas vacation planning I stick with the "knowledge equals power" motto. Read Vegas books (preferably mine), visit Vegas websites (preferably mine), and talk to friends, co-workers, or people you pass on the street who have visited the city and can share insights. This is important when looking at budget alternatives for hotels, restaurants, and shows so that you can find not only inexpensive options, but good inexpensive options.

4. Pack Smart
One of the ways they "get you" in Las Vegas is overcharging for everything for a bottle of shampoo to a bottle of water. Make sure you pack all of your necessities so you don't have to go out and buy things when you get to town.

5. Rent a Car
People keep not believing me when I tell them that the best way to save money is to spend more money on a rental car, but I'll make it simple with an example. You could take a cab from the airport to your hotel on The Strip and back again, then use cabs, buses, the monorail, and your feet to get you around to the places you want to see. You'll probably pay $200 a night easily for that room and another $100 on transportation. If you're staying for five nights that's $1100 before you factor in the higher prices you'll pay on everything from food to water in the gift shop. Or, you can stay off The Strip, pay $100 a night for a perfectly find hotel room and spend another $150 for a mid-size car rental to get you to all the places you want to go. That's a $350 savings right there, plus you'll be able to save money on other items that are cheaper off The Strip AND see things you normally wouldn't get to see by staying on Las Vegas Boulevard.

6. Stay Off the Strip
As mentioned above, if you rent a car you can stay off The Strip and save yourself a ton of money. They may not be as luxurious as some of the grand palaces on The Strip, but there are many hotels in Downtown Las Vegas and in other parts of the city that offer very good rooms for a fraction of the cost of what you'll pay in the heart of the action.

7. Watch Out for the Extras
By now just about everyone knows about those nefarious Resort Fees, the added on nightly charges that cover things like Internet and gym access and maybe a few other things. They range from about $10-$25 per night at hotels on The Strip. If you plan on regularly using the things they cover, they can be a good deal but if not it's wasted money that you have to pay no matter what. There are plenty of hotels that don't charge resort fees so look for those. But resort fees aren't the only things to keep an eye out for. Hotels love to tack on extras for everything from early check-in to extra people in the room to the bottles of water they leave on the nightstand. Be careful!

8. Look for the Deals
I get e-mails all the time about coupons and 2 for 1 deals and the like. They aren't as common as they used to be but you can still find them, primarily in the in-room magazines that you'll find once you check in and in the local newspapers. There are a few places that sell coupon books and those multi-attraction passes that you can pay for, but - and this is strictly my opinion - for the most part they aren't worth the money. Most people don't use enough of the coupons or the attraction passes to make up for the cost of buying them in the first place.

9. Join the Club
If you're planning on spending any time gambling, be sure to join the players' club at every single casino you visit. Every dollar you spend will earn you points that can get you discounts on meals, future lodging, shows, and more or even get you cash. Plus, depending on your level of play, you may get mailings with free room offers and more that can save you money for future trips. Having said that, if you really want to save money...

10. Don't Gamble
I know, it's Las Vegas and that's sort of like saying "Let's go to Orlando but NOT go to Disney World." But seriously, if you gamble you most likely will lose. That's a harsh reality but it's true: most people lose. They didn't build these multi-billion hotels and casinos because most people win. You can have a great time in Vegas without gambling, but if you do feel the urge to splurge on a slot machine, be sure to set a budget before you go and stick with it! Once that money is gone, do not make another trip to the ATM machine in the hopes that your luck will change - it probably won't.

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Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Black Hole Award of the Week goes to the new CBS TV show "Vegas," which continues to remove entire chunks of Las Vegas geography as it recreates Sin City in 1960. In last week's episode it placed the fictional Savoy casino (run by the mobster played by Michael Chiklis) on Fremont Street next to The Golden Nugget, more or less where The Four Queens is now. And then on the other side of the Savoy, using CGI, they put The Stardust, which was on The Strip, not in Downtown. They really need to hire me to help them get it right.

The Splashdown Award of the Week goes to the water park under construction on the west side of Las Vegas, which has dropped the Splash Canyon name it was going to go by and adopted the much beloved (at least to many Las Vegas visitors) Wet 'n' Wild moniker. Wet 'n' Wild was a popular water themed attraction on The Strip next to The Sahara for years. The new one is scheduled to open by May of 2013.

The Waxy Buildup Award of the Week goes to Madonna, who will be getting her very own wax figure at the Las Vegas Madam Tussaud's at The Venetian on Thursday, October 11 at 10am, just in time for the real Madonna's two sold-out shows at the MGM Grand next weekend.

The Mmmm Cupcakes Award of the Week goes to Linq, the upcoming entertainment plaza under construction between The Flamingo and Imperial Palace (sorry, The Quad... stupid name), which will be home to Vegas' first Sprinkles Cupcakes outlet, a Los Angeles favorite. Other tenants will include The Strip's first Yard House, and Asian market, and Brooklyn Bowl, a concert, nightclub, and bowling alley venue. The project should be complete by late 2013.

The Know When to Hold 'Em Award of the Week goes to The Venetian, which has just opened the biggest poker room on The Strip with 59 tables and room for 600 players.

The Disappearing Act of the Week goes to Nathan Burton, whose magic show at The Flamingo closed suddenly recently without any notice or warning. Word on the streets is that he may be moving his illusions to Planet Hollywood but that is not confirmed yet.

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Splash Down


 


Disappearing Act


 

Las Vegas History Lesson: The Sahara at 60

October 7th would have marked the 60th Anniversary of The Sahara, one of the most iconic casinos in Las Vegas history.

The Sahara opened on October 7, 1952 during the first major boom on The Strip. Five other major hotels were already up and running including the Frontier, the Flamingo, and the Desert Inn. Many other classics were hot on its heels including the Sands, Riviera, Dunes, and Hacienda all opening within the next couple of years.

It had 240 rooms - a lot for that era - a sparkling pool, a casino, restaurants, and a showroom where Ray Bolger, best-known for his turn as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," was the opening night entertainment.

During the '50s and '60s, it was one of the most popular casinos in Las Vegas, creating iconic sub-brands with its House of Lords steakhouse and Congo Room showroom. The latter hosted everyone from Abbott and Costello to members of the Rat Pack. In fact, it was one of five casinos that were targeted by the Frank Sinatra version of Danny Ocean and his crew in the original "Oceans 11," along with the Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, and Flamingo.

As The Strip grew up, it grew south, away from The Sahara leaving it a bit isolated on the northern end. The one other major hotel that was closest to it, El Rancho, burned down in 1960 leaving The Riviera, and later Circus Circus, as its nearest neighbors more than half a mile away. Financial problems started in the 1970s for original owner Del Webb and continued for the next couple of decades as a parade of owners tried to hold on to the hotel's former glory.

The Sahara expanded over the years eventually getting all the way up to more than 1,700 rooms plus a roller coaster and multiple showrooms, restaurants, and bars. But it became known as a bargain hotel, more famous for its $1 blackjack tables than it was for just about anything else. It became an afterthought to most Vegas visitors; a place they went if they couldn't afford to stay somewhere better.

When Los Angeles nightclub impresario Sam Nazarian bought the hotel in 2007, he promised big changes. Although never divulging a specific plan, his intention was to give new life to The Sahara with an extreme makeover; an attempt to make a hip, party spot along the Palms or Hard Rock model and more in line with his SLS brand of boutique hotels.

But then along came a global recession and Nazarian's plans got put on hold.

Meanwhile The Sahara soldiered on for the last few years but it was obvious that the hotel was dying. They closed down two of the hotel towers they couldn't fill in an effort to save money. The same thing happened to the buffet. A general feeling of decline settled over the hotel and it was really just a matter of time.

Nazarian announced in March of 2011 that The Sahara would close in May because it was no longer "economically viable" to keep it open. That's a nice way of saying it was losing too much money and they couldn't afford to stay in business.

Various pieces of the property closed over the next few weeks including the roller coaster and various restaurants until finally on May 16, 2011, The Sahara said goodbye to Las Vegas. A public auction was held over the summer of 2011 that sold everything but the walls - signage, furniture, gaming equipment, light fixtures, and more all got carried out of the hotel by the modern day equivalent of prospectors leaving nothing but a shell.

The Sahara is gone for good but that shell is going to get a new life.

SBE, the company headed by nightlife and hotel impresario Sam Nazarian, has announced that they have secured $300 million in financing that will allow them to start the process of turning The Sahara into the SLS Las Vegas. When complete in 2014, the SLS will aim to be a "boutique" resort that focuses on luxury but will remain accessible to all audiences.

The plan is to gut the bulk of the property and redo it. Two of the existing hotel towers will be stripped down to the concrete and will get all new interiors and exteriors. A third tower will be rehabbed on the inside and a fourth, low-rise building will be torn down. The SLS will have about 1,600 rooms when it is complete, several hundred fewer than when it was the Sahara.

The rest of the building will get a similar extreme makeover. The roller coaster and NASCAR related attractions are gone and the casino, lobby, pool, and other public areas will be completely redone not only with new decor but with a revised layout.

New nightclubs, lounges, and restaurants will be added with the latter being overseen by Jose Andres, the James Beard Award winning chef whose China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan has garnered major attention. The specifics about what types of restaurants and clubs will be included have not been announced yet but will may include Vegas versions of SBE's popular restaurants in other cities including Bazaar, a Spanish restaurant in Beverly Hills from Andres; the famed Gladstones seafood restaurant located on the beach near Malibu; Katsuya, which is a Japanese/sushi restaurant with eight locations in California, Texas, and Florida; and Mercato di Vetro, an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood.

The SLS Vegas will be a sister to the SLS hotels in Beverly Hills and in South Beach Miami. If they are any indication of what the Vegas hotel will be like, expect lots of clean, sleek, modern lines with retro-mod furnishings and luxurious appointments.

If all goes according to plan, the SLS will welcome guests in late 2014.

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