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The Good Life

Betting Big on Vegas

As Las Vegas adjusts to Covid-19 restrictions, Derek Stevens is betting $1 billion on a luxurious new casino
| By Michael Kaplan | From America’s Most Notorious Mobsters, November/December 2020
Betting Big on Vegas
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At the new Circa, “Vegas Vickie’s” Lounge features the neon sign that once adorned Fremont Street.

Derek Stevens may be the most optimistic man in Las Vegas. With the world in a pandemic, Nevada casinos mandated to operate at half capacity, profits predicted to drop by as much as 60 percent this year and mayhem rising (brawls have been reported in Vegas casinos and young tourists have taken to zipping along the Strip on rented Rascals that are usually driven ploddingly by the elderly, the infirm and Doyle Brunson), Stevens is launching a billion-dollar casino in downtown Las Vegas. By the time you read this, he will have opened the doors on Circa Resort & Casino. 

While upcoming places such as Virgin Hotels Las Vegas (on the site of the old Hard Rock) and Resorts World (under development by Genting Berhad and promising to be a lure for Asian high rollers) are hotly anticipated, Circa is the first hotel to open in a market so tepid that the once mighty Wynn Encore has done the unthinkable, cutting back to just five days per week due to waning demand in a city that once truly never slept, at least in the days before Covid-19.

Circa is Fremont Street’s first new, from the ground up, casino since 1980, built for an estimated cost of $1 billion. It’s also different from anything that the neighborhood has ever seen, complete with the town’s largest sportsbook and a three-story-high TV monitor. Circa has an auspicious 777 rooms (boutique-sized by Sin City standards) and several restaurants, including the steakhouse Barry’s Downtown Prime, a barbecue joint and a round-the-clock Vegas spin-off of the great Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Circa’s is called Saginaw’s). There’s also a 24/7 multitiered swimming pool. So what happens on the winter nights when the desert air can get nippy enough to warrant winter jackets? “Two of our pools will go up to 103 degrees,” Stevens jocularly responds. “If they can keep the pools open in Aspen, we can do it in Vegas.”

It would be easy to imagine Stevens being at least a little concerned about his timing with such a new, expensive venture. But the auto-parts magnate from Detroit is not sweating at all. He’s quite familiar with the downtown Vegas scene, having already played a role in revitalizing the district with his splashy D Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, boosterism for the Fremont Street Experience and his purchase of the long-neglected Golden Gate, each of which is located within five minutes of Circa. “People coming to Vegas are excited to be here,” he says. “And, boy oh boy, are they spending money. Quantity is down significantly but the average spend is up significantly.”

Stevens is not your ordinary casino boss. He began coming to Las Vegas as a high roller, a successful businessman who enjoyed gambling for recreation. Then he started investing in joints that were a notch or two below the high-tone spots where he shot dice. After that, he took a roll on his own joint downtown (the “D” stands for both Derek and Detroit, and maybe even for downtown). He still gambles in the pit and remains an avid sports bettor. In 2017 and ’18, he snagged headlines by betting $11,000 on each of 32 games in the first round of March Madness before tossing down an additional $25,000 on his cherished Michigan Wolverines to take it all. 

Luckily, he’s rich.

Like many a gambler, Stevens does not seem impressed by conventional thinking. Circa is the only Vegas casino with a very sensible 21-and-up entrance policy, which eradicates the likelihood of buzzkilling babies and harried parents making you feel guilty for having enough sense to leave your brood at home. He’s betting big that people will come to his newest venture, following the call that has lured gamblers to the escape of the Nevada desert for decades.

Anyone who flies into Las Vegas today expecting a throwback to the good old days will be a tad disappointed. With required facemasks, hand-sanitizer stations all around and plexiglass barriers installed in many gaming areas to separate players from one another and from their dealers, casinos in 2020 can sometimes look more like hospital operating rooms than splashy gaming floors. High-stakes blackjack player R.J. Cipriani likens the experience of gambling behind glass to “being in a fucking cage.” 

He’s not the only one complaining. 

“Gambling in casinos is not as fun as it used to be; that’s all I can tell you,” says Anthony Curtis, publisher of the “Las Vegas Advisor” newsletter and owner of the gambling book imprint Huntington Press. The former advantage player who used card-counting and other techniques to regularly beat blackjack is a longtime observer of Vegas. “The buzz isn’t there. At one point Bellagio put a washbasin out on the main casino floor. There were sinks where you could wash your hands. But now, nobody cares about washing their hands. There are sanitizers on the floor and everybody walks right past them.”

Curtis puts blame for casino woes on the fact that their strategists changed priorities. They went from generating most of their income from gambling to letting onetime amenities—shows, shopping, nightclubs, restaurants—become primary profit centers. “Vegas was recession-proof when gambling was the number-one earner,” he says. “But then it became two-thirds non-gambling with friends. Then they smoke the whole time they are out there.”

One thing that Baldwin cannot control is what’s been described as a changing demographic being drawn to Vegas. Generally, the current crowds can be generously characterized as a bit déclassé. “I heard about casino security having to tackle a guy who was tweaking out on the gaming floor,” says Baldwin, who mentions the trend of people cramming six-at-a-time in rooms and rolling up to casino lobbies with coolers full of beer. 

Some critics blame the fact that room prices in Vegas have dropped in order to make them more attractive during the pandemic. Curtis attributes it to a younger demographic less fearful of travel, taking spots once filled by older, more affluent, generally staid folks who are concerned about taking trips. And everyone in 2020 who has been pent up seems ready to start blowing off steam as soon as the wheels touch the tarmac in Vegas. 

Casino operators are taking measures to keep things calm. At the Cosmopolitan’s busiest times, you can only be admitted if you have a room key, a restaurant reservation or a player’s card. Downtown, at the D and Golden Gate, Stevens has implemented ID and temperature checks at the door. Curtis showed up once without his wallet and couldn’t get into the D. “The thinking,” he says, “is that once ID has been shown, there is a reticence to cause trouble. It’s another layer of security. If you are downtown, though, you better bring your ID.”

The people who run Las Vegas have long made their money by being able to predict outcomes of sporting events, games of chance, what their customers want to eat and drink and get for free in order to keep coming back. While Covid-19 is far less quantifiable than a shoe of playing cards, it hasn’t stopped operators from taking measures and making implementations that actually enhance gaming experiences. 

One new thing is so-called stadium games: consoles of chance for people who want action, plus proximity to other players, without gambling on their well-being in the process. “At Green Valley Ranch [a casino favored by Vegas locals], a whole bunch of table games were taken out and replaced with these stadium-style seats, where you sit and face a large monitor,” explains Curtis. “Then you put your money into a machine and a dealer on a big screen deals out cards.” Each player sees his cards on a small monitor and hits or stands as seems appropriate. It feels like each person is playing heads-up against the dealer. “You don’t touch chips or cards, you sit at a sanitized keypad, and after you are done, it gets re-sanitized for the next player.”

Does Curtis think that the stadium games will disappear once the coronavirus is licked? “These things will be here to stay,” he says. “People are getting attached to them.”

Other changes include elements designed to make the casinos themselves feel more sanitary. Vegas casinos—including those owned by MGM Resorts International, such as Aria, Mirage, Bellagio and MGM Grand—have put a big emphasis on cleanliness. “We have hand sanitizer at the tables,” says Anton Nikodemus, president and COO of the company’s Las Vegas portfolio. “Cards get replaced periodically. We have a cleaning and sterilization process for the chips. When a player comes to the table, he puts his hands under the plexiglass and the dealer provides a squirt of sanitizer.”

Then there’s a high-tech change that had been ramping up and got fast-tracked in the wake of Covid. “There’s now a digital check-in process you can do on your mobile phone,” Nikodemus says, explaining that it’s been implemented company wide. “You answer a health questionnaire on your phone, go right to your room and have a digital key on your phone. Everybody likes that. Nobody liked waiting on lines to check in.”

Ultimately, Nikodemus envisions a Vegas with chip-free play, where people rely on digital wallets, as well as increased opportu-nities for sports betting via cell phone. Now the casinos just need an influx of customers to get things back up to speed. While Nikodemus describes weekend demand as “strong,” he adds, “Midweek business will be a challenge until conventions pick up.”

In terms of what Las Vegas will look like in the future, it depends who you ask. Nikodemus is betting on a slow build through 2021. Curtis voices more optimism. “I think Vegas will do what it has done every other time it’s faced adversity: It will come back better than it was before.” He hesitates for a beat, then acknowledges that there is just one wrinkle. “But nobody knows when that will happen.”

Back in downtown Vegas, Stevens has an eye on cleanliness, and had more than a little bit of luck in designing his ventilation system. Long before the pandemic, he planned on a new kind of system for Circa that sucks out air at ground-level rather than at ceiling height, which proved to be a boon. “The air is cleaner and smoke gets pulled quicker,” Stevens says, explaining that it was put in to keep non-smokers satisfied. “Now, with what’s happening as a result of Covid, clean air is even more of an issue.”

Stevens sounds undaunted by Covid-related hurdles, and is optimistic that Vegas will overcome this new challenge. “Three months ago, requiring people to wear masks was a big deal. It no longer is. Every American has a capitulation point.” So, as Stevens sees it, masked or not, with or without plexiglass, people are ready to let it rip in his adopted hometown. “Vegas has always been an escape from reality. You can come out here, have a drink, gamble and be excited to do it. People love coming to Las Vegas. They look forward to getting away.”

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