Derek Stevens is passionate about Las Vegas. He says that’s because of the feeling he used to get while flying into Vegas from his native Detroit, where he made a fortune in auto parts.
“I can remember starting to get excited about an hour out,” he says. “The adrenaline would start flowing, and by the time you get to the casino, you’re ready to have fun.”
And “fun” is the centerpiece of Stevens’ two casinos in Downtown Las Vegas, the Golden Gate and the D Las Vegas.
“We use that word in all our marketing,” he says, “because that’s really what it’s all about.”
When Stevens and his brother Gary arrived in Las Vegas, they decided to get into the business of fun. They bought a small piece of the now-closed Riviera, and then purchased a half-interest in the Golden Gate, the oldest casino in Las Vegas. Stevens began his gaming education.
“It was a great time,” he says. “I spent time with the slot and table departments, understood how a hotel runs.”
By 2010, Stevens was looking around for other opportunities, and focused on Downtown.
“It was an exciting time then,” he explains. “There was a new city hall, the Smith Center for Performing Arts opened, Zappos was moving their corporate headquarters Downtown… I really wanted to grow Downtown. So when the opportunity to buy Fitzgeralds came up, it allowed us to grow in scale a bit, combine some of the management functions between the two properties, and increase our marketing budget. We’re now at one end of Fremont Street to the other.”
Stevens became known for his big events and his interactivity with social media—going, in a sense, viral. Howard Stutz of the Las Vegas Review Journal described Stevens as “part Downtown Las Vegas historical gaming figures Benny Binion, Sam Boyd and Jackie Gaughan, coupled with the showmanship of Steve Wynn and Bob Stupak, while adding in 21st century technology.”
Stevens certainly has a flair for the dramatic. The centerpiece of the D Las Vegas is the “Long Bar,” which is just what it says. The Long Bar stretches 100 feet, the entire width of the casino. Huge TVs hang behind the bar, giving visitors views of every sporting event imaginable.
“When we were planning the D, I knew I wanted to create a signature feature,” says Stevens. “The Long Bar builds that energy and excitement from the moment you walk in. Sports is a big part of any casino experience, so fortunately there are great sports events on 365 days a year.”
The Las Vegas Club was a surprise purchase, even for Stevens. After earlier negotiations broke down, Stevens was motivated by plans by the previous owners to install a mega-drug store there, giving Fremont Street visitors ready access to liquor outside the casinos. So Stevens isn’t sure what he’s going to do with that property.
“It’s still early in the process,” he says. “There will be a combination of demolition, rehabilitation, new construction… We’re not even at the design phase at this point.”
For Stevens, the “fun” aspect of gambling continues to drive his marketing and the gambling experience at his properties. To do that, however, players have to win sometime.
“I don’t compete with anyone else based on what slot machine we offer,” he says. “Win or lose, they’re going to have a great time at our place.”
He says it’s important for people to win.
“If you’ve come to Vegas and gone home a loser five straight times,” he says, “do you think you’d book a return trip anytime soon? No, so we always celebrate winners here. We make a big deal about it, take pictures with them. We need to encourage winning.”
Stevens has his hands full. Along with the Downtown Las Vegas Event Center, an open-air festival ground behind the D, he’s now taken over full ownership of the Golden Gate and is evaluating what to do with the Las Vegas Club. “We’re going to be pretty focused on these things,” he says. “And the D is still in its infancy, so we’re still learning.”