The epicenter of the Las Vegas Strip is constantly moving. From the 1940s, when Bugsy Siegel arrived to build the Flamingo, the east side of the Strip got all the attention, with the Sahara and Riviera rising soon afterwards. In 1966, it shifted to the west with Caesars Palace and the Dunes, and later the Mirage. The South Strip rose in the 1990s with Mandalay Bay, Luxor, New York-New York and others. Last year, the North Strip took center stage, with construction of SLS Las Vegas getting under way and the announcement of Genting’s Resorts World Las Vegas filling in the Echelon skeleton.
But today, all eyes are back to the point of origination. Caesars Entertainment has unveiled a bold new plan to bring the attention back to the east side of the Strip, an area that includes the venerable Flamingo, the renovated Quad (formerly the Imperial Palace) and the new Cromwell (formerly the Barbary Coast and Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall). Tying it all together will be the Linq, a multi-faceted entertainment experience that includes bars, restaurants, retail, gambling and the world’s largest observation wheel, the High Roller (at least until one slightly larger opens in Paris in a couple of years).
When Caesars consolidated its hold on the east side of the Strip in the early 2000s with the purchase of the Imperial Palace and the Barbary Coast, Las Vegas was at the tail end of the boom it experienced beginning in the early ’90s. Plans were considered to tear down all the existing casinos and build a “CityCenter-like” multi-use development costing billions of dollars. Fortunately for Caesars, the economic downturn hit before any plans could be put into motion, so other plans for the area were considered while waiting for the economy to turn. And an observation wheel was the answer.
Jon Gray was brought over from the Palms to oversee the project, and now that it has opened, he’s turned his attention from development to operation.
“Now we get into the details about making the space what it really wants to be with the common area programming, the music, the lighting and the overall feel of the place,” he says. “It’s really a lifestyle center, with the great retail, dining and entertainment options.”
Eileen Moore was brought in from Caesars Entertainment properties in the Midwest to the east side of the Strip for Caesars (minus Harrah’s Las Vegas, which falls under the leadership of Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner). Moore has oversight on the Quad, the Flamingo, the Cromwell, the Linq and the High Roller. She believes that the Linq will increase the business on that side of the Strip significantly.
“We’ve always had a lot of pedestrian traffic here,” she says, “but not as much of a reason to stick and stay. So unless you were housed here and gambling here, you really didn’t have much of a reason to be a destination or a driver for the market. We know that the Center Strip location is fantastic, and now, that traffic has something to do here.”
East Side, West Side
Moore explains that Caesars’ strategy in building the Linq was to upgrade the entire east side of the Strip, where the properties were barely holding their own and capital reinvestment was negligible. That has now changed. It’s most evident with the Quad, which is almost unrecognizable for those who remember the Imperial Palace.
“It’s really changed, become more state-of-the-art, and we continue to roll out new things,” says Moore. “Later this month, we’ll be opening up an electronic table games lounge, so it will be one of the first of its kind, and have an Interblock product that has a hologram that actually deals cards, so that’s really cool. We’re also opening up another bar called Squeeze, with fresh cocktails, and it’s adjacent to the Linq, one of the first things that you see. And then a spectacular restaurant called Guy Fieri’s Vegas Bar and Kitchen. Guy is a native Las Vegan and this is his first restaurant in his hometown so this project holds a special place in his heart.”
The connections between the Caesars’ eastern Strip properties were tenuous at best. The Carnival Court stood between Harrah’s and the Imperial Palace but there was no “connection.” Now, glass doors invite strollers in from the sidewalk to where they can enjoy the interior of the Quad before exiting onto the Linq and making a quick connection to the Flamingo through the reborn O’Shea’s, which occupied a similar space next to the IP before the Linq construction.
“The legend returns!” quips Moore. “It’s smaller than the original O’Shea’s, which certainly caused some concerns prior to opening, but since we opened it three days before New Year’s Eve, it’s been packed. Local customers—tourists who had come to O’Shea’s and flocked there over the years—have come back, and they really love it, because we kept some of the best elements. And live entertainment every night makes it a great value, so people are really enjoying that.”
Moore considers the Flamingo the flagship of these properties.
“The Flamingo has over 3,600 rooms,” she explains. “But we’ve been underserved in terms of restaurants and retail offerings. So to be directly adjacent to the Linq is a total game-changer for the Flamingo. We have one of the best pools in town, and that drives our occupancy, for sure. But now we have all of the retail entertainment and food and beverages that we’ve really needed to live up to the Flamingo brand.”
In addition, a recent expansion of the Margaritaville area of the Flamingo as well as a planned renovation of the property’s casino space will make it one of the hippest casinos in town.
Moore says the development of Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall into the Cromwell will complete the wager that Caesars has placed on the east side of the Strip (see sidebar on the Cromwell on page 24).
The Linq obviously is centerpiece to the east Strip development for Caesars, the home to the High Roller observation wheel, but it’s the ancillary amenities it brings in that will make it a true destination. Quirky shops like Bella Scarpa (“Beautiful Shoes”), the Goorin Brothers hat shop, the L.A. lifestyle boutique Kitson, the Brazilian eyewear shop Chili Beans and others join with stylish restaurants and bars like Chayo Mexicano Grill and Tequila Bar, the Asian fusion F.A.M.E. (Food. Art. Music. Entertainment.), or the Flour and Barley pizza palace to make the Linq a true destination for visitors and locals alike.
Gray says there were a few criteria when choosing the shops, but the Linq’s preferred demographic of 21-to-45 was always the guiding principal.
“We wanted to bring new to market, and new concepts all together,” he says. “A lot of our owners/tenants are basically entrepreneurial mom-and-pop shops, so there were some challenges along the way because of that. But in the marathon that is the Linq, it’s going to be a much better experience for the customer. It’s a place to really explore and find new concepts on the dining and the retail experience.”
Gray credits Caesars’ partners in the Linq for much of the success it has seen so far. In the retail space, it was Caruso Affiliated, one of the largest developers of shopping centers in the country. Jackie Levy, Caruso’s executive vice president of operations, says that the Linq was a departure for his company, as much as it was for Caesars.
“Given the relationship and the great reputation that Caesars has, we decided to take on the challenge and assist in a consulting capacity, which for us is new,” he explains. “We’ve never really served in that capacity. Our traditional model is to own and manage our own shopping centers. So it’s really our first time doing it in this capacity, and it’s also our first time venturing outside of Southern California.”
Levy says the task was framed by certain parameters.
“We were very targeted at the Gen X and Gen Y consumer, and we were also very focused on connecting the Quad, the Flamingo, the Cromwell and then obviously Caesars across the street. And so we feel like the Linq serves as a perfect connection for all of those properties.”
Gray says the addition of Caruso was crucial for the development of the Linq.
“We were lucky to be able to utilize the talents of the Caruso company consulting on this, along with a great team at Caesars,” he says. “Caruso has got some core tenants like Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch, but for us, the choices of tenants were a lot of gut reaction—Brooklyn Bowl, for example. We went to Brooklyn and checked it out, saw the vibe and knew it would fill a void in our marketplace.”
Levy says the “new in market” criterion was important to the project.
“This is a one-of-a-kind project in Las Vegas. It’s never been done before,” he says. “And so, we were very focused on bringing unique retailers and restaurants that aren’t already in the Las Vegas market, into the market. And so you see that throughout the property, whether it be Brooklyn Bowl, Kitson, Tilted Kilt, Chayo Mexicano—these will all be new experiences for visitors and locals in Las Vegas.”
As much as the retail and dining will be important, the Linq takes it to the next level, according to Levy.
“You see a common thread in all Caruso properties,” he says. “And that is, we’re very focused on creating a memorable shopping, dining and entertainment experience in our properties. We’re also very focused on delivering 5-star customer service, which is modeled after 5-star resorts. So we created the concierge desk at the Linq, where they offer any service that you would find at any concierge desk at any upscale resort. They will book tickets for some of the shows that are taking place in Vegas, they’ll handle your dinner reservations, transportation… I can’t tell you how many weddings, or, wedding proposals we’ve planned, and I’m sure there’s going to be quite a few more once the High Roller opens.”
Wheel in the Sky
Once it started rising, the High Roller began to dominate the center of the Las Vegas Strip. Now completed, the 550-foot-high wheel includes a dazzling light show that is customizable and sponsor-friendly. If you can compare it to its cousins in London and Singapore, its success is almost guaranteed.
“The London Eye is the second-most toured attraction next to the Crown Jewels, so we expect the High Roller to draw lots of attention,” says Gray.
Like the retail, the partners in the High Roller were crucial. Gray says Arup Engineering was the only construction company capable of building the High Roller, given their experience. He says the “one of a kind” element was very true for Las Vegas.
“We had to take into account things that may not have been considered before: heat, wind, dry climate,” he says, “things that may not have played a role in London or Singapore.”
Caesars also employed the Hettema Group, experts in amusement park and thrill rides, to help craft the High Roller experience. In London, says Gray, the Eye was built as a temporary attraction, and had none of the amenities surrounding it that the Linq offers, including meeting space in the High Roller building that all visitors must pass through before the ride.
“We’ve thought about the customer experience from the minute they walk into the building,” says Gray. “There’s an expansive pre-show experience, and as you move toward the cabin, there’s another show. The lighting along the rim is eye-catching. We’ve had some great partners that really created the vision of a vibrant, fun experience, and the lighting and the entertainment are testament to that.”
Behind the Linq is 19 acres of surface parking that can be transformed into a fairgrounds, an outdoor arena, a pitch, or any number of attractions. Just days after opening, the Linq hosts the Academy of Country Music’s Party for a Cause, a two-day extravaganza of the best country music acts, headlined by Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts.
Marketing the Linq will be just as quirky as its tenants, says Gray.
“We’ll be more than just billboards in and out of the market,” he says. “We’ll use digital marketing, social media, experiential marketing, word of mouth and any way we can get the message out about this great new attraction in Las Vegas. The festival itself will have 25,000 people with their cell phones taking selfies with the wheel in the background.”
The strength of the Linq, however, is the integration of the best rewards program in the industry, Caesars’ Total Rewards.
“That’s a big plus for our customers,” says Moore. “If they’re looking for ways to earn points or spend points, they’ve got a lot more access now to entertainment and retail and dining than they’ve ever had.”
Even the non-Caesars shops and restaurants at the Linq are linked to Total Rewards.
“They are invested in Total Rewards,” says Gray, “both from an earn and redeem standpoint, so we’re going to be pushing out messages to 45 million-plus names in our database on behalf of our tenants. So we are also totally invested in them.”
And that will benefit Caesars in the long run, says Gray.
“The Linq was meant to connect our properties, and we think it’s going to be a big success on its own, but a big part of it will be how we convert a Linq customer to a Caesars customer. We are tied into the tenants as they are to us.”