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Paul Hobson

President and General Manager, Sahara Las Vegas Hotel Casino

Paul Hobson

The establishment of the SLS from the former Sahara didn’t go according to plan. The L.A. hospitality brand didn’t resonate in Las Vegas, so when Alex Moreno, the Southern California businessman and owner of baseball’s Los Angeles Angels, purchased the property to go along with his Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, he got a bargain. Even though SLS had renovated the former Sahara, Moreno began a program to once again redevelop the original Sahara brand. He brought in Las Vegas casino veteran Paul Hobson to lead that effort and the results have been dramatic. Hobson explained how it worked in a discussion with GGB Publisher Roger Gros at the Sahara in January. To hear and see a full version of the interview, visit the GGB Podcast article.

GGB: Let’s talk about that transition from SLS back to Sahara. It was a nice property when it was SLS, but bringing it back to Sahara was kind of bringing it back to its roots. How did you accomplish that?

Hobson: I think the most challenging part of doing it was continuing to be open all the way through it. When you’re doing complete renovation, you’re interrupting the business, and it’s very, very challenging operationally. But I think that the results certainly speak for themselves. It was worth it. I think we took something that was very heavy on the nightlife vibe—everything that SLS did was clubs—the whole place sort of felt like a dark nighttime club. Alex really wanted to bring back some warmth and light with some great finishes to create an environment where people want to spend time.

Now that one thing that SLS did—because when the Sahara went out, it definitely wasn’t a premium product—SLS was a good pallet cleanser for the period of time that it was installed. And it really laid the foundation to reintroduce Sahara as more of a premium upscale boutique intimate property. That’s what we’re striving for, and that’s what we’ve done in in our design.

What do you believe is the legacy of the Sahara?

We want to lay claim to some of that authenticity. A lot of times Las Vegas tears down its legendary properties to make way for what’s next. What we wanted to do is sort of claim that history as our own and use that foundationally for creating a new Sahara. It gives us a reference point to continue to evolve and build on going forward.

What are some of the most key changes in your view?

I think having a single owner like Alex is very different for today’s Las Vegas. It used to be like that all the time—every property had an individual owner, and that individual had their thumbprint on everything that was that was going on. But now it’s the exception. Outside of Alex maybe you have Phil Ruffin and maybe Derek Stevens Downtown. But being able to work to fulfill what he sees is the vision for the property and not having corporate interests or a board of directors, you’ve got one guy. If you want do something, you go and talk to that guy.

Every property in Las Vegas says locals are important to them, but locals are really abandoning the Strip with these parking fees now. You have no parking fees. So how important are locals to you?

No fee. You’re able to drive right into the park. And I hope you had a good experience leading up to that, because it is really hard to get into the places on the center Strip. Where we sit right off Sahara it’s easy to hop off I-15 and head to Las Vegas Boulevard, and you’re in our free parking garage.

I think that the most important part of it is everybody who works here lives here. So as far as the labor market goes, we’re deep in the locals market. But as you know, most people will tell you that your strongest locals market is the rooftops around you. And some of our most compelling rooftops are in the high-rise condo towers very close to us, not to mention some of the old neighborhoods close by.

How did you build your employee base?

Dealers are in short supply these days, so we sort of reverted back to running our own dealer school—advertising for the right kind of person that is really into service, wants to be in this industry, and grow our own dealers that are going to provide the type of guest experience that we see as being so important to us, and our future. And it doesn’t stop with dealers. There are jobs here where you could come in with minimal experience. If you were a couple, you could both get jobs in housekeeping, and immediately your household income is $100,000. And you get free health care.

You’ve got a really aggressive food-and-beverage strategy. We’ve had a chance to enjoy Bazaar Meats and thought it was one of the most fantastic meals ever.

That is a universal sentiment. Our restaurants are emblematic of how we see the property. We have a lot of best-in-class restaurants. Our sports bar, Chickie’s & Pete’s, is an East Coast brand that you won’t find outside of the Philadelphia region. We were their first restaurant in the West. We’ve got some of the greatest Asian artisans making dim sum and hand-pulled noodles. Our Balla Italian Soul with chef Shawn McClain is a James Beard winner. And a lot of people don’t know this, but he is also Iron Chef winner. So we’re really happy with our F&B offerings.

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.