Friday, July 16, 1999 | 10:47 a.m.
As lightning bolts tore through the sky and raindrops started to fall, the $276 million Resort at Summerlin quietly opened Thursday night, ending a week of delays caused by flooding.
Instead of a packed mob crushing at the doors, this opening was marked by a slow but steady procession of luxury cars pulling up to valet parking through a driving rain. Only a few dozen patrons were on hand at the opening, as storms and confusion over the casino's opening kept many away, though the customer count swelled to several hundred by midnight.
Officials decided to open at about 8 p.m., minutes after Clark County inspectors gave the resort its final approvals. The property actually opened about two hours later. Inspections of nonpublic areas of the resort continued into the night.
The casino had been scheduled to open in April, but was pushed back to the summer by construction delays. Officials had slated the project for a July 12 opening, but minor damage caused by recent flooding forced several more days of delays.
Many might consider such a low turnout a bust, but Seven Circle Resorts Inc. President and Chief Executive Brian McMullan said he couldn't be happier.
His new project is based on an aura of intimacy -- a place where dealers and hotel clerks know patrons by name, where Las Vegas visitors can escape from the crush of the Strip, where just one wedding will be booked a day, so participants can receive special treatment. A first-night crush, he said, would have hurt that image from the start.
"I didn't want people to have a bad first experience," McMullan said. "I trust we'll break in slowly. We didn't tell anyone we were going to be opening tonight.
"Crowds don't equal money."
That will probably change, as McMullan is expecting as many as 20,000 people to show up this weekend as word gets out about the opening. Once it's established, he expects the resort will average about 5,000 visitors a day.
"I guess we'll get slammed over the weekend," McMullan said wryly.
Less than 50 people had booked rooms on the first night in the resort that McMullan hopes will become the "focal point of entertainment in Summerlin," and it's expected that the hotel won't begin to reach full occupancy for three months. Activity on the floor was sparse.
McMullan acknowledged that the low room booking number was caused by repeated delays, but didn't elaborate on how much revenue that cost the resort.
"Now that we're open, that's no longer a worry," he said.
The resort now employs about 1,500 people. That will grow to 1,800 by September, when construction is finally expected to be complete.
More than 10 miles from the Strip, the resort is well away from the center of the Las Vegas gaming universe, and industry observers have questioned whether such a project can succeed.
The resort is also a decidedly upscale operation, offering patrons features like $100 slot machines and lobsters in the shell in its upstairs buffet. That segment of the market is becoming saturated, with the openings of resorts such as Bellagio.
McMullan doesn't see himself competing with the Strip, but rather with the popular desert golf resorts located near Phoenix, Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles. He's hoping to draw in the "golfer-gambler" -- a regular patron of desert resorts looking for a new vacation spot with a gaming twist.
It's a concept McMullan said has been proven in South Africa, where Seven Circles parent company Swiss Casinos Holdings AG operates several gaming resorts. The Resort at Summerlin marks Swiss Casinos' first entry into the Las Vegas market.
"I don't expect the 30-odd million tourists to hop in cabs and come here," he said. "We see ourselves as a Southwest resort, the first of its kind in Las Vegas. There are people who love Las Vegas, who don't necessarily love all of the people on the Strip."
The resort's Grand Spa hotel, which opened Thursday night, has 286 rooms. Even after construction is complete in September, the resort will only have 540 rooms, a far cry from the huge megaresorts on the Strip. Though rooms are starting at $149 a night, rates will quickly rise above $300 a night once the resort is fully operational.
The resort will be primarily marketed to regular golfers in Southern California through direct mail campaigns. The first ads for the resort began appearing in Thursday's Los Angeles Times.
Seven golf courses surround the 54-acre resort, though none are owned by Seven Circle.
"It's a market that's really been untapped since we started building the megaresorts out here," said Tom Jones, chair of the department of hotel management at UNLV. "There are not too many intimate properties here anymore. It may well appeal to someone who wants the aspects of gaming, but wants the proximity of golf, and doesn't want the crowds on the Strip.
"The high roller really does enjoy a certain standard, a certain level of privacy. They do not want to be jostled. If there's someone that wants even fewer people around, something like (the Resort) may attract that individual."
But Jones warned that it would be difficult to draw patrons away from their usual resorts in Arizona and California.
"There is a certain amount of customer loyalty," he said. "They go back to the same resorts, year after year, and they know everyone there."
Even if the resort is quite successful in drawing those customers away, 540 rooms won't be enough to support an operation with nine restaurants, 1,200 slot machines and 40 table games. That makes locals a crucial piece of the resort's revenue picture. Officials anticipate that locals will account for more than half of the resort's revenues.
McMullan thinks he's in a position to grab a big chunk of that market quickly. More than 250,000 people live within 5 miles of the resort, and the nearest hotel-casino is the blue-collar Arizona Charlie's, more than 6 miles away from Summerlin residents in a decidedly unglamorous part of Las Vegas.
Summerlin residents, meantime, have per capita incomes 20 percent higher than the rest of the valley.
The resort has been trying to raise interest in Summerlin by initiating a direct mail campaign to local residents.
The few Summerlin residents that braved the inclement weather Thursday said a gaming facility in their neighborhood is something they've awaited for some time.
"This is the strongest plus Summerlin's had in the six years I've lived here," Robert Sidell said as he made the first rolls on one of the craps tables. "For quality restaurants, quality casinos, I don't have to go down to the Strip anymore.
"I've been waiting for this since April."
For Harry Angersbach, the resort means an end to long drives. He didn't see much difference between the resort and many other casinos in the area, but this casino is just a bike ride away.
"My wife goes to Fiesta, Palace Station, but that's 15, 20 miles from here," the retiree said. "I think it's terrific I don't have to drive to Sunset Station or Palace Station anymore.
"Now I can stay in Summerlin and lose my money here."
Some other residents who didn't show up, however, have long opposed the casino. They say it mars the residential nature of the Summerlin master planned community.
The resort will rely on more than gaming to keep locals. Though only three restaurants are open, the resort will have nine once it's complete in September. Nevada Nick's, a steakhouse owned by restauranteur Nicholas Nickolas, will open July 29. Paseo de Vida, an upscale shopping area between the casino and the still-unopened Grand Palms hotel, will open in mid-August.
Despite that variety, McMullan still anticipates 55 percent of revenues will come from gaming, somewhat higher than the percentage at many Strip properties, he said.
After a very quiet first night, it's unknown if Summerlin residents will buy into McMullan's vision of the resort as the entertainment center of northwest Las Vegas.
"This is like the neighborhood country club," McMullan said. "That's how I like to position it."