Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Derek Stevens is quick to dismiss any comparisons between his gaming and hospitality achievements in downtown Las Vegas and those of the well-known casino visionaries who have come before him.
But there are legitimate similarities. Jackie Gaughan, Bill Boyd, Benny Binion and others were known for working hard, paying attention to every detail of their business and being unafraid to take risks. That’s the only way to achieve true innovation.
“I always thought of myself as not the smartest guy in any room but I always thought, if nothing else, I’ll always be able to work as hard as anybody in the room,” Stevens says from an upper-floor conference room at The D, one of two Fremont Street casino resorts the Michigan native owns and operates with his brother, Greg. “It probably goes back to well before we were in Las Vegas, to our manufacturing plants. When I was younger I always tried to be the guy that showed up first and the guy to go home last. In Las Vegas, that’s not really possible because the doors never close and somebody’s always here. But I’ve stuck with that principle for a long time.”
Stevens has become the new face of gaming downtown after acquiring and renovating the Golden Gate (the oldest hotel in the city), The D (formerly Fitzgerald’s) and a new casino-hotel he’s building from the ground up on the site of the former Las Vegas Club. He’s also snatched up other downtown parcels for future projects, including the block behind The D that’s been transformed into the multi-use Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, which hosts plenty of concerts, football and hockey watch parties and more.
He’s been able to get creative and sometimes experimental as he helps rejuvenate the Fremont Street area because he’s captivated by downtown Las Vegas and is always around. Stevens spends as much time as he can in his casinos meeting with staff and guests, always gathering information.
“I want to be around people that love being here and I try to bring that energy with all of our people and our customers,” he says. “The more you’re here the more you get to see and pick up on. I don’t want to spend my business career relying solely on reports. I like to be in the mix and really see what I like and what I don’t. If a light bulb is out, I want it changed in a few minutes, not changed on a normal review once a week. Those things have always meant a lot to me.”
Now that it's full-speed-ahead on construction for the new casino project at the western end of Fremont, Stevens will be able to use all those little bits of information in the most meaningful way. He’s keeping quiet on the details of the planned 777-room hotel tower and 117,000-square-foot casino but acknowledges that building something from scratch is an entirely different challenge than the major renovations he’s carried out so far. He says he only feels comfortable embarking on such a massive project because of what he’s learned revamping the Golden Gate and The D.
“It’s been a long time anywhere in Las Vegas since anything new has been built,” he says. “Some of the projects coming up in the next couple years remind me of decades ago when there were so many new reasons to make people come to Las Vegas. Obviously [ours] will differentiate itself pretty significantly because it’s [downtown]. I always want to be respectful to Las Vegas history and this area’s past because it’s so important, but there are ways to design and create something with modern amenities that keep that connection to history.”
The new resort will certainly bring fresh energy to the Fremont Street Experience, which is surging thanks to the efforts of Stevens, other casino owners, the City of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In February, a $32 million renovation of the Viva Vision video screen canopy will begin, making it seven times brighter with four times the resolution. That joint project is expected to be finished in time for New Year’s Eve 2019.
Stevens is planning more different events for his events center but he’s also been collaborating with the Fremont Street Experience to create exciting programming that will bring more tourists and locals to the main drag.
“When Zappos moved downtown that had a big impact, as we’ve seen many people [on Fremont East] meander onto Fremont Street. But I think the overall volume of people downtown has gone up dramatically,” he says. “There was always traffic on special nights but think about how other nights have evolved. March 17 [St. Patrick’s Day] is so amazing and ridiculous and October 31, our Halloween party is the best. Forget Las Vegas, it’s the best in the country. Those were our two target dates. We decided to go all in on those two dates and now they’re busier than New Year’s Eve.”
Big parties and new casinos are the most obvious ways to draw Vegas visitors, but it takes a visionary to find new ways to evolve downtown tourism. It takes courage and imagination to create versatile venues and build new events that can become traditions.
“The customer is a lot different than it was just 10 or 12 years ago when I had my first investment downtown at the Golden Gate, but that’s a reflection of the continued growth and evolution of Las Vegas,” Stevens says.