Friday, March 19, 2021 | 12:01 a.m.
The opening of a new or rebranded casino in Las Vegas is typically an over-the-top celebration with fireworks, bands and people lined up to get in.
But the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as a huge uninvited guest to put a damper on the party as the former Hard Rock Hotel prepares to open March 25 as Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.
With the ongoing health crisis forcing casinos to operate at a maximum 50% capacity and take other precautions, Virgin is planning a relatively low-key opening.
“It was critical to us to open in a very safe environment,” said Richard Bosworth, president and CEO of JC Hospitality, the company that owns the property.
“We’re still in a public health crisis. The pandemic is not over. We’ll have our grand opening party when it’s safer,” Bosworth said.
That doesn’t mean plenty of people won’t show up to check out the reimagined and remodeled off-Strip resort featuring a desert theme instead of the old rock ’n’ roll vibe.
“It’s light, fresh and airy,” said Gary Scott, chief operating officer of JC Hospitality. “There’s a lot of desert-inspired greenery. When it was the Hard Rock, it was a lot darker; it was a lot more rock ’n’ roll. We wanted to give Virgin Hotels Las Vegas its own history.”
The reopening is also another sign the Las Vegas tourism economy is continuing to crawl back to its pre-pandemic form. Visitation has been down dramatically since casinos closed for more than two months in mid-March 2020.
Not all upgrades will be done by opening day — most notably the pool area, which officials have been mostly mum about. But a recent tour showcased the 1,500-room casino and hotel, which is part of Hilton’s Curio Collection.
Its bright, spacious layout has an unmistakable desert oasis feel, with numerous depictions of desert foliage, including Joshua trees, mountain landscapes and colorful sunsets.
A group of investors, including billionaire Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Bosworth, who helped manage the Hard Rock for years, purchased the resort in 2018.
The Hard Rock, located at Paradise Road and Harmon Avenue, closed its doors in early February 2020, just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Ownership wanted to open the retooled resort in November, but the date was pushed back because of the pandemic.
Visitors walking through the new resort’s main entrance off Harmon will be greeted by a wide-open layout with a check-in area, the Bar and Commons Club and the plush Shag Room lounge with Arabian-style cabanas.
The layout of the resort’s 60,000-square-foot casino will be similar to that of the old Hard Rock. Slot machines and table games will sport plexiglass dividers, and the carpet is a mix of blue and red patterns, a theme continued throughout the property.
Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment, which is run by the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, will operate the casino. The Virgin partnership marks Mohegan’s first foray into the Las Vegas market.
Betfred, a United Kingdom-based company that is also new to Nevada, will operate the sports book.
Virgin will have a private gaming salon on the 16th floor of one of its three hotel towers, but it won’t be ready for opening day. It’s the type of off-menu space likely to appeal to the resort’s “most discerning” guests, said casino General Manager Joe Hasson, a former longtime Station Casinos executive.
Resort officials said they expect the casino’s clientele to be a mix of tourists and locals, similar to what was seen during the resort’s Hard Rock years.
“We have to have appeal to multiple demographics,” Hasson said. “This business really needs convention, trade and travel to thrive in a hotel environment. At the same time, we have what made this casino appeal to locals.”
Virgin doesn’t have a big convention center, but it offers meeting spaces and a 5-acre outdoor courtyard with a performance stage that can be used for events of up to 1,500 people. The full pool area is expected to open this spring.
Lia Rispoli, vice president of events sales and services for Virgin, said there has been “a lot of interest” in event bookings for the fourth quarter.
“We’re picking up interest for the third quarter now, and I have no doubt that 2022 is going to be a big year for meetings and events in Las Vegas,” Rispoli said.
The resort’s 4,500-seat music and entertainment theater, formerly called The Joint, is also being remodeled. It will feature revamped suites and new VIP seating areas, said Bobby Reynolds, senior vice president of AEG Las Vegas, which will run the venue.
The theater is expected to eventually have a naming rights sponsorship deal, but nothing is in place yet, Reynolds said.
On the food and beverage side, guests will find many new concepts and some familiar places.
The Hard Rock’s old Center Bar is gone and what used to be known as the Smash Bar will now be called the Desert Star Bar.
Nobu, a staple at the Hard Rock since 1995, will return, as will chef Todd English’s Olives restaurant. The old MB Steakhouse is gone, replaced by Michael and David Morton’s One Steakhouse.
The steakhouse will have a color-changing neon sign facing the casino floor and a 3,000-piece chandelier in an intimate dining and lounge area. It will also offer an upstairs private dining room that can seat about 60, complete with a bar and windows that can open to let in fresh air.
Other options will include Los Angeles favorite Night + Market, a Thai concept making its debut in Las Vegas, and Money, Baby!, a concept that turns from upscale sports bar during the day to nightlife hotspot after sunset.
“It’s going to be a full departure from the Hard Rock Hotel,” said David Werly, executive chef of Virgin’s on-property restaurants, including its The Kitchen at Commons Club.
“This is the new luxury. People today aren’t necessarily impressed by a silver or gold spoon; they want to be comfortable and they want convenience,” he said.
The hotel’s room offerings are split into two categories — chambers and the more expensive and expansive suites.
The chamber rooms are bright and modern. Doors can divide a vanity/work area into a private room. On Virgin’s website this week, standard rooms for two adults on opening night were advertised starting at $190 a night.
Pets will be allowed in some rooms, and guests will be able to use a mobile check-in service with their smartphone acting as a room key.
The resort will open with 1,600 employees, a number that will eventually grow to about 2,000, Bosworth said.
“It’s been quite a journey to develop and open a property during a pandemic,” Bosworth said. “There was so much that went into every aspect of this conversion. We’re excited to have visitors and the Las Vegas community experience this when we flip the switch.”