Travel Scene: Upscale Las Vegas

Downtown Las Vegas. photo by Jerry Olson

With a definite upswing in visitors, downtown Las Vegas casinos, hotels and other attractions are making significant — and costly — efforts to get more of the action.

And they are going upscale, to better compete with the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas Strip properties.

On the casino front, the Golden Nugget, a downtown stalwart since 1946, is leading the way with a three-stage renovation project that encompasses almost all phases of its operation. The cost is upwards of $300 million.

The 40-year-old Plaza Hotel and Casino has reopened after a 10-month, $35 million renovation. And the 100-year-old Golden Gate, the city's oldest hotel-casino, is soon to finish its new tower and its first expansion in five decades, notes Travel Weekly.

Earlier this year, the owners of Fitzgeralds, another longtime downtown casino favorite, announced plans for a $15 million upgrade. It will be renamed the D Las Vegas.


Las Vegas' visitor count was on an upward trajectory for years, but was hard-hit by the nation's recession.

Last year, however, visits were up 4.4 percent, to 38.9 million, the second-highest total on record, notes the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Through the second quarter of 2012, the numbers were up 1.9 percent from last year — and, just as important to the city if not more so, the average room rate climbed nearly 4 percent to $109.84. Las Vegas has more than 75,000 hotel rooms.

Downtown's redevelopment was sparked by the Golden Nugget project, a Vegas tourism official is quoted as saying in Travel Weekly.

"Everything began when the Golden Nugget decided to upgrade their rooms, dining options and pool facilities," said Art Jimenez, a senior director of leisure sales at the LVCVA.

For years, particularly since the late 1980s, downtown properties have played second-fiddle to the mega-hotel casinos and glitzy shopping centers along Las Vegas Boulevard, commonly called the Strip. Downtown properties were aging, but now they are trying to re-invent themselves to seize their own share of attention.

One of downtown's bright spots is the Fremont Street Experience, a fascinating light show along a five-block entertainment pedestrian mall. It opened in 1995 and brings in some top entertainers.

Downtown backers also are striving to make that area the cultural center of Las Vegas. The goal is to draw a more upscale crowd, and the centerpiece of that effort, notes Travel Weekly, is the $450 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts. It opened in March and boasts a 2,050-seat concert hall.


The difference between the average visitor on the Strip and the tourist who frequents downtown is quite striking, and downtown properties are trying to close that gap. A recent survey pointed out that the average room rate on the Strip was about 45 percent higher than downtown's average rate. Strip visitors spent about 35 percent more on food and beverages than downtown visitors, and about half of Strip visitors had annual incomes of at least $80,000, compared with about one-third of downtown visitors.

The survey also pointed out that while about 45 percent of Las Vegas visitors do visit downtown during their trip, only about 6 percent stay overnight there.

But while there is plenty of construction action downtown, Strip properties also are investing millions of dollars in new or upgraded facilities. The largest project is the $500 million Linq entertainment district that will include a new casino resort and a 550-foot attraction similar to a Ferris wheel.

It is being undertaken by Caesars Entertainment. The O'Sheas casino parking garage and the Imperial Palace resort are being razed to make room for the project.

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