The Big Countdown: Derek Stevens On the Reopening of Las Vegas

Las Vegas casino owner Derek Stevens believes in the future of Las Vegas, and put his money where his mouth is, offering thousands of free flights to the city’s official reopening. Stevens talked to GGB News about the market’s downturn and anticipated comeback, starting Thursday, June 4.

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The Big Countdown: Derek Stevens On the Reopening of Las Vegas

When Derek Stevens’ Downtown Las Vegas casinos closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he asked his casino hosts to keep talking to their customers and file weekly reports on what they said.

“What I found were that a couple of thousand customers really wanted to come to Las Vegas again,” Stevens told GGB News.

So he devised a novel promotion to kickstart the city’s comeback. At the end of May, Stevens announced he would give away 1,000 free flights to Vegas from more than 20 major U.S. cities.

“I had some decent expectations that there would be a lot of demand,” he said, and he was right. “We thought it might take a few days, but within 20 minutes, the flights were gone and we had 4,000 requests for more.

“We said, ‘As long as this is going on, how about calling to see if the airlines wanted to participate?’ Some jumped at it, like Sun Country, Frontier and Southwest, and in another two hours, we booked another 2,000 flights.”

That’s when he put out a tweet offering 2,000 additional free flights, which were also quickly snatched up, and prompted another 11,000 requests.

To Stevens, the clamor was a “pretty good indicator” that Las Vegas will recover.

He and his staff had come up with the promotion in April, during the darkest days of the shutdown, said Stevens, owner of the D Las Vegas and the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino.

“At some point down the road, we know there would be a date when the governor reopened Nevada, and we thought there would be good demand. We had seen five jurisdictions open very strongly—in Idaho, California, Louisiana and elsewhere—and we always thought Las Vegas would do the same.”

He recruited the airlines, who offered up bargain prices. The flights were booked for June 3, one day before Vegas casinos will reopen. After the “Keep America Flying” giveaway concluded, “airline flight pricing shot up in the next 48 hours,” Stevens said. “We’re all trying to keep America flying and Las Vegas rolling.”

Right now, he has no more promotions in the works, and is still trying to catch up with the demand.

“Our business model is not dependent on convention business. All the statistics say—and we believe—that Las Vegas will come back in the form of the free independent traveler who is our bread and butter. We’re just trying to make sure we can start booking and filling up our hotels over the summer.”

He said he fully expects “a surge” at Vegas sportsbooks, even though there are barely any sports being played right now.

“With some of the sports leagues delaying their season, we think sports wagering is really going to push visitation in Las Vegas,” he said. His company’s sportsbook brand is Circa Sports and its NFL variation Circa Survivor and Circa Sports Million Pro Football contest.

“We really think the interest level is going to accelerate in the back half of the year.” Because of social distancing, he noted, interest in sportsbook apps has accelerated, even though sports themselves are limited. “People love having that app on their phone, and they love wagering.”

For all his optimism, Stevens acknowledged that the shutdown hit the industry and his company hard. “It’s been pretty tough. Some businesses were able to stay in business because they were deemed essential or offered some curbside service. But when you’re in hotel gaming, it’s hard when your revenues go to zero. It’s certainly been the toughest period in my career, from a robust economy to zero. It was much worse than the Great Recession or 9/11. It was pretty devastating.”

His Downtown hotels will open today, June 3, “because there’s an incredible level of demand for people to come the day before (the city) opens. It will be like Repeal Day,” which marked the day Prohibition was repealed in 1933. “Everyone wants to be here when we open everything at midnight.”

Stevens has been called this generation’s Steve Wynn—in a positive way—for transforming Downtown Las Vegas, where his two properties face each other across Fremont Street. But his biggest project is yet to come: Circa Las Vegas, on the site of the old Las Vegas Club at the foot of Fremont Street. Announced in January 2019, “It’s on schedule and we will open later this year,” he said.

Because construction was deemed essential in Nevada, development continued throughout the shutdown. Stevens praises the choice to keep 100,000 construction workers on the job.

“Nevada is the hardest hit state, with 33 percent unemployment, so I think it was a good decision. It was also good for us, as it kept our project on schedule. They had to adjust some starting times. But by making those adjustments, we were able to stay on schedule.”

Asked what he does differently from other casino operators, Stevens said, “I think every casino has a little bit of a different culture and different theme. You have to have the right scenario, the right product and the right physical plant. The great thing about Las Vegas is that, while there are so many great properties, everyone runs a little bit different. Everyone has a niche.”

He loves being on Fremont Street and the volume of business there.

“We really have a culture,” he said. “We love Fremont Street, we love sports, and we love meeting our customers and hanging out with them. It’s fun for us and our customers, which is something you can do when you are a smaller company. We are privately held and we like it.”

So, when Vegas reopens, what can guests expect at the D and the Golden Gate?

“We spent a lot of time going through our procedures and enhanced levels of cleaning and such,” said Stevens. “We’re doing everything the CDC and the state and the Gaming Control Board recommend, and taking it beyond that. The board mandated temperature checks, so we brought in 17 thermal scanners. We will check everyone, not just guests.”

His workers have practiced this procedure, and “we can do one person every 1.7 seconds,” he said with satisfaction. “We’re doing this as a business decision. We think it’ll make customers feel more safe. They will see enhanced processes and sanitation stations.”

How long before patrons feel comfortable enough to return to Las Vegas in their old numbers?

“I don’t know,” said Stevens. “I don’t think anybody really knows. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last two and half months reading and watching reports. There’s obviously a lot of demand from people wanting to come out—and come out now.

“A portion of the population wants to wait and see what the coronavirus is like in July. I think some people will wait longer. We are definitely seeing individuals with different positions.”

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.