2021 is the dawn of a new era in Las Vegas. After all the changes that 2020 brought to the hospitality and entertainment industries and all the new resorts opening recently, the landscape in Vegas has been forever altered. CELEB sat down with Derek Stevens, Vegas businessman and hospitality industry expert, to discuss the new era in Vegas and what it was like to open one of Vegas’s new hottest resorts in the middle of a global pandemic.
Opening a Resort in the Middle of a Pandemic
Stevens has been at the top of the Vegas game for a long time, but its his newest property that’s been generating buzz recently. Stevens’ immensely successful Circa opened October 28th, 2020, in the middle of the unimaginable. CELEB wrote of the event, “As the doors of Circa Las Vegas swung to welcome thousands of eager tourists and locals who poured in to see the new space, the bones pounded the fresh felt again and again, onlookers cheered, cameras flashed and excitement swelled.
Presiding over the action was Derek Stevens, arguably one of Las Vegas’ top showman and the owner of Circa Las Vegas, The D and Golden Gate, along with his brother Greg. In the world of the neon glitterati, there is no moment more magical: the debut of a new casino. And in 2020, the main event seems all the more anticipated because the chips were proverbially stacked against it happening as a result of the pandemic. But Circa beat the odds, opening ahead of schedule and even hosting a blow out black tie gala for VIP guests and employees with an elaborate production of singers, dancers, showgirls and synchronized swimmers.”
Stevens’ know-how and tenacity forged success out of uncertainty, and brought Vegas the hope and joy they needed in the middle of a dark era. When asked about the process of opening Circa against such stacked odds, Stevens shared, “A new property needs a little bit of time to get broken in. And I think we had a benefit in that we were able to open the casino October 28. And with the casino and the restaurants, we could just focus on that for the first eight weeks. I feel very lucky about that. Because whenever you open a new property, you’ve got kinks to work out.”
The time between opening Circa and Vegas coming back fully gave the team some time to work out the kinks and get the resort ready for the flood of guests in 2021. “It gave us as a management team the ability to focus on those elements. Really, it took us about four months. Hotel rooms are stunningly difficult because of all the little nuances, from a light switch to the electronics, pieces of furniture, doorknobs, handles, mirrors, bathrooms; there are just so many little things that can go wrong. So it takes us maybe 30 times to rent the room to knock out all of those little things. So I feel good about where we’re at now. And I feel very good about the fact we had some time to fix all the new stuff.”
People are loving the casino and enjoying their time spend there; Circa is in high demand. Stevens helped drum excitement up for Vegas’s reopening by hosting a 10K-person live music event in May. In collaboration with EDC’s Pasquale Rotella, Stevens helped craft the event headlined by Deadmau5.
The Scars of Uncertainty and a New Era
Despite all signs pointing to a dawning of a beautiful new era, no one in hospitality in Vegas or elsewhere emerged from 2020 entirely unscathed. Stevens recounts that, financially, both he and his properties were fine. They weathered the storm adequately, and there were no lasting economic impacts on the future of his beloved Vegas resorts.
But Stevens himself, and others in the industry, may forever feel the burn of the 2020 closings and what it felt like for the living city to echo empty. When building Circa, Stevens recounts, “When you’re building this massive project and there’s not a car on Main Street for hours, you feel it. It left some scars that will stay with me for the rest of my life, that’s for sure.” Stevens and his partners made sure to build Circa with plenty of equity so it wouldn’t be subject as much to the ups and downs of an uncertain economy; “We went into this very pro forma, very conservative. We planned for the worst of the worst and put more equity into Circa than most people would, so when the worst came, we had planned for even worse than that.” And so the business weathered the storm. But one doesn’t go into hospitality unless you love entertaining people, and the worries of a shuttered city stuck with Stevens and his peers even as the turnaround began early this year.
Stevens recounts, “The first week of February is when we saw things starting to change. I could feel it. I’m sitting down at the bar and people are coming up to me and they’re sitting there excitedly sharing, ‘It’s my first time at Circa and I got vaccinated a couple of weeks ago,’ and it became pretty apparent that tourists had some different perspectives.” They didn’t see the ups and downs in Vegas, but they saw the city coming back and were ready to join the upswing. Stevens continued, “There’s certainly some people that wanted to come to Las Vegas but weren’t willing to do it until they got vaccinated. And I’ve kind of made a joke; ‘what’s in this Pfizer vaccine? It’s like Vegas adrenaline coming out!'”
Stevens chuckled, “Because people are getting their shot whether it’s in New York, Florida, Illinois, wherever, and the next thing you know they’re on their phone booking a flight to Vegas. They’re drinking epic levels, and they’re smiling.”
With emotion, Stevens added, “It’s like they haven’t smiled in a year and a half. Seeing those smiles, it’s just awesome.”
Circa isn’t the only success in Stevens’ portfolio in recent months; Circa Sports is a betting branch of the brand in several locations across Nevada, with plans to expand into other states.
Would Derek Do it All Again?
With the surge of hope in the city and the wild success of Circa, would Stevens do it all again and open another project as large and ambitious as Circa? Stevens smiled, responding, “Not now. It took us 5 years to get to this point, and we haven’t been operating very long. But I love the operating.” So for the future, Stevens adds a confident, “Yes.”
And Stevens has a number of people he trusts to turn to for advice on decisions in his life, taking in a variety of opinions and expertise. Although Stevens is at the top of both his personal game and the industry in Vegas, he’s humble and down to earth, relying on the people around him to help him make choices.
And whatever equation Stevens uses, whatever combination of intuition, training, experience, and collaboration he uses to create business plans, it’s working. Circa is a reflection of Stevens’ 30 years of visiting in Vegas. For the first 15 years, he was a consumer. Then he started jotting down notes; what worked, what didn’t. That bottom-up experience helped him see what would be needed to craft the perfect Vegas experience.
From there and working with his incredible management team, Stevens was able to make magic; “We have sold out on weekends on all our properties really, since Superbowl weekend. If you see the booking trends for the rest of the year, it’s beyond encouraging. It’s just flat out exciting. I’ve never experienced the level of bookings that we’ve had in the last 10 weeks ever, in my Las Vegas business career. Booking levels are just are huge. So when you see that booking way out, like into November and December, that tells you what to expect.”
Stevens adds that there’s always some last minute uncertainty, last minute bookings and cancelations, but, “To have this much demand for the rest of the year, it’s really tremendous. And it’s a great element of foreshadowing for what’s up for Vegas for the rest of the year.”