The announcement that Hilton Resorts International is terminating the franchise agreement of the Las Vegas Hilton represents the end of an era. As of yet there’s been no indication of what the hotel will be called after the Hilton brand is removed—hopefully it’s not a derivation of the horrible ACH currently used by the former Atlantic City Hilton. There has been some sentiment in favor of a return to the hotel’s original name “The International” but given that the Las Vegas property is looking for another hotel brand to partner with that’s unlikely.
The International Hotel and Casino was built by Las Vegas icon Kirk Kerkorian in 1969 and when it opened was the largest hotel in the world. Kerkorian sold the property to the Hilton chain in 1971 and despite a number of ownership changes it’s been the Las Vegas Hilton ever since. Like the recently closed Sahara, the International/Hilton has an impressive alumni roster of entertainment icons including Elvis Presley, Liberace and Barbra Streisand. Also like the Sahara, the golden age of entertainment at the property is long gone with more recent headliners including Reba McEntire, Barry Manilow and The Oak Ridge Boys. The property has also had some downright bizarre entertainment options—it was arguably ahead of its time trying to relocate a successful Broadway show to the Nevada desert with its 1995 production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s ‘Starlight Express’. The property currently hosts a production of ‘Nunsense’ that is almost an afterthought in a city full of Broadway inspired shows.
During the 1970’s and early 1980’s the property was still the state of the art in Las Vegas luxury, but ever since Steve Wynn opened the Mirage in 1989 the Las Vegas Hilton has been something of an ‘odd duck’ in the city’s casino marketplace. It’s benefited greatly from its location immediately next door to the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the property itself has over 200,000 square feet of convention space. It tried to play the ‘themed megaresort’ game starting in 1998 with “Star Trek: The Experience” , a high concept attraction based on the hugely popular sci-fi franchise complete with a futuristic casino area called ‘Space Quest’. “Star Trek: The Experience” enjoyed some initial success, but never really meshed with the Hilton’s overall vibe of a business and convention property and closed in 2008.
With the most recent trend in Las Vegas casinos away from ‘themed’ properties and toward more upscale luxury, the Hilton has existed in something of an alternate universe. It’s no longer luxurious enough to compete with properties like the Wynn and Bellagio, it doesn’t have the ‘hip’ quotient of the Palms or Cosmopolitan but it’s still a cut above the ‘also rans’ on the Las Vegas Strip. It’s still a great location for anyone in town for a convention and as the economy improves so too should that segment of its business.
The interior of the property has a strange vibe these days—it’s nowhere near being a ‘dump’ but it’s an obvious cut below Las Vegas standards of luxury. It feels like a Hilton adjacent to an airport in ‘Flyover Country’ and not exactly a destination resort. The casino area has a similarly strange feel—like someone dropped a bunch of table games and slot machines in a circa 1980’s shopping mall. The restaurants and lounges are all decent enough but, again, for the most part qualitatively beneath the gourmet dining ‘arms race’ evident at many of the properties on the Strip. The Hilton’s dining and lounges are a strange mishmash including the world’s largest Benihana restaurant and the Tres Rios Cantina owned by Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil. Then there are small touches that simply defy explanation—like the life size pictures of twenty something women pointing and holding measuring tapes that surround the urinals in the men’s room.
The Race and Sports Superbook remains one of the more significant players in town and, in actuality, may be the Hilton’s strongest ‘unique selling proposition’ at the moment. There are any number of excellent sportsbooks in town but the Hilton Superbook remains the most overwhelming from a sensory perspective, with the cavernous, otherworldly feel of a James Bond movie villain’s secret lair. Since the addition of some much needed parking specifically for sportsbook patrons, however, its possible to be a regular at the Superbook and never venture elsewhere in the building.
Oddly enough, the exterior of the building has aged significantly better than the interior. In fact, the Martin Stern, Jr. created tri-form building became a blueprint for many of the iconic Las Vegas properties that would follow it. The London Daily Telegraph noted the significance of Stern’s design in his 2001 obituary:
“The International, whose tri-form 30-floor tower contained 1,519 rooms and became the most imitated building on the Las Vegas Strip, provided the model for the Bellagio, Treasure Island, Mirage and Mandalay Bay, among other hotels.”
Architectural theorists give Stern’s design for the International credit with completely transforming the structural construct of the city from a collection of ‘low rise sprawl’ into one of high rise, structurally integrated properties. In other words, Stern’s design created the environment from which today’s opulent megaresorts evolved. Unfortunately, that’s of little consolation to the current owners of the property in a Las Vegas market where architectural significance does nothing for the bottom line.
At this point, it’s hard to say what will become of the property known for a few more months at least as the Las Vegas Hilton. It’s not completely outmoded like its neighbor a few blocks North on Paradise Road the Sahara, but it’s also difficult to envision a transformation of the property that would once again make it a viable part of the Las Vegas resort hierarchy. There have been some rumors from time to time that the Hilton would be imploded—most recently in 2006—but for the time being there’s no talk of closing or demolishing the property. Without the capital needed for a massive renovation of the interior and without any better uses for the facility or the land the most likely scenario is that with or without the iconic brand name the Las Vegas Hilton will continue to occupy its somewhat otherworldly and discordant place in the market.
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