Nevada Newsmakers

News - January 13, 2022 - by Ray Hagar

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Long before he acquired the SLS Las Vegas resort in 2018 and renamed it the Sahara, Alex Meruelo saw potential in the Latino market of the Los Angeles area.

In his 20s, Meruelo started a chain of pizza parlors catering to LA Latinos, with toppings like Jalapenos and chorizo, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal.

By the time he was 30, his La Pizza Loca, Inc., had expanded to 12 locations, gaining $10 million in sales.

That led to the Meruelo Group's purchase of various TV and radio stations in the Los Angeles area, including Spanish-speaking outlets such as KLLI-FM, KDAY-FM and KWHY TV.

Now, Meruelo -- son of Cuban immigrants and owner of Reno's Grand Sierra Resort -- uses his media holdings to drive the increasingly lucrative LA Latino market to the Sahara, the president of the property said on Nevada Newsmakers.

"It is definitely part of the calculus," Sahara President Paul Hobson told host Sam Shad, referring to the Sahara's media strategy. "You know that Southern California is probably the biggest feeder market for Las Vegas, especially in this environment.

"To have a voice in that community is big for us and sort of dictates a lot of our forward thoughts in programming the property," Hobson said.

The Meruelo Group's TV and radio stations in the LA market give the Sahara a marketing tool other Las Vegas resort operators do not possess.

Meruelo also has shares in Spanish Broadcasting Systems, which owns 17 radio stations in the top U.S. Hispanic markets, including New York, LA and Miami, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

"There is no getting around the fact that it (LA Latino market) is a vibrant, growing, thriving, more-affluent-over-time community," Hobson said. "I suspect it won't be a secret for very long. They are the people that you want to be talking to (through media), telling them what you have that would be appealing to them, what they are looking for."

More than 42 million visitors took trips to Las Vegas in 2019, with 19 million visitors during the 2020 Covid pandemic year, according to published reports. The 2021 visitorship neared an estimated 30 million. About 23 percent of Las Vegas visitors are from California with most of those coming from the Los Angles-San Diego area.

"To be able to efficiently reach a group of people that are little bit undeserved in a lot of ways, in the demographic view that we typically see in Las Vegas, has been very important for us," Hobson said. "There is really a lot of cenergy between us and the media companies and the people that the media company markets to regularly."

The access to the LA market has improved the Sahara's weekend appeal and has helped business through the pandemic, Hobson said.

All Las Vegas resorts caught a big break in December, when the governors from Nevada and California announced a new Interstate-15 project that will add an extra lane during peak travel times between LA and Las Vegas.

"What we're able to attract right now through the pandemic and the challenges that has created for us as a market, has really been that leisure customer, those groups of people who can come for the weekend, come for all the right reasons, to enjoy the casino, the entertainment attractions, the restaurants," Hobson said. "So to have that media presence in that (LA) market has been fantastic for us. "

The Meruelo Group, after purchasing the Sahara in 2018 -- then called SLS Las Vegas -- has remodeled the property. That includes the new (Azilo) Ultra Pool with its giant LED walls – each two stories high and covering 10,000 square feet – wrapped around the pool's perimeter, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. The Sahara plans to bring in entertainers to the new venue who will appeal to Latino customers, Hobson said.

"The entertainment that we will program at that venue will have an element to it that is specifically speaking to the Hispanic, Latino customer," he said.

The Sahara has also established the well-known Bazaar Meat steakhouse headed by chef Jose Andres. Hobson calls it a best-in-class restaurant on The Strip. Across the street from the Sahara, the MGM Festival Grounds can play host to various big events, including major concerts that attract Latino visitors from the LA area, Hobson said.

"(In November), there was a festival (at the Festival Grounds) called Day N Vegas there, with a lot of R&B and Hip Hop acts that brought tens of thousands of people down this way," Hobson said.

Meruelo also bought the Arizona Coyotes hockey team in 2019, becoming the first Hispanic owner in the National Hockey League.

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