by Mariah Morgan

The Sands opens its first U.S. hotel outside Las Vegas… right in New Jersey’s backyard

If you build it, they will come. From the moment Las Vegas Sands Corp. began mapping out plans for a casino resort on the 1800-acre site of the old Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania, this was the strategy for attracting residents of Northern and Central New Jersey. Initially, the Sands had to market to New Jerseyans with the gaming-industry version of one hand tied behind its back. When the property first opened its doors in the spring of 2009, it offered no table games and the 302-room hotel was still on the drawing board. The license for table games came through that winter, at which point the company began constructing the hotel. It was completed this past spring— on budget and on time, a rarity in this business. With the 1996 demolition of the venerable Sands in Las Vegas, the Bethlehem operation is currently the only one in the U.S. that bears the Sands name. Walking into the Sands Bethlehem Casino Resort, you know you’re not in Vegas anymore. Amidst all the noise, light and energy, the casino manages to project a more relaxed, down-to-earth feel. According to Las Vegas Sands President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Leven, that was the plan from Day One. “We didn’t want to bring Las Vegas to the Lehigh Valley,” he explains. “No one’s betting $25,000 a hand here. We wanted something smaller and friendlier. The casino isn’t glitzy. It’s welcoming and comfortable. And the restaurants cover a wide range of price points.” Those restaurants are an important part of the draw. They include a traditional Irish pub, an outpost of New York’s Carnegie Deli, the requisite buffet, and three Emeril Lagasse creations—Emeril’s Chop House, Emeril’s Italian Table and BAM, aka Burgers and More by Emeril. For nourishment on a budget, a food court offers everything from South Philly cheese steaks to pizza to pan-Asian fare, as well as some healthier choices. The next big thing for the Sands is a shopping mall that is slated to contain more than 30 retailers. It will be accessible directly from the casino floor. “Like other Sands properties, this is an integrated destination resort,” says Leven. “We’ll offer a lot of variety at this facility. There will be more than enough for non-players to do, but it will never be overwhelming. This is a nice town and we’ve built a nice place.” The rooms in the new hotel are terrific. Comfortable and understated, yet well-appointed, they are testament to the high precision with which casino people are able to match amenities with their target audience. Plenty of luxurious touches, but nothing over-the-top. The smallest room measures 400 square feet. All have 42-inch HD flat-screens, glass-enclosed showers and free in-room wireless access, and include a continental breakfast on the house. So who’s filling those rooms? When the property first opened, a little more than a third of the folks making the trek to Bethlehem were from North and Central New Jersey. Once table games were added, that number started climbing steadily—as did the number of players coming from New York City on a seemingly unbroken stream of back-and-forth buses. Not to say the slots aren’t active. On the contrary, the Sands took in $1 million more in July of 2011 than in July of 2010 from slot-machine play. Pulling New Jerseyans west from their bedroom communities is no mean feat. So far, so good on that account. Keeping them coming will be a constant challenge. There is competition from the south in Atlantic City— although it’s an additional hour’s drive—and, of course, the Big Apple beckons to the east. Long-term, it means offering more improvements and attractions to keep consumers and conventioneers coming. Of course, that’s always been part of the game plan. As Leven likes to say, “The status quo is a prescription for failure.”