LAS VEGAS -- Former Circus Circus Enterprises chairman William G. Bennett, who marketed Nevada casinos as family-friendly tourist destinations and revived the Sahara hotel-casino, has died at 78.
Bennett died in his sleep Sunday at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas, his daughter Diana Bennett said.
During a 37-year gambling career, he attracted middle-class families to Circus Circus casinos in Las Vegas, Reno and Laughlin, and pitched his company as a mainstream business to investors once wary of the industry.
"His vision was instrumental in the Las Vegas Strip becoming a worldwide tourist destination," said Mandalay Resort Group President Glenn Schaeffer, who worked with Bennett.
"He was a retailer at heart," Schaeffer said of the former furniture store owner. "He understood what customers were looking for next."
Bennett bought Circus Circus Enterprises with partner William Pennington in 1974, and became known for his marketing savvy and emphasis on slot machines and family-friendly entertainment. He took the company public in 1983.
But Circus Circus was slow to expand outside of Nevada and Bennett resigned in 1995 as stock prices dipped despite newly opened Las Vegas Strip resorts Excalibur and Luxor. The company is now Mandalay Resort Group.
Bennett then bought the Sahara hotel-casino in Las Vegas, which he remodeled and pitched as an affordable tourist destination. His 60-year-old wife Lynn will inherit the Sahara.
Born Nov. 16, 1924, the former World War II pilot led a Phoenix-based furniture store chain before entering the gambling industry as a casino host in 1965.
Once valued by Forbes magazine at more than $600 million, Bennett was known for his generosity to employees and gave more than $10 million to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A Clark County elementary school and Las Vegas YMCA bear his name.
Along with his daughter and wife, both of Las Vegas, Bennett is survived by son William A. Bennett of Las Vegas; stepdaughter Laura Lynn Lucia of Euless, Texas; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The family plans a memorial service in Las Vegas in early January.