- LAS VEGAS - In 1947,
Robert T. Bigelow's grandparents were driving through the desert near Las
Vegas when a glowing red ball hurtled menacingly toward their car before
making a sharp turn and disappearing.
- Mr. Bigelow began quietly funding UFO research in 1990,
and says he has already pumped as much as $10 million into the effort.
- That was the story that his grandparents, Tom and Delta
Thebo, told Mr. Bigelow when he was a child. And he's sticking to it.
- Over the past several decades, Mr. Bigelow has quietly
become one of the world's leading financiers of UFO research. When a Utah
rancher found a strangely mutilated cow last year, a Bigelow-funded veterinarian
rushed to the scene, and Mr. Bigelow's team eventually published a 45-page
report titled, "Investigation of the unexplained death of a cow in
northeast Utah, Oct. 16, 1998. He or his researchers have cataloged hundreds
of claimed unidentified flying object sightings and alleged alien abductions.
Now he wants to build a hotel in outer space, and says he is prepared to
spend as much as $500 million over the next 15 years to make it happen.
- "It's going to cost a lot of money, he says. "So
you,d better offer something stupendous.
- His plans might seem laughable " and indeed, some
people do chuckle at Robert Bigelow. That's all right with him. The truth
is out there, and he has several hundred million dollars to spend pursuing
- With little fanfare, Mr. Bigelow has built an impressive
fortune, employing tactics that are almost as unusual as some of the things
he intends to use it for. The heart of Mr. Bigelow's realm is 14,000 hotel
and apartment rooms, mostly in Las Vegas. He is the king of the temporary
stay: His properties rent by the week, and they target casino workers who
pay their rent in cold cash.
- Mr. Bigelow, 55 years old, values his real-estate empire
at $900 million. Other estimates range from $600 million to $750 million,
but no one doubts he is supremely rich. This year, Mr. Bigelow says, his
hotels and apartments will generate between $35 million and $40 million
in profits. He distrusts computers, and until a few weeks ago, his employees
wrote 10,000 checks by hand each month to pay workers and suppliers. He
is contemptuous of consultants and marketing studies, and makes the final
call on where to build his hotels by driving around prospective sites in
his car until he's convinced he has the right spot.
- Other alleged techniques appear less quaint. Last year,
he paid $1.8 million to settle a lawsuit by tenants who charged they were
illegally locked out of their apartments after they were late on their
rent. In another case, the Nevada Supreme Court said it found "strong
evidence that Mr. Bigelow's operations "engaged in racially discriminating
- Mr. Bigelow emphatically denies that, and says his managers
are supposed to follow proper eviction procedures. In any event, legal
setbacks haven't slowed him down. Mr. Bigelow is opening a new hotel every
month under his Budget Suites of America flag, and plans to build 25,000
rooms over the next five years. His biggest push is in the Dallas area,
where he plans to open 10,500 rooms by 2004 " equivalent to 14% of
all the rooms now in that market.
- "I have a huge concern how the American people are
going to react to the first contact. How many people are going to go to
the gun shop? How many are not going to go to work? - Robert Bigelow
- Some people think that plan is just as out there as Mr.
Bigelow's UFO theories. "They,re out of their minds if they think
they can build that number of units in Dallas and make it work, says J.
Peter Kline, chief executive of Dallas-based Bristol Hotels & Resorts
- Mr. Bigelow says naysayers don't understand his strategy.
By targeting the hybrid niche of extended stay, he draws customers from
both the hotel and apartment markets. "We,re the Toyota of extended
stay, he says. "We are the kick " a company that is going to
push the General Motors and Chryslers aside. That's why [rivals] are afraid
- Mr. Bigelow has long followed a different drummer. His
20-year-old Las Vegas headquarters looks like a giant Tudor house. There's
a meandering stream out back. Inside, cats named Taxes and Writeoff prowl
the halls, occasionally knocking over things in Mr. Bigelow's office. He
used to have a cat named Mortgage, but Mortgage died. Visitors wait on
wooden park benches in the lobby.
- On a recent day, Mr. Bigelow sits at a desk in his inner
sanctum with a headset on, fielding a steady stream of calls. Wiry and
perpetually tieless, he looks like a radio talk-show host. "My position
is if it costs us a deal, it costs us a deal, he declares over his headset
to one broker. He is surrounded by a curious collection of personal stuff:
a jukebox, a crystal sailing ship, countless family photos. Later, he details
his business theories on a white board while a cat patrols behind his desk.
"If I were to retire right now, I could still do the $500 million
for the space hotel, he concludes.
- His employees say he's a tough boss. After a meeting
with Mr. Bigelow, top executives can "come out sweating bullets, says
Gary Gumm, a former Bigelow vice president. Two years ago, three of Mr.
Bigelow's four top executives " Mr. Gumm wasn't among them "
quit within a span of days. "One individual blew up and said I was
pushing him too much, Mr. Bigelow recalls. "He just had a threshold
that he wasn't able to go where the company was going.
- But Mr. Bigelow also holds a monthly luncheon where he
raffles off ten $100 bills to employees. And he shuts down the entire company
every year on July 30, the birthday of his son, Rod Lee, who died in 1992.
Police records show Rod Lee died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound; Mr.
Bigelow describes it as an accident.
- Mr. Bigelow began quietly funding UFO research in 1990,
and says he has already pumped as much as $10 million into the effort.
For many years, he wouldn't talk publicly about his role, and it was known
only to hard-core "ufologists.
- He had been fascinated by UFOs since he was eight, when
his grandparents first told him of that red fireball in the desert. Three
years later, his grandparents, this time accompanied by Mr. Bigelow's aunt,
spotted a huge glittering cigar-shaped object hovering over a nearby mountain.
- Mr. Bigelow himself has never had a close encounter.
"I,ve talked to hundreds of people who have had phenomenal sightings,
he says. "But I,ll be damned if I can find one.
- Nonetheless, he frets that the U.S. government has done
nothing to prepare the American people for encounters with extraterrestrial
life, and he has paid for a Roper poll on the subject. "I think it's
irresponsible and a lack of leadership, he declares as he blasts down the
highway in his burgundy Mercedes, seatbelt unbuckled, as always. "I
have a huge concern how the American people are going to react to the first
contact. How many people are going to go to the gun shop? How many are
not going to go to work?
- Mr. Bigelow might never have been in position to finance
UFO scholarship if he had been a better science student. He put aside his
dream of outer-space research, studied business in college and plunged
into real estate in the late 1960s. (His father was a Las Vegas real-estate
broker.) Mr. Bigelow quickly made a crucial discovery: "I learned
right away that this was a city where people lived on their tips, and I
could make more money if I rented by the week, he says.
- By 1970, Mr. Bigelow owned about 100 apartment units
in Las Vegas. He kept building and buying apartment complexes until the
late 1980s, then switched to extended-stay hotels. To Mr. Bigelow, the
extended-stay hotel had the advantages of an apartment complex without
the restrictive eviction laws that complicate bouncing deadbeat tenants.
In apartments, he says, "we were stuck all the time with people who
had paid only a week's rent, and it would take us another 10 days to two
weeks to get them out.
- In fact, Mr. Bigelow's company has gotten into some hot
water over how it gets people out of its apartments. In 1992, a state court
jury in Las Vegas ordered Bigelow Holding Co. to pay $62,500 in punitive
damages to two former employees who alleged that they were fired and evicted
from their company-owned apartments in the Rhett Butler complex after protesting
against a rental policy that discriminated against blacks. The Nevada Supreme
Court agreed that the employees had been wrongfully evicted, but upheld
their firing and overturned the punitive damages. Still, the court held
that there was "strong evidence of discriminatory practices at Bigelow.
- That charge infuriates Mr. Bigelow. "How is that
possible when a third of the people in that complex were blacks? he says.
- In 1993, Nevada Legal Services, an advocacy group, sued
Mr. Bigelow, his wife " who jointly owns many of the Bigelow assets
" and the holding company on behalf of tenants who said they had been
locked out of their apartments without the five-day notice required by
state law. Barbara Buckley, a Nevada Legal Services attorney, says the
company had employees called "doorknockers whose job was to hound
tenants into paying.
- One plaintiff in the class-action suit, Lee Turner, alleged
that he came home on New Year's Eve 1992 from an out-of-town trip with
his wife and young son to find they had been locked out of their $124-a-week
downtown apartment. They were two days behind in their rent, he alleged.
Later, Mr. Turner learned that most of his possessions in the apartment
- Mr. Bigelow "wants to spend $500 million on a commercial
trip to the moon, yet he treats people on earth as if they don't matter,
Mr. Turner says today.
- Mr. Turner got $30,000 of the $1.8 million Mr. Bigelow
agreed to pay to settle the suit last year. "I don't say there weren't
abuses by irresponsible managers, Mr. Bigelow says. But if "they did
something unfair, much less illegal, it wasn't sanctioned by me, much less
by my company.
- After switching to building hotels, Mr. Bigelow took
an unconventional approach. Other extended-stay hotels generally have about
100 units, but Mr. Bigelow built sprawling three-story hotels with as many
as 800 units that looked like apartment complexes. He equipped his rooms
with separate bedrooms, full-size refrigerators and ovens to entice long-term
guests. Mr. Bigelow charges about $179 a week for units up to 50% larger
than those rivals offer at similar prices; he says his occupancy rates
typically run more than 90%, far above industry norms.
- Two years ago, Mr. Bigelow began building his first hotels
outside Las Vegas, focusing on Phoenix and Dallas. Some experts believe
Mr. Bigelow is asking for trouble because neither city has as large a transient
population as Las Vegas. But Mr. Bigelow says the casinos depress room
prices in Las Vegas, and he figures he,ll actually do better in other cities.
Mr. Bigelow is planning an arrow-shaped headquarters outside Las Vegas
for Bigelow Aerospace. It will look like a giant spaceship, with pod-like
- If he's right, it will mean more resources for UFO investigation.
Before he began bankrolling UFO study, Mr. Bigelow says, he prepared himself
by reading 60 books, scouring used-book sales for UFO literature from the
1950s and 1960s. Starting in the late 1980s, he personally interviewed
about 200 people who reported encountering UFOs. Eventually, he built a
network of scientists, ranchers and law-enforcement officials who give
him tips on UFO sightings and animal mutilations.
- "They may say Bigelow is nuts, says John Paternoster,
the district attorney for a remote three-county area in northeastern New
Mexico that has a history of unexplained cow mutilations. "But I say
he's filled a void by providing resources to get to the bottom of all this.
- The 1992 death of Mr. Bigelow's son may have increased
his interest in the great beyond. A few years later, Mr. Bigelow and his
wife, Diane, donated $3.7 million to establish the Bigelow Chair in Consciousness
Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It is a rotating chair
that goes to prominent life-after-death researchers. Mr. Bigelow says his
wife, who declined to comment for this story, shares his convictions about
extraterrestrial life, but doesn't have his zeal for the hunt. "She's
a believer, Mr. Bigelow says. "She just says: So what?,
- In 1995, Mr. Bigelow got word of a strange cow mutilation
in Canada, and hopped on his corporate jet to investigate. Upon arriving,
he learned that another cow had been mutilated that day.
- "We were elated, he recalls, "because this
one was even more fresh for a necropsy. Mr. Bigelow and a local vet took
samples, but he says that a laboratory later destroyed them " accidentally,
the lab said.
- Mr. Bigelow was furious. The affair helped lead him to
found the National Institute for Discovery Science that year in Las Vegas.
The nonprofit group, completely funded by Mr. Bigelow, employs a veterinarian,
an astrophysicist and a molecular biologist, as well as several field scouts
who report promising sightings.
- They sprang into action when a rancher in Utah's Uintah
Basin went public in 1996 with tales of strange lights and UFOs on his
property. Mr. Bigelow quickly bought the ranch for $200,000 and stationed
people there. He sometimes accompanies his UFO scouts on spotting missions
and usually jokes about his abysmal track record. "Now that I,m here,
they won't come, he tells his team.
- Still, Mr. Bigelow has little doubt that we are not alone.
"Either I,m totally bonkers and they,re all yellow balloons, he says,
"or there's something to it.
- By this year, Mr. Bigelow reckoned he had made enough
money to pursue another longtime dream: space travel. One of his first
calls was to Greg Bennett, a former Boeing Co. engineer who worked on the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space-station project.
Mr. Bennett is founder of the Artemus Society, which aims to put a colony
on the moon. But when Mr. Bigelow sketched out his idea for a hotel circling
the moon, Mr. Bennett says he realized "that made mincemeat of all
- Mr. Bennett joined Bigelow Aerospace, which Mr. Bigelow
set up to pursue the space hotel, in April. Between Mr. Bennett and the
people he has hired " including a veteran of the Soviet space program
" Bigelow Aerospace has 12 employees. Mr. Bigelow is planning an arrow-shaped
headquarters outside Las Vegas for Bigelow Aerospace. It will look like
a giant spaceship, with pod-like pillars. Construction is supposed to start
- To make the hotel feasible, Mr. Bigelow calculates that
launch costs will have to drop from about $2,000 a pound today to just
$550 a pound. "It's going to hinge on whether over the next 15 years
the launch industry can gets its act together, Mr. Bigelow says.
- That's a big if, but it hasn't stopped Mr. Bigelow from
planning how he would wow people with the hotel. He says the hotel would
operate at 40% of normal gravity so guests could still do most of the things
they do on earth. He recently drafted a "rough outline for a spaceship
cruise: "First day " identification of your cabin - orientation
to the ship - adjust - eat - people would arrive as others are leaving
- music - dancing - departure ceremony.
- Although Bigelow Aerospace was formed as a profit-making
corporation, Mr. Bigelow admits that its chances of making money are slim.
So why plow so much money into it? Mr. Bigelow leans forward from his desk.
"Haven't you ever had a dream? he demands.
- Copyright © 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All