June 2008

Viva Las Vegas!

Author: Scott Lynch

If you haven’t been to Las Vegas in the past five years, fuhgeddaboutit. Forget the hotels that offer little except tables and slots; forget casino hotels that cater only to whales (high rollers); forget the small, dark rooms designed to keep you in the casino; forget the lousy restaurants. This is not your father’s Vegas!

Instead, Las Vegas is a world-class resort, increasingly luxurious, and a perfect antidote to island fever. Why?
Fact: Non-gambling revenue has surpassed casino operations revenue in the Vegas casino resorts.
Fact: Among non-business visitors, the reason given most often for visiting Vegas is shopping.
Fact: Vegas has more award-winning chefs than any other city in the world.

The transformation of Vegas
Steve Wynn masterminded the transition from casinos with hotel rooms to destination resorts with casinos. In 1989 he opened The Mirage, the first themed resort in Vegas, and the prototype for all of the new builds on the strip for the next 10 years. Then he decided to follow the city’s decision to market Vegas as a family destination, and built Treasure Island, next door to The Mirage, as a family resort.

According to Roger Thomas, executive vice president of design for Wynn Design and Development (as quoted in Travel Agent magazine), Treasure Island taught them that heavy theming of a resort has no long-term viability.

“You can’t successfully convince someone they’re in another place. The minute we finished Treasure Island, we immediately started a booty-ectomy,” said Thomas.

And even with the new destination resort concept, the hotels all were designed with the old Vegas formula: Give the guests small, dark, sparsely furnished rooms so they want to stay in the casino. Uncreative restaurants, minimal overpriced shopping and bland swimming pools completed the equation.

The hotels realized they had to broaden their appeal beyond the whales and other gamblers. That sparked a series of concept changes that not only changed the profile of the average Vegas vacationer, but rippled throughout the entire hotel industry. Rooms were redecorated with lighter, neutral tones. More whirlpool tubs were installed along with separate showers, WC’s, double vanities, and phones and TV’s in the bathrooms.

After that, the hotels began to focus on the “out-of-room” experience. The next trend was spas and fitness centers. The two treatment rooms beside the hair salon just wouldn’t cut it anymore. Instead, the hotels created pinnacles of pampering, utilizing the best-known names in the spa business.

Next, up sprang the Forum Shoppes at Caesar’s, Via Bellagio, and Desert Passage at the Aladdin (now the Miracle Mile at the Planet Hollywood Hotel) as well as shopping complexes at most of the other mega-resorts, total renovation of the Fashion Show Mall and construction of top-brand outlet centers.

In December, 1992, Wolfgang Puck was the Grand Marshall in the parade of celebrity chefs who would open in Vegas. Puck’s “Spago” is in the Forum Shoppes, but the first week it was open there were no customers. He remembers standing in the doorway, watching bunches of cowboys walk by, thinking he had made the worst mistake of his life. After the National Finals Rodeo was over, business took off.

The hotels grew to understand that if they built $40 million restaurants, lots of guests would pay the price to dine there, even if they weren’t comped by the casino. Now I can’t think of a well-known chef who doesn’t have a restaurant in Vegas.

Two of the most recent and notable openings are Rao’s (even the rich and famous can’t get reservations at the only other location, in East Harlem, unless a friend who’s a regular is out of town), and the only Joe’s Stone Crab besides the original icon in South Beach Miami.

Those same foodies were leaving the hotels late at night, eschewing the traditional lounge bands for chic Euro-clubs like Drai’s and Ghost Bar at The Palms. Management companies were hired, or concessions were sold, and now the big hotels have at least one ultra-chic late night spot, most with European-style bottle service ($395 for a bottle of Smirnoff, anyone?).

The latest trend is the swimming pools. Many of them have been redesigned and expanded to become true oases in the desert. Ah, but what’s attracted to pools like ants to picnics? Kids! Fine enough if they’re yours, but if you’re empty nesters, or even better left the kids home with the grandparents, you don’t want kids screaming and splashing while you’re perfecting your tan for the LBD you’re wearing to dinner. And while you’re relaxing by the pool, you’re not generating revenue for the hotel aside from the occasional umbrella drink.

Leave it to the most innovative hoteliers in the world to solve the puzzle. Many Strip hotels now have adults-only pools. These are not your average swimming pools; they’re day clubs run by the same management companies that run the late night Euro-clubs.

Ever stand behind a velvet rope waiting to get into a swimming pool? In Vegas you can. DJ’s, outdoor gambling, pitchers of Bloody Marys, champagne, European-style bottle service and European-style sunbathing (i.e. tops optional) help make Vegas truly a 24-hour party scene. Sort of takes the “see and be seen” element of Vegas to a new level.

Meanwhile, the theme resorts continue re-styling themselves. Luxor, for example, is removing most of the Egyptian-themed décor and restaurants, while of course keeping the iconic pyramid. As one executive said, “You can give the guests a sense of an Egyptian experience without hitting them over the head with a sarcophagus.”

Scott’s Picks:

Ultimate hotel room: Skylofts at MGM Grand. Duplex aeries with billiard tables, infinity-edge spa tubs, Bang and Olufson sound and hot and cold running butlers.

Best luxury hotel: Wynn Las Vegas.

Best mid-range hotel: The Mirage.

Best lower-range hotel: The Flamingo.

Best hotel for a non-Vegas experience: Four Seasons. Actually the top floors of Mandalay Bay, but separate entrance, food outlets, pool, etc. Very sedate and sophisticated. However, there’s a door on the second floor that lets FS guests into and out of the ManBay casino, restaurants and clubs; but ManBay guests can’t use the FS.

Best restaurant with a view: Alize’ (on top of The Palms). The Sole Veronique is fantastic.

Best restaurant: Rosemary’s (way off The Strip in a strip mall, but worth the trip).

Best breakfast: The Café at Wynn LV (toss-up between the Lobster Benedict on Potato Waffles and the Chocolate Chip Brioche French Toast).

Best steak house: Circus Circus (no, really!)

Best non-fancy restaurant: The Peppermill (just south of the Riviera) ’50’s throwback with plastic booths, counter service, huge portions. The Huevos Rancheros are perfect for the “morning after.” Bonus: the lounge (to the left) is the ultimate “passion pit.”

Best gourmet food served at the bar: Bartolotto (Wynn LV). The first time we both had clams sautéed in their shells in a spicy broth, and gnocchi in creamy tomato sauce. We went back again, and couldn’t resist ordering the same things. If you’re not a barfly, downstairs are outdoor cabanas with table service.

Best pool: The Mirage (the Euro-club adult pool is called “Bare”).

Best pool party: “Rehab” at the Hard Rock, Sunday afternoons.

Aside from headliners, Vegas shows are trending towards abbreviated versions of Broadway shows (e.g. “Phantom” in 95 minutes) and Cirque du Soleil, which established a foothold during the brief, ill-advised “family destination” concept.

To keep you from going ber-cirque, I’ll try to encapsulate the various cirques with two caveats—I’m including Le Reve, which is not strictly a Cirque show but was created by Franco Dragone who also created most of the Vegas cirques; and I haven’t seen “Love,” Cirque’s tribute to The Beatles. Paul reportedly loved it, no word from Heather. Oh, and when MGM/Mirage opens CityCenter, their $10 billion development, next year, it will feature Cirque’s tribute to Elvis.

Mystere: At TI (formerly Treasure Island), the original Vegas Cirque and still my favorite true cirque. Most like the other Cirque du Soleil’s in the world.

O: At Bellagio, a play on the English gasp of astonishment and the French word for water. The star of this show is the huge water tank that the performers play on, in, around and above.

Ka: At MGM Grand, the martial arts version of Cirque. The staging is amazing.

Zumanity: At New York, New York, the R-rated Cirque. Not for the ultra-conservative, the show is (I suppose) a celebration of erotic relationships. If your idea of erotic involves one man and one woman (other than a midget and an Amazon playing on ropes 40 feet in the air), this may not appeal. However, it does feature just about every other imaginable combination.

Le Reve: At Wynn Las Vegas. Again, not strictly Cirque, but certainly cirque style. My favorite of the shows, it’s an amazing athletic performance. Bonus: theater in the round, no seat is more than 12 rows from the stage.

Scott Lynch, an associate with Valerie Wilson Travel, has been a travel advisor for 27 years. He’s been sighted in Vegas, on average, two or three times a year since 1972.

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