Hiding Vices in Vegas Seven

Inspired by a conversation with September Gaming Research Fellow Kah-Wee Lee, I wrote a Green Felt Journal for Vegas Seven about Singapore and Las Vegas:

Imagine a casino-resort complex built by a world-renowned architect responsible for iconic buildings on multiple continents. From the start, it’s designed to be more than a mere gambling hall: It will have unparalleled convention facilities, restaurants helmed by celebrated chefs and buildings that look nothing like anything that’s been seen in Las Vegas before.

If you’re MGM Resorts International, you’ve just built CityCenter. It has posted operating losses each quarter since it opened; the company is attempting to implode the Harmon, which was to be its gateway structure. While it’s debatable to claim that it’s a failure, it certainly hasn’t been a catalyst for a dramatic rebound on the Strip, as MGM CEO Jim Murren forecast it to be, and no one’s claimed that it’s been particularly successful.

But if you’re the Las Vegas Sands Corp., owners of the Venetian and Palazzo, you’re presiding over the Marina Bay Sands, which recorded $585 million in net revenues in the first three months of this year—nearly double what the company’s Las Vegas properties brought in. And the Marina Bay resort is still ramping up.

via Vices, Hidden and in Plain Sight | Vegas Seven.

It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? And location, naturally.

My thoughts on the NYer CC piece

Paul Goldberger has something to say about CityCenter in the latest New Yorker:

But it’s been clear for a while that Las Vegas has been running out of themes. The trouble is that its effects rely entirely on dazzlement, an over-the-top gigantism that gets old fast. By this point, you could do a hotel that reproduced Angkor Wat or the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and no one would raise an eyebrow. And as Las Vegas has grown—until the recession, its expansion had helped make Nevada the fastest-growing state in the nation—the city has started to feel a little uncomfortable about its reputation as a place where developers spend billions of dollars on funny buildings. For several years now, there has been talk about whether Las Vegas could handle what in any other city might be referred to as real architecture. And in 2004, when the hotel company MGM Mirage now known as MGM Resorts International was looking for a way of filling in a sixty-six-acre site between two of its properties on the west side of the Strip the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo, it hit on the idea of turning the plot into a showcase for modern architecture.

via CityCenter, and architecture in Las Vegas, review : The New Yorker.

Obviously Goldberger is an esteemed architectural critic, and I’m not going to quibble with his perceptions of how CityCenter fits in with the big picture of Architecture. But there’s something I found interesting: Goldberger’s writing about a Strip where Steve Wynn apparently does not exist.

Yes, he mentions Bellagio, but only as an example of “theme park architecture” in the vein of Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, wedged in between New York-New York and Treasure Island. But there’s no mention of how Wynn’s resorts differ from the more literally themed hotels, and no credit to Wynn for building a non-themed resort aiming for an upscale feel in 2005–a resort that was undoubtedly an influence on CityCenter. Wynn gets not credit for bringing the concept of luxury to the Strip, and steering the industry away from the Circus Circus paradigm that dominated post-1982. It’s a telling omission. I don’t know whether it means that Wynn’s buildings aren’t as consequential to mainstream architecture critics as they are to us, or whether Goldberger just left him out to simplify his argument that CityCenter is an unwonted break from theme park architecture.

Surely those two giant curved glass towers a mile north mean something to the architectural profile of the Strip; they’re clearly not pirate ships or faux medieval castles. And they undercut Jim Murren’s implication that CityCenter is the first and only Vegas resort to break away from kitsch. I don’t think that THEhotel at Mandalay Bay is kitschy. In fact, it brought the same kind of minimalist modernism to the Strip back in 2003. In fact, one could say that the Mandalay Mile showed a level of planning that also presages CityCenter.

As far as Murren’s comments goes, we’ll see just how smart the planning is when the money starts coming in. Arguing about who’s the smartest planner is entirely subjective and non-falsifiable, but you can get an idea of who’s done the best job of building and marketing a place people like by checking out REVPAR and other metrics of financial performance.

As I said back in December, CityCenter is about an urban ambiance, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into a genuine urban space. To learn why casinos aren’t great urban institutions, I humbly suggest reading a book called Suburban Xanadu.

CityCenter’s history

The 2010 issue of Casino Design, a supplement to Global Gaming Business, is out now. It’s filled with tons of great articles with many perspectives on how and why casinos look the way they do. I’d like to point you towards the cover story, a massive look at how CityCenter developed, from drawing board to opening. If you open the digital edition, it starts on page 22:

At the November 9, 2004 press conference that unveiled the concept, then-CEO Terry Lanni said that the CityCenter master plan represented “a significant new direction for our city and our company,” adding that it came at a time when the city was taking “the initial steps to becoming a major urban center in the western United States.”
At that press conference, MGM Mirage unveiled a idea more than a commodity. Only a few things were certain: Project CityCenter would be built on land between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo which the company had recently consolidated with its acquisition of Mandalay Resort Group. It would feature a four-thousand room casino resort, three smaller boutique hotels, and 1,650 condominium residences that would give the area a 24-hour, “city-like” ambience. The centerpiece was to have been an open-air shopping district—definitely not a mall—whose streets allowed both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Casino Design 2010

One of the things I found most interested was the way the project seemed to evolve along with the market until late 2007, when it became almost a work of defiance against what was happening around it.

In his editorial introduction (page 4), Roger Gros summed up, better than I could have, what I think the current legacy of CityCenter is: “Good design thrives on pushing the envelope,” he writes. “MGM Resorts is to be admired for taking the steps to advance the casino design industry to new levels.” If no one tried new things, we’d still be rolling bones in caves, eating antelope tartare in the darkness. That doesn’t mean that CityCenter’s necessarily going to point the way to the next stage in casino design: ultimately, casino patrons will decide that, and, as Gros says, that will take some time.

Good magazine all the way through.

Glimpse into Sahara’s future?

An LA Times article about Sam Nazarian’s plan for a nearly-finished hotel he just acquired in Hollywood got me thinking that this could be a model for at least one of the towers at the Sahara–if things ever turn around enough to justify the renovation:

The former Palihouse, which Nazarian estimates is about 85% complete, is already different from traditional hotels. Its average room is 800 square feet and contains a kitchen, washer and dryer. The target customer is “a new generation of bohemian do-it-yourselfers,” Nazarian said, who are tired of “big box hotels that are over-designed and over-built.”

He hopes to attract guests in the entertainment industry who come to town to work on extended projects, he said.
“The size of the room and its apartment-like nature allows people to stay short term or long term,” Nazarian said. Room rates haven’t been set yet.

via Sam Nazarian to take over, finish Hollywood hotel – latimes.com.

Could something like that work on the Strip? There are plenty of people who come to town for extended people and, if they have the budget, would want something on the Strip.

Nazarian’s SBE Entertainment owns the Sahara, and it’s no secret that it was going to be major-ly remodeled before the economy took its nosedive. From what I remember of the plans, they were premised on appealing to a similar demographic.

Maybe this is how Vdara or Veer Towers should be repositioned: an extended stay Strip option, with weekly rentals. No washers and driers that I know of in Vdara (I didn’t see all the suites), so laundry service would be an issue.

Old-school at the eC

This week’s Green Felt Journal is about the El Cortez:

In many ways, the El Cortez is the anti-CityCenter. Built in 1941, it’s the oldest continuously operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Its most prominent feature—the “new” neon sign—was installed in 1946. It has only 364 guest rooms, and, for better or worse, it’s in the middle of a real urban neighborhood.

Yet there are some similarities to CityCenter. The El Cortez has a swanky nongaming hotel a few steps from the casino. The old Ogden House, massively renovated in 2009 and reopened as the Cabana Suites, might not have the Mandarin Oriental’s cache, but its art-deco-meets-mid-century modern stylings and contemporary fittings (plasma screens and iPod docks) are a fraction of the price. And, thanks to the renovation, natural light spills through the hallways.

via Old-school El Cortez wins by staying relevant | Vegas Seven.

I had a lot of fun researching this story, much of which was talking with Mike Nolan. As I referenced in the article, he’s been around for a while and really knows a lot about the business.

There were really two separate things I wanted to get across–that it’s still “old school” gambling at the eC, but that there’s a lot of new stuff, and that the casino’s connecting with the arts in a different way. The first is pretty obvious if you walk around the place. Hearing the plinking of coin-in slot machines really brought me back–you don’t miss it until you hear it again. The El Cortez is just a cool, unpretentious place.

The second point, about the arts, needs a little more explaining. This isn’t a contrived attempt at being hip or artsy, it’s just a response to what’s happening downtown. Opening the former Fremont Medical Center as Emergency Arts is a brilliant move, and really the logical way to bring the arts into the neighborhood. It’s the kind of thing that CityCenter could have done, but didn’t. Sure, there’s galleries there, but if they’d have converted some of their condos into artists’ lofts and recruited artists from all around the country to move in, they might have had something unique. They wouldn’t have made much money renting the spaces–I’d practically give them away–but you’d at least create an attraction, and maybe start drawing serious art patrons, a group that would probably be comfortable with the luxury, non-trad-Vegas approach at CityCenter. That’s what got me thinking about the “anti-CityCenter” idea.

The El Cortez has done this on a downtown budget, and I’m eager to see how it turns out.

One stat I didn’t get to include: the El Cortez’s casino has about 70% local patrons, 30% visitor. With that many repeat locals, you know that they’re doing something right as far as the gambling goes. I don’t think many locals would drive down there for 6/5 blackjack.

So if you haven’t seen the El Cortez for a while, give it a chance.

Shining a light on Aria

In addition to the cover story, my regular Green Felt Journal column in Vegas Seven this week tackles one very specific complaint about Aria’s casino, the lighting:

But the thing most likely to provoke comment from casino-goers about Aria in its first three months hasn’t been Pelli Clarke Pelli’s spacious design or the cutting-edge technology of the guest rooms. It’s that the casino is a bit on the dark side.

Pre-opening press releases hyped the airiness of the building: “Soaring open spaces, ranging from Aria’s three-story lobby to its guest rooms, fill with natural light and evoke breadth and freedom.” It wasn’t surprising that guests expected a casino that looked like an Apple Store lined with slots instead of MacBooks.

That’s not what they got.

“The casino is very nice but very dark,” a visitor from Texas recently wrote on Expedia. Others have been even harsher in their assessment of the lighting. “It’s way too dark, to the point of being forbidding,” commenter Mike P. said on the RateVegas blog.

via Shining a light on Aria—finally | Vegas Seven.

This piece had an interesting evolution. Originally I wanted to borrow a light meter and prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt (pardon the pun), that Aria was much darker than other casinos. Then both Bobby Baldwin and Bill McBeath conceded that the casino was too dark, so it rendered the entire exercise academic.

Still, measuring light levels would be an interesting project, maybe for another time.

And a few months ago when the Mandarin Oriental opened, I referenced the spot in front of the restrooms in the Sky Lobby being as dark as the caverns of Moria. Apparently they just hadn’t screwed in the lightblub in that corridor yet, because when I returned a few days later it was amply lit. So don’t go looking for Durin the Deathless at the MO–you won’t find him there.

Covering Aria

I had such a busy day yesterday that I couldn’t post this. It’s ironic because this article was the culmination of about a month of interviews, analysis, observation, writing, and re-writing. It’s the cover story for the March 25 Vegas Seven, about Aria’s first 100 days:

Aria, the centerpiece of the 67-acre mini city, has drawn the most attention simply because it’s the main place that people want to visit, thanks to its restaurants, bars and casino. The Crystals shopping center is only about half full. The Mandarin Oriental, by design, pursues a mere sliver of the luxury market. And Vdara at this point seems like just another finely appointed nongaming hotel—pleasant enough but nothing to inspire a trip to Las Vegas. Right now, Aria defines CityCenter.

So the question of the moment is, does Aria work?

MGM Mirage executives will tell you the overall project has been an unqualified success. “CityCenter is the single most powerful reason to have hope for a resurgence in our tourist economy,” MGM Mirage chairman and CEO Jim Murren says.

Do the numbers justify this optimism? Most metrics of casino performance aren’t publicly available, but we do know a little bit about Aria: Over its first 15 days of business, it earned $7 million in operating income, or about $466,000 a day. Its successful big sister, Bellagio, by comparison, averaged $430,000 for all of 2009. If projected out for the year, that would make Aria about 8 percent more profitable than Bellagio. But Bellagio only cost $1.6 billion to build. Aria carries the weight of CityCenter, and that’s a $8.5 billion load.

via The First 100 Days | Vegas Seven.

Even before it came out, I wanted to use this blog to talk a little about the process of writing the piece and share a few more thoughts.

I was thrilled to be asked to write the feature story on CityCenter–it’s something I’ve already written on quite a bit and probably the biggest Vegas casino story of the past few years. More importantly, my opinions about the place haven’t calcified into dogma. Each time I go there, I see things I like, things I don’t, and things that don’t make an impression either way. I didn’t have an emotional or intellectual investment in “proving” that CityCenter was a success or a failure, so I started out with a fairly blank slate.

I talked to a lot of people, both at the property and online, about what worked and what didn’t work for them as guests. But with James Reza focusing on the guest experience in his piece, most of that ended up being background. It let me ask very frank questions to the “Big 3” (Jim Murren, Bobby Baldwin, Bill McBeath), because I had a strong base of customer feedback–not nearly as comprehensive as what they have, but, I think, a representative sampling.

With Baldwin and McBeath, I focused mostly on operational issues–things like cell phones, the light levels, the parking garage, check-in times, etc. I also asked Baldwin some “big picture” questions. I asked Murren exclusively about the big picture stuff, including financing and the role of art in the project. I want to reproduce here Murren’s response to my question, “How has public art helped differentiate CityCenter,” because I think it’s significant, though it ultimately didn’t fit in with the story I was telling in Vegas Seven:

If we can begin a conversation about art, we stimulate dialogue. The world needs more talking, less polarizing. Art is a great way to begin a conversation: it’s neutral ground, something people can all relate to in one way or another. My hope is that the message of the art at CityCenter is that we care about people. There’s also a significant amount of art in the Nevada Cancer Institute (of which Murren’s wife Heather is co-founder), which sends a resounding message to patients and employees that you care about them, that you feel it’s important that they feel stimulated and inspired. There’s clearly a psychological benefit to art. Art has a calming effect, it enlivens people, energizes areas, and creates moments. That’s what the resort community tries to do—create snapshots that you’ll remember for a long time. Hopefully we create a lot of those moments here—that’s how CityCenter will be defined—when people go home after experiencing the art, those are our ambassadors.

Clearly Murren isn’t coming at the business from the angle of a Benny Binion or Jackie Gaughan. But you know what? That’s OK. Binion and Gaughan weren’t coming at the business from the angle of Bill Graham and Jim McKay. There were probably people who thought that Binion was unbelievably pretentious for putting carpet into his Horseshoe (though I doubt anyone said so to his face).

One of the outgrowths of this project was the UNLV Gaming Podcast interview with Bill McBeath. It was a chance to let the broader community see a little bit of what goes into running a casino resort–a lot of hard work.

In summary, I’m grateful to Vegas Seven for giving me the chance to ask questions and write a story that I hope gets people thinking.

100% Aria cell service by end of March

It just had a great talk with Bobby Baldwin about Aria for an article I’m writing for Vegas Seven about the first 100 days of CityCenter.

Talking to people at the property and online, and having gotten too few bars there myself, one of the questions I asked him was about cell phone service.

His response:

“The building has one of the most sophisticated cell phone antenna networks around, but unfortunately we didn’t get all of the business done before opening. All the deals are now done, and we’re going to have 100% coverage. AT&T will be turned on by next week, and Verizon by the end of the month.”

So there you have it: If you’re booking travel to Las Vegas soon, you’ll be able to talk, text, and twitter with no limits at CityCenter.

Given that you can count on one (or maybe two) hands the people in town who have more experience than Mr. Baldwin at opening up major resorts (Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, re-opening Beau Rivage after Katrina), he’s got a great insight on the first 100 days. I’ve already collected a great deal of information from guests, and I’m looking forward to talking to a few other folks at the company and getting the article done.

CityCenter and traffic

I’ve been busy today getting the slot hold occasional paper finished up, so running the risk of CityCenter fatigue, here’s an excerpt from my last LVBP column about, you guessed it, CityCenter:

This might be the most novel thing visitors notice about CityCenter, at first. And its hard to believe that its not by design. One thing that sets CityCenter apart from other resorts on the Strip is that because of the density, you will never be far from the street when you’re in the public spaces. The third-floor pool, for example, faces a parking structure on the west. It’s not close enough to smell the exhaust, but it is in the field of vision of poolside loungers. This is a profoundly different sort of vibe than the usual “desert oasis” feel of most Las Vegas pools, where hotel towers or extensive setbacks remove visitors from traffic and, in a sense, reality

via Las Vegas Business Press :: David G. Schwartz : CityCenters pocket parks, traffic circles stand as symbol of Strips evolution.

Further down in the article, you’ll note my reference to plural “pocket parks.” When I wrote this I hadn’t seen the entire complex and was under the impression that there were more than one–I thought I heard someone calling the area outside Bar Vdara “one of the pocket parks,” but I either misheard or that was an error. Even though there’s just one, though, it’s still significant.

Of course, if you were Steve Wynn and you wanted to really rain on CityCenter’s parade (which he probably doesn’t) you could just say, “Twenty years before you unmasked Las Vegas’s first pocket park, I built its first pocket rain forest.” You got to say it in the “I’m Steve Wynn” voice, though.