Daily Getaways for MGM

MGM Mirage is partnering with dailygetaways.com to offer a different kind of travel deal. From the press release:

MGM MIRAGE is participating in a unique one-month promotion through a specially created website, DailyGetaways.com , joining nearly 50 of America’s top destinations and travel brands to provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences and tremendous values unavailable anywhere else.

Discover America Daily Getaways, a promotion of the U.S. Travel Association sponsored by American Express, runs through June 4. Aimed at stimulating travel in time for summer, it offers incredible deals of up to 50 percent off product from leading travel companies and memorable experiences from popular destinations.

The resorts of MGM MIRAGE are offering extraordinary packages that will be available only on May 21 and June 3 through DailyGetaways.com.

Chuck Bowling, MGM MIRAGE’s Executive Vice President of Sales & Marketing, said, “We are thrilled to have partnered with DailyGetaways.com on this promotion. Our resorts are offering very special packages at very special prices – there is no better time to book Las Vegas than right now!”

Details about each of the available packages can be found on DailyGetaways.com on their respective dates. Each offers extraordinary value for many of Las Vegas’ most popular resorts and attractions. Package quantities are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Available May 21

* Bellagio Suite and “O” by Cirque du Soleil show package for $1,000
* Couple’s Retreat at Mandalay Bay for $1,250
* VIP Getaway at Monte Carlo’s HOTEL32 for $500
* Enjoy the Magic of Luxor for only $250
* Escape to Excalibur for only $250

Available June 3

* Stay, Play and Relax at ARIA for $1,000
* SKYLOFTS at MGM Grand Escape for $1,000
* The Ultimate Getaway at The Mirage for $1,000
* Weekend Getaway to New York-New York for $250
* Stay and Play at Circus Circusfor $125

Any U.S. resident 18 or older with a major credit card may purchase from an inventory of specially priced travel products offered by 25 leading travel companies related to hotels, airlines, rental cars, attractions and theme parks, dining and shopping, among others.

There look to be some values there. I don’t know how this compares with just scouring the net for the best deal, but they’ve definitely hit all the price points.

Vega$ veteran joins MGM Mirage

Here’s some great news for MGM Mirage: Burton Cohen’s joined their board of directors. From the LV Sun:

Attorney and retired gaming executive Burton Cohen has been elected to the MGM Mirage board of directors.Cohen, former chief executive of the Desert Inn Hotel & Country Club, retired in 1995 and the same year was elected to the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame.

During Cohen's career he served as co-owner and general manager of the New Frontier, helped developer Jay Sarno open Circus Circus and was an executive at Caesars Palace, the Flamingo and the Dunes.

With his support of the filming of the television show “Vegas$” at the Desert Inn, the resort achieved national fame.Cohen is an active member of the Las Vegas community, currently serving as chairman of the board of trustees of Sunrise Hospital.

via Retired gaming exec joins MGM Mirage board – Las Vegas Sun.

Cohen knows more about the business than just about anyone I’ve met in Vegas. I’ve interviewed him a few times over the past few years and always found him to be both friendly and knowledgeable. This is a solid addition to the team.

Madder, leaner, Vegas

Since it’s Thursday, I’ve got a new Green Felt Journal for you to read in Vegas Seven magazine. This week, I talk about March Madness on the Strip:

The basketball-mad crowd covers all ages, from cigar-chomping sharp bettors in their 60s to still-in-school rowdies wearing their college colors. It skews young, however, with 20- to 30-somethings dominating in most casinos. The audience in most sports books is about 97 percent male.

The NCAA Tournament, particularly the first weekend, has become an unofficial cross-country college reunion getaway. Although many fans have moved on from the frat house or dorm television lounge and might live thousands of miles apart, they return to Las Vegas in groups of varying sizes each spring to watch the games, drink beer and enjoy what’s become the ultimate guy trip.

The tournament has become one of the biggest draws in town. While it’s impossible to directly assess its total economic impact (no one fills out a survey saying they came to town for the games), it’s acknowledged as a huge draw.

via March Madness offers peek at leaner Vegas vacation | Vegas Seven.

I used the word “crowd” three times in the story, and might have used it more, because gathering information for this story really brought to mind Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Not that I’m saying that the guys betting on March Madness are deluded, but it is March “Madness,” and there are big crowds, so I guess my brain filled in the blanks.

And there was something very compelling, but very exhausting, about the atmosphere in the books. I can’t see how anyone has enough energy to do anything but crash for 12 hours, beer and other depressants of choice notwithstanding, after a day of March Madness Vegas action. It must be all the oxygen they pump into the casino.

That last sentence, my friends, is the closest I’m getting to an April Fool’s joke this year.

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.

New Podcast: interview with Bill McBeath

The latest UNLV Gaming Podcast is up; it’s an interview with Aria Resort and Casino President and COO Bill McBeath. A Las Vegas native and UNLV alum, McBeath has had an interesting career, to say the least, and has worked for some of the biggest names in the business—Michael Gaughan, Steve Wynn, and Kirk Kerkorian. As the man responsible for opening the Strip’s latest casino, he gives a unique perspective on the behind-the-scenes drama of launching a new property.

As always, you can listen via iTunes or on the UNLV Gaming Podcast page. For that matter, here’s the direct link:

March 10,2010: Bill McBeath, President & COO of the Aria Resort & Casino

Look for some more interview-style podcasts in the near future–I have a few good ones planned. We’ve got three traditional, lecture-style ones scheduled as well.

Giving the little guy a chance on the Strip

It’s Thursday, which means another edition of the Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven magazine. This week, as whether the “little guy” still has a chance on the Strip:P

Last year at around this time, “deconsolidation” was the buzzword along the Strip. MGM Mirage had just announced its sale of Treasure Island to Phil Ruffin, formerly of the New Frontier. Investment bankers and industry analysts announced that, just as the previous 10 years had seen Strip casinos swept into progressively larger corporate empires, the next era would see them splinter into smaller fiefdoms fortified by hedge-fund and private equity investment.A year later, it’s now clear that the pundits couldn’t have been more wrong. Rumors of an MGM Mirage fire sale proved immature. Harrah’s Entertainment has actually added a casino to its portfolio, having taken over the management of Planet Hollywood after acquiring a substantial stake via debt purchases.

via Does the little guy still have a shot on the Strip? | Vegas Seven.

As I promised before, this column also has my first overt Star Trek reference.

Also, only in Vegas would a multi-million dollar company with thousands of employees be considered “the little guy.”

Some other highlights from the issue:
– Nicole Lucht talks to Tony Marnell about the M Resort’s first year
–Mericia Gonzalez looks into the future of Vegas nightclubs
–Jeff Haney, formerly of the Sun, writes about HORSE at Aria. He’s a great poker writer, and hopefully this is the first of a regular series of column.
–and if you didn’t catch it last week, check out Jessica Prois’s talk about statistics with author Jeffery Rosenthal (Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities)

Tons of other great reading in there–these are just the ones that have the biggest gambling/Strip connection.

Fall of the Boardwalk Empire?

My piece in the Las Vegas Business Press about the beginning of the end in Atlantic City is out:

Historians have taken the date 476 A.D. and the deposition of Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor, as the “official” date of the fall of the Roman Empire, even though at the time most Western Europeans were too preoccupied with daily survival to take much notice of events in the far-off capital.

When historians look back at the history of casino gaming in Atlantic City, they may decide that 2010 marks the beginning of the end of that city's reign as one of the country's leading gaming destinations, and they might focus on a single event: The decision by MGM Mirage to abandon its holdings in the city after the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement found Pansy Ho, the company's partner in its MGM Grand Macau casino, “unsuitable.”

via Las Vegas Business Press :: David G. Schwartz : The beginning of the end for Atlantic City?.

I don’t think this is hyperbole. The revenue trends are showing a decline that started slightly before the recession that is more due to competition than the economic slowdown, although the recession hasn’t helped. There are real problems in Atlantic City.

Are there solutions? Yes, and they go beyond making Pacific Avenue a one-way street. As I see it, the city has to be reinvented to appeal to two groups: investors, who will buy or build new casinos and attractions, and visitors, who will fill them. These groups aren’t mutually exclusive, but they require different approaches. The average gambler doesn’t really care about how many levels of scrutiny casino vendors go through before they are licensed, but this sort of thing makes a difference behind the scenes.

It’s not impossible. The city’s been through worse, and the right forward-thinking people can help get it on the right track. The time for action, however, is now. If AC just continues to coast for a few years, it may be too late, at least for this generation.

AC to “get its act together”

Checking the headlines in the AC Press as of 2PM Pacific time, I couldn’t find a word about the seemingly-momentous decision of MGM Mirage to sell its stake in Borgata. This is curious, since you would think that having one of the biggest casino companies in the world, which at one point had billions of dollars in the development pipeline in AC, officially announce it’s selling out would be at least DEFCON 2-level news.

But there is this separate yet equally compelling story about an imminent state monitoring of the city:

State intervention in Atlantic City government could become a reality if the city doesn’t “get its act together” within two to three months, a state senator said Monday.State Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Bergen, Passaic, Essex, said he would be willing to push for a state monitor with veto power over City Council minutes if the local government doesnt return to the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee with a good-faith response to a recent state audit report.State Comptroller Matthew Boxer answered questions and described some of the findings in his offices report on Atlantic City’s fiscal management, which outlined more than $23 million in waste and inefficiency .

via Atlantic City warned to “get its act together” or face state intervention – pressofAtlanticCity.com : Latest News.

This isn’t directly linked to the Division of Gaming Enforcement’s decision re: Pansy Ho, but it shows the heavy hand that state government has in the city itself, not just its biggest industry. And with $23 million in tax money apparently being flushed down the toilet, it’s hard to say that there’s no justification there.

The irony is that, if Pansy Ho had been suitable, MGM Mirage might have found itself doing business in two “Special Administrative Regions.”

I’d guess that, on the strength of the $60 million a year MGM Mirage gets from the Borgata and the value of the real estate the company controls (which I assume would be part of the sale), the company might fetch something $200-$500 million. I haven’t run any numbers to confirm this; that’s just my first impression based on about 6X EBITDA, which is right in the middle of those numbers, with some degree of flexibility for the value of the real estate (on the high side) and the depressed state of the general market (on the low side).

The problem, of course, is finding someone willing to pay big bucks for an asset (albeit the top-performing one) in a regressing market, particularly when the seller is very publicly identified as “motivated.”

Most people are assuming that Boyd will be the suitor, which makes sense, though this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad buy for an equity firm if they went into it with realistic expectations.

It likely wouldn’t be anyone else already in the market, since Harrah’s is already far too exposed in AC, Trump has its hands full with its existing casinos (though 1/2 of Borgata would actually be better than 100% of the Marina right now), Colony Capital has lost one casino to its lenders already, and Carl Icahn’s plate is presumably full with turning around Tropicana Entertainment and the Fontainebleau.

Anyone not in the market would have to do some serious soul-searching about their licensing, since the state has made it clear that they consider no company too big to show the door to. Even if Borgata can retain its market share (which might be difficult when Revel opens), it’s still piece, though a big one, of a nonetheless shrinking pie.

Other shoe about to drop in AC?

According to a WSJ report, MGM Mirage has decided to sell its interest in the Borgata and presumably close the door on any future developments in Atlantic City:

For years, New Jersey regulators have raised concerns about the suitability of casino company MGM Mirage's business partner in China. Now, MGM Mirage has an answer: cash out of Atlantic City.The company plans to divest its 50% stake in the Borgata casino resort, a person with knowledge of the negotiations said last week. Although it has been scouting for buyers it hasn't come to a deal, according to two people with knowledge of the talks.MGM Mirage hopes that its plan to sell its Atlantic City interests will convince New Jersey regulators to agree to curtail their regulatory oversight of the company. Any additional scrutiny has the potential to cause problems with MGM Mirage's business elsewhere.MGM Mirage disclosed last year that New Jersey's Division of Gaming Enforcement had issued a confidential report saying the company should disassociate from Pansy Ho, MGM Mirage's joint venture partner in Macau. It labeled her an “unsuitable” business partner.

via MGM Mirage Prepares to Sell Stake in Borgata – WSJ.com.

Here are some numbers. According to the latest-available financial report, Borgata was on track to show a net income of about $120 million in 2009. MGM Mirage gets half of that. In this economy, adding $60 million to your bottom line is nothing to sneeze at. There are expenses involved–particularly, as we see, regulatory-related expenses. And the threat of drawn-out litigation makes that $60 million a year look less and less attractive.

According to the 2008 MGM Mirage Annual Report, in that year the company spent $24 million on its MGM Grand Atlantic City development before pulling the plug due to the worsening economy. Now that we’ve all seen the city’s revenues fall back to 1997 numbers, it would be hard to argue that this was a bad decision. Unless something dramatic happens (that is, unless casino operators make something dramatic happen), Atlantic City is clearly a declining market.

What about Macau? According to MGM Mirage’s investor relations, the company earned $24 million in revenue from MGM Grand Macau in the third quarter of 2009. That pencils out to roughly $96 million for the year.

Which is greater? $60 million or $96 million? The decision seems obvious.

There is also the fact that Macau is the world’s fastest-growing casino market, and Atlantic City has, as I said before, gone back to 1997 and, with the imminent arrival of Pennsylvania table games, is poised to fall even further.

Even as an Atlantic City native, I’ve got to admit that MGM’s management has few options here. Clearly the most responsible decision for the company’s health is to stay in Macau.

To make a long story short, Atlantic City needs MGM Mirage far more than MGM Mirage needs Atlantic City at this point. Should this make a difference to the integrity of the licensing and enforcement process? Absolutely not. But there’s something to be said for over-zealousness. Past operators chased from Atlantic City by regulatory overkill–Hugh Hefner and Hilton Hotels are the most prominent–continued to do business in other states with not even a whisper of impropriety. Hilton was even invited back.

What does this all mean? New Jersey’s regulators aren’t doing the state any favors by throwing the book at MGM Mirage. The only beneficiaries might be the existing operators, who will have one less rival to face (if MGM decided to go ahead with their AC project), and even that’s debatable, since a project of the scale that MGM had proposed would have probably brought more people to town. This looks like a lose/lose situation.