E. Parry Thomas Built This City, One Loan at a Time – Vegas Seven

In this week’s Green Felt Journal, I look back at the legacy of Parry Thomas, with an assist from Steve Wynn, who knew Thomas better than most:

It’s no understatement that without Parry Thomas, Las Vegas would look much different today.

Read more: E. Parry Thomas Built This City, One Loan at a Time – Vegas Seven

What I’ve learned is that it is basically impossible to understate Thomas’s influence on modern Las Vegas–not just its casinos, but pretty much everything.

I was lucky to be able to attend the memorial service at Encore on Tuesday. It was a beautiful tribute, with each of Thomas’s children sharing their thoughts. Steve Wynn closed with some remarkably personal thoughts on mortality and Thomas’s influence. I’m paraphrasing much less eloquently, but he said that each of us is someday going to be the “guest of honor” like Thomas, and if people have half as much praise for us as they do for him, we’ve had a good life.

That’s something to think about.

If you don’t see a video, it’s…

If you don’t see a video, it’s here: http://youtu.be/EqZ82UwJuBQ

Author David G. Schwartz summarizes chapter 15, “A Clockwork Volcano: Las Vegas Strikes Back,” of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling (Casino Edition).

This chapter starts by discussing some of the technological changes that made possible the rise of slot machines, like the introduction of video poker and wide area progressive games like Megabucks. It then talks about The Mirage, which opened in 1989 and kicked off the 1990s boom for Las Vegas. Although it completely changed the Las Vegas Strip, before it opened, many were skeptical that it would succeed.

We then learn about other important companies like MGM Mirage and the Mandalay Resort Group, which, through a series of mergers (including one with Mirage Resorts) became MGM Resorts. Las Vegas Sands, which owns the Venetian and Palazzo, is also profiled.

For more information about the book, visit http://www.rollthebonesbook.com

If you don’t see a video, it’s here: http://youtu.be/EqZ82UwJuBQ

Author David G. Schwartz summarizes chapter 15, “A Clockwork Volcano: Las Vegas Strikes Back,” of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling (Casino Edition).

This chapter starts by discussing some of the technological changes that made possible the rise of slot machines, like the introduction of video poker and wide area progressive games like Megabucks. It then talks about The Mirage, which opened in 1989 and kicked off the 1990s boom for Las Vegas. Although it completely changed the Las Vegas Strip, before it opened, many were skeptical that it would succeed.

We then learn about other important companies like MGM Mirage and the Mandalay Resort Group, which, through a series of mergers (including one with Mirage Resorts) became MGM Resorts. Las Vegas Sands, which owns the Venetian and Palazzo, is also profiled.

For more information about the book, visit http://www.rollthebonesbook.com

Talking about Steve Wynn talking about Mirage at TWHT

Sometimes I like to share things that I find while plumbing through the archives, just because. Yesterday I did just that at Two Way Hard Three:

Working on my lecture for tomorrow about Las Vegas gaming in the 1980s and 1990s, I wanted to go back to some of the original sources. So I’ve been browsing through the archives quite a bit.

I found a press release issued on November 14, 1989 titled “MIRAGE RESORT SETS NEW DIRECTION FOR LAS VEGAS.” For those keeping score at home, that’s 8 days before the Mirage’s grand opening

via From the archives: SW talks Mirage, 1989 | Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog | from ratevegas.com.

It’s always neat to see how people thought (or hoped) things were going to turn out, and compare it to how they actually did. Ten years from now we’ll be able to do this with CityCenter.

Marilyn Spiegel interview

About 2 weeks ago, I interviewed Marilyn Spiegel for a profile piece in Vegas Seven. There are always space constraints, so I thought it would be a good idea to record the interview and post at at UNLV Gaming Podcasts, mostly so she can share her story in her own words.

I”m having some issues with iTunes presently–it may not show up in your feed, but you can get it here:

29-March 3, 2011
Marilyn Spiegel, President and CEO, Wynn Las Vegas
In this interview with CGR Director David G. Schwartz, Spiegel shares her thoughts on luxury at Wynn Las Vegas and chronicles her career in gaming.

Listen to the audio file (mp3)

One area that I’m sure people will be interested in is her thoughts on the closing of Alex. In his February conference call, Steve Wynn credited her with making him rethink the restaurant. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“There were already thoughts about customer preference at Alex,” she says. “Alex Stratta is a phenomenal chef, but the dining experience is lengthy and American tastes have changed.”

Spiegel has no doubts that she made the right call.

“We have capacity in our other restaurants. If you’re able to drive the fixed costs of your restaurants over more covers, it’s more efficient. And if that space can be used better for a different idea, so be it.”

Its at about the 24-minute mark of the podcast, if you want to skip ahead.

I wanted to know what a food critic thought of Spiegel’s call, so I asked John Curtas of Eating Las Vegas. Here’s his response to me, which regrettably didn’t make the final cut of the article:

Great restaurants inside hotels are amenities that the hotel either does or does not want to offer its guests. Wynn has made a calculated decision to abandon his “great chefs/restaurants” brands of ‘o5, and it has nothing to do with “America’s changing tastes.” They think their customers won’t mind, and they think they can make more money with mediocrity.

The whole “fine dining is dead” chestnut is used as an excuse by chefs/restaurateurs/hotels to cut back on quality (and increase their profits) by pretending to be “with it.” My educated guess is Ms. Spiegel is more interested in pushing steaks and booze on her high rollers/nightclubbers than anything with a whiff of sophistication about it.

Leisurely, fine dining has always been a niche market for the aspirational and well-heeled. It hasn’t gone away, it’s simply not (quite) as fashionable as it was five years ago. Every high-end restaurateur I’ve spoken with, from the Bellagio to Caesars Palace, has told me their business is up…and doing even better now that people who would’ve dined at ALEX are looking for their big deal meals elsewhere. (If you don’t believe me, I’ll take you on a tour of a few of them some night).
John Curtas, Eating Las Vegas

Pretty strong stuff that definitely adds a different perspective.

Overall, I think Marilyn Spiegel has a great story that I’m glad I could help her share with people.

Wynn points to the future

I’ve got a new Las Vegas Business Press column up, in which I discuss the historical context behind Wynn’s musings about moving to Macau.

Steve Wynn made headlines when he suggested he might consider moving the headquarters of Wynn Resorts Ltd. to Macau from Las Vegas. As always, Wynn's forthrightness points the way to a larger truth about the future of the casino industry.

Wynn Resorts is a Las Vegas success story. Since moving here in 1967 as a part-owner of the Frontier, Steve Wynn has been one of the city's prime movers.

He began making a mark in 1973, when he became the chief executive officer of the Golden Nugget, then a small downtown casino with no real distinction.

Wynn's aspirations outside of Las Vegas have always been an important piece of the puzzle.

via Las Vegas Business Press :: David G. Schwartz : When Wynn speaks, gaming listens.

I think that many of the so-called pundits have reacted more emotionally than rationally to Wynn lately, particularly since he’s become critical of the current administration, and that’s what’s driving some of the comments out there. We talked about this a little on the latest Vegas Gang.

Wynn’s political opinions and the possibility of his moving the headquarters of his company are, I think, two separate issues. It’s not like he’s threatening to go John Galt on us: he’s just saying that he might move more elements of Wynn Resorts to the city that is its top market. People give another prominent CEO grief for not living in Las Vegas, since that’s where the action is, and by this logic they should be demanding that Wynn spend more time in Macau.

The most fascinating thing about Wynn is that, like Jay Sarno, his career doesn’t have a single, predictable arc. If he did, he’d have just kept expanding the Golden Nugget or, at the very least, staying with that brand. Instead, you’ve had forays into Atlantic City, Mississippi, and Macau, with the sale of Mirage Resorts along the way. All the time, he was reacting to changing conditions. If things had gone differently in Atlantic City, he might not even have built the Mirage, or at the very least would have built it in Atlantic City, and casino history would be much different.

So it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if the next stage of Wynn’s career takes him in a completely different direction. It’s happened before and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again.

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.

Taking a bow

My Las Vegas Business Press piece on Encore is up. It’s an expansion of my original post on this site. Here’s my grand conclusion:

Encore, in its essence, is hopeful. Even the name is a reminder that something came before, and something will come after. It’s both a great new resort and a call to remember that as long as it continues to change, Las Vegas will survive.

Wynn should take a bow for Encore and its essence of hope.

Insomuch as it’s possible to plumb a casino opening for a deeper read on the current American mindset, I’m giving it a shot. I’d really like to develop this into a 2000-word or so essay that pulls in the history of the Strip, speculation, consumerism, much more. Any editors out there want to pay for such a piece? Just checking.

Together, I think Wynn and Encore are the first Vegas resort that’s not looking backward: there’s no nostalgia for the past or for imagined versions of other, more notable, places. It looks like City Center and Fountainebleau will be in the same mold. Whether you love or hate the Wynn suite of properties, you’ve got to admit that stylistically they are a world away from, say, the Palazzo and Venetian, which are supposed to evoke the glories of a city whose heyday passed before Columbus sailed. They are original without making a fetish of their modernism.

If we don’t have the airline capacity to deliver people to town, though, does any of this make a difference in 2009? Later in the week I’ll be developing my year-in-review/looking ahead columns, and I think that will be the big question.

Encore echoes

There’s been quite the buzz for Encore over the Internet. This quote from Oskar Garcia’s AP piece explains, I think, why Wynn gets it more than anyone except Jack Binion and a few others:

Wynn expected thousands to jam the entrances to the casinos on Monday night, as some of his best customers ceremoniously pull the first slots and play the first hand at each machine and table with $2 million in house money.

If they win — at prices of $1,000 to $25,000 — they get to keep the winnings, but Wynn says he expects they’ll play some more no matter what happens.

“I’ve never met a gambler that would win a bet and retire from gambling,” he said.

Wynn’s Encore opens during tough times for Vegas

There’s something else about the place that I didn’t mention yesterday–like Wynn, it has a sense of humor about itself. Many of the other luxury joints take themselves way too seriously. I don’t get the feeling that Encore does. There’s a real sense of whimsy running throughout the place. I’m sure a guy that’s just blown $25,000 at mini bacc would beg to differ, but I can see it.

I’ve got an idea that I will hopefully get to develop more in an essay somewhere: Encore is a themed hotel, but it’s themed around ideas, not a time or place. It’s not homogeneous, but it all ties together because it comes back to the idea of change, metamorphosis, and reinvention…which is the essence of Las Vegas, after all.

And now for an Encore

Dave’s thoughts on the opening of Encore at Wynn Las Vegas.

After much anticipation, I got to see the inside of Encore. My expectations were high. As I said in the RJ, Steve Wynn’s been opening casinos for a while now, and he does it better than anyone in the business. I tried not to read the pre-opening press too closely because I’m in no hurry to see the future–I’d rather experience it as it happens.

I was enormously lucky this morning, since the group I was in (which included fellow Vegas Gang members Hunter, Chuck, and David) was conducted around the property by Roger Thomas, the hotel’s Executive Vice President of Design. He designed himself or had a hand in the realization of just about everything we saw, and had fascinating anecdotes about how he acquired many of the pieces on display throughout the property. It was a real treat.

I’m amazed at how well everything came together. When I ran past the place during the marathon (which was about 2 weeks ago but feels like 2 months), I thought that there was no way the hotel would be ready to open on the 22nd–and that was just the porte cochere. When I got there at quarter of 11 this morning, there was still work going on, but the place is absolutely ready. There’s something to be said for a hard opening: much more dramatic impact and excitement than doing it in dribs and drabs.

And that’s what it all comes down to: visual theater. It’s hard not to get jaded about casinos when you live in Las Vegas, and even tougher when you’ve worked in one. Encore really impressed me in a way that few hotels or casinos have. To explain the genius of the place, let me tell you about Mr. A and Mr. B. Mr. A has been coming to Las Vegas for thirty years and has gone from Caesars Palace to Mirage to Bellagio, with stays at Bally’s, MGM Grand, and Paris mixed in. He loves Vegas and everything about Vegas, especially the gambling. Mr. B came to Vegas once, in 1999, and hated everything about the city. He doesn’t gamble. I really think that both Mr. A and Mr. B would be equally wowed by Encore for completely different reasons.

Encore is the ultimate Vegas and the anti-Vegas, both at the same time. The colors are rich without being gaudy. The interiors deliver luxury without pretension. I didn’t get the feeling that it was trying to impress: instead, it felt like some folks with an unlimited bank account and excellent taste got together and decided to build. I can see how it’s the logical product of Wynn’s three decades plus in the casino business, but also a departure.

I won’t bore you with the petty details: the chambered casino, the unique finishes in each restaurant, and the square footage of the guest rooms. That’s been better told elsewhere. I’ll just relate some of my impressions of what I saw.

At first, I didn’t think that I was going to be very impressed with the restaurants. After all, they’re just places for people to eat, right? How creative can you get with that? Sinatra, for example: when I heard the idea of a Sinatra-themed Italian restaurant, I thought, ugh. I pictured Piero’s with Rat Pack photos and gold records on the walls. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The restaurant is actually a gem, a fantastically-designed space with brilliant details, and a few tasteful photos of Frank Sinatra that don’t look out of place at all. It’s really the opposite of everything I’d imagined it would be.

Switch, too, was a real shock. When I heard the concept of a restaurant whose walls changed, I cynically thought that they must not have much optimism for the menu if they have to use gimmicks like that. Seeing the concept in action, though, it all makes sense. Roger Thomas says that Steve Wynn’s idea was “dinner theater without the actors.” He absolutely achieved it: the switch effect is flawless, and the musical cues give it a true sense of drama. I can see now how it will complement, not distract from, your meal.

More cynicism exploded: you would think that opening a nightclub called “XS” in the midst of an economic slowdown is the height of hubris. Do we really need another gilded night spot? Walking through the space, I can say “yes.” It feels like a celebration of movement, of life, particularly the gold leaf body forms in the foyer, another detail that must be seen to be appreciated. It’s not hubris, it’s optimism, a bold statement that there still are moments in life worth celebrating.

Set against “the downturn,” the entire resort takes the shape of a manifesto, a declaration that there’s only one way ahead, and that’s to move forward. Granted, none of this was planned: Encore was conceived when it looked like smooth sailing ahead. Today, it has a relevance far beyond any other casino. It’s a profound cultural statement.

We’re not going to gamble or pamper our way out of our current societal predicament, but Encore is a bellwether nonetheless because it is forward-looking. There are elements from the past and from various parts of the world, but nothing sentimental or nostalgic. Sinatra, for example, looks like a room that the singer would be comfortable in, but like nothing that he would have seen during his life. It’s not about presenting Rat Pack nostalgia–it’s creating a space around the symbolic core of Sinatra’s music.

In short, next time you’re in Las Vegas, plan to spend some time in Encore. It will be something to remember.

Macau gloom bandwagon

For a while, the Big Story was how hot Las Vegas was. Then it was Macau: The Next Generation. Now that Vegas has cooled off a bit and Macau’s hitting a plateau, we’ve got a new story: Macau is in dire straits. Even Time has picked it up:

But in the wake of the faltering global economy, Macau is not such a sure bet anymore. The problem is that some of those giants embarked on overzealous building sprees — since 2004, the number of casinos in Macau has more than doubled to 31 — and now the global credit crisis is threatening to topple at least one of them. Adelson's company, Las Vegas Sands, has undertaken an aggressive expansion plan over the past few years, winning the bid to build the $4.6 billion Marina Bay Sands casino-resort in Singapore and developing a $743 million casino-resort in Pennsylvania, among other projects. The credit crisis has left the overextended company in danger of defaulting on $5.2 billion of loans secured by its Las Vegas operations. Last week, the company said it would work towards completing the Marina Bay site, but Singapore's government is making backup plans to enact if the Sands fails to raise the necessary funds to complete construction. Then, on Nov. 13, the cash-strapped company announced that it would layoff up to 11,000 construction workers in Macau, after its decision to suspend work on part of the Cotai Strip — a $12 billion undertaking. On Thursday, Las Vegas Sands' share price closed at $5.58, down 95% from its peak last December.

Dark Days Ahead for Asia’s Las Vegas? – TIME.

If you factor out the visa restrictions and other extrinsic factors, it’s hard to argue against Macau’s growth in the long term. Of course, all those extrinsic factors are what makes Macau…Macau.

I just wish that we could get stories weren’t so extreme. It’s always “this is the best every” or “things can’t get any worse.” Usually, though, things can get better, and of course things can always get worse.

But I doubt you’ll see a story whose gist is: Macau is a promising market but it’s currently got challenges that only smart operators will be able to overcome. It’s too nuanced, and it probably requires too many value judgments.