Travel - There's a New Kind of Action on the Strip

April 17, 2005

Travel - There's a New Kind of Action on the Strip

Ever the Madonna of cities, Las Vegas - once the home of the Rat Pack and then, briefly, a family friendly destination - has once again reinvented itself for baby boomers and their echo-boomer offspring, both eager to spend whatever it takes for a taste of the good life.

Today's headliners aren't B-list comedians or faded Hollywood stars, but designers like Tony Chi and restaurateurs like Alain Ducasse. At the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, retailers like Harry Winston and Pucci have recently opened outposts. And the hottest nightclubs - primarily Light, Body English and Pure - now have lines to rival those outside Cirque du Soleil.

Yes, you'll still see the sunburned and the tank-topped and the drunk. But you'll also see the suited, the cigar-smoking and the svelte. Now culture and class are lures. For a place that was once synonymous with Wayne Newton, that's a big change.

The other revolutionary change was the realization by the resort owners that some people go to Las Vegas for things other than gambling. By expanding those options in over-the-top proportions, the city has redefined "fantasy" for the affluent traveler.

"We're not suggesting that gambling isn't important," said Alan Feldman, senior vice president for public affairs at the MGM Mirage. "But the notion that it's everything is three decades old."

This repositioning of Las Vegas began when the hotelier and casino owner Steve Wynn opened the Bellagio in Las Vegas in 1998, spending $1.6 billion on a gamble that given luxury accommodations and marquee names like Le Cirque, Picasso and "O," sophisticated travelers and the many who wish they were would flock to a town better known for kitsch than culture.

With the recent confluence of star chefs, designer boutiques, glamorous nightclubs and acclaimed multimillion-dollar shows, Las Vegas's deluxe appeal has reached critical mass. A recent Monet exhibition with record attendance was extended twice. In March, Interior Design magazine devoted 32 pages to design in Las Vegas.

Although reported celebrity sightings have been more scandalous than chic (Britney Spears's wedding, anyone?), pop culture references, including television's wave of casino-based dramas and poker tournaments and the city's "what happens here, stays here" ad campaign have only stoked interest. And with the opening on April 28 of the luxurious Wynn Las Vegas, costing, his company says, $2.7 billion, Mr. Wynn is poised to cash in on this evolution he began.

"My business to Las Vegas has tripled in the last three years," said Natalie Nagy, a New York-based travel agent with Protravel International. "It used to be just quick getaways for people from Los Angeles - not deluxe at all. Now its a completely different kind of clientele from all over the country." When these clients call to book their Las Vegas reservations, she said, they tell her that "money is no object."

The most surprising thing in the latest Las Vegas incarnation is that people are willing to pay for the benefits given high rollers. It used to be that if you didn't gamble, you couldn't grease the maitre d'hotel for a good table for a Paul Anka show. Forget ringside at a heavyweight fight.

But now you can buy your way in. Well-dressed young people take private tables at clubs like Light, where European bottle service - your own tableside bar - with a dedicated waitress (in a black evening gown) and the best view of the crowded dance floor starts at $350 a bottle.

Body English, the Kelly Wearstler-designed glam rock homage, features a hidden, soundproof room, the Parlor, with a one-way mirror so V.I.P.'s can see out, but no one can see in. Patrons are expected to spend a minimum of $1,200 (the club makes that easier by offering a $2,000 martini, replete with a diamond and ruby-encrusted gold swizzle stick that is yours to keep).

Willing, paying customers now book the most luxurious accommodations that were once the sole, free domain of the casinos' high rollers. Skylofts at the MGM Grand - 51 sleek, two-story lofts designed by Mr. Chi with infinity tubs, HDTV, personalized engraved stationary and chauffeur service - opened on the top floor of the MGM Grand in January, and have been renting for $800 to $10,000 a night.

Outside the Skyloft's windows, construction has begun on two of three luxury condominium towers, the Residences at MGM Grand. These fully furnished studios and one- and two-bedroom suites with Miele, Bosch and Jacuzzi products, are designed as second homes that can also be rented out by the hotel. The first two towers have nearly sold out, at an average of $600,000 a unit, according to Jeff Yamaguchi, vice president for operations at the Residences. MGM says the typical buyers are executives in their mid-40's looking for a pied-a-terre or a real estate investment.

On the other side of the Strip, a planned condominium tower, the Panorama, has been attracting younger urbanites, like the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who want their piece of the Las Vegas action.

William Green, a 34-year-old film producer, used to drive to Las Vegas with friends when he moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. "You wanted to kill yourself after 24 hours," he said.

He added that as Las Vegas "grew up," his career picked up as well, and Mr. Green recently bought a three-bedroom apartment in the Panorama. He says he charters an airplane from Burbank airport, sharing the cost among eight or so friends.

"Now Las Vegas has nice restaurants and bars, and it has more things to do," he said. "It still might drive you mad, but now its after 48 hours and not 24."

The latest change is perhaps the most anticipated. The Wynn Las Vegas is cloaked with a calculated air of mystique: unlike the Bellagio (which Mr. Wynn is no longer associated with), where the 11-acre lake and 100 choreographed fountains were gifts to all passers-by on the Strip, the new resort's 18 restaurants, 18-hole golf course and Maserati and Ferrari dealership are obscured by a manmade mountain of imported coniferous trees.

Those who venture inside will be treated to an "enriched, V.I.P. guest experience," according to Denise Randazzo, a spokeswoman for Wynn Las Vegas. Despite having 2,716 rooms and suites, the Wynn is striving to feel more like a boutique hotel with personalized service.

Hotel staff members are in training, for example, to greet each guest by name. In all 2,716 rooms? "It's a goal," she said.

If You Go

Wynn Las Vegas, (888) 320-9966,, a copper beacon on the north end of the Strip, will open April 28. Double rooms start at $250.

All rooms at the Bellagio, (888) 987-6667 ,, the original luxury accommodation in the Strip, were updated when the new Spa Tower opened last December. Rooms start at $159.

Skylofts at MGM Grand, (877) 646-5638,, consist of two-story, contemporary lofts with every possible service imaginable, down to a personal "spa butler." Prices start at $800 for a one-bedroom loft including airport pickup in a Maybach 62 limousine.

At Mix in Las Vegas, (702) 632-9500, a stunning room on top of THEhotel at Mandalay Bay, Alain Ducasse serves classic French and American fusion dishes like striped bass, spinach, white mushroom and champagne reduction ($32).

Fix, (702) 693-8400,, in the Bellagio, is a more reasonably priced newcomer to the hip restaurant scene. Dishes include Bobby Baldwin Burgers: three Kobe beef sliders served with spiced fries($18).

Light, (702) 693-8300,, located inside the Bellagio, offers reserved tables with bottle service, which begins at $350 a bottle. Cover is $30.

At Body English, (702) 693-4000,, in the Hard Rock Hotel, the resident D.J., AM, plays a mix of hip-hop and house on weekends. Cover is $20 and $30. Reserved tables for four with special service start at $300 a bottle.

Pure, (702) 731-7873,, is four nightclubs in one, including an outdoor rooftop terrace with views of the surrounding Strip. Covers start at $20.

JetBlue, (800) 538-2583 and, offers daily nonstop service from New York (Kennedy Airport) to Las Vegas from about $216 round trip.

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