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Conquering Caesars

Once outdated and outshined, Caesars Palace reclaims its glittering position as a world-class Las Vegas destination
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Brad Paisley, March/April 2012

The first time I visited Las Vegas was in the summer of 1979. Two boyhood friends and I stayed at a dump on the northern end of Las Vegas Boulevard. Of course, though, we ventured down to the Strip. Most of the memory resonates as a vague riot of neon, but Caesars Palace was a whole other story. It epitomized Las Vegas, with polished grounds, buzzy valets and muscled-up dudes dressed like Roman soldiers—not to mention the cocktail waitresses in their micro-mini togas. Then, like now, the main blackjack pit was illuminated by a constellation of crystal chandeliers. And for us, there was little question that right there was the eye of the Vegas hurricane.

For people with more money and sophistication, Caesars Palace was the ultimate Vegas playground. It featured a restaurant called the Bacchanal where wine flowed like water, so-called Goddesses gave you backrubs as you ate and if you wanted to show off, you ordered the Prime Colossus Sirloin Steak Pompeii. Female hotel guests wore evening gowns to the shows and the gaming tables. Men broke out their tuxedos. It was a place where you could easily run into Sinatra and his crowd blowing their paychecks at dice. Caesars was everybody’s joint of choice. It was the luxest, plushest, highest rolling operation in Las Vegas that was just beginning to define itself for the coming century.

According to David Schwartz, author of the forthcoming book Grandissimo, which chronicles Caesars Palace and its founder Jay Sarno, Caesars heralded the launch of the modern mega casino. “Caesars opened [in 1966] and overnight it stole the high-roller thunder from the Sands and the Desert Inn,” says Schwartz. “The way the casino was designed, it was the first fantasy architecture in Las Vegas. Everything else in town was a little modern and a little tacky. Caesars had fountains, reflecting pools, fantasy glamour. You drove up the entrance, past the cypress trees, and it felt like you were being transported back in time.”

The effect remained fully there in ’79—five years before Sarno would die in a high-roller-suite hot tub, post-coitus with a woman half his age. Five years after Sarno’s passing, Caesars’ domineering run would reach an end. Bigger, better, newer casinos sprang up. Clearly, Caesars’ original owner had an eye for the outré spectacle—his original plan was to have a giant piranha tank in the center of  Bacchanal and to drop a live pig in there each night in order to amuse his diners—and its later owners did their share by bringing outdoor boxing matches and even an Evel Knievel show. But a young Steve Wynn had interesting thoughts of his own. Wynn’s Mirage, which opened in 1989, would trump Caesars and emerge as the newest new place in Vegas.

Soon after, other mega casinos followed suit. The Bellagio, the Venetian, Mandalay Bay with its Four Seasons offshoot, the Hard Rock for sheer youth-quaking appeal, and the Wynn all seemed to out-Caesars Caesars. While the old joint maintained its die-hard customers and did what it could to keep up, young gamblers just weren’t being drawn there as they had once been. It was no longer the brightest star in the desert. Though resonance remained in the name (intentionally spelled without an apostrophe, so as to connote that everybody staying there was a mini Caesar), the property began to seem tatty—especially if you had the misfortune, in recent years, of staying in the rundown Centurion Tower.

It seemed like a crummy way for such a classy place to go out.

Then something unexpected happened. Harrah’s Entertainment bought Caesars Palace. Best known as a mid-brow operation that was technologically astute (with, incidentally, one of the most robust customer databases in the business), Harrah’s was not exactly famed for its sky-high quality casinos. But Caesars was bought for precisely that purpose. Company management decided to polish this jewel in the corporate crown. “Caesars Entertainment Corporation [which is what the Harrah’s group has been rechristened] is now a multibillion-dollar gaming company, the largest in the world, and this is their flagship casino,” says Schwartz. “They have 10 properties in Las Vegas. How can Caesars not be one of the best places in town?”

According to Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace, that was precisely the plan when Harrah’s bought the property in 2004. Since then there have been improvements and upgrades including the posh Augustus Tower in 2005 and the launching of Guy Savoy’s fantastic, eponymous restaurant that same year. A Vegas incarnation of the East Harlem hot-ticket eatery Rao’s fired up the ovens and Celine Dion kicked off a Caesars tradition of bringing in well-known entertainers for extended runs (Elton John and Rod Stewart have followed suit; Shania Twain is up next).

A poker room was installed, the sports book was upgraded and Qua Baths & Spa is a great place to unwind. Considering that Caesars missed the boat on Macau and Singapore—the two fastest growing gambling destinations in the world—Vegas has taken on added urgency. Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, has stated that he “loses sleep every day” over his casinos being absent from those Asian markets.

But back home in Vegas, 2011 and 2012 mark a serious stepping up for Caesars. On New Year’s Eve weekend, the hotel debuted its Octavius Tower, which does the luxurious Augustus, originally lauded for having the nicest rooms in town, a few better. Octavius is tricked out with up-to-the-minute technology (including an app for ordering room service, towels and your car), ultra-comfy beds and a private check-in area. Downstairs near the front desk, the tired coffee shop has been replaced by a 24-hour eatery manned by Michelin-starred chef Michel Richard. Fronted by a wine tower and a cool bar, it handily outdoes other round-the-clock options on the Strip.

Selesner says that the company has spent $1 billion on its upgrades, improvements and build-outs. Beyond that, in 2011 parent company Caesars Entertainment had interest expenses of nearly $1.7 billion, with revenues of $2.25 billion for the third quarter of 2011. Sitting in his office, laden with the memorabilia of a career casino man—posters for the Stones at Hard Rock and boxing matches in Atlantic City; a fedora just like the one that modern-day Sinatra, Matt Goss, wears when he performs on the old Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars—Selesner flatly states, “Harrah’s Entertainment recognized that this is the greatest brand in the casino business. What we’re doing here, right now, is what’s necessary to compete. There are other great hotels in Las Vegas. We want to make sure that Caesars will be considered one of the most—if not the most—luxurious properties in the city.”

While Caesars was always known as a premium place to stay and play, it had slid down to the second tier, below more modern, urbane operations like Wynn, Bellagio and Venetian. That said, one thing that it always had in its favor was a sense of tradition. Gamblers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s harbor soft spots for the joint that once defined luxury tourism in Las Vegas. For a certain, often well-heeled demographic there is nothing quite like playing blackjack in the oval gambling pit near the entrance of the casino. It’s a spot where the dealers are among the most experienced in town and the low, glitzed-out ceiling brings back memories of a more intimate Vegas where discretion was the watchword.

For Selesner, it’s a bit of a high-wire act to maintain that sense of tradition while staying competitive in a rapidly evolving environment. “No doubt, the market has changed,” he acknowledges. “Ninety-percent of revenue used to come from gambling. Now it’s more like 50 percent. We’ve been open for 46 years and if we want to stay open for another 46, we know that we have to stay relevant. But for many people, this was their first casino. They loved it and they passed it on to their kids. We’re going on our third generation here. We’re not trying to become the Cosmopolitan, and we wouldn’t want to be. The older demographic has more money.”

And, it goes without saying, in the name of relevancy the last thing Selesner would want to do is lose those players. He’s keeping them on board by opening restaurants like the Vegas version of Old Homestead steakhouse, which launched just before Christmas. It’s actually a terrific spot that toes the line between young and old, looking cool and serving classic big-guy steaks. Co-owner Greg Sherry says that he could have brought a branch of his iconic beef palace to any number of Vegas casinos, but he chose Caesars for the same reason that a lot of his more venerable customers opt to gamble there: “The name is iconic. Plus Caesars is on an expansion right now. They’re upgrading their eating establishments and this seemed like the right time for us.” Underscoring his point is the fact that the Homestead’s general manager and chef both came over from jobs at the Wynn, which is considered the ne plus ultra of Vegas hotels. It’s probably not a move that one would make lightly or that one would have made prior to the current campaign.

Plus, like a gambler on a roll, Caesars also got a little lucky a few years ago when Selesner agreed to let director Todd Phillips shoot key scenes for The Hangover at the casino. Phillips later talked about having a connection to Caesars since it’s the place where his father used to gamble, but the fact of the matter is that Caesars was not his first choice. In the original script, the movie was set to take place at the Wynn.

Not wanting to seem like the kind of place where guests wake up with tigers and other people’s babies in trashed hotel rooms, Wynn turned down the production. Caesars—which had already experienced the rub-off success of Hollywood by having part of Rain Man shot there—embraced the idea. Or, as Selesner puts it, “It took us exactly one minute to say yes to them shooting in the casino and frolicking in the fountain. In a lot of ways, Caesars was a star of the movie. Nobody knew that it would be as big as it was, but we all knew that it had a great script.”

Nevertheless, a few scenes needed to be cleaned up or relocated away from the hotel, but the movie clearly pays off in spades every time a Gen Xer checks into one of the premium priced Hangover Suites or gets a kick out of quoting the baby-toting character played by Zach Galifianakis when asking at the check-in desk, “Did Caesar live here?”

In that regard, it’s more than just a matter of building more towers and cutting deals with restaurateurs or bringing in cool shows like the sexily hard-edged Absinthe (think of Cirque du Soleil with a bawdy undertone and entertainingly sleazy MC). But there is something attitudinal as well. “What’s going on at Caesars is a giant overhaul to not just be current but to be cutting edge,” says Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor and an unbiased observer of all things Vegas. “What they’re doing will go hand-in-glove with the entire recovery of the economy. Caesars weathered the bad times, raised money and now stands out as a place that is moving forward.”

Upgraded as Caesars may seem, to steal a line that Sinatra might have crooned in the casino’s Circus Maximus Theater, the best is yet to come. Across the street, on the east side of the Strip, there’s a less-than-stellar Caesars Entertainment hotel called Imperial Palace, and directly south, the Flamingo, also owned by Caesers. The plan is to rebrand and renovate Imperial Palace in addition to building a shopping and dining complex with a slow-moving Ferris wheel modeled after the London Eye between the Palace and the Flamingo. If things go as anticipated, that will be a new Las Vegas landmark and a profit generator to boot.

Inside Caesars, plans are well underway for a hotel within the hotel that may prove to be a game changer. It’s dubbed the Nobu Hotel, run under the auspices of the famous Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, and it will function as a high-service boutique hotel with only 180 rooms. Selesner figures that it represents the sweet spot between the old-and-affluent and the up-and-coming. “Go to Nobu in Malibu or the Hamptons, and who do you see there?” he asks. “Kids and guys like Larry Ellison. We’re playing to both markets in a sophisticated way and firing on all 12 cylinders.”

Besides having minimalistically designed accommodations and room-service running out of Nobu’s kitchen, it promises to offer a level of service that the new Octavius Tower more or less hints at. Making it happen is Ramesh Sadhwani, vice president of operations who came on board last year. The kind of guy who would seem naked out of a suit and tie, he has made the act of pleasing hotel guests his life’s work, previously at the Four Seasons and most recently at Steve Wynn’s Tower Suites (kind of a hotel within the hotel at Wynn). When we meet for breakfast at Michel Richard and I ask for carrot juice, which the restaurant does not serve, I can almost see Sadhwani making a mental note. “If you order carrot juice this time and we don’t have it,” he says, “we will try to have it next time.”

What lured Sadhwani away from the greatest casino name in Vegas to an operation that’s been likened to a former heavyweight champ past his prime? He acknowledges that, like Greg Sherry, he would not be at Caesars if the current plan was not in place and the resurgence was not in the midst of happening. “At Nobu,” he  says, “we are going to take the level of service to a different height.”

It will begin when you pull up to the main entrance of Caesars Palace. “A representative will meet arrivals and walk them up to the room,” says Sadhwani, explaining that the rigor of checking in at a desk will be bypassed. “Check-in will be done in the room, with an iPad. Before your arrival, you will tell us about your food allergies [so that none of your meals, from room service or the hotel’s restaurants will be made with those ingredients], if you’re allergic to any cleaning chemicals or if you have certain amenity preferences. There is nothing like staying in a hotel and wondering how the hell they know all this stuff about you.”

While the new rooms, new restaurants and new entertainment options may be the most visible aspects of Caesar getting its groove back, Sadhwani is working on nuanced touches that play no less a role in a guest enjoying the hotel experience and wanting to return. He says it will be evident in the room service arriving a little warmer and a littler fresher. It’s always a challenge in a sprawling hotel, but he’s overcoming it by deploying a fleet of golf carts outfitted with ovens that zip food from the kitchen to room-service waiters near the elevators below various towers. “We’re expanding the Caesars brand in Europe and Asia,” he says, explaining that the upticks in accommodations and service will reverberate beyond the Strip. “We want to reflect the expectation levels of our international guests and we’re getting the ball rolling for that here in Las Vegas.”

After Nobu is completed, there’ll be more renovations through 2013—to rooms as well as the entertainment options—and then maybe a breather for Gary Selesner and his crew? Selesner shakes his head and laughs the laugh of a man helming 4,000 rooms in a Las Vegas legend that’s fighting to stay relevant. Then he says, “At that point it will be time to build some more new towers.”

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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