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The Biggest Bet in Vegas

Impresario Steve Wynn has broken ground on a $1.95 billion hotel, Le Reve
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

(continued from page 1)

Shrouded in mystery, Wynn spent two years plotting his next move. This past October, he put together the $1.95 billion stake for his hotly anticipated Le Reve, to be built on the Desert Inn property. It is named after a painting by Picasso and translates to mean "The Dream." But the bigger dream, the one that is likely to resonate for decades, bundles the fortunes of Steve Wynn with those of his adopted city.

One week after breaking ground on Le Reve, nine floors above the Strip, Wynn sits behind a big desk in his airplane hangar of an office. The walls are adorned with vintage Warhol prints, the plasma-screen TV plays muted CNBC, and a pair of German shepherds lie at Wynn's feet. Backed by picture-windowed views of the Strip and the Desert Inn's fabled golf course, he sips coffee and munches freshly made popcorn out of a silver bowl.

Following a chew and a sip, Wynn begins to verbally unfurl his new dream for Las Vegas, the city that he himself has made into a place with more sophisticated entertainment, fine art, top cuisine and spa amenities than anyone could have imagined 20 years ago. "Now, Le Reve has to come up with a package that people will perceive as newer and better than whatever the best of Las Vegas currently is," begins Wynn, dressed in a blue sport jacket, gray pants and French cuffed shirt. "People come here for excitement. That is no secret. So the resort has to be exciting -- but not in a noisy or clangy way. Not with a lot of strobe lights. It has to be exciting in a deeper way."

That deepness became Wynn's grail when plans for Le Reve began incubating. Right from the start, it went beyond simply outdoing the dancing waters that front the Bellagio or the volcano that explodes every 15 minutes in the evening at the Mirage. He didn't want to outdo himself -- he wanted to reinvent himself. "I realized that I couldn't do Bellagio again," says Wynn, jutting forward his neatly coiffed head.

His eyes squint, his face radiates the kind of intensity that makes people finance his dreams, and he suddenly transforms into the world's greatest salesman. "If I had to build another Bellagio, it wouldn't be as good as the original. Bellagio is the ultimate expression of a particular idea. I swear I took that one as far as it could go. It is exquisitely executed. Our goal with Le Reve is to give the guest an experience that cannot be gotten anywhere else. The word here is experience. Not a look, but an experience. You won't be able to bear to leave Le Reve, because the experiences here will all be so exquisite."

For starters, Wynn and his crew critically deconstructed the Mirage and Bellagio, both of which have generally been acknowledged as the best Vegas has to offer. Gazing at those two citadels of chance, they all agreed that things had gotten too big, too anonymous, too sprawling for anybody's good. Le Reve would be built high rather than wide. That decision was easy. The trickier decision involved a revolutionized perspective: "We decided to design the hotel strictly from the guest's point of view. It will be designed from the inside looking out -- the opposite of how every hotel is designed, including all of mine."

Wynn explains that in Las Vegas, the front of the hotel, facing the Strip, has always been considered the most important element. Whether it's laced with neon or an Eiffel Tower or a grand canal, it is the thing that draws people into the casino. Wynn likens the front of a casino to the barker on a carnival midway (symbolized by the Vegas Strip). "I've designed my hotels from the outside looking in," he says, sounding pained. "Everything is aimed outside. If you are in the Bellagio, you're behind the fountains, not looking in on them. Big mistake. But that's where my head was at back then."

Where is his head at these days? "I still recognize the importance of having a great invitation on the carnival midway, but I've turned it around: what's more provocative than dancing waters or erupting volcanos? Mystery. For Le Reve, I'll have a mountain on the Strip that you can't see in. It's 120 feet tall and there is no intrusion from the people across the street into my environment. It's a beautiful, complex structure that looks like hills with ridges and waterfalls cascading down."

Wynn's mountain will be a $60 million feat of special-effects engineering, magnificently lit, spelling out Le Reve behind the flowing currents, agitated by a sheer drop waterfall modeled after Angel Falls in Venezuela, and ensconcing Le Reve in a way that no hotel has ever been. "See that incredible mountain and you'll wonder what's behind it," continues Wynn. "There's the invitational dynamic. It's as strong as dancing water. But here the payoff is on the inside rather than the outside. It works -- as long as the payoff is really there. You cannot bluff."

Robert G. Goldstein, president and chief operating officer of The Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino, has little doubt about Wynn's ability to deliver. "You are talking about a guy who's a visionary," says Goldstein, adding that the Venetian's close proximity to Le Reve -- they share a corner of Las Vegas Boulevard -- can only be a plus. "My guess is that whatever Steve does, it will be a spectacular, must-see attraction. You can never discount anything he does."

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