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Viva Like Vegas!

Casinos across America are taking their cues from Las Vegas's destination-style resorts, to much success
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

If you spend enough money gambling in casinos, the weeks leading up to Super Bowl Sunday will come to resemble a prelude to Christmas. Every day, the mailboxes of high rollers practically burst with offers from gambling emporiums that span the Las Vegas Strip. With hopes of attracting prized players for the big game, casinos dangle come-ons that center around lavish parties, gourmet dinners, prize-enriched golf tournaments, the presence of retired NFL stars and, for the most desired whales of all, private jets that'll get them and their buddies to Vegas in style. At ground level, of course, this is simply a gambit to attract customers who will risk large sums of cash against daunting odds. Hence, competition for the best players is fierce. So fierce, in fact, that a casino outside of Vegas—where being able to legally bet on the Super Bowl is a major part of the draw—doesn't stand much of a chance. In short, the Big Game ranks as the sort of event for which only the strongest and toughest should bother suiting up.

Apparently the guys at Beau Rivage Resort & Casino failed to get the memo.

Situated in Katrina-ravaged Biloxi, Mississippi, rebuilt to luxe standards by its parent company MGM Mirage, and fortuitously located just 90 minutes by air from Miami, where the Super Bowl was held this year at Dolphin Stadium, Beau Rivage went after the same mega rollers that the big boys of Vegas aim to woo. And they got them. Players from as far north as Toronto, Canada, were flown to Biloxi, transported via private jet to Miami, granted access to the stadium's VIP entrance, treated to a private party before the kickoff and escorted to prime seats for the game. "We promised our players that all they have to do is show up at the airport and everything will be taken care of for them," says George P. Corchis Jr., president of Beau Rivage. "They received the kind of treatment that even movie stars have a hard time getting at the Super Bowl."

Over the course of that weekend, Corchis filled the tables in his brand new high-limit room with people who think nothing of signing on for six-figure lines of credit. Many of them were newcomers to Beau Rivage. "That weekend," he says, "we had more casino business in table games than a good casino in our state does during a full third of the month."

This success story is reflective of gambling's latest evolution: the "Vegasizing" of America. That is, turning the once disparaged regional casinos into the kinds of places that hold a sparkling candle to those shimmering glitz palaces on the Strip.

Of course, for sheer muscle mass, you can't beat Las Vegas. It's unparalleled to be able to eat dinner at MGM Grand's Joél Robuchon at the Mansion, catch a championship fight at Mandalay Bay, gamble like a fiend in the crystal-bedecked high-limit room at Caesars, twist the night away at Wynn's Tryst and finish up with a nightcap inside the Palms' Playboy Club, 52 stories above the glistening sprawl. You can't do all that in Biloxi or Atlantic City or Southern California. But you can have fabulous casino experiences in those places—albeit, without a Strip's worth of options—that just didn't exist 15 years ago, back when the Indian casinos were spreading bingo, operators of run-down, slot-intensive joints in A.C. were content to attract busloads of day-trippers (who paid $18 for the transport and received $20 in quarters upon arrival), and permanently moored riverboats served as havens for low rollers.

The poster child for this seismic shift in the gambling biz, arguably, is Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which is situated a discreet distance away from the oceanfront casinos that all but define gaming in Atlantic City. Unlike most of its local competitors, which still seem a bit tatty, the Borgata looks, smells and feels like a high-end Vegas operation. Its design is grand, contemporary and stylish without being cheesy. The rooms are large, nice and modern. Amenities include a first-class spa and indoor pool; at its top end, the Borgata attracts a clientele that would not look out of place in the Bellagio's high-limit room. "Bob Boughner was smart enough to know that there were people in the New York area who wouldn't even consider going down to Atlantic City," remembers Saverio R. Scheri III, whose WhiteSand Consulting worked on the project with Boughner, then the Borgata CEO. "At the time [prior to Borgata's opening in 2003] there were no hot restaurants, no cool nightclubs, nothing that could compete with New York."

Scheri, who is now the general manager of Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, California, and continues to be managing director of WhiteSand, remembers feeling skeptical about Boughner's bold ambitions. Then he saw Boughner's plan for converting the people that Boughner had taken to calling "Atlantic City rejectors." Remembers Scheri: "Bob did his homework and realized that it's not a matter of 'if you build it, they will come'—because they won't necessarily. It's more, 'if you build it right, they will come.'"

And Boughner did, employing contemporary design motifs, soaring ceilings, dramatic lighting and the importation of brand-name restaurants—Old Homestead Steak House was on board right from the start; and Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina and Bobby Flay recently opened outposts there, making the Borgata a go-to place for action-hungry New Yorkers. Rather than describing his casino-to-be as Vegas-esque or some such, Boughner worked hard to imbue it with very specific qualities. He preferred showing to telling. "Our plan," he says, "was to give Atlantic City's customers what they want by bringing in a product that was fun, upscale, energetic, sensual and international. We used Las Vegas designers and the result reflected our view toward the product." It worked. From December 2004 through much of 2006, the Borgata's return on capital investment exceeded 21 percent.

Now the Borgata is in the midst of an expansion that has seen the poker room doubling in size, additional dining options put into place and more table games installed on the casino floor. Topping it all off will be a hotel within the hotel, called the Water Club, which is scheduled to open late this year. It will have 800 new rooms at a cost of $325 million (according to Boughner, twice the money that Donald Trump is spending, per room, on his A.C. build-out). "The new rooms will be a slight uptick," says Boughner. "The Water Club will be part of a separate, boutique hotel with very luxurious suites and highly amenitized rooms. It will have its own separate arrival area, room service and spa." After hesitating for a beat, he adds, "We figured somebody would kick things up to the next level, so we figured it might as well be us."

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