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Extreme Nightlife

Ultra Lounges Redefine Vegas After Dark
Rob Wiser
Posted: November 10, 2003
Las Vegas casinos used to consider in-house entertainment a liability rather than a lure. The way the bosses saw it, a packed lounge meant guests who would otherwise be dropping a bundle in the casino. In theory, every square inch was supposed to be generating a constant stream of gambling dollars.

This mentality changed as casinos began to realize that unique entertainment was what distinguished them from the pack. The slots, tables games and cheap food specials were basically the same from one property to the next. It was the quality of the entertainment -- which, meant having a name like Sinatra or Elvis on the marquee -- that enabled a casino to trump the competition.

In today's Las Vegas, entertainment remains a greater priority than ever. But as the demographics have skewed younger, properties don't need to sign a Celine Dion to get buzz. In recent years, a more subtle trend has rapidly redefined Las Vegas nightlife: the rise of the ultra lounge.

In contrast to the gargantuan mega-clubs, with their sweaty crowds, thundering sound systems and high-tech special effects, ultra lounges have taken the traditional notion of the casino lounge and infused it with sophistication and an air of exclusivity. While the nightclubs pull in hordes of people in their 20s, ultra lounges are designed to cater to a broader age group -- patrons of discerning taste who seek a more refined brand of Sin City-style decadence.

"An ultra lounge is an intimate venue with extraordinary attention to detail and design," is how Michael Milner, executive director of MGM Grand entertainment, describes the trend. "The room can be 'experienced' by fusing the decor, the music, and an extra dimension of interaction with the room itself for the indulgence of our guests."

Ghostbar at the Palms.
No specific set of criteria must be met to earn ultra lounge status. Some are larger than others, and like nightclubs, may charge a cover at the door and have dance floors that grow crowded in the later hours. It isn't about square footage; it's about an underlying philosophy. Ultra lounges are chic, upscale environments that provide sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the casino. Intimate conversation and high-end cocktails are the priority. The decor is plush and meticulously designed, and the music is cutting-edge and atmospheric. Though ultra lounges' chief intent is to draw big spenders to its reserved tables -- the type who prefer "bottle service" at a couple hundred dollars a pop, rather than ordering beers at the bar -- they ultimately strive to draw an eclectic mix of fun, fashionable people. And their hipster pedigrees are often impeccable; the owners and operators usually aren't casino executives, but rather successful nightlife impresarios from scenes like New York and Los Angeles.

"The overall experience is that of upscale VIP service to each and every individual who walks through the door," says nightlife impresario John D. Guzman, the man behind Los Angeles's and Las Vegas's "Naked Hollywood" nightclub events. "You feel like you're in a place that's not easy to achieve entry into…you get the sense that you're being treated above and beyond what you'd expect from a typical bar or lounge."

"The Las Vegas resorts have realized that [these] lounges have become an important part of entertainment," says Milner. "Our 25-to 45-year-old demographic demands refined style and luxury…an atmosphere of provocative interaction."

While the Hard Rock is widely credited with establishing Vegas as a playground for the young and fabulous, it was the Venetian's V Bar, opened in 1999, that provided the prototype for the ultra lounge. Eschewing flashy gimmicks and themes, V Bar instead conveys a posh, masculine feel with leather chaises, opaque glass walls and diffused lighting. Low-key acid jazz and house music complete the mood. A class act without the attitude you might expect, V Bar was designed by partners David Rabin and Will Regan of New York's Lotus, and Brad Johnson, the man behind Los Angeles's Sunset Room.

When the Palms opened in 2001, the ultra lounge trend kicked into high gear. Though considerably smaller than the neon giants along the Strip, the Palms established itself as the top hipster's paradise due to its mega-club, Rain, and Ghostbar ultra lounge. Ghostbar's futuristic design, featuring space-age furniture and glass walls with stunning panoramic views, conveys the sense that you're floating high above the Strip in an alien spacecraft. Though its "wow" factor may be near impossible to top, the other resorts in town have been trying to ever since.

Light at the Bellagio.
Virtually every major property now has its own variation on the ultra lounge concept. Green Valley Ranch has Whiskey Sky, created by impresario Rande Gerber; its title implies a merger between New York's Whiskey and L.A.'s Sky Bar, which are among Gerber's 17 nightspots. But only Gerber's Las Vegas effort can boast the outdoor, eight-acre "Whiskey Beach," replete with giant pillows that invite you to sprawl out under the stars. Shadow at Caesars Palace, meanwhile, has voluptuous dancers moving provocatively in silhouette behind scrims. And Andrew Sasson and Chris Barish, who created the tres chic Light at the Bellagio, now have Mist at Treasure Island and Caramel at the Bellagio -- where specialty drinks are served in chocolate and caramel-coated Martini glasses.

One of the most recent entries, and perhaps the most sophisticated -- both aesthetically and technically -- is Tabu at the MGM Grand. This $7 million stunner underscores just how much casinos value their ultra lounges; it occupies a corner formerly occupied by banks of slot machines. (Old-school Vegas bosses would have sooner filled the space with a Gamblers Anonymous crisis center.) Tabu was, in fact, the brainchild of Gamal Aziz, MGM Grand's president. Master designer/architect Jeffrey Beers and former executive producer for Cirque du Soleil, Roger Parent, designed it.

The bar at Tabu in the MGM Grand.
"The concept for Tabu was to create a smaller, more intimate lounge with the ability to attract the younger business clientele," says Milner. "They require a more luxurious environment for social interaction."

Intimately sized at 7,000 square feet, Tabu also spins the notion of a dance floor on its ear; the tables are made of fortified concrete to encourage patrons to dance on top of them, or as Milner puts it, to "invite spontaneity." There are "reactive tables" that allow guests to control the holographic images projected onto them, and a bar made entirely of ice. Private booths run along the walls of the main room, with thick frosted glass separating patrons from the casino just outside. The crowds at the slot machines can see shapes moving on the other side of Tabu's glass, but faces are obscured; all the more appealing for celebrities who wish to party in private.

The Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay.
At the Aladdin you'll find Curve; with five spacious rooms, each with its own different mood, the design suggests a sprawling luxury suite. The Paris has Risque, boasting multiple dance floors, bars and balconies that overlook the Strip. In addition to V Bar, the Venetian contains Venus, where the retro decor is a nod to Vegas's swingin' past. Caesars Palace, besides Shadow, has OPM, located above Wolfgang Puck's Asian-French fusion cafe Chinois. Mandalay Bay's China Grille transforms into the ultra lounge Dragon after dark, though the property's crown jewel is the sky-high Foundation Room. Usually only open to casino VIPs and card-carrying members who pay an annual fee, it welcomes the public on Monday nights.

Judging from the success of these establishments, there will be more on the way. And one can only imagine what casino visionary Steve Wynn will bring to the ultra lounge arena when his next project, Wynn Las Vegas, arrives on the scene. Expect this element of the resort to be a priority.

At the end of the day (or in this case, sometime around dawn), there's more at stake than looking cooler than the competition. A financial strategy is behind the millions being spent to build these spots. When choosing a casino to stay and gamble at, the youthful, well-heeled crowd is now likely to make their decision based not on a property's resident entertainer, restaurants or shopping mall, but on its nightlife.

"If you have a cool, hip place where people want to be, ultimately they'll stay and play there," says Guzman. "People stay where they're comfortable, and they're creatures of habit. They'll come back."

Click here for the Cigar Aficionado Online Travel Index, featuring other hot spots in Las Vegas and around the world.

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