Las Vegas Hotels
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00
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When it did come, I happened to be sleeping peacefully in the master bedroom, as opposed to one of the other two bedrooms. I pushed aside a pillow and answered the extension on the nightstand on the right side of the bed, though I just as easily could have turned over and answered the extension on the left side.
A few strategically placed portable phones would have been more functional, but Caesars wasn't looking to maximize functionality. The guiding principle of the best hotel rooms in Las Vegas is excess, and the more gratuitous the excess, the better.
Staying in such a suite at Caesars, or a similar accommodation at any of the top hotels on the Strip, is a benefit of being a high-volume gambler, what's known in the casino business as a whale. There's rarely a charge for these suites, almost never for whales, who get them free as a reward for previous play at a given casino and as an incentive to continue playing.
The competition for such gamblers is as spirited as anything that goes on across the felt. If you can get a whale to put his Rolex on your nightstand and hang his Zegna sportcoat in your closet, the theory goes, you'll get most of his gaming business, too.
"People play a lot more where they stay," says J. Terrence Lanni, chairman of the board of MGM-Mirage, which owns the MGM Grand, Bellagio, Treasure Island and Mirage, among other properties. "They start there at the beginning of the night, and they end up there at the end."
In the case of guests who typically stay in the suite I had, repeat business can mean as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit to the Caesars Palace casino over a given weekend, depending on the luck of the cards or the dice. One frequent Vegas guest plays enough to have been accorded a suite at three of the Strip's top hotels simultaneously. Another arrives at the same casino twice a month with a $4 million cashier's check, ready for action. SpectraVision in his hotel room and a chocolate on his pillow aren't likely to be enough to excite him.
My suite at Caesars had raw silk fabric on the walls, a stylized rotunda entry hall, marble end tables, alabaster light fixtures, motorized curtains operated by the flick of a switch, and a genuine Berber rug. But it wasn't the hotel room of my dreams--neither figuratively nor literally.
The previous afternoon, I'd been shown one rated a category higher. These have been dubbed "Rain Man suites" because Tom Cruise's character cavorted in one of them in the 1988 movie as he put the mathematical capabilities of an autistic savant, played by Dustin Hoffman, to an avaricious end.
The 5,000-square-foot, split-level number I saw had a $25,000 hand-commissioned throw rug lying innocuously on the ground, artwork by Salvador Dalí's former protégé Claude Boeltz, a three-screen entertainment center that included a karaoke machine, and twin master bedrooms. There are other suites, a Caesars representative hastened to add, done up in motifs such as Egyptian and Pompeiian, and a modest little Italian villa of 12,000 square feet with a lap pool and a putting green that has an elevator with direct access to the high-stakes gaming area. They'd have shown me that one, too, but evidently the king was resting.
When my wake-up call came, I was dreaming about the Rain Man suite. Once awake, I'm ashamed to say, my own tasteful and elegant rooms seemed something of a letdown. I said as much to Dean Harrold, Caesars president and chief operating officer, and to my surprise, he agreed. "As nice as those suites are, they're not adequate," he says. "There's a necessary decadence that those rooms are missing, and we're well aware of that."
Harrold described it as the difference between a hotel mindset and a casino mindset. Hotel companies follow a logic we're all familiar with, so they build terrific rooms and charge a lot of money for them. Casinos have a logic all their own, one that wouldn't necessarily work in any other business. Casinos build outlandish rooms, rooms that cost far more money than a hotel room would anywhere else. Then they give them away.
The suite I stayed in and about 20 others, all located at the top of the Palace Tower, were built during the mid-1990s, when ITT Sheraton owned the property. As hotel rooms, they're all exquisite. As over-the-top experiences, they don't compare to what Tom Cruise had.
"The people who stay in that kind of suite aren't paying $259 a night or $359 a night, they might be paying a million dollars a night," says Harrold, who started as a blackjack dealer at the Dunes Hotel & Country Club in 1968 at age 21 and worked his way up the industry ladder. "We have to give them a product they're not getting at home. Believe it or not, in some of these people's homes, they have waterfalls in the bathroom, they have fish swimming through the living room. We have to give them all that and more."
Harrold seemed embarrassed by the tastefulness and comfortably human scale of my rooms. "You can bet we'll be putting money into those suites," he says. "We have to. Our customers demand more." Just how good a customer do you have to be to get invited to stay at such a suite at a top Las Vegas hotel? It depends on how much you bet, what game you're playing, how long you bet for, and where you play.
Whether you win or lose is immaterial, except in extreme cases. If you're a regular customer--a whale--and you have a terrible run of luck and squander your money beyond all proportion to the law of averages, you are likely to be invited back even before you've left the premises. You'll be offered an even bigger and better suite, with more valuable meal comps and other amenities, because the last thing the casinos want is to send a heavy player home with a bad feeling about the property.
And if you win beyond all proportion more than infrequently, suffice to say that you won't be a regular customer for long. What the casinos are looking for is volume. The house has time on its side. The more you play, the better the chance that your margin of return will approach the average, which may be 5 or 6 or 10 percent in the casino's favor, depending on the place and the game. If the casino can make gaming in Las Vegas a pleasurable enough experience, the whale will keep playing. That means free drinks, free gourmet meals, free boxing tickets, free shows. And free suites--the more opulent, the better.
All the casinos use the same mathematical equation to determine what you're worth, but not all have the same margin in their product. You have to spend far more money to be considered a high roller at a high-end casino than at, say, the San Remo or the Lady Luck. "Show up at Lady Luck with $1,000 in your pocket to bet over a weekend, and you can have a limo, comped meals and the run of the place," says one casino executive. "Do the same at Bellagio, and they won't even know your name."
Paris Las Vegas, a theme park of a hotel with a half-scale Eiffel Tower designed to appeal to middle-class American tourists who might never get to see the real thing, isn't considered as upscale a property as, say, Caesars Palace or the Bellagio. But its unique faux-French ambience--even the executives of this American-owned and -run hotel greet guests with a hearty "Bonjour!"--adds a sense of novelty that appeals to certain high rollers. That's why the hotel, which is not known for posh accommodations, has a small number of upscale suites.
Danny Davis, the casino manager at Paris Las Vegas, describes a typical occupant. "A half-million-dollar credit line or above, betting 20 to 30 thousand dollars a hand. Of course, there's competition for these people with the other hotels," he says. "Sometimes we put guests in a suite not because they've earned it with us yet but because they demand it. We don't want to lose them to, say, The Venetian. These people are very, very intelligent people, and they know what's out there and what to ask for. They didn't get hold of all this money by being stupid."
The suites on the top two floors of Paris Las Vegas are all the more impressive when compared to the mass-market chaos below. When I stayed in the 4,800-square-foot Napoleon suite recently, I waited 25 minutes to drop off my car for valet parking. (Not to retrieve it, mind you. Just to drop it off.) But the average whale, who pulls up in his limo, doesn't have to worry about such indolence, nor about the buffet lines that snake their way into the mock Parisian street that serves as a hallway.
It doesn't matter to our high roller that newspapers, instead of being distributed outside hotel room doors in the morning, are available for purchase at the gift shop with stickers saying "Compliments of Paris Las Vegas" magic-markered out. He'll never even know. The high roller will simply dispatch a butler, courtesy of the hotel, to fulfill such needs.
At the same time, if he--or she, though high rollers are overwhelmingly male--is ensconced in the Napoleon suite, he can play his favorite Mozart sonata on the jet-black Kawai piano in the drawing room, or request that someone come play it for him. He can host a dinner party in the formal dining room and pad over hardwood oak floors made in the Versailles style through rooms adorned by handmade wool rugs of French design. He can admire the historically accurate resin molding, and lather up with Faberge shampoo in bathrooms fitted with gold-leaf brass fixtures. It's a Disney World version of France, with high-stakes blackjack and baccarat just an elevator ride away.
"It's very impressive, and people really enjoy looking out of the windows and seeing the Eiffel Tower," says Ronan O'Gorman, the vice president of hotel operations. "This is a unique experience."
The night I stayed there, I ensconced myself in the entertainment room, opened the bottle of wine that had been waiting for me upon my arrival (curiously, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon), fired up the 48-inch, rectangular-shaped television, and ordered an omelet and a salad.
The salad's vinaigrette dressing failed to materialize, and I clicked through the hotel's cable system in vain for ESPN2, which was telecasting a baseball game I'd bet on. Still, I did have my choice of three bedrooms, all with custom-made Strauss crystal chandeliers, and that fetching Eiffel Tower just outside my window.
I had arranged to stay at the Sky Villas at the Las Vegas Hilton as a climax to my recent visit. These suites have been renowned as the most extravagant rooms on the Strip since their construction in 1996. Before that, the Hilton had other legendary high-roller rooms on the 29th and 30th floors, including a four-bedroom suite that Elvis Presley lived in during the early 1970s.
One of the Sky Villas, the Villa Verona, meanders through 15,400 square feet, which is the equivalent of four nice-sized houses. You may have glimpsed it during last season's finale of the television show "Nash Bridges," which was taped there. The Tuscany, 13,200 square feet, has a contemplation hallway made entirely of Italian marble. The Conrad suite is 12,600 square feet and includes a rooftop view of the Strip. Hustler magazine's Larry Flynt has been a customer.
But the week before my visit, Park Place Entertainment--which also owns Bally's and Paris Las Vegas--sold the Hilton to Los Angeles businessman Ed Roski Jr., pending approval by the Nevada Gaming Commission. Roski immediately announced plans to replace the Sky Villas with a revenue-generating restaurant open to the public, while reserving a portion of the villas for a private club.
To lovers of unfettered extravagance, however, it's a tragedy. For a brief time, the Sky Villas have represented the state of a certain kind of garish art, a snapshot of the soul of Las Vegas, as well as a tangible link to the hotel's wild past. "What they had in the Hilton was always outlandish," says Don Payne, the former head of the Las Vegas News Bureau and an unofficial historian of the Strip. "I remember the Elvis suite, and it was weird and ostentatious. Not dissimilar to Elvis himself, I must say."
In a sense, the transformation of the Hilton to a middle-class property marks the end of an era. Hotels used to fly in high rollers on chartered jets, press their clothes upon arrival, even provide pliant women. Frank, Sammy and Dean thought they were living well on the Strip, but it was nothing compared to what the top gamblers were given, according to Payne.
All that generosity had a purpose, of course. "The player knows they're going to lose some money, but if they can go home and say 'I knocked 'em over in Vegas, I stayed at this fabulous place and they gave me this and that and the other,' then the whole thing seems worthwhile," he says. "They say, 'I had it for free.' Of course, they wrote a $49,000 check for the gambling, but they don't think of that." That mindset still exists, but players have become savvier. They know precisely what they're spending, and what they get in return. "I'm glad I'm out of it," Payne says. "It's different now."
Nevertheless, a classier form of the good life lives on at the Bellagio, which is controlled by the business-oriented Kirk Kerkorian. Instead of the Hilton, I checked into one of the nine third-floor villas that Steve Wynn built two years ago for his most devoted customers. My two-bedroom suite contained a full kitchen, including a drawer of Christofle silver. It had a rain-head shower and Hermès cologne in the bathroom, and sinks finished in 24-karat gold.
The suite had its own sauna and exercise room, stocked with a treadmill, stationary bike and massage table. It had cedar-lined closets, hand-carved marble and a formal dining room that seated eight under a chandelier of Murano glass. It had a 3,500-square-foot terrace with soothing green pine trees, a small but perfectly appointed private pool, and a canopied sitting area complete with cool-water mist at the push of a button.
I gazed out through French doors at the pool and the pine trees. I touched a screen and saw a television rise from the cabinet at the foot of my bed. I accessed hundreds of channels of DirecTV and a menu of six dozen music channels. Another button on the screen turned on the waterfall that flowed over marble in my courtyard. Propped up against my plush pillows, I could see it there, cascading into the pool. Above it loomed the top third of that Eiffel Tower.
Three floors below me were some of the finest restaurants in the world, temples of gastronomy like Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Prime, Julian Serrano's Picasso and Sirio Maccioni's Le Cirque, but I couldn't bring myself to leave the room. An elevator just outside my front door led directly to the center of the casino, but I wasn't even tempted. I nibbled pitted dates from a bowl in the living room, filled the suite with soaring arias, and covered two walls of bedroom windows with blackout shades with a single touch. Gambling was fun, but this was better.
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