Twenty minutes after a 5:30 p.m. landing in Las Vegas, the call comes from a big-time gambling friend. “Buddy,” the guy says, “you’ve got to get here right away. You need to see what’s happening in the high-limit room.”
The limo pulls up in front of Resorts World Las Vegas, the newest property in Sin City (it opened in June) and the high roller waits right near the entrance. He’s got somebody on hand to take my luggage—no check-ticket necessary—and leads the way to the high-limit area. In there, at a roulette table, a slightly bearded guy, maybe in his early 30s, with a pretty blonde practically draped across him, is most likely the biggest wheel-player in town at that precise moment.
He’s got sky-high stacks of yellow chips (each worth $1,000) and is making what’s known as the “complete bet,” a type of wager in which you gamble on one number and the other eight that surround it. He is said to be betting as much as $100,000 per spin. If anyone worries that the pricey Resorts World—which, with its $4.3 billion cost to build, ranks as the most expensive casino/resort development in Vegas history—will not attract suitable action, this deep-pocketed player should allay those fears.
Win, lose or draw, the high-rolling roulette fanatic appears to take it all in stride. Later in the evening, a pal from his entourage showily tickled the ivories on the grand piano that initially seemed to be in the elite gambling den strictly for show, oblivious to the millions being bet around him. “Money doesn’t seem to matter much,” says Alan Richardson, a luxury watch dealer and Resorts World regular who plays daily and helps organize some of Vegas’ largest poker games. “He hits $500,000 and doesn’t jump up and down. I’ve never seen that in the case of such a young individual.”
It has been 12 years since a new casino opened on the Las Vegas Strip. The last one to launch was Aria. It set new standards for elegance, limits and technology. Now, Resorts World, albeit, hugging the less than fashionable (at least for the time being) northern end of the Strip, about a 10 minute or so walk north from Wynn Las Vegas, has been designed to do the same thing.
“We wanted to build a truly integrated property, one that has something for everyone,” says Resorts World president Scott Sibella, explaining that his place has two towers with three hotel brands. Each has varying price points, in ascending order: Hilton, Conrad and Crockfords. The latter is the jewel in the crown, sporting only 236 rooms, suites and villas, which, at the high end, rank among the nicest in Vegas, a city where the top 20 percent of gamblers are said to generate 80 percent of the revenue. “We’re going after the Wynn and Bellagio as well as the Mirage and Cosmopolitan,” he says.
In terms of how a newly launched casino typically loots customers from its more entrenched competitors, a seasoned and avidly courted gambler puts it thusly: “You hand out biscuits to get people inside.” He’s referring to deals negotiated for so-called whales. The biggest of them demand discounts, percentages of money refunded on money lost. So if one casino gives you 15 percent back on the first $500,000 depleted, you might go there. But when a competitor, maybe a new place that is just getting situated, offers 17 percent, you could easily be persuaded to give that place a try. Then again, there are other inducements. “Do you want to sleep in a room with a 20-year-old mattress?” asks the seasoned gambler. “Or a room with a 20-day-old mattress?”
Sitting in Resorts World’s 66th floor lounge, appropriately known as Starlight on 66, where a pair of $100-minimum blackjack games face floor-to-ceiling windows and likely offer the best views from any gambling table in town, Sibella makes clear that he expects players to go for new mattresses rather than pumped up discounts. “We’re not buying business,” declares the casino veteran, who spent decades as a top executive with MGM Resorts International, owner of the super-luxe Mansion, a hotel within the hotel at MGM Grand and a magnet for the world’s largest gamblers. “At Resorts World, we have the best suites, the best service and our action is as big as anyone’s on the Strip. We’ll match what other people are doing [in terms of discounts and comps], but we are not going to be overly aggressive. In Disneyland, you want to go on the new ride. In Vegas, you want to stay in the new casino.”
Building the high-roller-friendly pleasure palace has not exactly been a quick or easy process. Resorts World resides on the property where the legendary Stardust used to stand. Famous for being first out with NFL lines, it was also notoriously mobbed up and served as the model for the fictitious Tangiers in the great Martin Scorsese flick Casino, starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. In 2007, the Stardust underwent implosion, some 22 years after it was purchased by Boyd Gaming, which ran out the Mob and made the place profitable for the entity that owned it (as opposed to those who were skimming profits). Boyd intended to replace the old Stardust with a mixed-use hotel/casino that was to be called Echelon Place. Construction began before the economy got the better of things and its build-up was halted in 2008.
In 2013, the Malaysia-based gambling giant Genting Group bought the undeveloped property and executives began kicking around concepts for the company’s first Vegas outpost. “We had a lot of ideas,” says Sibella. “At one point, it was going to have an Asian theme. But we looked at everything and wondered what Vegas needs today. This is what we came up with.”
The end result oozes luxury and modernity, with Gatsby’s Cocktail Lounge featuring vintage Champagne, fine art hanging on the walls and a nod being made to the past. It’s been said that Sibella wants Resorts World to hearken back to the good old days of Vegas, a time when customer service and personalized touches were part of the charm. (Even the housekeepers at Resorts World have been known to refer to guests by name.) “Resorts World gives me the opportunity to create something special, without it being a big, corporate property,” Sibella says, explaining what compelled him to leave a plum position with the dominant player in Vegas. “It’s kind of like how it used to be when I entered this business: We move fast and we get things done. If a customer wants a deal, we can do it in five minutes. There’s no corporate office at a remote location. We are all here, on the floor and in the casino.”
Nevertheless, as the guy who’s overseeing a $4.3 billion investment, some insecurity, or at least a veneer of it, is understandable. “Scott jokes about whether anyone will question $4.3 billion being spent,” says Richardson. “I told him that they won’t. Coming from the jewelry business, I have an eye for detail and I can tell you that the finishing work here is insane. The amount of marble exceeds what I’ve seen anywhere else, the lighting is really good, and these poker chairs . . .” He is sitting at an empty table in the main poker room, in a leather chair, which he says are the only leather poker chairs in the entire city. “Scott spent a fortune on poker chairs and they are extremely comfortable.”
Sibella knows that comfy poker chairs are not enough to bring customers to a 21st-century casino, and he’s well aware of how casinos make money these days: “Seventy percent of our revenue will be non-gaming. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to structure and program the property.” Among those features will be a 5,000-capacity showroom, slated to host performances by Celine Dion, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan, and the nightclub Zouk, where top DJs maintain residencies as the club’s ceiling literally comes to life with digitized graphics.
In a city where a dining boom is taking place from one end of town to the other, several new restaurants will help to define Resorts World. There’s excellent Italian food from Brezza, with executive chef Nicole Brisson of CarneVino fame; sushi and exotic Japanese whiskeys at Kusa Nori, Caviar Bar (exactly what it sounds like) and a Vegas branch of L.A.’s Mulberry Street Pizza, where a larger-than-life Mike Tyson statue will be placed in front.
But the real culinary coup is an outpost of Wally’s, the famous Los Angeles wine retailer, wine bar and market. (It’s Beverly Hills location is a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner.) Inside the Vegas shrine to wine, there are 8,000 labels on the shelves and more than 100 wines by the glass. If you’re feeling flush from the tables, you can splurge on the 60-day dry-aged reserve steak from Fleishers with a side of truffle-laced pommes frites. Watching the precious ’shrooms raining down on a $100 chicken dish, the restaurant’s president and principal Christian Navarro, dressed like a dapper space-cowboy, announces, “The most important man in any room is the man shaving the truffles.”
Truffles and expensive beef will no doubt also find their rightful place at Carversteak, due to open between Christmas and New Year, pretty much diagonal from Wally’s on what feels like Resorts World’s approximation of restaurant row. The place will feature private dining rooms themed to Japanese knives and rare whiskeys, plus a wall of fresh herbs from which the flavor enhancers can be plucked.
Superstar cocktail genius Francesco Lafranconi (Daniel Boulud recently tapped him to create cocktails for the chef’s new restaurant in Manhattan) has devised innovative pairings for chef Daniel Ontiveros’ dishes, which promise to include a roasted seafood tower and a herd of A5 steaks from several different prefectures in Japan. “We will bring alternatives to red wine with steak,” Lafranconi says, ticking off whiskey pairings, unfiltered sakes, Belgian beers made by Trappist monks, and “amazing” Tequilas and rums. “Plus there will be an ultimate experience for Martini drinkers,” he says, describing drinks served from a cart made from Stolichnaya Pristine Water Series, which goes for around $3,000 per bottle at retail. “It will be a special ritual and the drinks will be served in Bottega Veneta glasses.”
Steakhouses in Vegas are as ubiquitous as craps tables. If you open a new one, you better do something to stand out. Coming from a nightclub background, with a tenure that goes back to the days when waitresses bringing customers bottles of Cristal with sparklers and flashing lights was still new, Sean Christie, chief executive officer of the hospitality company behind Carversteak, knows a thing or two about showmanship and presentation. “We’ll have some whiskeys that other people don’t have, a custom wine room where you can pick your decanter, eight different knives to choose from because we will have a knife shop on premises,” says Christie.
He also aims to have “the most interesting tomahawk steak presentation in the world. When people can get a tomahawk steak in their hometown, they need the Vegas version.” Asked what such a presentation will entail, he turns coy and very 2021: “I can’t say,” he responds. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise. I want people to see it on social media.”
Resorts World is the kind of place where even the spa’s sauna is kicked up to the next level. In the coed heat room, a bikinied dancer, previously from a show at the Wynn, materializes and does a kind of interpretive dance, complete with dropping eucalyptus-laced snowballs atop the heat element and splashing icy bits toward the sauna’s inhabitants. So you can expect the gambling here to come with a new wrinkle. Since there are only so many ways to present favorite games, Resorts World kicks up the mechanics of it all.
Sibella and company make a bid to have the most cashless casino of the moment. “Advancement of technology is what differentiates our casino,” says senior vice president Rick Hutchins, speaking of a cutting edge buy-in option at games and machines. “It can all be done through your phone.” Though greenbacks are still readily accepted here, the more futuristic version of gambling begins with money getting deposited into a player’s account and correlating with details viewable on a smartphone. Then he can go to a blackjack table and buy in through his phone rather than with cash. At the end of a session, whatever is in front of him can then be put back into the phone account or printed on a voucher. At the table, chips are implanted with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, which allows the casino to accurately track one’s wagers and offer comps accordingly.
This is a big difference from the old-school approach at a Vegas casino, where the pit-boss estimates how long you played and how much you wagered. “If you started out betting $25 per hand and raised it to $200, there was a chance that you would get credited for your opening bet but not what you raised it to; now it is all accounted for,” says Hutchins, whose digitized approach provides one more disassociation for the money being put at risk—great for the casino, potentially treacherous for the players. “Additionally, we can connect with you wherever you are. Your loyalty program is in your phone. You get recognition for buying a glass of wine. That’s the 2021 casino.”
Though Resorts World is opening at an inauspicious time, with Covid still raging, the wearing of masks being required in casinos, a fear of crowds that is hard for Americans to shake and highly desirable Asian gamblers temporarily facing complications over flying here (flights from China were due to be cleared in November), Sibella seems unperturbed by his gambit. Well-schooled in the wants, needs and peccadillos of big players, he is confident that they will find their collective way to Resorts World. “I’ve dealt with high-end business for years,” he says. “As long as you build what they want, they will come to you.”