For 45 years Las Vegas has existed as a dream city, a place to get away from the real world for a weekend or a week or forever. The Second Chance City, she's been called. To others, she's Lost Wages. Francis Ford Coppola transformed her into an allegorical repository for lonely souls in his film One From the Heart, and there was truth in his message. Hunter S. Thompson called her a city of no Fear and Loathing. He, too, was right. John Gregory Dunne came here to endure a torturous summer when suicide seemed the answer. He got his best book out of it and decided to carry on.
Whatever the case, for those who have the means and the fortitude to wager as much as five figures or more on a single hand of baccarat, Las Vegas can become anything and everything they want it to be. The lavish accommodations at the most exclusive hotels will afford them license to their fondest hopes of luxury, privacy and privilege. They will get all the "second chances" they need, and there's little fear of ever being lonely.
No absolute criteria exist for determining how a gambler qualifies to receive the ultimate indulgence in R, F, B (room, food, beverage) ... and beyond. Hotel executives choose their words carefully when the subject is even broached, because confidentiality is an unspoken promise between hosts and guests in Las Vegas.
"It is very difficult to simplify the process, but suffice it to say that frequency of play and average bet are the only two variables that count," says Alan Feldman, vice president of public relations at the Mirage. "Basically, if you have to get down to some number, it would be persons who wager up to $1 million during their stay. But even then there are a number of variables."
Mark Juliano, president of Caesars world marketing, puts it another way: "In every business, it's important to make the customer feel special. If you owned a shoe store, and someone came in and purchased a pair of shoes, that person is very important to you. If someone bought 200 pairs of shoes, chances are that you would offer that person some type of incentive to do business with you again.
If someone purchases 2,000 pairs of shoes, your company might offer this customer a fabulous vacation, luxury-hotel accommodations, gourmet meals, headliner shows, tickets to championship sporting events--some memorable experience that would show the customer that you value the business. Well, that's what we do at Caesars Palace."
At the Desert Inn, the unspoken credo has universal application. "Everyone is created equal at the DI," says a marketing executive. "Some are just more equal than others."
Winning and losing, it should be noted, have no bearing on a guest's status with a particular resort. Should a gambler win $3 million to $5 million in a visit--and it happens more often than you'd imagine--he will still be given complimentary red-carpet treatment on his next visit. That's because the odds are always with the casino, and resilient gambling landlords know that no matter how many times Lady Luck dances with a guest, at the end of the evening she'll go home with the host.
The suites chosen for this article--the Golden Nugget, the Mirage, the Desert Inn, and Caesars Palace--offer ambitious gamblers far more than just wonderful accommodations. The privileged patrons receive chauffeured-limousine service, the catering talents of the hotel's culinary staff preparing meals in their private suites, a gift basket and round-the-clock butler service. Complimentary shows, dinners, tours and a myriad of other amenities are acquired through VIP desks, which exist solely to serve the needs of these guests.
The best suites in downtown Las Vegas, some five miles from the Strip, are at the Golden Nugget, a formerly unassuming, little gambling hall that gaming baron Steve Wynn has parlayed into an expanding empire, which now includes the Mirage, Treasure Island, the former Dunes and a variety of smaller ventures around the country.
A decade ago, Wynn transformed the Golden Nugget into an elegant white palace with suites as lavish as any in Las Vegas at the time, thereby proclaiming to the bigger players along the Strip that he was in the game to stay.
Ignoring brash neon signage and the Vegas inclination to splash the hotel name all over the building, Wynn chose understated opulence and limitless hospitality as the tickets to lure in high-rollers to an area of town previously thought of as garish and seedy. He surrounded himself with several of the city's top casino hosts, who brought with them their highest-rolling customers, and within six months the Golden Nugget became the chic place to stay and play. He chose a Victorian design theme--a wry touch for a place called Sin City--and his suites, which are adjoined by state-of-the-art health-and-fitness and spa facilities, spared little expense or extravagance.
A spiral staircase leads from the spacious living room to the intimate bedroom area in the Nugget's Spa Tower suites, and floor-to-ceiling windows span the length of the room. Each of the six penthouse suites, which rent for $750 a night, is individually designed in dramatic, sophisticated decor. The most recent redesign features a cool, tropical motif with exotic, floral design.
When Wynn christened the Mirage in November 1989, it was the first new hotel of magnitude to open in Las Vegas since the original MGM Grand in 1973, and public reaction was immediate and overwhelming. More than 700,000 enraptured visitors toured the property in its first three days of business. Wynn was shocked by the volume and intensity of public curiosity. "It's no longer our private dream," he said as he watched the teeming crowds move through the hotel. "It belongs to the people now."
With the Mirage, Wynn was able to accomplish another feat long thought impossible in Vegas: he successfully integrated the masses, who were curious to see the erupting $40 million "volcano," the $5,000-apiece palm trees and Siegfried & Roy's rare white tigers; with elite customers, those drawn by more materialistic wonders like silk sheets, vintage Champagne and the adrenal rush that flows from the snap of a vinyl playing card with $100,000 on the line.
Wynn's promise was to build something so spectacular and appealing that the world's biggest gamblers would rush to his doorstep. And that's just what happened. In its first year, the Mirage broke all casino win records with a take of $417 million. And it held that level after the second year. Even the owner was surprised by the volume and magnitude of play.
"Shortly after the Mirage opened, Mr. Wynn asked the marketing staff in the casino to bring him a printout of all those who conceivably could wager $1 million on their stay," says Alan Feldman. "He figured the list would have 40 names, but it turned out there were 400! These were people who either had the ability--or had done so at the Mirage--of wagering up to $1 million during their visit."
The ante had been upped, so Wynn called the bet and added eight suites that would equal or surpass anything his guests had at home. Built at a price tag of $3 million each, they are known simply as the Villas. "We wanted the eight most magnificent and so far superior to anything anyone had ever seen, that there would be no doubt about that status "Feldman says.
The Villas are numbered one through 10, but there are no numbers four and five because they are considered bad luck in some parts of Asia, where about 70 percent of the world's highest rollers hail from.
To get to the suites, one is ushered through a private door off the casino and down a marble hallway some 130 yards long, which is richly appointed with European artwork and large metallic urns and plants. The entryway has the ambience of a venerable cathedral.
Over the foyer of each suite is a beautifully crafted, glass dome highlighted with gemlike crystals, which reflect a rainbow of light across the imported wall fabrics and inlaid marble floors. Just off the foyer is a private powder room with a demi-lune basin stand and gold fixtures.
The living room is bathed in sunlight, which streams through 10-foot-tall French doors. Hand-loomed carpets center a luxurious seating area fronted by a marble fireplace with an inlaid-design mirror above. A crystal chandelier and elegant dining table provide a romantic setting to enjoy the cuisine prepared by the hotel staff in the private Villa kitchens.
The library adjoining the living room contains luxurious overstuffed sofas and club chairs, perfect for reading, sipping a cocktail from the fully equipped bar or enjoying the media center with complete audiovisual equipment and a large-screen television. Padded-wall treatments enhance the acoustics.
The master suites are accessed from the foyer and offer a level of privacy usually reserved for a lavish private residence. Each bedroom has been created in a scale reminiscent of a 17th-century royal château, but without sacrificing a warm and personal mood. Private seating areas offer views to the formal gardens and fountains outside the beveled-glass French doors. The draperies are electronically operated and light controls are operated from a single bedside switch.
Four of the Villas are three-bedroom suites and another four are two-bedroom. The larger suites have 5,000 square feet of space and have a rack rate of $3,000 per night; the two-bedroom suites are slightly smaller, for $2,500. The rates are perfunctorily posted merely to follow state law. Feldman cannot recall a time when any of the Villas were ever paid for.
Each master suite includes two separate private baths and dressing facilities for men and women. Marble walls reach a height of 12 feet and are illuminated by alabaster sconces and crystal chandeliers, which cast a glow over hand-bordered carpets and solid marble floors. The woman's bath and dressing room offer a spacious whirlpool, extravagant makeup vanity, walk-in closet and private safe. Bidet and commodes are secluded in their own chamber behind hand-textured, European glazed doors. For the gentleman, a European vanity is lighted from the side by a floor-to-ceiling textured window. A large steam shower contains a guilloche motif hand-carved into the crystal glass and brass enclosure.
For guests of the Villas, privacy has been carried forward into a separate gaming area called the Salon Privé, which is designed to convey the elegance of an exclusive European gaming room. The Salon Privé has its own private chef and dining room.
The Mirage, like the other top hotels, flies in its best customers first-class should they be inclined to fly commercial, but, as Feldman says, "we're dealing with a level of guest here that typically has his own plane. Either that, or we've sent one of our own corporate jets to pick him and his entourage up."
Perhaps the best marketing tool the Mirage and the Golden Nugget have to draw affluent customers from the Far East is Shadow Creek Country Club, Steve Wynn's private golf course, which, in less than five years, has earned the distinction from both Golf and Golf Digest magazines as being one of the best courses in the United States. Wynn codesigned the course with architect Tom Fazio, and invitations to play allow visitors to stay in the Villas. On a typical day, only two or three foursomes are extended the privilege of an invitation.
"To the Asian customer, who is so used to golf courses looking like bus stations, Shadow Creek is just an unrivaled experience," Freedman says. "In Japan, having a course like this all to yourself is a fantasy even the most successful executive would never expect to live out."
Rumor has it Shadow Creek is the most expensive golf course ever built, but Wynn eschews discussing dollars when talking about it. "Golf is a gentleman's game, and this is a gentleman's place," he says. "But having said that, I'll tell you that within the first two months it was open, Shadow Creek paid for itself."
A wonderful golf course has long been a drawing card at the Desert Inn Hotel and Country Club, so it is not surprising that some of the best suites at the DI overlook the lush layout that once hosted the Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour. Within the past few years, the course has hosted all three major professional tours--men's, ladies' and seniors'.
The 4,000 square-foot Versailles Suite in the Wimbledon Tower, a seven-story pyramid structure located between the main building and the golf course, epitomizes the DI's elegance. The three-bedroom accommodation is decorated entirely in a French Provincial motif and is priced at $1,500 a night--a comparative bargain. Again, the use of the suite is controlled by the casino, although there have been occasions when corporate executives have rented the suite to entertain guests during a large convention.
The suite was redesigned in January and contains all-marble flooring, colonnades and crystal chandeliers with brass and crystal drops. The formal dining room can be used for large parties, which are catered by the hotel's culinary staff that prepares the food in a private kitchen complete with a microwave and four-burner oven.
The master suite has a king-sized canopy bed, a settee and a television set that withdraws into a cabinet. The master bath features a whirlpool tub, steam shower, bowl and bidet, double sinks, American granite that is impervious to stain and a spacious dressing area within the closet. The cabinet wood is exquisite throughout as is the trim work along the ceiling and borders. A 2,000-square-foot terrace wraps entirely around the Versailles Suite and is an ideal location for receptions and parties.
In an earlier incarnation, the suite served as the residence of a hotel mogul played by Tony Curtis during the taping of the Vegas television series.
"Our Wimbledon accommodations are as fine as any in the world," says Dan Cassella, Desert Inn president and COO. "They are reserved for our best casino players, those whose credit lines often run into the millions. These customers are used to the finest things in life, and we want their stay with us to be one of them."
Those wanting to occupy the same space that Howard Hughes used during his four-year occupancy at the Desert Inn in the early 1970s may want to try the Howard Hughes Penthouse in the St. Andrews Tower. Not surprisingly, it has been totally remodeled since the reclusive billionaire made it his horizontal headquarters.
VIP guests also have complimentary access to the Desert Inn's European Spa, the best-equipped facility of its kind in Las Vegas. It includes a lounge, locker rooms, massage rooms, a tanning bed, loofa/salt glow room, sauna, therapy pools, private whirlpools, weight-training room, a large open gymnasium for various classes and a jogging and fitness track.
There are 10 Fantasy Suites at Caesars Palace, all located in the 23-story Olympic Tower. With 4,500 square feet, they are often used by two couples, a family with servants or a business with an entourage in tow. The rack rate of $7,500 has been charged on only one or two occasions.
Teemed in Roman, Egyptian or Pompeian decor, the Fantasy Suites feature elaborate electronic displays that immediately alert guests that these aren't common quarters. As Caesars guests arrive on their interior balconies, they are greeted by a laser show, while overhead, fiber optics re-create the night sky as it is believed to have looked on the evening of the birth of Caesar Augustus. The fantasy sky subtly changes the colors of twinkling stars, with occasional shooting stars flashing over the atmosphere.
The laser shows highlight each apartment's sophisticated audio system, which, in unison with multiple video screens, provides a unique sensory experience. Comprising an entire wall of one sitting area are five video screens, two compact-disc players, two audiocassette machines, two radio receivers and a karaoke machine. Each is linked to a master control panel that regulates musical programming to the various rooms, so younger visitors can listen to rap music in one bedroom while adults tune to news programming or relax to more melodic strains in a separate master suite.
Each of the two master sleeping rooms includes a custom-designed, giant whirlpool bathtub with adjoining bath and dressing areas and a sitting area with writing desk. Each master bathroom also has dual European-style sinks, a separate vanity area with dainty makeup sink, a steam room, a spacious shower, and a walk-in closet with guest-room safe.
Complimentary amenities include fluffy bath pillows, hair dryers, plush bathrobes and slippers, small refrigerators stocked with assorted beverages, plus French-milled soaps and other toiletries and gifts of Caesars fragrances.
Roman and Egyptian suites on the higher levels of the Olympic Tower provide a spectacular view of the Las Vegas Strip. Pompeian suites on the lower floors feature a large, living-room Jacuzzi tub.
The Fantasy Suites were reconstructed from duplex suites that were originally built in 1979. Demolition and remodeling took place in 1989, with the new suites, at a cost of $1.25 million per unit, opening in January 1990.
Among the most in demand is the Ramses Suite, where Tom Cruise taught Dustin Hoffman to slow dance in the Oscar-winning film Rainman. Furnishings were custom-designed for Caesars Palace, from the hand-loomed area carpets at $25,000 a piece, to the golden-winged "Isis" statue that was sculpted by Claude Boeltz, who was an assistant to Salvador Dalí for 13 years. Painter Michael Radzamaz of Beverly Hills created frescoes for the rough-plastered walls.
As always, the stakes are going up in Las Vegas. Caesars Palace is currently building two 11,000-square-foot suites that are scheduled to open in January 1994 and promise to set a new standard for pomp and elegance. And with the three major new hotels that have opened in the past few months--Treasure Island, the Luxor Pyramid, and the MGM Grand Hotel & Hollywood Theme Park--it's certain that Caesars won't have bragging rights for long.
To what levels of opulence are Las Vegas hotel and casino owners willing to go with their luxury suites? About as far as the dreams of the world's biggest gamblers. And that is a game without limits.
Jack E. Sheehan is a free-lance writer of screenplays and nonfiction.