Las Vegas the Steve Wynn way - Sunday 12th of June 2005

A day shy of two weeks after it opened, Steve Wynn addressed the attendees of a financial conference at his $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino and told them it was courageous for anybody to stay at a new resort and promised to get things right in 90 days.

What Wynn still needs to get right seem to be mostly minor points. The big things he !ital!has gotten right, although the details and design of what was one of the most anticipated projects in Sin City haven't pleased everybody.

Sitting on 217 acres of land on the site of the former Desert Inn, the 50-story, smoothly curved, dark-copper building is a striking presence on the north end of the Strip, the city's main drag. Only because it's in Vegas do you know it's a hotel rather than the home of some financial institution. On closer inspection, the waterfalls fronting the Strip and the elaborate entrance on Sahara Boulevard tip you off that behind its shiny structure, there will be something other than office machines.

One of the first things you'll notice as you walk from the registration area onto the main floor is that the gambling area is not very large compared to the other casinos on the Strip and much less in-your-face. In fact, rather than plunging into the eternal dimness of a casino, you first enter a colorful walkway filled with real flowers and trees under natural light. On the floor are mosaic tiles with patterns inspired by Matisse.

Brandon Cox, a spokesperson for Wynn Las Vegas, notes the atmosphere is different "because Steve Wynn built it more as a resort than a casino. It reflects how Vegas is changing."

Over the past several years, revenue from gambling for many casinos has dropped to around and even under 50 percent, with more income coming from upscale attractions such as the Cirque du Soleil shows or "Le Reve" at Wynn, celebrity-chef restaurants and, of course, higher-priced rooms.

Wynn has told Vanity Fair that at his resort, guests are meant to be "cradled in a protected, soft place."

To that end, the hotel literally has been separated from the Strip and other casinos by a 140-foot-high "mountain." Covered with waterfalls and more than 1,500 trees - some reaching 50 feet - the mountain gives patrons at some of the restaurants and the Parasol Bar area a bucolic view. A wall of water pours down into the Lake of Dreams and onto its half-submerged statues. At night the wall is used for a multimedia show, which, unlike other attractions on the Strip, can be seen only by those inside the resort.

All this has a price, though: Low-end rooms are about $250 during the week, though they can be booked cheaper. (The Wednesday I arrived, rooms were available for less than $200.) And a margarita at the pool is $12, which is why one gentleman was heard saying, "At these prices, I'm not buying another (expletive) thing."

But while noting that Wynn "targeted the highest of the high end and the money sector," Anthony Curtis, whose monthly newsletter, Las Vegas Advisor, is aimed at consumers, thinks Wynn's prices are out of line for what's being offered.

"If you're the bargain hunter that comes to Vegas to get the deals, you're going to tour the place and go, 'Wow - say, I wish I could stay here.' "

But for those who don't mind dropping a grand or two for a few days, prices at Wynn are not out of line, he adds.

"Our big bucks for rooms are not big bucks in L.A. or New York. For the $250 at Wynn, you're staying pretty close to Vegas' best, if not (at) Vegas' best. So relatively speaking, I would argue that it's still somewhat of a bargain in that regard. But for what they are used to around here, that's big bucks for a room."

While you may lose at the tables, you aren't likely to feel cheated in the rooms. Even low-end rooms are tastefully decorated, spacious and luxurious with floor-to-ceiling curtains that are opened and closed by control buttons near the king-size bed. There's a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall offering more channels than most casinos provide, plus high-speed Internet and gaming channels.

The bathroom is sizable, with two sinks and a tub built for two. There is also a smaller television set built into the wall.

But eventually you're going to leave your room, if only to lie around the pools to relax. The main pool is shaped like a dumbbell, two large circular areas connected by a long, thin waterway. Farther on, there's an adults-only pool, where "European-style sunbathing" (topless) is allowed. In the pool along the sides are round, cushioned lounges to recline on under umbrellas. Laps can be done in the center of the pool, although few bathers seem to take advantage of that.

A few gaming tables are available if you feel the need to make a bet, and there are plenty of wait staff to bring you those $12 margaritas.

There is a spa/fitness center if you want to pamper yourself or work out. You'll pass it to get to the pool, and if you want to avoid walking through the main level, where there is a stairway, take the elevator to the spa level. From there, you take another elevator down two floors to the pool. However, there are only two elevators from the spa, which is normally enough, but when one broke down recently, bathers were lined up to return to their rooms.

If you're a golfer, there's an 18-hole course reconfigured from the old Desert Inn course. Obviously, prime summer tee times will be early in the morning. Tee times were filled in mid-May. A round costs $500, which includes everything, including a professional caddy. As I watched a golfer dribble an 18th-hole approach shot, I noted you can still be a duffer even at those prices. (The word is that in the future, even this patch of green in Vegas will be dug up to build high-price condominiums.)

But even after you've golfed or lounged around all day, Wynn doesn't want you to leave. There are nine fine dining restaurants to eat in. While I can't attest to the food, the places themselves are tasteful and elegant, offering views of the outside. There are also less-expensive places - a deli and restaurant overlooking the pool - that are more reasonably priced, plus a very good buffet.

The resort also includes very upscale places to shop or simply browse. Designers including Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier have stores, and there is even a Ferrari dealership, where people line up to look at the sleek cars. And why not? Wynn sees the autos as works of art. Wynn's own small art collection is also on display - for $15 admission, which seems steep, but it does include a rare Vermeer.

"Wynn wants you to stay, and (because of the way it's set up), you're kind of unaware that there's that whole kinetic Vegas outside," says Curtis of the Las Vegas Advisor. "He's looking out for his own guests. What he's saying is, 'If you come and you invest your money and your time to stay at this place, you're going to get the best of what it's got to offer.' "

For the most part, Curtis says, he likes the resort, while noting that the place is "so Bellagio," another high-end resort-casino that's down the Strip. "And why wouldn't it be? Wynn developed Bellagio; so why wouldn't he be borrowing from those ideas?"

But he says the reaction to the resort has been mostly positive, something echoed as you talk to guests about their rooms or listen to the comments from people taking in the colorful giant parasols that Wynn designed or any of the arty features scattered around the place. There are glitches, of course, but most complaints seemed relatively minor and easily addressed compared to when water leaked down on diners at a high-end restaurant during the Bellagio opening, says Curtis.

"Whatever's wrong, this guy will fix."

Curtis also likes Wynn's "terrifically trained staff. It's about the most friendly casino staff atmosphere I have ever seen in my life."

That was something that I, too, found to be true during my stay.

There's another thing Curtis likes: It's buying a beer in the main bar for $5.

"That may sound like a lot, but in the new places on the Strip, the price of a beer is heading north of $6, $7 or even $8."

Will wonders never cease?

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