Features

Viva Las Vegas 2005

1 Jun 2005 by business traveller
Las Vegas is firmly back in fashion. Since its sexy catchphrase "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" became enshrined in popular culture and its brief reincarnation as a family destination was quietly dropped, America's fastest growing city has never been more in vogue: two million more people came here in 2004 than in 2003. But nothing stays the same here for long. As the city celebrates its 100th birthday it's already reinventing itself once more with a wealth of new projects – the only surprise is they don't all involve gaming. Las Vegans are used to seeing their skyline change almost weekly. "There's a saying here that as soon as anything has been around long enough to give Las Vegas a sense of history, it gets imploded and replaced with something new," says Allison Raskansky of Sundance Helicopters, which takes tourists over the Strip and to nearby landmarks including the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon. An evening helicopter ride is the most exhilarating way to view the dazzling skyline, where a sprinkling of garish neon fronts still mingle with the palatial casino resorts that have become the latest symbol of Vegas luxury and excess. Hotels built in the early 90s, like the Luxor and Excalibur, already look tired next to the super-deluxe Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and Venetian resorts. Even the Bellagio, which opened in 1999, was compelled to renovate its 2,602 existing rooms in line with its decadent new $375m Spa Tower (opened in December 2004) so that guests staying in the "old" part should not feel left behind. The latest major unveiling, on April 28, was the $2.5bn Wynn hotel, an even more super-deluxe casino hotel whose centrepiece is a five-storey waterfall cascading into a man-made lake in decadent defiance of Vegas' drought-prone disposition. Owner Steve Wynn is widely acknowledged as the father of modern Las Vegas and the mastermind of the all-encompassing casino resorts that now characterise the Strip. In building the Bellagio – modelled on an Italian lakeside town – he helped usher in the current trend of ultra-luxury. While Caesar's Palace's shopping forum mixes popular stores such as Gap and Victoria's Secret with Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana, the Bellagio opts exclusively for Hermes, Prada and Tiffany & Co. The shelf-life of new hotels is so short that months before Wynn even opened, bolder projects were being touted. In November 2004, MGM revealed its Project CityCenter plans, a multi-billion "urban metropolis" in the heart of the Strip. The first phase, starting this year, will consist of a casino hotel, three boutique hotels, shopping, dining and entertainment venues and 1,650 luxury flats. It's audaciously ambitious – but perhaps the only logical step in a city where 4,000-room hotel resorts have become the norm. How else do you compete than by building a mini-city? Meanwhile, Steve Wynn has trumped his own opening by announcing plans to turn his hotel into a full-scale $1.4bn resort, while the $1.6bn "Palazzo" resort is also on the way from Las Vegas Sands Corp, owners of the Venetian. But even as hoteliers compete to build ever bigger and glitzier gaming venues, it's impossible to visit Vegas without sensing that officials and residents alike want their city to be seen as much more than a place to lose your inhibitions and life savings. Each time I climbed into a taxi on the Strip, I left it several pounds heavier, as drivers insisted I take leaflets on everything from spas to shopping to wilderness excursions, so keen are they to convey the message that their city is "about so much more than gaming". This is not lost on the developers. MGM's metropolis-in-the-making emphasises non-gaming facilities like retail outlets, restaurants and living space, and, says James Murren, CEO of MGM Mirage, will have none of the disjointed, tacky themes common on the Strip. "Las Vegas has these casino resorts which do nothing to complement each other," he says. "It's the fastest growing city in America but without the cultural array of other cities. It's a city without a city." Even as officials plan their latest adult advertising campaign, there are signs that Vegas has unfulfilled potential in areas other than gaming and saucy shows. Murren says: "Future growth will be far more on non-gaming areas. Vegas was born on the concept of gaming; now people come here who may gamble, and that is a significant change." About 90 per cent of visitors still take part in some form of gaming – including those like myself who pump $5 into a slot machine and then go and look for something more interesting to do – but people come here expecting a full entertainment package and the hotels are keen to oblige, offering up big, mainstream acts from Celine Dion to Barry Manilow. The award-winning Broadway puppet musical "Avenue Q" will come to Wynn in September, and Phantom of the Opera will come to the Venetian in 2006. Perhaps in a nod to Las Vegas' popularity among UK tourists, Cirque du Soleil's fifth show, opening this year at MGM Mirage, will be a celebration of the Beatles' music. Eating out in Las Vegas comes with its own built-in entertainment. As I walked down the steps to the Aureole restaurant in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, I couldn't help noticing a member of staff gliding past me, upwards. Aureole's unique selling point is its 20,000-bottle wine cellar, stored in a vertical glass column stretching three floors. To retrieve that elusive bottle of burgundy, "wine angels" strap themselves into a sling and hoist themselves aloft to rummage through the cellar. And to help customers narrow down their choice from the vast wine selection, an electronic tablet is on hand which stores every bottle stocked. Simply key in your meal choice and a recommended wine pops up. It may be a gimmick – in Vegas you're nothing without one – but it has a touch more class than most. Las Vegas is truly a city of the night; even the spectacular musical fountains outside the Bellagio stay silent until 3pm, while a morning stroll along the Strip reveals a place so deserted you can almost see the tumbleweed blowing down the highway. Shopping is the main daytime pursuit – the shopping forum at Caesar's Palace is the most profitable square foot of shopping space in the US – unless you have an urgent need for culture, in which case there's the art galleries of the Bellagio and the Venetian. But they're more token gesture, part of a carefully crafted upmarket image, than a real cultural contribution. More sophisticated ways of spending your time may be creeping into the margins, but mass entertainment will always win out. Who comes to Vegas with art on their mind? For some breathing space from the Strip, it is getting easier to escape the mayhem without straying too far. In December, Marriott's relatively tiny 548-room Renaissance Hotel opened its doors. Half a mile from the Strip, it bills itself as a bolthole away from the clamour of the gaming halls for non-gaming visitors – or equally for those who don't trust themselves with their children's trust funds near the poker tables. Donald Trump's first foray into Vegas is also shunning gaming halls. The Trump Tower will be the tallest hotel-condo in the city – but not for long. The Strip's popularity means space is at a premium, and developers are starting to build upwards instead of outwards. There are over 50 high-rise building projects at some stage of work on the Strip or downtown. Marina Nicola of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority says: "Condos are a new trend in Vegas; as the fastest growing city in the US there's been a substantial interest in building living accommodation, and for many people, having Las Vegas Boulevard as their address is very appealing." The casino giants aren't folding away their craps tables just yet. Murren admits the focal point of Project CityCenter will be a casino hotel, but says it will be a relatively small part of the whole complex. "The casino hall will be no bigger than that of the Bellagio, and the area will be three times the size of Bellagio so proportionally it will be much smaller." Whatever it is that keeps pulling people in, there's no denying that Vegas is unique. It's the only city where you can browse in a store dedicated to Elton John memorabilia yet would be lucky to find a single bookstore, and where you can stand on a walking escalator inside a replica of the Rialto Bridge, while a volcano erupts on the pavement. In 2003, 82 per cent of tourists were repeat visitors, suggesting that people know exactly what to expect: those for whom the unabashed lucre-worship holds no appeal stay away, while those who know and love it for what it is keep coming back for more – at least there'll always be something new here when they do.

Getting there

London-Las Vegas Served by Bmi (http://www.flybmi.com/) from Manchester and by Virgin (http://www.virgin-atlantic.com/) from Gatwick. Return fares with Bmi:  business £2,776, premium economy £915, economy £573. Return fares with Virgin :  business £2,626, premium economy £1,053, economy £573. New York-Las Vegas  First class varies $2,766 to $698; business class varies $1,998 to $528; full coach $1,952 to $528; 14 day advance supersavers range from $870 to $610; recent sale $188. Daily non-stop service as follows: America West offers four from JFK and two from Newark; Continental offers six from Newark; Delta offers one from JFK. Northwest offers a daily direct flight from La Guardia that transits Detroit. AirTran Airways has daily connections from La Guardia and Newark via Atlanta and offers some of the lowest fares. Los Angeles-Las Vegas First class varies $1,354 to $538; business class not offered; full coach $714 to $584; 14-day advance supersavers range from $308 to $158; recent sale $70. America West and Southwest dominate the market followed by United. American Airlines offers three daily non-stops and Northwest has one.
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