Thoughts on Vdara

Now that I’ve seen the inside, I’ve got something to say about Vdara and City Center.

The guy in charge of it all says that it can’t be explained, only experienced, but I’m going to give it a shot since it’s sort of my job to explain these kinds of things.

To set the stage, I came in from the Bellagio, parking in the self-park garage. It’s not a very far walk at all–you just head through the ground floor of the Spa Tower, past Sensi, and onto a covered walkway that looks kind of Jetsons-ish.

The porte cochere is on the other side of the building, but we’ll start there. You’ve got a great view of Nancy Rubins’ sculpture “Big Edge” (the one with all of the canoes) that is very much like something you’d see in Manhattan–definitely “artier” than the usual hotel-front attractions in Las Vegas. In fact, it is something you’d see in Manhattan, if you visit the Lincoln Center.

Since the hotel wasn’t open yet, there wasn’t any traffic, but I think that the traffic flow will be as an integral part of the street scene in front of Vdara as the art. One thing that sets City Center–or at least this part of it–apart from other resorts on the Strip is that because of the density, you’re never going to be too far away from the street when you’re in the public spaces. The third-floor pool, for example, faces a parking structure on the west. It’s going to have a different sort of vibe than the usual “desert oasis” feel of most Las Vegas pools, where either the hotel towers themselves or extensive setbacks remove visitors from traffic. It will feel more like part of a cityscape than an isolated vacation paradise. Is this a good thing? I think tastes will vary. I can see some people being put off by the energy and noise, but I can see others who go nuts when they’re surrounded by silence loving it.

Is this deliberate? I don’t know. It’s clear that the designers put a great deal of thought into how to handle traffic flows, so they can’t have been ignorant of the fact that Bar Vdara’s outside area will be surrounded by cars. It sounds ridiculous to call traffic noise an amenity, but I think it will be something that distinguishes this hotel from others, on a subconscious level at least.

I got to tour two suites (rooms 27.001 and 27.003, if you’re curious), and they both had a sleek, sophisticated look with some reassuring touches of color. I’ve stayed in a few minimalist hotels, and these were not at all minimalist, though I’d definitely say they are not fussy. There were lots of whites and browns with splashes of green, red, and blue where appropriate, with big windows and no discernible outside noise, though we had a great view of the Cosmopolitan construction.

Overall, there’s certainly something that’s nearly intangible that makes this hotel feel different from other Las Vegas resorts. Part of it will probably be the traffic. I think that they’ve got a shot at attracting a different clientele here: but for the size, this hotel wouldn’t look out of place in San Francisco or Manhattan. I can see it being the centerpiece of a non-gaming vacation that would make those that traditionally go for Las Vegas happy.

But wait! you might protest. What does Las Vegas want with people who don’t gamble? Isn’t the misguided attempt to pursue free-spending leisure travelers responsible for $200+ room rates and decreased comping?

To that I’d respond that Las Vegas shouldn’t be too choosy about who comes to vacation here. There are a lot of people who like to gamble, but there are also many who don’t, and giving them a reason to visit Las Vegas has always been wise. It’s funny that some people stamp their feet and demand “diversification,” but others complain when an operator does something beside run a slot barn. Like Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Venetian, and Wynncore, Vdara is at least a step in the direction of diversifying the tourist sector of the economy. If all we depended on was serious gamblers, or leisure travelers, or convention-goers, we’d be in much worse shape than we are now. There are still plenty of places on the Strip for those who want the traditional hotel/casino; something different can’t hurt and will likely help.

I think that, within Las Vegas, the best analog for Vdara is the THEhotel at Mandalay Bay: it’s the same idea (luxury non-gaming hotel), but extrapolated to the next level and physically removed from the main hotel/casino. From my experience today, you’d have no trouble checking in at Vdara and spending a great deal of time at Bellagio, but the hotel doesn’t feel at all like an extension of Bellagio. I don’t know how it will interact with Aria since I haven’t seen that yet, but I imagine that it will be somewhat similar.

As far as the opening goes, there was plenty of gratitude to go around for the various partners, designers, and builders, and a bold promise from Jim Murren that 2010 would be better than 2009 and 2011 would be better than 2010. He said that people in the future will mark this as the turning point, the moment when Las Vegas started to come out of “the Great Recession.”

Is he right? Well, it’s not really a hypothesis that’s falsifiable, so he’ll never be proven right or wrong. If City Center is a “success” (a vague term that hasn’t been defined by anyone to my satisfaction) and Las Vegas recovers economically in the next 2-5 years, it will be tempting to say that this was the turning point. If the overall economic gloom worsens, though, particularly in the aftermath of sudden, unexpected events (war, terrorism, or natural disaster) one could say that, “City Center would have been the turning point if not for…” On the other hand, if visitation and gaming revenues climb, someone could argue that they would have done so anyway.

Turning City Center into a savior or a test case for one’s personal political or economic pet peeves does the project a disservice. As I alluded to yesterday on 2 Way Hard 3, maybe we shouldn’t be asking any more of this development than that it be a well-designed hotel/casino/resort. On that level, it certainly succeeds.

I’ve got a lot more to write about this, so don’t be surprised if I spin this into a detailed newspaper or magazine piece. I’ve also got some pictures that may be showing up somewhere.

In sum, I have seen one part of City Center and I have hopefully found some words to begin to explain it.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Vdara”

  1. This is a very informative post. Just this morning I started “getting into the spirit” of this hotel opening (after seeing the article and map in R-J’s morning newspaper).

    This project has been many years in the making and I’m looking forward to reading and seeing everything about it.

    Crystal opens in a few days, followed by the Mandarin on Saturday and Aria on the 16th. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing in person (from street-level and all points beyond).

    I’ll have my camera back and intend to post a bunch of photos thru December and January, on my WestVegas website.

    As far as the current economy goes…I see good things in store for the USA starting on New Years’Day 2010. My crystal-ball shows good things in the New Decade ahead, so please spread the word that Good Times will soon be here again. :>)

    If I survived these last 18 hard-months (without jumping off a bridge) I’m sure the rest of America will, also.

    Please keep posting these City Center reports. An 8 billion dollar property is nothing to take lightly. And 99% of the US population is going to see a ‘new Vegas hotel opening’ as a good sign. IMO.

    Now…if they would just get that Bullet-Train from LA completed soon…

  2. “Diversification”… I’m tempted to make an off-the-cuff remark about Reno having had this down for at least a decade, but even I don’t believe it. Having the world’s largest industrial park and outdoorsy activities is one thing, but Reno just doesn’t hold a candle to what Vegas is pulling off–this CityCenter sounds amazing. Can I take off my jade-colored glasses and be pleased, and even a bit excited, about the opening of what certainly is a new chapter in NEVADA history, regardless of the future?

    I can’t wait to come see it for myself.

    You know Reno is building its own new CitiCenter–the public transit depot on Lake Street–most likely because it is easier to build a whole new, clean facility than to deal with the pigeon dropping problem at the old one.

    And, yes, I agree: God speed the Anaheim-Vegas bullet train! Only because, if it relieves a good portion of the traffic on I-15, it will be more pleasant to drive myself. Unless the bullet train has a stop at Mad Greek! (Anyway, they need to build it before Barstow builds casinos!)

  3. Interesting comment above. If you ever return, Schopenhauer, could you expand on that? I’m still patiently waiting for that historic something to show up at CC, because what I’ve seen so far is the usual elements (mall, casino resort, high end secluded subset), but simply done very well and state of the art.

    People keep believing that there’s some kind of revolution going on in regards to traffic/busyness/density, but as far as I can tell that is simply an illusion. One could go so far as to say that “a real city” is the theme just as Italy is Venetian’s theme. It’s certainly a new heart for the Strip, but I think the whole idea of it being a urban/civic boon is a bit overplayed in the past few days. I welcome CityCenter, but it’s not going to fundamentally change the structure of the entire valley.

    Still, looks good, as a non-gaming non-smoking boutique hotel it will be interesting to see how their rates change over the next two years.

  4. NBC Nightly News had a two minute segment about City Center. The reporter described City Center as a “67 acre, 6 tower colossus”. They talked about how City Center almost bankrupted MGM Mirage, and how their partner Dubai World is currently having financial problems.

    The video made the outside of City Center look extremely impressive and absolutely huge. Hopefully most of the media outlets will say positive things about City Center and the entire project will be a huge success for Las Vegas and MGM Mirage.

  5. mike_ch makes a good point, and one that I’m hopefully going to elaborate on in an extended essay/piece that will appear…somewhere. Looking at several long-term trends–increasing density, increasing non-gaming elements, and a greater self-awareness among them–City Center is, I think, a clear next logical step in the direction that the Strip has taken.

    But, as Mike also said and I’ve said before, it is functionally more similar than different to what’s been built before. It’s still a project designed to cater to tourists, as it should be. I think that attempting to pitch it as something more or raising expectations about its role in Vegas history will probably lead to disappointment. Murren et al.’s job is build hotels and fill them with people. Ultimately, they are responsible to their shareholders, who want to see the company performing as profitably as possible.

    Maybe I’m just suffering from savior fatigue, but I’m not looking to a hotel/casino development, no matter how well-executed, for civic or national salvation. This is the same mistake that casinos made in Atlantic City. I say that casino executives should concentrate on keeping their employees happy, running good promotions for their customers, and ensuring that their visitors are comfortable and safe during their stay.

    City Center is going to be different in subtle but tangible ways–the traffic, the public art, the density. I’m having a welcome professional challenge placing into its historical context as it opens. When all’s said and done, I might have a book’s worth of material.

  6. CC is certainly significant for it’s sheer size, complexity, and overcoming the daunting financial tsunami that nearly killed its developers. I can imagine it will be fodder for lots of books, cases studies, and documentaries in the years to come.

    It’s hard to form a meaningful opinion without experiencing CC for myself. I know that for me, the genius of Wynncore is that it creates an atmosphere that makes you not want to ever leave the property. City Center’s “urban” focus make me think its designers are trying for the opposite approach, and are looking to connect guests to the neighborhood around them, encouraging them to leave the building and walk around. Conveniently, so long as they don’t cross the street, this simply means visiting other members of the MGM Mirage family.

    If the goal is to create the type of vibrant community that Murren has alluded to previously, you need to encourage people to actually live here. Sure, you have a lot of condos, but for how many people will this be their primary residence, and not simply an investment property that will augment some hotel’s room inventory? One of the biggest challenges condo developers initially had in attracting residents to downtown LA was having easy access to such mundane things as a good supermarket or dry cleaner. If I have to fight traffic for 20-30 minutes every time I need to go to Vons, why not simply buy a house in Summerlin or Henderson? It will be interesting to watch how CC evolves, but it may take years before we know whether or not Murren was successful in building something other than another high-end resort.

  7. American Gaming Guru

    Thanks Dr. Dave. I can not wait to see CC. I am blowing off a few holiday parties in NYC just to attend Aria’s grand opening. This development is certainly iconic not only for the gaming industry, but hopefully as a beginning to the nation’s recovery. We can only hope.

  8. David,

    I stayed at Vdara on opening night and I got the exact opposite feel as you did. I felt it to be isolated and poorly integrated entirely. I was just expecting the whole place to be one free flowing plan and was surprised Vdara was a stand-alone building. The walkway connecting it to Bellagio is terrible considering they spent $8.5B on the the place and we get to walk outside through exposed utility pipe and a loading dock? The only thing I can think of for that after-thought of a connector is that they expect for a majority of people to use the tram from Bellagio bypassing Vdara all together.

    Aside for the access issue, Vdara itself is spectacular. The rooms were top-notch and the service was great. If you want to be away from “Vegas” while in Vegas but still stay at a great hotel, it’s an excellent option. But with the lack of restaurants and other amenities, it almost is the “Anti-MGM.” They are definitely targeting a niche market. With all that said, my one night there has me more psyched than ever to stay at ARIA in 2 weeks.

  9. Rob–my first thought on seeing the exposed piping was, “I assume they’re going to fix that.” I thought that the lowered concrete “ceiling” that you have for the first 20 or so feet out of Bellagio was supposed to extend all the way through. I certainly hope so–it’s probably a few thousand dollars worth of work and materials on an $8.5 billion job, and as you note definitely not up to the level of finish for the rest of the resort.

    It’s the sort of thing that Steve Wynn wouldn’t let happen. One of the things that I like about his resorts is that everything is “in character” from the time you get on property. Even the parking garage. Compare that to Paris, where the garage elevator lobbies have an industrial look that really kills the illusion that this is someplace different. I hope that MGM Mirage gets this part right, because these little things are very important.

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