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Las Vegas Report

Vegas Part 4: The Unbearable Authenticity of Fakeness

Playboy Resurrects the Playboy Club With Little Risk

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LAS VEGAS (AdAge.com) -- After just three days in Las Vegas, I now understand why this town is the favorite straw man and cheap-shot victim of every post-modernist philosopher from Jean Baudrillard on down. While the rest of America seems to be increasingly obsessed with the authenticity and sincerity of their chosen brands, this place truly is the home of "the authentic fake" (to crib a quip by Umberto Eco). Why is Vegas exempt from authenticity discussion, and what does it mean for the brands that do business here? Hell, in this context, what does "authentic" even mean?
The Playboy Lounge is reborn at The Palms.
The Playboy Lounge is reborn at The Palms. Credit: Playboy.com

I asked myself that question during dessert at Restaurant Guy Savoy, the first outpost of any kind outside Paris by the eponymous three-starred Michelin chef. More than a year in the making, the restaurant opened at Caesars Palace last week, in a retaliation of sorts against the MGM Grand, which had lured another three-starrer, Joel Robuchon, to Vegas earlier this year. When I asked Savoy why he had chosen Vegas over New York, he exclaimed, "Vegas chose me!" Caesars had began courting him three years ago, and he had listened because the resort was willing to give him everything -- total control over the number of seats, the interiors, the menu and so on. "This isn't Vegas," he said, "this is Guy Savoy!"

Just need a name
And once the restaurant is up on its feet, he'll return, just as Robuchon did, to Paris. What will remain, and all that Caesars really needs, is the name. All diners will need is a meal that transcends the limits of their personal experience. It's not that Vegas is an authentic fake, exactly. It's that in the latest luxe, globalizing incarnation of Vegas, authenticity is increasingly real, if relative: Guy Savoy or Joel Robuchon may not be in the kitchen every night, but you won't find them anywhere else in America. How much is that worth to you, and to the casinos footing their bills? Branding in Vegas is effectively a game of arbitrage, and licensing is the financial vehicle.

That would explain all those mutterings about the "hyper-real." It's hard not to laugh at the MGM Grand's endlessly repeated lion motif once you've stopped to consider that MGM itself -- the studio, I mean -- is now buried somewhere inside of Sony, and that legions of lawyers must have guaranteed MGM Mirage's use of those trademarks until the end of time. From the casinos to the tourist traps (Jimmy Buffet's Margaritavillle inspired irrational dread in me) to the slot machines on down, Vegas is built on brand recycling. How does a marketer get in on this action?

Calling on Christie Hefner
For the answer to that question, I gave Christie Hefner a call. The CEO of Playboy Enterprises made her reputation as a fearless operator in the early 1980s when she ordered her father's ruinously inefficient Playboy Clubs to be closed in order to focus on fundamentals. More than 20 years later, the company is set to reopen one here in Vegas at The Palms, the hard-partying off-Strip casino owned by the very media savvy George Maloof.

Hefner's decision to get back into the club business was driven by the company's larger turn toward licensing as a key revenue stream. Having finally conceded that Playboy magazine is a standard-bearer and not much else, the company has decided to milk its brand in earnest, with renewed efforts in Playboy-branded apparel, stand-alone stores (the first is here at the Forum Shops) and now the club at The Palms.

Set to open in September, the Playboy Club is essentially a three-way licensing deal, with Playboy providing the intellectual property, The Palms providing the real estate -- near the top of its just-opened second tower -- and the N9ne Group, which operates an eponymous chain of steakhouses and The Palms' existing nightclubs, handling the design and operations.

Planet Hollywood it ain't
While no one was quite willing to reveal what the club will look like, N9ne co-founder Michael Morton swears it won't be "the easy thing, a lá a theme restaurant with Playboy memorabilia mounted on the walls. That is 100% not what we did." The club, which is actually a lounge incorporating blackjack and roulette tables encircled by couches and chaise lounges, was certainly inspired by the company's heritage (the father of N9ne co-founder Scott DeGraff even ran the Chicago Playboy Club, Morton says) but only up to a point. "You have to consider the general public's expectations," Morton says. "Most people have never been to one of the Playboy Clubs, but everyone has thought about what it should look like." Once again, authenticity is all relative.

For its part, Playboy will have a vertically integrated outpost in Vegas, with the club, the "Hugh Hefner Sky Villa" -- a duplex megasuite that includes an infinity pool off the edge of the building -- and a second Playboy store downstairs. And all with minimal risk to the company, as The Palms is simply paying the company a straightforward licensing fee. The Vegas club will also be the test run for a new wave of Playboy Clubs opening in the world's major gambling centers. Next up: Shanghai, Macau and London, with the potential for five to 10 total worldwide.

"What's behind our enthusiasm for what we're doing in Las Vegas is the belief that we have the opportunity to bring the brand to life and, frankly, a great way to do business entertaining with our important clients," Hefner says. Because, really, what advertiser wouldn't want to visit?
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