-- Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
LAS VEGAS (AdAge.com) -- I haven't heeded Dr. Gonzo's warning. Five days doesn't sound like such a long time after you've spent three weeks living in airports as I did last fall. (Peek at the "Airworld" series here.) Not that I would know any better -- I'm a Las Vegas virgin, and based on what I've heard of the place in the "what happens here, stays here" era, I might be the only virgin of any kind cruising the Strip this week.
I've been sent here by my editors to act as a pair of fresh eyes and, hopefully, make a little sense of this spectacle in the brief pause before the city's next critical transformation.
'More is more'
Broadly speaking, the first Las Vegas was founded by Bugsy Siegel, run by the Mob, owned by the Rat Pack, bought by Howard Hughes and documented by the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who wrote the original "Learning From Las Vegas" as a paean to the city's ad hoc, phantasmagoric "more is more" aesthetic. That Vegas, which was more than a bit exhausted by the 1980s, gave way to the luxurious visions of Steve Wynn, who built the city's second, current incarnation on top of his increasingly spectacular creations: the Mirage, the Bellagio and, as of last year, his personal apotheosis: the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas. (A second tower, the appropriately named Encore, broke ground last month.)
Wynn deserves much of the credit for Las Vegas' transformation from the necropolis described by Hunter S. Thompson into the adult playground of dining, shopping, spa-going -- and, of course, gambling -- that Vegas is today. He perfected the now-endlessly imitated idea of the Strip's casinos as giant luxury-brand portfolios -- Armani in the mall, Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen, Cirque De Soleil in residence, Canyon Ranch at the spa.
But if there's one lesson to be learned from Vegas' history, it's that bigger is always better. Howard Hughes's empire of 1970s casinos -- controlled from his penthouse at the Desert Inn -- barely had the number of rooms the Wynn will have once Encore is completed, more than 4,700 in all. (Ironically, Hughes' since-demolished flagship once occupied the same plot.) And now it's beginning to seem conceivable that the same fate may one day befall Wynn.
Two corporate hands
Merger mania two years ago left 18 of the Strip's casinos in just two corporate hands: MGM Mirage and Harrah's, the two largest casino operators in the country. Before it had even digested its purchase of the Mandalay Resort Group, MGM Mirage announced plans for Project CityCenter, a $7 billion, 66-acre project containing three separate hotels, more than a half-million square feet of retail and, in the latest twist, 2,900 luxury condos.
Not to be outdone, Boyd Gaming, the owner of Atlantic City's Borgata casino, announced this year that it would demolish one of the last of the Strip's old guard, The Stardust, to build its $4 billion Echelon Resort. Echelon will contain its own casino and mall, plus Vegas-sized outposts of Miami's Delano and Los Angeles' Mondrian hotels, the achingly hip boutiques created by Ian Schrager. Schrager's former colleagues at the Morgans Hotel Group must have Vegas on the brain -- they paid $770 million two weeks ago for the significantly less-cool Hard Rock Hotel.
All of this is to say that Vegas, like the lobsters consumed by the ton here, has outgrown its shell. Now it must molt and grow into something even bigger. I'm here this week to discover what the rest of us can learn about branding, marketing and the minds of risk-addled consumers from the current incarnation of Vegas before the next one begins. To that end, I'll be dropping in on this week's convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers, where Steve Wynn himself is speaking and where the state of the art in retail is on display. I'll pay a visit to R&R Partners, the hometown agency that taught us that what happens here stays here. I'll take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Playboy Club at The Palms, the first such club in more than 20 years and a seemingly can't-lose partnership between a pair of hard-partying brands. And I'll hopefully get a glimpse of Project CityCenter and the next iteration of Vegas.
Check all week for my latest finds and discoveries. And don't hesitate to e-mail me at [email protected] if you think of something I shouldn't miss.